Home » Biography & Memoir » John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune » The Life of Galileo Galilei, with Illustrations of the Advancement of of Experimental Philosophy (Illustrated)

June 19 , 2007

The Life of Galileo Galilei, with Illustrations of the Advancement of of Experimental Philosophy (Illustrated)


The knowledge which we at present possess of the phenomena of nature and of their connection has not by any means been regularly progressive, as we might have expected, from the time when they first drew the attention of mankind. Without entering into the question touching the scientific acquirements of eastern nations at a remote period, it is certain that some among the early Greeks were in possession of several truths, however acquired, connected with the economy of the universe, which were afterwards suffered to fall into neglect and oblivion. But the philosophers of the old school appear in general to have confined themselves at the best to observations; very few traces remain of their having institutedexperiments, properly so called. This putting of nature to the torture, as Bacon calls it, has occasioned the principal part of modern philosophical discoveries. The experimentalist may so order his examination of nature as to vary at pleasure the circumstances in which it is made, often to discard accidents which complicate the general appearances, and at once to bring any theory which he may form to a decisive test. The province of the mere observer is necessarily limited: the power of selection among the phenomena to be presented is in great measure denied to him, and he may consider himself fortunate if they are such as to lead him readily to a knowledge of the laws which they follow.

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Perhaps to this imperfection of method it may be attributed that natural philosophy continued to be stationary, or even to decline, during a long series of ages, until little more than two centuries ago. Within this comparatively short period it has rapidly reached a degree of perfection so different from its former degraded state, that we can hardly institute any comparison between the two. Before that epoch, a few insulated facts, such as might first happen to be noticed, often inaccurately observed and always too hastily generalized, were found sufficient to excite the naturalist's lively imagination; and having once pleased his fancy with the supposed fitness of his artificial scheme, his perverted ingenuity was thenceforward employed in forcing the observed phenomena into an imaginary agreement with the result of his theory; instead of taking the more rational, and it should seem, the more obvious, method of correcting the theory by the result of his observations, and considering the one merely as the general and abbreviated expression of the other. But natural phenomena were not then valued on their own account, and for the proofs which they afford of a vast and beneficent design in the structure of the universe, so much as for the fertile topics which the favourite mode of viewing the subject supplied to the spirit of scholastic disputation: and it is a humiliating reflection that mankind never reasoned so ill as when they most professed to cultivate the art of reasoning. However specious the objects, and alluring the announcements of this art, the then prevailing manner of studying it curbed and corrupted all that is free and noble in the human mind. Innumerable fallacies lurked every where among the most generally received opinions, and crowds of dogmatic and self-sufficient pedants fully justified the lively definition, that "logic is the art of talking unintelligibly on things of which we are ignorant."[1]

The error which lay at the root of the philosophy of the middle ages was this:—from the belief that general laws and universal principles might be discovered, of which the natural phenomena were effects, it was thought that the proper order of study was, first to detect the general cause, and then to pursue it into its consequences; it was considered absurd to begin with the effect instead of the cause; whereas the real choice lay between proceeding from particular facts 2to general facts, or from general facts to particular facts; and it was under this misrepresentation of the real question that all the sophistry lurked. As soon as it is well understood that the general cause is no other than a single fact, common to a great number of phenomena, it is necessarily perceived that an accurate scrutiny of these latter must precede any safe reasoning with respect to the former. But at the time of which we are speaking, those who adopted this order of reasoning, and who began their inquiries by a minute and sedulous investigation of facts, were treated with disdain, as men who degraded the lofty name of philosophy by bestowing it upon mere mechanical operations. Among the earliest and noblest of these was Galileo.

