Wednesday, September 26, 2007

More from Michael F. Flynn

As well as his fictional account of John Buridan's activities in fourteenth century Paris (reviewed on Friday), Flynn also included a non-fiction piece in the same issue of Analog. Rather than simply write an article lauding the achievements of medieval science, Flynn arranged his material into the same form as the Questiones found in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas and many other authors besides. However, instead of asking "Whether God is able to move the world with rectilinear motion", Flynn's questions are along the lines of "Whether the Middle Ages were an Age of Reason" or "Whether the scientific revolution could have occurred without the work of the late medieval natural philosophers."

In answering these questions and the related objections, Flynn marshals and impressive amount of knowledge and many quotations from today's historians of science. Overall, I think he defends medieval science very effectively although I would not agree with all his conclusions, most obviously on whether we can fairly say that there was a scientific revolution at all.

Still, the most valuable lesson I learnt from Flynn's attempt at the Questiones format is why reading medieval natural philosophy is such a strain. Certainly, the form allows a lot of information to be packaged neatly and compactly. But the result is incredibly dry. Even a writer of Flynn's skill is unable to make his questions any more palatable than a set of lecture notes. Medieval Questiones are like those business textbooks with numbered paragraphs. No one reads them for fun. I am not sure how many of Analog's readers will struggle through to the end. Those that do will make it because of the fascinating material rather than the Questiones themselves. As a piece of writing, the story of the fictional antics of young Oresme is far more effective.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

1 comment:

Elliot said...

I did find myself getting confused by the structure of the argument, thinking "wait, didn't he already address this?" But I was completely fascinated.