Science: knowing and understanding the world



What was going on in the Renaissance? How had the world view changed from a focus on purely spiritual matters, unrealistic representation, to vivid, defiant realistic art?

The Italian Renaissance Humanists

The most important idea distinguishing the Renaissance from the Middle Ages is humanism. Textbooks will tell you that the humanists of the Renaissance rediscovered the Latin and Greek classics (hence the "rebirth" or "renaissance" of the classical world), that humanist philosophy stressed the dignity of humanity, and that humanists shifted intellectual emphasis off of theology and logic to specifically human studies. In pursuing this program, the argument goes, the humanists literally created the European Renaissance and paved the way for the modern, secular world.

Like all origin myths, this account is partially true and partially false. 

First, there really was no such thing as a "humanist movement". The term "humanism" was coined in 1808 by a German educator, F. J. Niethammer, to describe a program of study distinct from science and engineering. 

In the Early Modern period, humanism was not a philosophy but a new educational curriculum.  It was based on the revival of a course of study from classical Rome. 

Defined this way, "humanism" begins in the twelfth century (1100's) in the institution of studia humanitatis, or "the studies of human things" in the newly formed universities. 

In the fifteenth century, the term "umanista," or "humanist," was current and described a professional group of teachers who taught the studia humanitatis. These "human studies" included grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. 

In antiquity, these disciplines were called the artes liberales, or "liberal arts," for they were the skills and knowledge necessary for a human being to be truly free. 

The Renaissance studia humanitatis generally correspond to what we would call grammar, rhetoric, history, literary studies and moral philosophy, though in the Middle Ages and Renaissance both history and literary studies were a part of grammar.


Classical humanism begins in the middle of the fourteenth century, when the great Florentine poet, Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, begins to do systematic scholarship on the ancient writers, especially Cicero. 

It is significant to note that with the Ottoman takeover of Byzantine Empire, large numbers of educated, wealthy Byzantines immigrated to the Italian city-states. Some of them began to teach Greek, as well as the classics.

As a result of this scholarly interest in the classics, the early humanists recovered the study of Greek and Hebrew, and also began to rethink their world views and their social organization by drawing on principles extracted from the writers of antiquity. This was more than scholarship; the classical humanists were engaged in syncretism - a project of mixing their present society and world view with that of the works and thoughts of the ancient Roman and Greek world.

In some ways, the most important work of the Italian Renaissance, was not a sculpture or painting or architecture, but rather an essay. 


It was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's "Oration on the Dignity of Man". Pico's essay forcefully shows the shift in attention to human capacity and the human perspective. 

Pico had a massive intellect and literally studied everything there was to be studied in the university curriculum of the Renaissance. He was a syncretist - that is, he synthesized all that he read and tried to come up with a single world view drawn from the whole. His essay, on the Dignity of Man, was meant to be a preface to a massive compilation of all the intellectual achievements of humanity, a book that never appeared because of Pico's early death at 31.

Pico was one of the most influential of the Renaissance philosophers because his work synthesized all the strains of Renaissance and late medieval thinking. These were:

 humanism, Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism, Averroism (a form of Aristotelianism), and mysticism.

"Humanism" is not anti-Christian as modern fundamentalists make it out to be. In fact, late medieval and early modern humanism is just the opposite. Renaissance humanism was a response to the standard educational program that focused on logic and linguistics and the other great late medieval Christian philosophy, Scholasticism. 

The Humanists, rather than focusing on what they considered futile questions of logic, semantics and proposition analysis, focused on the relation of the human to the divine. For them human beings were the summit and purpose of God's creation. They tried to define the human place in God's plan and the relation of the human to the divine; therefore, they centered all their thought on the "human" relation to the divine, and hence called themselves "humanists." At no point do they ignore their religion; humanism is first and foremost a religious and educational movement, not a secular one 

What we call "secular humanism" today is a world view that arises in part from "humanism" but was initially conceived in opposition to "humanism". 

