After I finished reading Cryptonomicon II: Attack of the Natural Philosophers, I was all geeked up for some more history of science. Lucky for me, as I looked over my shelves, I spotted a copy of David C. Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450 . I reproduce that subtitle in full to illustrate the point that this isn’t a pop-hist-sci book, it’s an actual textbookish sort of thing.
I’m not sure, however, if it was ever my textbook. It was sitting on my shelf entirely unread, which means either I bought it for a class and never read it (very possible), or I bought it at Amazon in the years since graduation and never read it (also very possible). At first, I was sure it was from a class, as the writer is a UW professor; but the more I think about it, the less likely that seems, as I didn’t have any class where this would have been an appropriate text. And I do seem to remember a “self-improvement” Amazon order some years ago that could possibly have included this.
Provenance aside, The Beginnings of Western Science is an examination of... well, the European scientific tradition in philosophical, religious, and insitutional context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. (This entry is starting to sound eerily reminiscent of an elementary school book report on a book I didn’t read, isn’t it?) It’s a broad topic, so the book is of necessity geared at a relatively introductory level. I could envision a text like this being used as one of the core texts for a History of Science 101 survey class.
It’s a competent book. While it doesn’t have the verve or style of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall or Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, it’s eminently readable. This is not faint praise, either: I’ve struggled through my share of nearly unreadable texts on similar subjects, because people who both know the material well and can write well are in short supply. (This is in contrast to fiction, where people need “only” to be able to write well, and there are therefore whole gobs of them that can, and merely competent writers are totally enhy.) The book is well-organized, explains things at appropriate levels of detail with wonderful clarity, and doesn’t put you to sleep doing it. That has to make it a success on its terms.
For my own part, though, reading the book was an odd experience. I’m used to thinking of myself as broadly and deeply ignorant, so it was disturbing to read this book and realize that I already knew a lot of this stuff. The Greek philosophy was familiar to me (primarily from that Russell book); and when it came to the rise of the universities and the rediscovery of Aristotle and his Islamic commentators, I actually knew the subject in greater depth than the book went into. For me, this book mostly served to fill in little gaps, reinforce things I already knew, and provide a broad perspective. Very weird feeling.
(And yes, I really did just finish this now; I haven’t just been neglecting my booklog. Yes, that means that I’ve been averaging something like a book a month since autumn. Yes, that is pathetic. No, this dry spell almost certainly won’t last. And yes, you do look fat in that outfit.)