The Past is a Foreign Country – Bern, 19.11.2009 Forum


Paolo Rossi Monti

2009 Balzan Prize for the History of Science

For his major contributions to the study of the intellectual foundations of science from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

The Past is a Foreign Country

From my earliest years of education, when I lived in Milan through my time at the Warburg Institute in London and Wolfson College in Cambridge, several convictions that have variously accompanied my lifetime’s work were consolidated. I will try to list those I consider most important: we must never forget that the distinctions between the disciplines have not always been delineated in the same way as they are today; that the truths presented to us as self-evident in the manuals of the various sciences are always results; that behind those results are long, complicated processes and that struggles, contrasts, difficulties, attempts to identify crisis situations and then to get out of them underlie each of those results. As Walter Pagel (the twentieth century’s greatest historian of medicine) stated in a paper entitled The Vindication of Rubbish, in order to write history, we must be concerned not with how we think, but more importantly with how they thought. They often considered certain things as evident that we would not think of as such. In order to understand them, we must also rummage around in matters that seem to be obsolete or even nonsense today. We must be interested in things that have been forgotten and that our ancestors and predecessors managed – not without great effort – to make disappear from the world. Like all other historians, historians of science must also consider not only the history of the victorious, but also that of the vanquished. Otherwise, they will continue to write those triumphal histories of fortunate discoveries which one segment of positivist culture has accustomed us to.

My research has concentrated on four main themes.
1) The relationship (which is both mixture and contraposition) between magic and science in the XVIth and XVIIth centuries and the emergence of new social figures in Europe (the engineer and natural philosopher, who were only called “scientists” in the XIXth century) and of a new evaluation of work, technology, and the mechanical arts. My book on Francis Bacon and the one dealing with “philosophers and machines” are my contribution to this theme, which I took up again in more recent times in a book dedicated to Giordano Bruno and the Magic of the Renaissance.
2) The tradition of the ars memorativa, or of techniques to strengthen the memory, and its being entwined with the tradition of the ars combinatoria of Ramon Lull in the period between the end of the fourteenth century and the age of Leibniz. My book, which came out in 1960 and preceded Frances Yates’s study by many years, dwelt upon the theme of a universal encyclopaedia, or of an encyclopaedia that could contain all of the world’s knowledge and identify an order among the things that make up the world. It also dealt with the theme of perfect or universal languages. In this context, the theme of a system of classification for plants and animals also emerged. In this case, too, in the 1990s, I took up these subjects in a broader historical perspective, with many references to literary and scientific culture. I went as far as the twentieth century, writing a long chapter on Memory in Immunology.
3) The third theme of my research concerns the so-called discovery of deep time. In the 1630s, men believed that they had a history of 6,000 years; in the age of Kant, they were aware of having a history of millions of years. The so-called “discovery of time” (between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) marks a passage from a vision of the world in which the history of nature coincided with the history of man, and was confined within the 6,000 years of Biblical orthodoxy to an image of a “dark abyss” (as Buffon called it) that was hidden inside the present, and finally Kant’s thesis of “a past of myriads of millions of years”.
4) My fourth theme regards the philosophy of Giambattista Vico, whom I started to study in the 1950s. Vico was made to don the robes of eternal precursor (to Kant, to Hegel, to Marx). I have tried to show that Vico (who published his masterpieces in 1725, 1730 and 1744) did not study anything written after the 1680s, and I have upheld two theses whose unpopularity do not negate their veracity, ie. that Vico is often backward-looking in his positions and that Vico is the living demonstration that it is possible not to be “culturally up-to-date” and at the same time belong to the extremely small group of the great doyens of philosophy.

