We live after what Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world”. In the West, at any rate, scientific enquiry seems the inevitable paradigm of knowledge, and humanity is seen as just one of many competing species, with our cultural and moral achievements considered merely contingent outgrowths of our survival strategies. It is sometimes hard to remember how recent the disenchantment has been, or to comprehend the notion prevailing for centuries, in Judaic, Greek, Roman and Christian thought, that we humans were distinguished by our reasoning capacity from the rest of the natural world, set high above the animals, and only “a little lower than the angels”, as the Eighth Psalm says. Stephen Gaukroger, a historian of philosophy and of science, has set out to outline in five volumes (of which this is the third) how science gradually ousted mythological and other forms of thought in the Western world until it trumped all other disciplines, and how as humanity became naturalised, questions that had been considered wholly theological or conceptual became matters of empirical investigation.
The series of which this book is part, Science and the Shaping of Modernity, starts in 1210, when the Synod of Sens condemned Aristotle’s scientific works, and this choice of year might suggest that Gaukroger would take the standard line on religion/science relations. In fact, however, his overall argument is that, rather than being an obstacle to scientific development, Christianity was ultimately responsible for “setting its agenda and projecting it forward in a way quite different from that of any other scientific culture”. By the 17th century, in Gaukroger’s opinion, science had developed a symbiotic relationship with natural theology, particularly in Protestant England, with Isaac Newton seen as “the new Adam” who would reveal God’s mathematically designed cosmos to fallen man.
This volume takes up the story in 1739, with the publication of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. In presenting Hume as an arch-naturaliser, Gaukroger is accurate but misleadingly ahistorical. During Hume’s lifetime, and indeed until the early 20th century, he was considered a wholesale sceptic. This, and his suspected atheism, debarred him from the two professorships he applied for, and led to his entire opus being proscribed by the Catholic Church. By downplaying ecclesiastical resistance, Gaukroger somehow presents a muted picture not just of Hume but of his revolutionary era. He never really conveys the interactive influences between the successive thinkers he analyses, or fleshes out his fascinating contention that the naturalisation of the human was interwoven with the humanisation of nature.
Gaukroger rightly stresses that history, as much as science, can be used to flatten us into the natural world. While the soul was being “comprehensively medicalized”, Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) was debunking Christianity’s status as a divine intervention in history. We end with Ludwig Feuerbach claiming in 1841 that religious consciousness has proceeded through various stages to culminate in the realisation that “God has been man, in the form of humanity, all along”.
The Natural and the Human is an interesting patchwork of meticulous scholarship, but somehow, among the minutiae on matter, micro-corpuscularianism, “aggregate properties” and “vital forces”, a sense of life is lost – as is the crucial paradox that, at the very apex of the Enlightenment, when reason was dethroning hierarchy and superstition, it was itself simultaneously being deposed in favour of sensibility.
Jane O’Grady is visiting lecturer in philosophy of psychology, City University London, and co-founder, London School of Philosophy.
The Natural and the Human: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1739-1841
By Stephen Gaukroger
Oxford University Press, 416pp, £30.00
Published 21 January 2016