The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 28 Apr 2020

Urquhart, Rosse, and Browne
[ Warning: I abandoned this article in 2008 and forgot that it existed. I ran across it today and decided that what I did write was worth publishing, although it breaks off suddenly. ]

A couple of years ago, not long before I started this blog, I read some of the works of Sir Thomas Browne. I forget exactly why: there was some footnote I read somewhere that said that something in one of Jorge Luis Borges' stories had been inspired by something he read in Browne's book The Urn Burial, which was a favorite of Borges'. I wish I could remember the details! I don't think I even remembered them at the time. But Thomas Browne turned out to be wonderful. He is witty, and learned, and wise, and humane, and to read his books is to feel that you are in the company of this witty, learned, wise, humane man, one of the best men that the English Renaissance has to offer, and that you are profiting thereby.

The book of Browne's that made the biggest impression on me was Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), which is a compendium of erroneous beliefs that people held at the time, with discussion. For example, is it true that chameleons eat nothing but air? ("Thus much is in plain terms affirmed by Solinus, Pliny, and others...") Browne thinks not. He cites various evidence against this hypothesis: contemporary reports of the consumption of various insects by chameleons; the presence of teeth, tongues, stomachs and guts in dissected chameleons; the presence of semi-digested insects in the stomachs of dissected chameleons. There's more; he attacks the whole idea that an animal could be nourished by air. Maybe all this seems obvious, but in 1672 it was still a matter for discussion. And Browne's discussion is so insightful, so pithy, so clear, that it is a delight to read.

Browne's list of topics is fascinating in itself. Some of the many issues he deals with are:

  • That Crystall is nothing else but Ice strongly congealed;
  • That a Diamond is made soft, or broke by the blood of a Goate;
  • That Misseltoe is bred upon trees, from seeds which birds let fall thereon;
  • That an Elephant hath no joints;
  • That Snayles have two eyes, and at the end of their hornes;
  • That men weigh heavier dead then alive;
  • Of the pictures of Adam and Eve With Navels [a classic question, that; Saint Augustine took it up in City of God];
  • Of the pictures of our Saviour with long haire;
  • Of the falling of salt;
  • That Children would naturally speak Hebrew [another question of perennial interest. I have heard that Frederick the Great actually made the experiment and raised children in isolation to see if they would learn Hebrew];
  • Of the blacknesse of Negroes;
  • That a man hath one Rib lesse then a woman;
  • Of Crassus that never laughed but once;
  • Of the wandring Jew;
  • Of Milo, who by daylie lifting a Calfe, attained an ability to carry it being a Bull.
There are many reasons why I enjoy reading books from this period, and that list makes me realize one of them. It was a time when science was new, and there were huge tracts of unexplored territory. Every question was open for investigation, including whether storks will live only in republics. A quick perusal of the table of contents from Richard Waller's Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke will give a similar impression, although with a somewhat different flavor to it. And nobody knew what was going to work and what wasn't. Can you make gold by subliming away all the impurities from iron? (No.) Hey, can you learn anything about vision by sticking a metal spike in your eye socket? (Yes.) I have written before about how the Baroque philosophers often chased ideas that seem crackpot to us now—but we can see these ideas as crackpot only because they were tried by the Baroque guys three hundred years ago, and didn't work.

Well, I digress. To return to that list of topics I quoted, you might see "of the blacknesse of Negroes", and feel your heart sink a little. What racist jackass thing is the 1646 Englishman going to say about the blackness of negroes?

Actually, though, Browne comes out of it extremely well, not only much better than one would fear, but quite well even by modern standards. It is one of the more extensive discourses in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, occupying several chapters. He starts by rebutting two popular explanations: that they are burnt black by the heat of the sun, and that they are marked black because of the curse of Ham as described in Genesis 9:20–26.

Regarding the latter, Browne begins by addressing the Biblical issue directly, and on its own terms, and finds against it. But then he takes up the larger question of whether black skin can be considered to be a curse at all. Browne thinks not. He spends some time rejecting this notion: "to inferr this as a curse, or to reason it as a deformity, is no way reasonable". He points out that the people who have it don't seem to mind, and that "Beauty is determined by opinion, and seems to have no essence that holds one notion with all; that seeming beauteous unto one, which hath no favour with another; and that unto every one, according as custome hath made it natural, or sympathy and conformity of minds shall make it seem agreeable."

Finally, he ends by complaining that "It is a very injurious method unto Philosophy, and a perpetual promotion of Ignorance, in points of obscurity, ... to fall upon a present refuge unto Miracles; or recurr unto immediate contrivance, from the insearchable hands of God." I wish more of my contemporaries agreed.

Another reason I love this book is that Browne is nearly always right. If you were having doubts that one could arrive at correct notions by thoughtful examination of theory and evidence, Pseudodoxia Epidemica might help dispel them, because Browne's record of coming to the correct conclusions is marvelous.

Some time afterward, I learned that there was a rebuttal to Pseudodoxia Epidemica, written by a Dr. Alexander Rosse. (Arcana Microcosmi, ... with A Refutation of Doctor Brown's VULGAR ERRORS... (1652).) And holy cow, Rosse is an incredible knucklehead. Watching him try to argue with Browne reminded me of watching an argument on Usenet (a sort of pre-Internet distributed BBS) where one person is right about everything, and is being flamed point by point by some jackass who is wrong about everything, and everyone but the jackass knows it. I have seen this many, many times on Usenet, but never as far back as 1652.

This is the point at which I stopped writing the article in 2008. I had mentioned the blockheaded Mr. Rosse in an earlier article. But I have no idea what else I had planned to say about him here.

Additional notes (April 2020)

  1. I mentioned “the table of contents from Richard Waller's Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke”. I had mentioned Waller previously, in connection with Hooke's measurement of the rate at which a fly beats its wings. The Waller book is available on the Internet Archive, but it does not have a table of contents! I realize I had actually been thinking of Hooke’s Philosophical Experiments and Observations, edited by William Derham, which in some editions, does have a table of contents. The Derham book made a couple of other appearances in this blog in the early days.

  2. I no longer have any idea who Urquhart was, or what I had planned to say about him. Searching for him in conjunction with Browne I find he was Sir Thomas Urquhart, a contemporary of Browne's. There is a Wikipedia article about Urquhart. Like his better-known contemporary John Wilkins, he tried to design a universal language in which the meaning of a word could be inferred from its spelling.

  3. I learned that Rosse was the target of sarcastic mockery in Samuel Butler's Hudibras:
    There was an ancient sage philosopher
    Who had read Alexander Ross over.
    It seems that Rosse was a noted dumbass even in his own lifetime.

  4. John Willcock's biography of Urquhart says “Ross himself is now only known to most of us from the mention made of him in Hudibras”, and that was in 1899.

  5. Thomas Browne is the source of the often-quoted suggestion that:

    What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.
    (It appears in his book Hydrotaphia, or Urn Buriall.) This hopeful talisman has inspired many people over the centuries to continue their pursuit of such puzzling questions, sometimes when faced with what seems like a featureless wall of lost history.

  6. A few years later I revisited Milo, who by daylie lifting a Calfe, attained an ability to carry it being a Bull.

[ Addendum 20200501: Uquhart was a very peculiar man. ]

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