Empiricism and the Life Sciences in Early Modern Thought: Ofer Gal and Charles Wolfe
The origins of scientific experimental practices: from the anatomical theatre to the conversations of the Royal Society
It was in 1660s England, so is the common view, in the meetings of the Royal Society of London, that science acquired the form of empirical enquiry that we recognize as our own: an open, collaborative experimental practice, mediated by specially-designed instruments, supported by civil, critical discourse, stressing accuracy and replicability. Guided by the philosophy of Francis Bacon, by Protestant ideas of this-worldly benevolence, by gentlemanly codes of decorum and integrity and by a dominant interest in mechanics and a conviction in the mechanical structure of the universe, the members of the Royal Society created a novel experimental practice that superseded all former modes of empirical inquiry from Aristotelian observations to alchemical experimentation.
This story is mistaken. We shall demonstrate that the empiricism of the Royal Society has its origins in anatomy and physiology rather than mechanics, Aristotelian disputation rather than gentlemanly discourse, religiously motivated curiosity rather than stately benevolence, and in particular, its openness owes more to the public spectacle than to gentlemanly trust. To wit, we shall demonstrate that the primary source of the experimentalism we inherit from the Royal Society was the anatomy theatre of the faculty of medicine in the University of Padua. The anatomical practices developed in Padua during the 16th century were imported by the many English physicians who were educated there, and first amongst them William Harvey, who developed the Paduan practices of repeated dissections and public demonstrations into an empirical method that he taught the English virtuosi both personally and through his influential writings and lectures.