It is common, especially in this country, to name Bacon as the founder of the present school of experimental philosophy; we speak of the Baconian or inductive method of reasoning as synonimous and convertible terms, and we are apt to overlook what Galileo had already done before Bacon's writings appeared. Certainly the Italian did not range over the circle of the sciences with the supreme and searching glance of the English philosopher, but we find in every part of his writings philosophical maxims which do not lose by comparison with those of Bacon; and Galileo deserves the additional praise, that he himself gave to the world a splendid practical illustration of the value of the principles which he constantly recommended. In support of this view of the comparative deserts of these two celebrated men, we are able to adduce the authority of Hume, who will be readily admitted as a competent judge of philosophical merit, where his prejudices cannot bias his decision. Discussing the character of Bacon, he says, "If we consider the variety of talents displayed by this man, as a public speaker, a man of business, a wit, a courtier, a companion, an author, a philosopher, he is justly the object of great admiration. If we consider him merely as an author and philosopher, the light in which we view him at present, though very estimable, he was yet inferior to his contemporary Galileo, perhaps even to Kepler. Bacon pointed out at a distance the road to true philosophy: Galileo both pointed it out to others, and made himself considerable advances in it. The Englishman was ignorant of geometry: the Florentine revived that science, excelled in it, and was the first that applied it, together with experiment, to natural philosophy. The former rejected with the most positive disdain the system of Copernicus: the latter fortified it with new proofs derived both from reason and the senses."[2]

If we compare them from another point of view, not so much in respect of their intrinsic merit, as of the influence which each exercised on the philosophy of his age, Galileo's superior talent or better fortune, in arresting the attention of his contemporaries, seems indisputable. The fate of the two writers is directly opposed the one to the other; Bacon's works seem to be most studied and appreciated when his readers have come to their perusal, imbued with knowledge and a philosophical spirit, which, however, they have attained independently of his assistance. The proud appeal to posterity which he uttered in his will, "For my name and memory, I leave it to men's charitable speeches, and to foreign nations, and the next ages," of itself indicates a consciousness of the fact that his contemporary countrymen were but slightly affected by his philosophical precepts. But Galileo's personal exertions changed the general character of philosophy in Italy: at the time of his death, his immediate pupils had obtained possession of the most celebrated universities, and were busily engaged in practising and enforcing the lessons which he had taught them; nor was it then easy to find there a single student of natural philosophy who did not readily ascribe the formation of his principles to the direct or remote influence of Galileo's example. Unlike Bacon's, his reputation, and the value of his writings, were higher among his contemporaries than they have since become. This judgment perhaps awards the highest intellectual prize to him whose disregarded services rise in estimation with the advance of knowledge; but the praise due to superior usefulness belongs to him who succeeded in training round him a school of imitators, and thereby enabled his imitators to surpass himself.

The biography of men who have devoted themselves to philosophical pursuits seldom affords so various and striking a succession of incidents as that 3of a soldier or statesman. The life of a man who is shut up during the greater part of his time in his study or laboratory supplies but scanty materials for personal details; and the lapse of time rapidly removes from us the opportunities of preserving such peculiarities as might have been worth recording. An account of it will therefore consist chiefly in a review of his works and opinions, and of the influence which he and they have exercised over his own and succeeding ages. Viewed in this light, few lives can be considered more interesting than that of Galileo; and if we compare the state in which he found, with that in which he left, the study of nature, we shall feel how justly an enthusiastic panegyric pronounced upon the age immediately following him may be transferred to this earlier period. "This is the age wherein all men's minds are in a kind of fermentation, and the spirit of wisdom and learning begins to mount and free itself from those drossie and terrene impediments wherewith it has been so long clogged, and from the insipid phlegm and caput mortuum of useless notions in which it hath endured so violent and long a fixation. This is the age wherein, methinks, philosophy comes in with a spring tide, and the peripatetics may as well hope to stop the current of the tide, or, with Xerxes, to fetter the ocean, as hinder the overflowing of free philosophy. Methinks I see how all the old rubbish must be thrown away, and the rotten buildings be overthrown and carried away, with so powerful an inundation. These are the days that must lay a new foundation of a more magnificent philosophy, never to be overthrown, that will empirically and sensibly canvass the phenomena of nature, deducing the causes of things from such originals in nature as we observe are producible by art, and the infallible demonstration of mechanics: and certainly this is the way, and no other, to build a true and permanent philosophy."[3]


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