Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science, by Richard Yeo

William Poole on how a culture of literary commonplacing gradually gave way to one of scientific record-keeping

April 24, 2014

Humanist educators of the 16th century advocated the keeping of commonplace books, repositories of pithy statements cropped from the Classics, chiefly for the adorning of one’s own style. The rise of experimental science in the next century, we might assume, forced a decline in this note-taking mentality, as the emphasis shifted from the phrases of the ancients to the experiments of the moderns. This book addresses such a shift, refuting any simple notion that, as experiment and observation came into fashion, so notebooks went out. It is a polarity that several moderns – the “virtuosi” of Yeo’s title – themselves cultivated. These new men were not great readers, they declared; they trusted in things, not words, and in doing, not reading.

Yeo makes it clear that this was little more than opportunistic puff, and he traces the real history of the note-taking of the English virtuosi from the time of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to that of John Locke (1632-1704). There are some wonderful schemes on the way: we encounter Thomas Harrison and his arca studiorum, a kind of filing cabinet in which different pieces of paper could be shuffled between various hooks. Then there is Samuel Hartlib and his Ephemerides, a 300,000-word log of every project or contrivance that came to the ears of this one-man self-funded London research institute. Later, Locke drew up a “New Method” for keeping notebooks, a system of indexing headings by taking the first letter and vowel of headings and inserting them in alphabetised cells.

Perhaps Yeo’s most interesting subject is the experimentalist Robert Hooke: he not only came up with various methods for storing information, but reflected too on how memory itself might work, even quantifying how many new ideas we have a year, each twisted into coils of brain matter. Hooke kept a diary that in fact started out as a weather log, a type of record also maintained, with extraordinary persistence, by Locke.

In digging up the papers of many a Restoration virtuoso, Yeo has made one thing abundantly clear: the “experimentalists” were wedded to pen and paper in a manner that makes the older humanistic tradition of commonplacing look desultory.

This is in one sense an unsurprising thesis. All intellectual endeavour, especially collective endeavour, requires a form of memorialising, and a simple way of expressing the change ruminated by this book is that a culture of literary commonplacing was giving way, gradually, to one of scientific record-keeping. For the researchers examined here, a notebook was no longer a tool-bag of quotations, but a repository of transferable data. The shift is captured nicely by a phrase of the first secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, concerning the journal he founded – and which still continues today – the Philosophical Transactions: he called the Transactions “Adversaria Philosophica”, or “philosophical commonplace books”.

This transformation was inevitably not a uniform one: just as the virtuosi inherited the educational practices of the humanists, so their manuscripts continued in many cases to be marked by the older learning, many note-takers still on the watch for stylistic, moral or historical tit-bits. John Evelyn, for instance, exemplified both worlds. And yet Yeo’s thesis is right: the virtuosi had humanistic origins, but they devised ways of handling large sets of novel data that would prove crucial to the viability of modern, collaborative science.

Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science

By Richard Yeo
University of Chicago Press, 384pp, £31.50
ISBN 9780226106564 and 6731 (e-book)
Published 14 April 2014

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