Saturday, August 12, 2017

Du Bois on Da Vinci

A quick write up on a charming essay by the young Du Bois (from his time as a graduate student at Harvard), which I only found out about through the fascinating historical work of Trevor Pearce. The essay is entitled Leonardo Da Vinci As A Scientist and is available online here.

Leonardo Da Vinci -- ``I was even a pioneer in
side-eye and general shade throwing.''
Du Bois is concerned to argue that Da Vinci deserves credit as the founder of modern experimental science. The argument strategy is twofold. First, to show that Da Vinci has sufficient (and sufficiently impressive) scientific achievements to merit attention as an early scientist at all. This Du Bois achieves by just reviewing historians (apparently then - 1889 - relatively recent) reappraisal of Da Vinci's empirical work and work inventing scientific machinery and to show that it was indeed impressive. This in itself was interesting; so for instance I learned here that Da Vinci was already floating the idea that the sublunary realm and the broader cosmos should be understood as operating on the same principles, that Da Vinci has a
claim to being an early inventor of the telescope and also being the first to notice a parallel between how the camera obscura works and the operations of the human eye, and that on the basis of observational study of plants Da Vinci was developing ideas about plant respiration which now seem to have been on the right track. Cool!

The second step in the argument, however, is the more philosophically and conceptually interesting. Here Du Bois' task is to argue that Da Vinci deserves credit not just as a link in a great chain of scientific workers, but rather some sort of special credit as a founder figure in one sense or another. Here the point is largely drawn out by comparison with three other figures: Roger Bacon Gilbert of Colchester and Francis Bacon. While Du Bois is impressed with each of these figures, he thinks they were each lacking in a certain way. Roger Bacon was not enough of an empiricist: to be credited as a founder of modern science, Du Bois feels, empiricism must be one's epistemological foundation, where for R.Bacon ``empiricism was but a branch of the tree of which philosophy was the trunk''. Glibert of Colchester has, so to speak, the opposite problem -- he's all empiricism with no metatheory. While he's impressive in his collection of observational and experimental results, he's ``a mere experimenter, with little breadth of conception, or broad generalising powers''. F. Bacon, finally, came after Da Vinci, and is substantially the same in his metatheory (so Du Bois thinks! Please don't hurt me, Renaissance scholars), but just didn't achieve as much scientifically as Da Vinci. F. Bacon comes across, basically, as an especially talented expositor of Da Vincian method, but not himself worthy of the claim to priority on scientific method.

The philosophy of science young Du Bois is working with is interesting, and worth making more explicit than Du Bois himself does in the essay. In Da Vinci, Nature had found itself a man who could do both: patient skillful observational work, aided by machines of his own device, that uncovers particular facts of great interest and also general principles, and also explicit epistemological theorising of a sort which acknowledged and explained the importance of founding one's claims in such observations. Science, then, is the epistemologically self-conscious skillful application of empiricist method. R. Bacon was a skillful natural philosopher and epistemologically self-conscious, but not an empiricist. Gilbert of Colchester was a skillful empiricist, but did not evince the requisite degree epistemological self-consciousness. F. Bacon was an epistemically self-conscious empiricist, but just not quite good enough at the actual application. Da Vinci was the first person in whom all these qualities meet to a sufficient degree, or so Du Bois claims. (This essay also features a trait which is characteristic of all Du Bois' latter work on social matters -- explicit reticence and diffidence, with frequent reminders that one ought be cautious about one's conclusions given the difficulties of gathering evidence and being sure it is complete or representative.)

W.E.B. Du Bois -- ``The idea that the person
in this picture could ever be as enthusiastic
about anything as the person who wrote that
essay on Da Vinci is genuinely surprising.''
I've worked on Du Bois' philosophy of science before, but I have never in my published work explicitly remarked on the undercurrent of empiricism. None the less, it is there; most especially it can be seen in his lifelong habit of issuing scathing condemnations of a priori approaches to history and sociology, where he thinks that prejudice unchecked by experience has been the source of much racist balderdash concerning African (and African-descended) folk. It is remarkable to think, then, how closely Du Bois' scientific and social mission accords with the early philosophy of science he developed here. For, The Philadelphia Negro or Black Reconstruction can plausibly be described as epistemologically self-conscious skillful applications of empiricist method; in both these works (and many of his less famous essays besides) he mixes explicit methodological remarks exhorting a more carefully and rigorously observationally grounded approach to the study of black life in America, with the actual collection of novel results about social, political, or economic conditions, and in both the highlighted cases they have (nowadays) come to be seen as classics of their respective fields. His work is thus epistemologically self-conscious in its empiricism, involves the actual application of observational method as well as its exhortation, and skillful performance thereof. The philosophy of science underlying this essay by the young Du Bois seems to have set a pattern that he attempted to live up to for the rest of his scientific career.

Da Vinci, of course, is not just a great scientist and engineer, but also a great artist. Du Bois was evidently aware of this, and this fact about him is mentioned at various points in the essay. Da Vinci is indeed paradigmatic of the Renaissance Man, the individual who strives to hone diverse skills to a high degree and exhibit a broad culture. In this respect too Du Bois seems to have followed Da Vinci, being more acclaimed for his literary style and humanistic moral and political vision than his scientific career. Being attracted to the broad humanism of the Renaissance, and having great respect for Du Bois' work, seeing this essay where Du Bois develops his ideas about philosophy of science as part of an ode to Da Vinci and the Renaissance scientific humanism that Da Vinci pioneered, was in its own way quite affecting for me. Even if I cannot match these figures in their skill, I hope to at least preserve and advance the spirit of humanistic inquiry that they each embodied.

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