The humanists held that religious truth was revealed to all, both Christian and non-Christian, so part of their project was to reconcile non-Christian thinking, especially the thought of Plato and his followers, to Christian thinking, and to point out, through analysis of texts, the similarities between non-Christian philosophies and religions and Christian philosophies and religion. 

The importance of Plato for Renaissance humanism cannot be over stressed. Among other things, it gives rise to a particular species of Renaissance magic which will, in turn, form the basis of what we call "science" as it is invented in the early Enlightenment (late seventeenth century).

Pico brought to this project an immense mind, insatiable curiosity, infallible memory, and a confidence in his intellectual capabilities that few if any have ever matched before or since. His larger project was the synthesis of all human knowledge into a single whole; while humanists sought to reconcile classical philosophy with Christianity, Pico sought the reconciliation of every human philosophy and every human religion with Christianity.

To understand Pico, his project, and his theory of humanity, it helps to review the central philosophical problem in the Western tradition and Christianity: the problem of the relation of The One and the Many. This is an old problem from the very source of Western philosophy in Greece in the seventh century BC. Simply put, the problem of the one and the many is this: 

if the universe can be understood as a single thing, let's say God, how do all the different parts of the universe relate to this single thing? 

The standard Christian position was that the many things of the universe were created by God out of nothing ; this is called "creation ex nihilo ", or "creation out of nothing." This means that there is no real, eternal order to creation. Since it is arbitrarily created, it can be arbitrarily interfered with. 

The Neoplatonists, on the other hand, believed that the many things of the universe were "emanations" from God. As a result, rather than the universe being an arbitrary act of God, the creation of the universe is necessarily part of the nature of God. There is an underlying logic to the created universe that is always infallibly true. Basically, even God can not change it.

Finally, in Averroism, which was the version of Aristotelianism that the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance inherited from the Muslim scientist and philosopher Averro, the question of creation is simply laid aside as irrelevant to inquiry into the material world. Averroism tries to explain physical events by looking at their immediate and determinate causes.

Pico tried to reconcile these three completely opposed ways of understanding the universe in relation to God. Pico's basic approach to the problem of the one and the many was to argue that the many things of the universe, rather than being created by God or emanating from God or being unrelated to God, were all symbols of God. Everything in creation, every object, every human, every thought, every speech, every religion, every philosophy, is an image of God and an expression of God as the One. What unites all of creation is this symbolic relation to God.

This is contrary to the medieval understanding of creation—the medieval world view, following Augustine's assertion that the world was a "region of unlikeness," believed that all of creation was a negative symbol of God. For the medievals, humans could never understand God because nothing on earth resembled God in any way; the best that humans could do is understand God in a negative sense—God is not like the things in the world.

Pico reverses this situation; not only is the world similar to God, but everything that human beings can think, imagine, and create are expressions of divinity. This concept was centrally important for the development of art and literature in the High Renaissance; the later artists of the Renaissance, including Michelangelo, were convinced that through the operation of their own intellect and creativity that they were giving expression to the divine or at least expressing its likeness.

In this view, the individual human being with her thoughts, intelligence, and imagination becomes a "small universe," or parvus mundus. The individual human being is the microcosm, that is, the individual human being can express the whole of creation and can express the whole of the divine - the macrocosm. If you want to find God then look into your own soul for you perfectly express the whole of divinity. For this reason, Pico argues that human beings can become any aspect of the universe whatsoever.

In traditional, neoPlatonic Christianity, humanity occupied a middle position in the hierarchy of the universe: as both physical and spiritual, humanity sat dead center between the spiritual and physical worlds. Pico unhinged humanity from that position, exalted as it might be, and claimed that human beings could occupy any position whatsoever in the chain of being. A human being could become as low as an animal or, though intellect and imagination, become equivalent to God, at least in understanding.

