Aesthetic Science (Paperback)

Representing Nature in the Royal Society of London, 1650-1720

By Alexander Wragge-Morley

University of Chicago Press, 9780226680866, 272pp.

Publication Date: April 20, 2020

Other Editions of This Title:
Hardcover (4/20/2020)

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The scientists affiliated with the early Royal Society of London have long been regarded as forerunners of modern empiricism, rejecting the symbolic and moral goals of Renaissance natural history in favor of plainly representing the world as it really was. In Aesthetic Science, Alexander Wragge-Morley challenges this interpretation by arguing that key figures such as John Ray, Robert Boyle, Nehemiah Grew, Robert Hooke, and Thomas Willis saw the study of nature as an aesthetic project.

To show how early modern naturalists conceived of the interplay between sensory experience and the production of knowledge, Aesthetic Science explores natural-historical and anatomical works of the Royal Society through the lens of the aesthetic. By underscoring the importance of subjective experience to the communication of knowledge about nature, Wragge-Morley offers a groundbreaking reconsideration of scientific representation in the early modern period and brings to light the hitherto overlooked role of aesthetic experience in the history of the empirical sciences.

About the Author

Alexander Wragge-Morley is a lecturer in the history of science and medicine at Lancaster University.

Praise For Aesthetic Science: Representing Nature in the Royal Society of London, 1650-1720

"Wragge-Morley boldly challenges a long-standing orthodoxy about the Royal Society's attachment to plain language in scientific description. The work is original, moves across the disciplines, and is an important contribution to the poetics of early modern science and to the debate about objectivity."

— John Brewer, Eli and Edythe Broad Emeritus Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology

"Riveting and consequential. This is a book that transforms our understanding of Royal Society science while providing an alternative genealogy of modern aesthetics. Wragge-Morley reveals how physico-theology, long treated as a merely apologetic discourse, shaped contexts of discovery. As he brilliantly demonstrates, physico-theological assumptions effectively required natural phenomena like snowflakes to be analyzed as ruins, vestiges of an originally perfect design. Making new sense of the diversity of Royal Society projects, Wragge-Morley recovers a still-vital tradition of aesthetic thinking governed by physico-theological rather than Kantian assumptions. His aesthetic approach to his materials makes the most compelling argument of all: a demonstration that the imbrication of metaphysics, theology, and early modern scientific practice can only be revealed through a history of experience."

— Joanna Picciotto, University of California, Berkeley

"This is an important and exciting book. Aesthetic Science shows how members of the early Royal Society engaged with the problem of representation while supporting an ideology of empirical science. Historians have spilled much ink on documenting the emergence of empiricism in the early modern period, yet they have failed to note that empiricist natural philosophers were acutely aware of the limits of representation. Wragge-Morley surveys an impressive cast of characters, and what emerges is a new interpretation of what the early Royal Society was up to. The story told is rich, complex, and thoroughly convincing."

— Dániel Margócsy, author of Commercial Visions: Science, Trade, and Visual Culture in the Dutch Golden Age