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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Jane Austen a GREATER philosopher of science than Lavoisier

Nancy Mayer posted the following message today in Janeites:

"Lavoiser in his preface to his elements of Chemistry says:
"It is a maxim universally admitted in geometry, and indeed in every branch of knowledge, that, in the progress of investigation, we should proceed from known facts to what is unknown." Peter Dear called Lavoiser a "scientific Jane Austen" in his Intelligibility of Science. Lavoiser wrote his treatise in French in 1789."

My first reaction, as always when in the presence of a "palpable hit", is to go to the source and find out why JA left behind the "bread crumb", because there's almost always a reason, a pathway to something interesting. And in this case, it turned out to be the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City (thanks Nancy!).

Google Books told me that Nancy had found her way to Volume 13 of Peter Dear's book _The intelligibility of nature: how science makes sense of the world_, and in hindsight, I see that Dear had what I call a "Trojan Horse Moment", in not realizing that he had it backwards, i.e., what would have been accurate would have been to call Lavoisier a LESS sophisticated philosopher of science than JA was.

Read on, gentle reader, to see how I answered Nancy, and why I turn things on their head in this way:


That Lavoisier text was translated into English in 1790, and you left out the OTHER very interesting phrases, which I have put in ALL CAPS below------interesting to Janeites, that is-----in Lavoisier's (translated) Preface, which is embedded in Lavoisier's very insightful discussion of the crucial importance of clear language in the communication of knowledge, lest errors occur.

I have reproduced the beginning of his Preface in toto, in spite of its length—Diana, this is the exception to the good rule you suggested to me---because only then does it become completely obvious that JA had not only read Lavoisier's Preface, she alluded to it several times in her characteristic way, by unusual phrases. In fact, Lavoisier’s discussion of error in communication of knowledge is of the greatest relevance to JA’s own primary message as an author, in that all of JA’s novels, but most explicitly P&P, are about what happens when the communication of knowledge OF THE HEART goes awry, whether through error or deception. I will return with two very brief comments at the end of the following quotation, which I urge you all to read all the way through—you won’t regret it:

"...while I thought myself employed only in forming a Nomenclature, and while I proposed to myself nothing more than to improve the chemical language, my work transformed itself by degrees, without my being able to prevent it, into a treatise upon the Elements of Chemistry. The impossibility of separating the nomenclature of a science from the science itself, is owing to this, that every branch of physical science must consist of three things ; the series of facts which are the objects
of the science, the ideas, which represent these facts, and the words by which these ideas are expressed. Like three impressions of the same seal, THE WORD OUGHT TO PRODUCE THE IDEA, and the idea to be a picture of the fact. And, as ideas are preserved and communicated by means of words, it necessarily follows that we cannot improve the language of any science without at the same time improving the science itself; neither can we, on the other hand, improve a science, without improving the
language or nomenclature which belongs to it. However certain the facts of any science may be, and, however just the ideas we may have formed of these facts, we can only communicate FALSE IMPRESSIONS to others, while we want words by which these may be properly expressed. To those who will consider it with attention, the first part of this treatise will afford frequent proofs of the truth of the above observations. But as, in the conduct of my work, I have been obliged to observe an order of arrangement essentially differing from what has been adopted in any other chemical work yet published, it is proper that I should explain the motives which have led me to do so. IT IS A MAXIM UNIVERSALLY ADMITTED in geometry, and indeed in every branch of knowledge, that, in the progress of investigation, we should proceed from known facts to what is unknown. In early infancy, our ideas spring from OUR WANTS; the sensation of want excites the idea if the object by which it is to be
gratified. In this manner, from a series of sensations, observations, and analyses, a successive train of ideas arises, so linked together, that an attentive observer may trace back to a certain point the order and connection of the whole sum of human knowledge.

When we begin the study of any science, we are in a situation, respecting that science, similar to that, of children; and the course by which we have to advance is precisely the same which Nature follows in the formation of their ideas. In a child, the idea is merely an effect produced by a sensation; and, in the same manner, in commencing the study of a physical science, we ought to form no idea but what is a
necessary consequence, and immediate effect, of an experiment or observation.

Besides, he that enters upon the career of science, is in a less advantageous situation than a child who is acquiring his first ideas. To the child, Nature gives various means of rectifying any mistakes he may commit respecting the salutary or hurtful qualities of the objects which surround him. On every occasion his judgments are corrected by experience; want and pain are the necessary consequences arising from FALSE JUDGMENT; gratification and pleasure are produced by judging aright.

Under such masters, we cannot fail to become well informed; and we soon learn to reason justly, when want and pain are the necessary consequences of a contrary conduct.

In the study and practice of the sciences it is quite different; the false judgments we form neither affect our existence nor our welfare; and we are not forced by any physical necessity to correct them. Imagination, on the contrary, which is ever wandering beyond the bounds of truth, joined to self-love and that self-confidence we are so apt to indulge, prompt us to draw conclusions which are not immediately derived from facts; so that we become in some measure interested in deceiving
ourselves. Hence it is by no means to be wondered, that, in the science of physics in general, men have often made suppositions, instead of forming conclusions. These suppositions, handed down from one age to another, acquire additional weight from the authorities by which they are supported, till at last they are received, even by men of genius, as fundamental truths. The only method of preventing such errors from
taking place, and of correcting them when formed, is to restrain and simplify our reasoning as much as possible. This depends entirely upon ourselves, and the neglect of it is the only source of our mistakes. We must trust to nothing but facts: These are presented to us by Nature, and cannot deceive. We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation. Thus mathematicians obtain the solution of a problem by the mere arrangement of data, and by reducing their reasoning to such simple steps, to conclusions so very obvious, as never to lose sight of the evidence which guides them.

Thoroughly convinced of these truths, 1 have imposed upon myself, as a law, never to advance but from what is known to what is unknown; never to form any conclusion which is not an immediate consequence necessarily flowing from observation and experiment /y /and always to arrange the facts, and the conclusions which are drawn from them, in such an order as shall render it most easy for beginners in the study of chemistry thoroughly to understand them….” END OF LAVOISIER PREFACE

My additional comments are first that JA had a far more sophisticated awareness of the subjectivity of all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, in a way that 21^st century scientists understand, but that the giants of 18th century science like Lavoisier did NOT grasp, and JA showed she knew better than Lavoisier it by giving Lizzy the last word on this subject, in uttering the following wise and witty maxim which I quoted last month, words which sound as though JA were speaking them
directly to Lavoisier himself:

“We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.”

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: In fairness to Lavoisier, he was way ahead of his time, because he was advocating for a more experimentally based chemistry than Priestley, who was still clinging to the dramatically wrong theory of phlogiston to account for many chemical phenomena. But Jane Austen, as usual was way ahead of those who were way ahead of their time, and remember, she was "moonlighting", because she was a fiction writer, not a scientist!

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