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The Western Intellectual Tradition

April 15, 2011

Before Carl Sagan enthralled television viewers with his "billions and billions" of stars, there was Jacob Bronowski and The Ascent of Man. Bronowski was a British mathematician who received his Ph.D. for a dissertation in algebraic geometry in 1935. He was interested in writing as well as technology, and he had the good fortune to hobnob with many famous physicists of the atomic age.

Bronowski's Ascent of Man was a thirteen-part television series that aired in 1973. There was a companion book that was nearly a verbatim transcript of the series, replete with many excellent illustrations. A copy of this book, purchased in 1973, sits on my bookshelf, and it attests to the permanence of "dead tree" media as contrasted with today's electronic media. I bought another copy for my father, who was interested in science and technology, and he would often refer to "Bronowski's book." Bronowski died just a year after the series aired,

One phrase that Bronowski used often in the course of his narration was "the western intellectual tradition." Of course, there have been significant intellectual accomplishments in non-western countries, such as the invention of the number zero and advanced metallurgy in India, Chinese technology that transcends the hackneyed example of gunpowder, and the considerable corpus of astronomical observations in the Islamic world.

However, progress in human culture, especially in philosophy, mathematics and science, follows an unbroken lineage from ancient Greece through modern Europe and its descendant America. Critics have complained that this view is just a celebration of dead white males; but I, for one, welcome our dead white male overlords.

This tradition is celebrated in a list of Great Books that influenced many students of my generation. As you can imagine, there has been much controversy as to what should be included on such a list. Mortimer Adler, whose name is most associated with the idea of the great books, published a list of 161 essential authors in 1940.[3] Forty-two of these wrote on scientific, mathematical and medical topics, and these appear as follow:

• Hippocrates - Medical Writings.
• 
Aristotle - Works.
• 
Euclid - The Elements.
• 
Archimedes - Works.
• 
Apollonius of Perga - The Conic Sections.
• 
Lucretius - De Rerum Natura.
• 
Nicomachus of Gerasa - Introduction to Arithmetic.
• 
Ptolemy - Almagest.
• 
Galen - On the Natural Faculties.
• 
Leonardo da Vinci - Notebooks.
• 
Nicolaus Copernicus - De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.
• 
William Gilbert - De Magnete.
• 
Francis Bacon - Novum Organum.
• 
Galileo Galilei - Sidereus Nuncius; Two New Sciences.
• 
Johannes Kepler - The Epitome of Copernican Astronomy; Harmonices Mundi.
• 
William Harvey - On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals; On the Circulation of the Blood; On the Generation of Animals.
• 
Blaise Pascal - Scientific Treatises.
• 
Robert Boyle - The Skeptical Chemist.
• 
Christiaan Huygens - Treatise on Light.
• 
Isaac Newton - Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica; Opticks.
• 
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz - Monadology.
• 
George Berkeley - A New Theory of Vision.
• 
Antoine Laurent Lavoisier - Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry).
• 
Thomas Robert Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population.
• 
John Dalton - A New System of Chemical Philosophy.
• 
Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier - Analytical Theory of Heat.
• 
Michael Faraday - The Chemical History of a Candle; Experimental Researches in Electricity.
• 
Nikolai Lobachevsky - Geometrical Researches on the Theory of Parallels.
• 
Charles Lyell - Principles of Geology.
• 
Charles Darwin - On the Origin of Species; The Descent of Man.
• 
Claude Bernard - Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
• 
George Boole - Laws of Thought.
• 
Francis Galton - Inquiries into Human Faculties and Its Development.
• 
Bernhard Riemann - The Hypotheses of Geometry.
• 
Richard Dedekind - Theory of Numbers.
• 
Charles Sanders Peirce - Chance, Love, and Logic; Collected Papers.
• 
Georg Cantor - Transfinite Numbers.
• 
Jules Henri Poincaré - Science and Hypothesis; Science and Method; The Foundations of Science.
• 
Max Planck - Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory.
• 
Alfred North Whitehead - A Treatise on Universal Algebra; An Introduction to Mathematics.
• 
Bertrand Russell - Principia Mathematica
• 
Albert Einstein - The Theory of Relativity, etc.

It's no surprise that most scientists haven't read a single book on this list. I've read just three, although not in their entirety; namely, Lucretius' De Rerum Natura,[4] Bacon's Novum Organum,[5] and Kepler's Harmonices Mundi.[6] This may have been a side effect of my interest in the
Latin language. I found Lucretius and Bacon to be entertainingly quaint, and Kepler to be profoundly strange.

One artifact of the rapid progress that happens in science is that yesterday's theories have been replaced by better theories; and yesterday's experiments have been replaced by more precise measurements. Last week's science is so last week.

I'll finish this article with a memorable quotation attributed to Bronwski.
"The most remarkable discovery ever made by scientists, was science itself."

Title page of a 1675 edition of De Rerum Natura

Title page of the Tanaquil Faber 1675 edition of De Rerum Natura by Titus Lucretius Carus.

(Via Wikimedia Commons).


References:

  1. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Description page on Wikipedia
  2. Jacob Bronowski, "The Ascent of Man," Little Brown & Company, 1973 (via Amazon).
  3. Great Books page on Wikipedia.
  4. Titus Lucretius Carus, De Rerum Natura (Latin Text), via intratext.com.
  5. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Novum Organum (Latin Text), via thelatinlibrary.com.
  6. Ioannis Keppleri, "Harmonices mvndi libri v," Facsimile via Carnegie Mellon University Library

Permanent Link to this article

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