History 291 - Spring 2004


Write an essay of about 1500 words on ONE of the following questions.  Your answer should be based on the readings, lectures, and precept discussions of the course so far, and you should support your argument by specific examples drawn from those sources.  No additional research is necessary, but you are welcome to do further reading if you wish. You should, of course, give proper citation for all your sources. Essays are due by 3:00 p.m., Friday, 26 March, in the History Department Office, 129 Dickinson Hall.  NO LAST-MINUTE EXTENSIONS WILL BE GRANTED. Since this is a take-home exercise, it falls under Academic Regulations rather than the Honor Code.  Hence, it requires only your signature attesting that it represents your own work and that you have read and understand the provisions set forth in Academic Integrity at Princeton.  


Renaissance and early modern natural philosophers both confronted and sought to make use of "common knowledge" (that is, things that "everyone knows").  Choose three of the following authors and discuss the role of common knowledge in their works: Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo, Mersenne, Descartes.


The sources we have read so far this semester take many different forms. Often the structure and style an author adopts serves an argumentative purpose as much as the written text of the work itself. Discuss the similarities and differences of the rhetorical strategy of three of the following authors: Bacon, Galileo, John of Sacrobosco, Tartaglia, Vesalius. Consider the author's purpose for writing, his audience, and how these considerations affect the presentation of his argument.


"Mathematics is written for mathematicians." (Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Preface)

“...mathematics ... ought only to give definiteness to natural philosophy, not to generate or give it birth.” (Bacon, The New Organon, I, Aph. )

“Philosophy is written in this grand book -- I mean the universe -- which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written.  It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.” (Galileo, The Assayer)
Compare and contrast these three views of the role of mathematics in natural philosophy.


Francis Bacon did not live to see the appearance of Descartes' Optics. Nonetheless, Bacon's New Organon provides a basis for a critical response to Descartes' arguments with respect to substance, method, and style. Placing yourself in Bacon's shoes --or rather, at his desk-- write that response for him.


"Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent of despising their criticism as unfounded." (Copernicus, On the Revolutions, 1543)

"If the matter be truly considered, natural philosophy is, after the word of God, at once the surest medicine against superstition and the most approved nourishment for faith, and therefore she is rightly given to religion as her most faithful handmaiden, since the one displays the will of God, the other his power." (Francis Bacon, The New Organon, 1620)

"[Although we can] argue about the constitution of the universe, we cannot discover the work of [God's] hands.  Let us, then, exercise these activities permitted to us and ordained by God, that we may recognize and thereby so much the more admire His greatness, however much less fit we may find ourselves to penetrate the profound depths of His infinite wisdom." (Galileo, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, 1632)

Each of these three passages deals with the relationship between natural knowledge and religion.  Discuss their differences and similarities.  How might the goals of each author affect his view of this relationship?