Saturday, May 01, 2010

Medieval Science

In writing a new introductory section on Works on Medieval Science for Medieval Writing, it occurred to me how entangled we get in matters of definition. Today we confine science to meaning knowledge that has been acquired by what we now define as the scientific method. In the middle ages it just meant knowledge, not separated from philosophy or religion and not requiring rigorous standards of testing or proof, just a good pedigree in the annals of scholarship.
Of course, in our modern times every day the media trumpets a new piece of data of dubious provenance, draws an untenable conclusion, and then spouts "Science proves ........". That is entirely ignoring the scientific method. When science becomes religion we might as well be in the middle ages.


Anonymous said...

Today we confine science to meaning knowledge that has been acquired by what we now define as the scientific method.

Well, we do in English. But in most European languages that distinction doesn't semantically exist. I don't think this means they're stuck in the Middle Ages, but they might be less ready to denigrate the basis of knowledge in arts subjects simply because much of it isn't experimentally verifiable.

Dianne said...

Aaaaugh! Sixties flashback! When I was a little possum at university, everybody who made a speech about anything manages to drag in C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures". I thought I had finally recovered from the experience, but it all comes flooding back. I guess the point is, that the classification of knowledge is a cultural artifact, and even those whose linguistic definitions are different to those of modern English use a different mode of conceptualising things to the way they did it in the middle ages.

Anonymous said...

Oh, certainly. (And my favourite newspaper lead-in in that line is "Scientists claim..." meaning, there's so little basis for this that even we don't believe what we're peddling.) It's just that I like to keep alive the idea that knowledge in the humanities can be rigorous and dependable even though it is not scientifically derived, in the Popperian sense of demonstration by reproducible experiment.

Dianne said...

I have never denigrated knowledge in the arts and humanities. That wasn't what the discussion was about at all. The original article was on the classification and ordering of knowledge in the middle ages. Today no literate scholar in the humanities or science ranks astrology with astronomy, or charms and prayers with medical knowledge. Equally, we think we understand the transformation of materials because we think we know about atoms and molecules and the periodic table. But let's not go into the problems of the relationship between reproducibility and real understanding.