The Spectacle of the Growth of Knowledge and Swift's Satires on Science

by Beat Affentranger

Paperback e-Book PDF
Institution: University of Zurich
Advisor(s): Allen Reddick
Degree: Dr. phil. I, English Literature
Year: 1997
Volume: 200 pages
ISBN-10: 1581120680
ISBN-13: 9781581120684


This is a revisionist study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century satires on science with an emphasis on the writings of Jonathan Swift and, to a lesser degree, Samuel Butler and other satirists. To say, as some literary commentators do, that the satirists attacked only pseudo-scientists who failed to employ the empirical method properly is to beg a crucial question: how could the satirists possibly have distinguished the genuine scientist from the crank? By a failsafe set of Baconian principles perhaps? No, the matter is more complicated. I read the satiric literature on early modern science against a totally different understanding of what science is, how it came into being, and how it developed.

Satire has a decided advantage over scientific discourse. It can rely on common sense; scientific discourse often cannot. There is always a counter-intuitive element in the genuinely new. New knowledge is in some ways always at odds with received assumptions of what is possible, reasonable, or probable. Satire on science, I suggest, can be seen as a systematic exploitation of that gap of plausibility. Natural philosophers of the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century were keenly aware of their discursive disadvantage and at times even hesitated to publish their material. They feared the satirists and the wits, who they knew would find it easy to debunk their work on commonsense grounds. But commonsense and laughter are unreliable yardsticks for measuring scientific merit. Ironically, the satirists and the natural philosophers shared some of the most fundamental epistemological assumptions of early English empiricism, for instance, the stereotypical Baconian assumption that knowledge about nature would come to us unambiguously once the mind was freed from preconception and bias. It is an assumption about scientific method that is decidedly hostile towards speculative hypothesising. Indeed, the motto of the day was not bold speculation and learning from error, but avoiding error at all costs. Yet in practice, error (or what appeared to be erroneous) was of course frequent; for science is an essentially speculative enterprise. Natural philosophers of the early modern period, however, were embarrassed by their failures and tried to explain them away. The satirists, on the other hand, could prey on these mistakes and conclude that the work of the natural philosophers was purely speculative. The reason for this rigid, anti-speculative epistemological stance, I argue, was a religious one, having to do with the conception of nature as a divine book that could be read like Scripture.

This conflation of the epistemological and the theological is especially obvious in Swift. In both his satirical and non-satirical writings, he is obsessed with proposing proper standards of interpretation, and with criticising those whom he thought had corrupted these standards. Dissenters and religious enthusiasts are taken to task for their misreading of Scripture, for their corrupt religious doctrine which they erroneously claim to be based on Scripture and reason. The natural philosophers are accused of some similar hermeneutic sin; only, they have committed their interpretive transgressions against the proper interpretive standard of the book of nature. Where the natural philosophers claim to have found a new, more accurate way of reading the book of nature, Swift, I argue, sees only mis-readings. Rhetorically, Swift's satires on religious dissent perpetuate the typically Tory High-Church insinuation of sectarian and heretical sexual promiscuity. In his satires on science, Swift makes the same insinuation with respect to natural philosophers, most vividly so in A Tale of a Tub and the flying island of Laputa. The study concludes with a fresh look at Swift's rational horses in part four of Gulliver's Travels.