Saturday, October 9, 2010

Is it Science?

Two questions came up in discussion on Friday that I think are particularly worthy of continued discussion: does Albert have a specific audience (and purpose) in mind for the De animalibus, and can his work be called science?

      We established fairly firmly that while Albert’s work lacks the scientific and experimental rigor of our modern conceptions, it is anachronistic to deny this the title of “science” on methodological grounds. Likewise it appears to me anachronistic to apply a polarized notion of science as being in opposition to theology— we have said on multiple occasions that rather than viewing contemplation of the physical world and contemplation of the divine as two separate disciplines, medieval scholars see one as aiding in the understanding of the other. In other words, science is not an end in itself.
In his preface to “Science in the Middle Ages”, David Lindberg cautions against the understanding of “science” as a distinct entity:

“[U]se of the expression ‘medieval science’ must not be taken to imply that science was an autonomous discipline or an identifiable profession... it is true that various scholarly specialties now considered ‘scientific’ were acknowledged—one finds frequent reference in medieval works to mathematica, astronomia, and perspectiva—but all of these were branches of philosophy (in its broader sense) and, as such, formed but a small part of the repertoire of a universal scholar.” 
(Lindberg, Science in the Middle Ages, page xiii)

In short, science cannot be disentangled from the broader undertaking of philosophy. 

            The definitions of Isidore of Seville can help us understand what is comprised in the medieval understanding of “philosophy”. In book II of his Etymologies, he defines philosophy as “the provable knowledge (probabilis scientia) of human and divine things” (Book II.xxxiv). Isidore identifies scientia simply as that which has been learned, as “discipline (disciplina) takes it name from ‘learning’ (discere), whence it can also be called ‘knowledge’ (scientia). Now ‘know’ (scire) is named from “learn’ (discere), because none of us knows unless we have learned.” (Book I.i) According to Isidore, natural philosophy, or the knowledge of the “natural world”, explicitly aims to understand the created world: “philosophy is called natural (natura) when the nature of each individual thing is examined, for nothing is generated (generare) in life, but rather each thing is classified by those properties according to which the Creator defined it” (Book II.xxxiv). We have frequently discussed the desire of bestiary authors to locate elements of the created world within these classifications by understanding their properties.

In this light, yes, of course Albert’s work is science, in the sense that (in my understanding) he is compiling information and attempting to understand the relation of properties to categories, with the motivation of increasing knowledge of divine patterns on earth (or rather, of increasing knowledge of the divine, through patterns on earth). Our debate in class seemed rather to identify elements of his work that resonate with elements of our modern conception of science, as defined in the OED as “a branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws, and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its own domain.”(Incidentally, this is the fourth entry for “science” in the OED. Primary definitions accord with Isidore: “Knowledge acquired by study”). Whether or not Albert performs them with any consistency with respect to his actual list of animals, the elements are there: his emphasis on empirical observation, his general move away from the moral virtues of the bestiaries as exempla towards practical applications, especially medical concerns—he even appears to have concern for the validity of some of his second-hand sources, even as he unconcernedly passes on personally unconfirmed information from other authors.

         We also discussed a possible contrast between the methodology, especially as presented in book 11, and the actual result of his lists—can one be said to be “more scientific” than the other? I think this is a natural segue into our other question, “what is the purpose of his text?” Is it a practical guide, or a philosophical exercise, or can it be both? We used the analogy of a “field guide”, due its easily searchable organization, and especially useful as it pertains to the animals particularly relevant to the nobility— Albert spends a disproportionate amount of time on “prestige animals” like horses, dogs, and falcons, as well as those that are related to hunting, such as deer and boars. Certain domestic animals, including sheep, goats, and asses, also receive increased attention. Is this simply because Albert has first-hand experience with these animals and can thus expand on his previous sources, or does it indicate a particular design and purpose for his text? Is it primarily a practical guide on dog breeding and falconry? We observed a great disconnect between the theory set forth in the earlier books, which purports to describe all animals in terms of form that follows their function (“nature”), and the alphabetical list of animals that leans heavily on an established literary tradition. Can the first section be termed a “practical guide”?

           I’m not sure he needs to have any uniform goal in mind at all—rather, his work is primarily an exercise in forwarding knowledge, and particularly of the divine, by creating a framework in which to evaluate the form and function of living beings. Pieter Beullens suggests that Albert’s primary goal is to “reconcile Christian revelation and ancient science” ("Science and Specimens" in Resl, 148). In this light, perhaps what we see as a disconnect is a necessary inclusion of both the older sources and a framework for their re-interpretation. Does this explain the longer entries? Perhaps they indicate animals with which Albert had sufficient interaction to apply his framework to his own satisfaction, and are thus only incidentally rather than intentionally useful as an applied guide. 



I also resorted to in-text citations for lack of formatting knowledge.

Lindberg, David C. Science in the Midde Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980

Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies, trans. Stephen A. Barney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006

Pieter Bueller, "Science and Specimens" in A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age, ed. Brigitte Resl. New York: Berg, 2007


  1. Excellent continuation of our discussion on the question of whether what Albert is doing is "science" and on his purpose in writing in the way that he does! I am intrigued that you are able to champion Albert's method as science in both Isidore's and the OED's terms: I think you are right, but how then do we make sense of the claim that is so often made now that science as such is at odds with theology? It isn't, I agree; nor has it ever actually been except in certain modernist polemics. But it is the case that most modern scientists no longer see their work as of a piece with theology, as did Albertus. My thought at the moment is how instructive it is for us to have to wrestle with these questions; yet again, we find that there are no easy divides between what we moderns think about animals, nature and knowledge and what medieval Christians believed. Just as we have convinced ourselves that what we are considering is radically Other (bestiary, philosophy, reconciling revelation and science), we find that we are still in the conversation ourselves.


  2. Maybe I'm just old fashioned, but I never felt a huge disconnect between the Medieval concept of animal with our own. I agree with J.T's comments, I think of science as merely a study of the physical unkown via observation. It is built upon knowledge acquired by our precedents,and I for one do try to reconcile scientific knowledge with theology. Especially when I consider our modern attempts to probe the mysteries of outerspace do I realize how "medieval" our guesses and checks will seem to posterity.