In the course of my career, I have preferred to cross traditional disciplinary borders, even stopping to dwell on “intellectual fossils” and on their unexpected rebirths (as in the case of magic or of the arti della memoria). I tried – as R.H.L. Disney wrote in a review of my book The Dark Abyss of Time, published by the “Natural History Book Reviews”, vol. 9, n. 2 – to “get inside the conceptual framework of the past and to convey the flavour of the contemporary debates and polemics from which our present ideas have eventually emerged”. That contrasts with the approach of many authors who, starting from a currently accepted idea, go back towards the source, and minimizing every type of opposition to it, present us with a coherent history of its triumph. This type of approach, in my opinion, is suitable to clear exposition, but it is essentially a form of fiction or novel. I have never accepted the perspective of a History of Science of the “continuist” type. I have always rejected the idea of a “triumphal path” of science, just as I have rejected the worn-out image of science as reason incarnate. I have insisted on the relationship between theories and contexts as well as on the complex interweaving of “truths” and superstitions, uncertainties, contradictions, failed attempts. I have shown how philosophical traditions (the so-called –isms) have had significant influence on scientific theories, an influence which depends on metaphysical obligations and, above all, corresponding prohibitions. I have kept a distance from the sociological trends of the 1980s, and I have paid great attention to the History of Ideas, without denying scientific theories their autonomy, as do those who consider them simply as “systems of belief”. The opportunity to put these convictions to the test was offered to me by Jacques Le Goff, when he asked me in 1995 to write a survey on the birth of modern science in Europe for non-specialists.

Whoever writes history finds him/herself in a position that is of necessity ambiguous. He/she also conjures up things that do not go well together: the attempt to identify oneself with and the attempt to keep a distance. As Jean Starobinski taught us all, historians should know beforehand that the truth lies neither in one attempt nor the other, but exactly and solely in the movement that inexhaustibly goes from one to the other. The idea of a distinct, clear, obvious and definite separation between an objective, unquestionable reality of facts and the subjective, arguable nature of interpretations belongs to a culture that is different from the one that characterises the vast majority of professional historians. I would also say that the thesis stating that historians must arrive at solutions for problems that are still open is untenable. Historians have an ineffaceable tendency: to consider all questions as open and to continue to debate and interpret in different ways. Very rarely do people labour under the delusion of closing questions. If this were not the case, we could not explain an undeniable fact. There was only one Descartes, but in today’s culture there are many Descartes in circulation, and they are quite different from each other. And this is true for any philosopher or man of letters or poet or artist or politician or scientist. It is even true for imaginary characters – we meet many Hamlets who are different from one another, just as we meet many Madame Bovarys and not a few Raskolnikovs.

At the root of what we call historical research lies delight in research, the pleasure of discovery, relating ideas to one another and relating ideas to facts, above all and before any other thing, the pleasure of plotting out a route that is not entirely known or not entirely codified. We might very well speak of a passion for research, realizing that not just the future is unpredictable. When they discover new pathways, historians show that the past is also unpredictable; that the past, too, is full of new, unknown things; that the past also escapes classification, the pretences and arrogance of philosophers. And all this fatally leads us – directly or indirectly – to call the certainties of the present into question. It leads to cognitive Copernicanism, or definitive renunciation of the idea of being able always to be at the focus of world history.
It is now time to close. I have read almost all of what Clifford Geertz has written, and I have learned a great deal of things from him (although he is not a philosopher). In one of his books, I once found a brief story taken from the Sakuntara by Kalidasa, which is one of the most famous texts in Sanskrit literature. The story tells the tale of a wiseman squatting before a big elephant that is standing right in front of him. The wise man says: “This is not an elephant”. Only later, when the elephant has turned around and begins to go away, does the wise man start to wonder if after all there might not have been an elephant around somewhere. In the end, when the elephant has already completely disappeared from view, the wise man observes the footprints that the beast left, and he declares with certainty: “An elephant was here”.

Perhaps the History of Ideas also resembles this: to try to reconstruct elusive elephants, which have long gone away, starting with the footprints that they have left. If one dedicates his life to research of this type, and decides to spend the majority of his time in the company of people who no longer exist and pages written many centuries ago, he will certainly not derive great satisfaction, nor a sense of completeness, nor even the sensation of knowing for sure what he is looking for. The facts, a quoted aphorism confirms, are like cows: if you look them in the face hard enough they generally run away. However, I agree with Geertz’s conclusion in his little book of 1995 entitled After the FactTwo CountriesFour DecadesOne Anthropologist: it is an excellent, interesting, disorienting, useful and fun way to spend your life.

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