A Study of Human Proportion

Study of Human Proportion

The picture above, from Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, is a famous study of human proportion.

It expresses much of what Pico is arguing about the capability of humanity to encompass the whole of creation. 

In Renaissance mathematics and in Neo platonism, the square in geometry represents the terrestrial world and the circle represents the celestial world, while the triangle represents the divine world. The circle and square in da Vinci's drawing represents more than the mathematics of drawing a human figure, they represent how the human being encompasses in its reach the whole of the terrestrial and celestial worlds.

Pico locates human dignity in our capability and freedom to be whatever we want to be. If you view the whole of human history, according to Pico, you'll find that nothing remains stable. No faith, no philosophy, no world view ever remains static; the only eternal thing is the human ability and freedom to change and express ourselves in different ways. 

The greatest dignity of humanity is the boundless power of self-transformation. The "truth" about humanity, then, can only be found in the sum total of the works, thoughts, and faiths of humanity. Above everything else, the greatest human capacity is to be able to express or understand the whole of the human experience; in this light, the principle freedom granted to humanity by God is freedom of inquiry.

This is a radical and nearly heretical departure from tradition. In the Christian tradition, it is accepted dogma that human beings were created free by God and intended to be free and independent. However, this freedom was lost when Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God. 

Pico, however, is arguing that the principle virtue of humanity is that they are always and ever will be free to be whatever they want and express the divine in whatever way they can. Through a torturous couple centuries, these ideas about the nature of humanity and free inquiry would become the basis of the modern world view.

Pico is one of the first European thinkers to consider the hallmark of being human this capacity of "freedom." For Pico, nature and spiritual things were not free for they could never change themselves. If something changes in nature, it's because something else forced that change on that object. Sometimes this is true of humans, as, for instance, when we age. However, humanity is the only part of creation that has the freedom to will its own changes, that is, human beings are the only part of creation that can change themselves of their own free will. 

This point of view will become the starting point of all modern philosophies, including that of Kant, Marx, and the existentialists. 

Because of this freedom to change, Pico did not accept the Christian view of eternal punishment or reward; if the singular characteristic of humanity is that it can change itself, it's impossible that it would lose that ability in the afterlife. Eternal damnation, then, is illogical, for it argues that the human soul doesn't have the power to reform itself even after death.

This idea of "willed change" had a shattering influence on the arts. Not only can the arts express the divine, they can also express this capacity of human beings to create and transform themselves. In the later logic of the High Renaissance, art and literature becomes an expression of the individual's free creative power and, by extension, the free creative power of all humanity. 

It's  at this point that writers, painters, sculptors and others cease to be artisans, which is what they were considered up until and through the Renaissance, and start to become artists in the modern sense of the term. In this sense, artists are artisans (painters, sculptors, etc) whose art is a function primarily of their creativity and freedom rather than a function of their abilities. And we begin to get the modern idea of the artist as a creative individual, valuable for who they are through what it is they express.


Change in Viewpoints

Now hopefully this all makes sense. But if you go back to the primary sources (even in translation) and read the thought and ideas that were being advanced in the late middle ages and through the Renaissance, you are likely to get stuck.

 Understanding the historical and geographic ideas of periods prior to the 18th century and of cultures very different from our own is complicated because changing intellectual frameworks —advances in sciences and changes in forms-of-life—can make prior places and other people’s worldviews and practices almost unintelligible.  The way we organize our understanding of the world - our intellectual categories -  change so radically over time and between cultures that we have difficulty understanding the questions others ask and their expected answers.

The predominant European Medieval position on how we know what exists, the correspondences world view, held that elements in different domains of being corresponded to each other because they embodied the same principle—the universe was known to be a meaningful order.  Being could be explained in terms of the ideas it embodied.  Knowing was the same as perceiving the balance in nature.  This idea persisted in the Renaissance.

This is what Pico and the Renaissance thinkers meant by the world being symbols of God. It is also what earlier neo Platonist thinkers meant by the world being emanations from God.

They saw the world as existing  to express an order of Ideas, the will of God, or the Book of Nature. 

You may remember the famous story of Galileo. He was a mathematician teaching at the University of Padua. He made one of the first telescopes and in 1610 he discovered the four largest satellites of Jupiter, the first satellites of a planet other than Earth to be detected.  His investigations confirmed his acceptance of the Copernican theory of the solar system where the sun, not the earth was the center and that the earth and other planets moved around the sun. 

In 1616 the system of Copernicus was denounced as dangerous to faith, and Galileo, summoned to Rome, was warned not to uphold it or teach it. 

He published a work in 1632 which supported the Copernican system. He was tried (1633) by the Inquisition and brought to the point of making an abjuration of all beliefs and writings that held the sun to be the central body and the earth a moving body revolving with the other planets about it. Accounts of the trial have concluded with the statement that Galileo, as he arose from his knees, exclaimed sotto voce, “E pur si muove” [nevertheless it does move]. 


Correspondence Principle

Galileo’s discovery of the moons of Jupiter could be refuted by the Paduan philosophers on principle because of the

  correspondence principle

According to the philosophers who condemned Galileo:

Galileo Galilei

Born: 15 Feb 1564 in Pisa 
Died: 8 Jan 1642 near Florence 


"There are seven windows given to animals in the domicile of the head, through which the air is admitted to the tabernacle of the body, to enlighten, to warm and to nourish it. What are these parts of the microcosmos: Two nostrils, two eyes, two ears and a mouth. So in the heavens, as in a macrocosmos, there are two favorable stars, two unpropitious, two luminaries, and Mercury undecided and indifferent. From this and from many other similarities in nature, such as the seven metals, etc., which it were tedious to enumerate, we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven" (S. Warhaft (ed.), Francis Bacon: a Selection of his Works 1965: 17 in Taylor Hegel 1975: 4).


To Renaissance thinkers, the necessity of there being only seven planets was an irrefutable scientific fact - based on the correspondence principle. The argument seems ludicrous to­day because we do not believe the universe is organized by correspondences. However, in its time and cultural context, such thinking was solid scientific reasoning — the best account of the known facts.

Energized by their innovative epistemology (theory of knowledge or how we know things), the Moderns of the seventeenth century directed their polemics against neo-Aristotelian science, and the view of the universe prominent in Medieval and early Renaissance thought. Partly because of the efforts of Giordano Bruno, Johannes Kepler and Galileo, thinking about Final Causes and the related vision of the universe as a meaningful order of qualitatively different levels gave way to a Platonic/Pythagorean vision of mathematical order. That understanding, in turn, changed to the Modern view of a world of ultimately contingent correlations, to be carefully mapped by empirical observation.

From the Modern standpoint, these earlier positions showed a reprehensible weakness, a kind of self-indulgence in which thinkers projected onto things the forms they wanted to find, and those in which they felt comforted or at home. In opposition, the new scien­tific view of truth and discovery requires a courageous struggle against what Bacon called the ‘Idols of the human mind.’ It is austere.

The vision of things existing to express an order of Ideas, the will of God, or the Book of Nature, played an important role in many pre-Modern societies. Most people, other than Modern scientific Westerners, believe that the balance of nature is in nature and not in our minds. 

In interaction with others, failure to take their viewpoints seriously puts us in the precarious position of imposing our own ethnocentric values and worldviews on them. In such cases, our understanding is limited to our own horizon and we miss the opportunity for expanding our insight into their world. Since we are so strongly wedded to our worldviews, when we try to understand other’s worldviews, is it possible to do so without condescension? 

Charles Taylor (1975: 4-7) suggests that we can do so if we interpret their views in a way that makes sense of them, as attempts to solve perennial human problems that we all share. The effort is worthwhile. It extends our appreciation of others and it enlarges the possibilities for our own lives. It is what the study of history should be about.

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