April 29, 2016

Quote of the Day: The Tale of the Aristotelian Clock-Mender

I will not undertake to compare the new Philosophy with the old, but instead thereof will tell you a tale.

There was a certain Husbandman who occupied a Farme with an antient mansion-house standing in the fields remote from any Town, where there was an old iron Clock in a large wooden frame, which had been a long while out of kelter, and because he was much troubled to know how the time passed, that he might order his business accordingly, he resolved to get his Clock repaired, and while he was considering where to finde a man able to do it, it fortuned that a certain Peripatetick artificer, something above the degree of a Tinker came that way, who undertook to mend it; but after he had bestowed a great deal of work in oyling the wheels, filing the teeth, and hanging on more weight, and all to no purpose, at last gave it up for nought, and told him it could not be mended; the farmer partly out of curiosity, and partly in hope to find out the defect, desired the Artificer to show him the nature of Clockwork, and what was requisite to make up a perfect Clock, he though he knew very little what belonged to it, yet being a talkative fellow, and very loth to confesse his ignorance in any thing, began a long story, that the nature of Clock-work in general was, a principle and cause of motion and rest by means of an inward device of its own accord and not by chance; but this Clock having no such nature, it was indeed no Clock, and could not move; he told him also that there are three things go to the making of a Clock, the materials, and the shape, and the want of that shape, before it was made; for it was not a Clock before it was made: now the materials of a Clock are four, Iron, and wood, and cords, and lead; and besides these there is a Bell at the top that is of a fifth kind divers from the other four, and hath a trick of sounding when the hammer strikes upon it: Iron is a material very black and somewhat hard, wood very hard and somewhat white, cord very white and somewhat soft, lead very soft and somewhat black. Here the Farmer interposed and told him he would never believe that Iron was harder then wood; but the Clock-mender replied, that in the Art of Clockmaking softness was nothing but being easily melted: The Farmer urged then Iron would not be hard at all; but this artificer wittily replying it was hard to be melted, he was satisfied; the Clock-mender went on, telling him there were other properties also in these materials derived from the former, as that Iron and wood were stiffe and unmoving, cord and lead flexible and moving; here the Farmer interrupted him again, telling him the iron wheels moved as well as the cord and lead, and so did the wooden hand of the dyal; to which he answered they did not move of themselves as the cord and lead did, and that they moved onely to avoid standing still, which is not to be admitted in a clock; but the Farmer still objected, that he saw no necessity of any such material as wood in a clock, for the frame might as well be made of iron; to which he replyed, it was for the compleatness of the clock. But (quoth the farmer) the Bell is hard and black as well as the iron; no, replyed the Engineer, it appears onely so, but is not so in its own nature, but onely hath a property of sounding. Well, (quoth the Farmer) you have told me the materials of a clock, which I could have told as well my self, but am never the wiser; for my Jack hath Iron and Wood, and Cord, and Lead, and if I should hang a Bell on the top of it, it would not prove a clock: that's true said the Clock-man, for it hath not the shape of a Clock; now the shape of a clock is a certain trick of activity in a piece of wheelwork, by the number of stroaks on a Bell, to tell the hour of the day; from this shape there arises several other propertys, as the turning about of the wheels, the playing of the ballance, a secret quality of the hand pointing to the hour of the day, and a secret agreement between the hand of the Dyal and the hammer of the Bell...

While they were thus discoursing, in comes a Lock-smith of the next Town, who thought himselfe as well read in Clock-Philosophy, as he that had read this long Lecture, who therefore began to move many controversys, as that Clocks might be made of other materials, viz. Steel, Brass, or Silver, (where by the way, they digressed into a long dispute whether Steel and Iron differed in kind, or in degree only) that a Bell was not any fifth kind, but made up of a mixture of other mettals; that there were not four materials of a Clock, but that it might be made up of one or two of them; that cords and plummets were no necessary parts of it, for it might be moved by a spring without them; and many more questions they disputed about till they were both weary.

The Farmers Son who was newly come from the University ... was much taken with these learned Lectures of an ordinary Mechanick, & began to suspect he was some disguised Scholar, in that he had so Philosophically begun with the definition of nature, principium & causa motus & quietis ejus in quo est primo & per se, non per accidents; then proceeded to the three principles, Matter, Form, and Privation; after that to the four Elements of a Clock, with their Primary and Secondary qualities, and was well pleased with his judgement in making the Bell a Quintessence & to contain the elementary qualities not formally but eminently ... So likewise he defined the form of a Clock very well, actus primus corporis artificialis organici motum habentis in potentia ... He seemed to be well read in the School-tinkers ...

