Carrière et vie professionnelle

Organum, Habitus, Museum


Manchester, UK, 27 July 2013, iCHSTM

Session S038. “A work to be done”: the manual and the cognitive in early-modern science


What did Francis Bacon mean in his 1620 Novum Organum when he proclaimed that he had “supplied the Instrument (Equidem Organum probui)” to solidly found philosophy and the sciences on every kind of experience? What did René Descartes mean when he wrote to Mersenne that his Discours de la méthode consisted “more in practice than theory” and to princess Elisabeth that in order to always be prepared (disposé) to judge well, one needed two things: the knowledge of truth and the habit (l’habitude) of remembering and recognizing this knowledge every time one stood in front of it. Why did David Hume’s philosophy of knowledge relied so heavily upon habit, or custom? So much so that without customary conjunction there simply was no knowledge of the world? These abstract early modern “instruments” were as much dependent on practical habits (or practical schemes) as were material instruments—such as the telescope, the air pump and a plethora of mathematical instruments. In this paper I want to explore (I should perhaps say follow) the trajectories of these diverse objects: what define them as instruments (organum), how distinctive practical habits (habitus) were for each instrument, and finally how should we reconcile these early modern instruments and practices with our vastly different intellectual and cultural contemporary context (museum). There exist a widening gap between the production of scholarly works on scientific instruments and their showcasing in brightly lit and decontextualized museum spaces. The questions are twofold: why care? And if we do care, how to bridge this gap? Mapping the trajectories between early modern instruments and today’s museums may actually compel us to look back at these objects and reevaluate our understanding of their inner practical and operational attributes.


(Here is the introduction to the talk)

Upon entering the Putnam Gallery at the Collection of Historical Scientific instruments, we are immediately met—confronted—with science, art, and skilled craftsmanship. In front of us stands a grand orrery made by Joseph Pope, a Boston clockmaker who began the instrument’s intricate geared mechanism at the start of the American Revolution, in 1776. Though of great interest, I want us instead to turn our gaze toward the left, on an impressive display of scientific instruments. Tucked in there is certainly one of the most notable instruments found at the CHSI. It is not Jonathan Sisson’s 1735 version of Hadley’s quadrant—or octant—one of the earliest known examples of such an instrument. Neither is it Oughtred’s circle of proportions—or circular slide rule—made in the 1630s and an early example of its kind as well. No, I’m talking about the “triangular shaped” instrument farther back and to the right. Yes, that one: Galileo Galilei’s geometric and military compass, made in circa 1604 for the Duke of Mantua, Vincenzo Gonzaga the first, by Galileo’s own instrument maker, Marc’Antonio Mazzoleni, a former employee of the Venetian Arsenal. Galileo spent the winter of 1603-04 at the Duke’s Court, and though he unsuccessfully gained the patronage he sought, he did receive a gold chain with a medal and two silver cups for his gift of a compass—this compass!—and a copy in manuscript of the instruction manual.

This instrument (organum) is now at Harvard (museum). How does it work (habitus)? In the first decade of the 1600s one had to travel to Galileo’s own house in Padua to learn its use. Galileo provided room and board to interested nobles and wealthy northern Europeans (up to 20 per year), together with private mathematical teachings and an assortment of instruments—including the compass, his best seller. It was a lucrative business for Galileo, several times better than his salary provided by the University of Padua. In 1607, Galileo said there were about 100 of his military compasses in circulation around Europe. And by 1610, he had apparently sold 300 of them, each at a cost of 150 lire.  Galileo was very careful not to divulge too much about the instrument. The instruction manual in manuscript form that accompanied the compass was cleared of images. As Mario Biagioli describes in detail in a forthcoming article,

In a move he was to repeat virtually unchanged in the 1610 Sidereus nuncius, Galileo described the use of the instrument, but not the instrument itself. And, as with the telescope, he tended to give or sell his instruments to “end users”—people who, either because of social status or lack of skills, were not likely to copy them for profit.

Even when Galileo finally published the manual in 1606 as Operazioni del compasso geometrico et militare it still contained no images (they were finally introduced in the Latin translation of 1612, printed in Strasbourg). No wonder why Galileo went bananas when Baldassare Capra published a very similar account of the instrument, with detailed engravings, in 1607. What followed was a big lawsuit against Capra for plagiarism, won by Galileo.

For Galileo, and other contemporary instrument makers, the organum went hand in hand with its habitus. They were—as all instruments are—intricately linked together. Under one roof, Galileo had the military compasses made by a skilled artisan and the lecture demonstrations were performed by him, a trained mathematician. Usus et fabrica, under the close supervision of Galileo. What is left of this now? In the museum context the instrument has lost all connections to the past. It is mute—it is a thing that doesn’t talk anymore. It is transformed in a “bel objet” to paraphrase Jean Baudrillard. In trying to remedy the situation the Museo Galileo in Florence has designed several years ago an interesting online tool to help us better understand what this instrument was and how to use it. But can this virtual tutorial actually replace the brass instrument in our clumsy and unaccustomed hands? (The emphasis here is on the adjectives clumsy and unaccustomed.) How should it be operated? How difficult is it to work with both the compass and a pair of dividers? Will the latter easily scratch the former? How hard is it to open the compass and take a reading on the divided circle? On the proportional lines? So many questions impossible to answer in the museum and cyber spaces. Is it unavoidable? Does it matter at all in the end, especially for us scholars?

The goal of this paper is to answer YES to the last question and explain why. I begin by exploring the relationship between organum and habitus in a variety of contexts. Savants, artisans, instruments, and “customized” practices (intellectual as well as hands-on) will mix in examples mostly but not exclusively taken from Descartes, Pascal, and Réaumur. The early modern picture of knowledge production resulting from this abbreviated analysis should help us outline the opportunities and pitfalls of another type of “customized” perspective: museum practices. Mapping the trajectories between early modern instruments and today’s museums may actually compel us to look back at these objects and re-evaluate our understanding of their inbuilt epistemological and operational features.


July 10, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment