A few years ago, I had to pick a topic for my bachelor thesis in history. By than, I was tired of history and actually preferred all the courses of my minor in philosophy. Looking at the list of themes, I picked “History of the Sciences”. I hoped that the History of the Sciences would allow me to write something more technical. I ended up with studying the role of the Jesuits in astronomy around the year 1600. Religion and science, the perfect battle! Or so it seemed . . .

I’ve learned multiple interesting and uninteresting things while writing this thesis. One of the most interesting things was a change in my approach towards knowledge. Whether you study astronomy in the 16th century or something completely different, there shouldn’t exist any a priori distinction between types of knowledge and the way of investigating them. This doesn’t mean that every chunk of knowledge is equal! But the inequality is a possible outcome of the study, not the way to start studying it. The quality of the knowledge depends on how well it’s integrated in the knowledge-network. This might seem obvious. Why should any researcher study a certain piece of knowledge different from another one?

Nevertheless, I regulrarly come across active atheists who are saying the most anachronistic things. Astronomy, with Copernicus and Galileo, is a very popular example, but others can be used as well. Basically, what they are doing is saying that religion was limiting the quest of the sciences. One might search for facts whether this is true or not. But when we research this, we already accept this religion/science distinction. What if the historical actors didn’t have such a distinction? Whatever we say about the past when we use our concepts instead of theirs is a huge distortion of the historical reality. A study of Eric Jorink showed how The Written Book (Bible) and The Book of Nature was the existing dualism in the 17th century, not religion/science. These aren’t just different words for our “religion” and “science.” Both Books contain some elements we might call today religious and others scientific.

The point is that it’s far less invasive and distorting to look at the past as a collection of knowledge producers and their products. When a heliocentric view is conflicting with all kinds of existing knowledge, it will have a hard time getting accepted. Does this make heliocentrism less true? Well, yes, at least in the 16th century. Without new telescopes and the huge changes of Kepler, heliocentrism was unacceptable and therefore false. In my BA thesis I wrote multiple examples of pieces of knowledge that didn’t allow heliocentrism. I can say that a majority of those would fall into the category of “science” today. But that’s an irrelevant remark. It neither disproof science, nor teaches us anything about religion.

“Religion” and “science” are two existing categories today. They are historical products. Reading the 17th century events through these categories gives us a modernized image of the past. More importantly, it appears as if history informs us about the relation between religion and science, while these things didn’t even exist! We way often wrongly assume categories when we are looking at unknown societies. Simply using the words “knowledge products and producers” immediately creates a different and more neutral way to study the past. If you want categories, check how the different chunks of knowledge gang up. Don’t simply add categories to the situation, you’ll bump into some while researching.

One of the most important 16th century astronomers with an in essence geocentric model of the universe.

One of the most important 17th century astronomers with an in essence geocentric model of the universe.

  1. Your argument about imposing our own assumed categories upon other periods is an important one, and likewise extends to our investigation of other cultures. Specifically in ancient Egypt, there was no word for ‘religion’ per se, although Herodotus considered Egyptians ‘religious to excess’ (from his own Greek perspective). Yet part of the difficulty is that there were no strict boundaries in Egyptian ideology between cosmology, religion, philosophy, art, & symbol, metallurgy – all of these arenas were present, just not rigidly divided into separate compartments as the modern mind tends to do. However, the resurgence of holism in contemporary culture has brought the interrelated nature of all phenomena to the fore – especially where environmental issues are concerned, but also in regards to health, scientific whole-systems thinking, etc. Thank you for your insightful post. (BTW, there is a small typo at your title..the word ‘unkNown’ is missing the second ‘N’) 🙂

    • Philosiful says:

      You’re completely right. It goes for studying societies at different places and/or different times. In fact, it might even be a good way to start studying our own society! I don’t think that it’s necessarily holism. You can still use categories and decide to focus on one of them. But as a historian or anthropologist you first have to find out what categories existed.

  2. Certainly you’re correct, for categories are required in order to be able to have discourse about anything at all, with further distinctions becoming necessary as more subtle layers of understanding are added – true of any academic discipline! I just got a little carried away on my own holism tangent, as one thought led to another…my apologies if it became confusing. Keep up the interesting topics.

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