All this while the Landlord of this Farmer was in the house to take order about some repartions, who being an ingenuous Gentleman that had used to take in pieces his own Watch and set it together again, and therefore could not be ignorant of the Fabrick of a clock, having with much patience heard all this Targon [sic], at last delivered the good man (who though no fool, yet was none the wiser for all this discourse) from the impertinences of the Clock-mender and the young Philosopher: shewing him the cause of motion was in the weights ... he shewed him also that the teeth of the great wheel were so worn, that it would not answer to the just proportion of time it should move in, and therefore he must get a new one made; in fine he taught him how the motion was derived from part to part, that he throughly understood the whole fabrick, and could be able to rectifie any ordinary fault that should happen in it. But the Son ... was dissatisfied that he should take no more notice of the substantial forms and qualities of a Clock, and told him that he rejected principles, and therefore he would not dispute with him.

- Simon Patrick, A Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude-Men: Together with Some Reflection upon the New Philosophy (1662), 14-19

This brief pamphlet (available from Early English Books Online) is full of wicked sarcasm. It's also notable as an early instance of what became the standard historical narrative: in the early 17th century improved scientific instruments and methodology led to an intellectual revolution that utterly overthrew Aristotle, but religious conservatives tried to hold onto Aristotelianism long after it was no longer viable due to a misguided fear that the new philosophy/science was a threat to religion. In Patrick's telling of the story, the epoch-making work is Galileo's 1610 Starry Messenger (Nuncius Siderius) which reported a long list of telescope observations that contradict Aristotle including, notably, the surprising fact "That the Sun is full of scummy spots" (20). (Who knew sunspot were scummy?!) In addition to Galileo, Descartes, Schiner, Tycho, Gilbert, Bacon, and Harvey are named. (I don't know who Schiner was.) A conceptual shift that is treated as central to the success of the new philosophy is precisely that the universe is regarded as a "vast machin" (19). The thing I care about here (and I'll be talking about this at HOPOS) is that this narrative of an early seventeenth century Scientific Revolution was already established by mid-century and was part of the conscious self-understanding of philosophers/scientists working in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Posted by Kenny at April 29, 2016 9:49 PM
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Thanks, Mike. That's got to be the right guy. A quick search before I posted showed very few "Schiner"s (that's Patrick's spelling) and lots of "Scheiner"s so I didn't come across the right one right away.

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at April 29, 2016 10:01 PM

Sure thing.

I learned only recently that Latitudinarians were initially and paradigmatically Cambridge Platonists, which is an interesting connection between the new philosophy and religious toleration, at least in England.

Scheiner, on the other hand, shows that you can be a Jesuit priest and a foe of Galileo's and still be an important scientist.

Posted by: Mike Jacovides at April 30, 2016 7:42 AM

Yeah, that is interesting. There's a nice (but brief) discussion of the connection between Latitudinarianism and the Cambridge Platonists in Sarah Hutton's recent British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century. Patrick, in the pamphlet I quote here, takes it that all the other allegations against the Latitudinarians are bogus (there's a series of comparisons between accusations against 'Latitude-men' and Rosicrucian conspiracy theories) so the real complaint must be that they endorse the new philosophy.

I've been meaning to write a blog post about Locke, Stillingfleet, and Latitudinarianism. (I'll get to it soon.) In Sullivan's, John Toland and the Deist Controversy there is documentation that Locke, Stillingfleet, and Tillotson (!) were part of a Latitudinarian reading/discussion circle prior to Locke's exile. This can, I think, probably help make sense of Stillingfleet's more hostile attitude to the new philosophy and the 'Way of Ideas' in the aftermath of Toland as compared to his more favorable attitude earlier on. In "Berkeley's Lockean Religious Epistemology," I painted with very broad brush strokes, classifying Stillingfleet, Peter Browne, and John Sergeant all as conservative religious opponents of Locke, but there's a much more complex story to be told here. These three represent a very broad cross-section of British religion - a Latitudinarian, a High Churchman, and a Catholic!

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at April 30, 2016 8:11 AM

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