Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England. A Study of the Relationships Between Natural Science, Religion, History, Law, and Literature

Review of Metaphysics 39 (2):375-377 (1985)

This ambitious study, by a professor of rhetoric, proposes itself as "intellectual history in a traditional sense" and not as philosophical discourse. Though philosophy does not appear in its title, however, much of its content will appear to philosophers as pertaining to their discipline, and the thesis it develops surely commends itself to philosophical critique. The author's aim, at least in part, is to challenge "the commonly held view" that the scientific revolution created or intensified the modern division between the humanities and the sciences. In the early Renaissance, she argues, rhetoric and philosophy were seen as "pursuing different goals by different means," with rhetoric assigned to the humanities and concerned with opinion and probability and science assigned to philosophy and concerned with truth and certainty. Such a dichotomy was broken down at the onset of the modern period, she holds, particularly in seventeenth-century England, where a sceptical approach to knowledge made for common ground between humanists and scientists. The weakening of knowledge claims in the probabilistic empiricism of the period is thus, for her, the key to understanding its intellectual life and the climate of opinion in which it flourished. To make the point she devotes successive chapters to natural philosophy and empirical science; religion; history; law; witchcraft; and language, communication, and literature. The presentation is scholarly throughout and well documented in an abundance of notes at the end of the volume. Considering the difficulty of her thesis and its extremely broad range the author argues her case well; yet there are problems with it that make one wonder whether her generalization can claim validity in anything more than a trivial sense.
Keywords Catholic Tradition  Contemporary Philosophy  General Interest
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ISBN(s) 0034-6632
DOI revmetaph1985392157
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