Ethos and Empiricism in Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1665)


  • Peter Ramsay Thomas Stanford University


Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1665) offered the world a first glimpse into the microworld of various natural and artificial objects, from lice and moss to cork and written ink. Ostensibly, Micrographia championed the empiricism of the New Philosophy of seventeenth-century Europe that would mature into modern, natural science. Yet, beneath its veneer of objective, empirical inquiry, Micrographia reveals both the deep-seated social and moral anxieties of Restoration England and the exigent problems of credibility and authority that lay, and might still lie, at the heart of empirical science. I argue that Hooke's project in Micrographia was fundamentally rhetorical; its success and its very epistemic legitimacy were contingent as much, if not chiefly, upon a multifaceted ethos that strove to resolve paradoxes of personal credibility and impersonal objectivity that shaped the emergence of seventeenth-century natural philosophy. By studying Hooke's complex verbal and visual rhetoric, one discovers the achievements and compromises that enabled the heroic empiricism of the so-called "Scientific Revolution" and that might continue to govern modern assumptions about the nature and aims of scientific inquiry.






Humanities and Social Sciences