Reading Gillispie’s Edge of Objectivity

Two copies of Charles Gillispie’s The Edge of Objectivity stand side-by-side on a shelf, one previously belonged to Ernan McMullin the other to the retired historian of science. I have read neither copy.

Ernan had received the book to review for a journal. He wasn’t entirely convinced by Charles Gillispie’s The Edge of Objectivity. In the margins of his copy are numerous worries, often expressed as single-word questions such as “evidence?” With some regularity Ernan judged passages “sloppy.”

Ernan McMullin wasn’t entirely satisfied with his review copy of Gillispie’s Edge of Objectivity

Ernan McMullin wasn’t entirely satisfied with his review copy of Gillispie’s Edge of Objectivity

Ernan’s marginal critique pales in comparison to the detailed and somewhat schizophrenic praise-condemnation that spills across the margins of the other copy.

The retired historian of science consumed his books, explicitly contrasting passages in different books, evaluating and correcting other passages, and liberally underlining in various colors. When in 1961 he turned his attention to Gillispie’s book, he spared no effort. Like Ernan, he found a number of passages “confusing” and “obscure.” “Phooey” appears regularly in the margins. At one point he thought Gillispie’s discussion was “MISLEADING!” and in other place it was “Pure B.S.”

On page 89 he disagreed with Gillispie’s characterization of Descartes, and invoked E. J. Dijksterhuis’s recently published The Mechanization of the World Picture (1961) to illustrate Gillispie’s mistake:

G. has not accurately represented D: Cf. Dijks., p. 416. What D. really does is this (in effect)

He then reproduces the diagram from Dijksterhuis’s book illustrating the law of refraction. At times he even added explanatory notes to his own marginal notes.

His marginal notes occasionally leave traces of him learning new expressions, as on page 460 where he has put an asterisk next to the word “Scylla” and added in the bottom margin:

*“bet. S. & C.”—an idiom. S.: a dangerous rock on It’n side of Messina Strait; C: whirlpool on the other

He was constantly unhappy with Gillispie’s term “objective science.” At one point he ranted in the margin: “What the hell he means by this broken record we’s all give much to know.”

“Objective science” was a particularly troublesome term.

“Objective science” was a particularly troublesome term.

Whatever his problems with Gillispie’s book, it didn’t stop him from reading it carefully and compiling his own “Annotated Table of Contents,” which he glued into the book directly in front of the printed table of contents.

The annotated table of contents was glued into the book, just in front of the table of contents.

The annotated table of contents was glued into the book, just in front of the table of contents.

In the end, he seemed to both like and despise Gillispie’s The Edge of Objectivity. He scrawled his thoughts across the title page:

Although beautifully written, perhaps too clever and poetic.

Although beautifully written, perhaps too clever and poetic.

Its style is lush to the point of distracting—all too cleaver [sic], all to [sic] poetic—for a text, at least.
Dates given sporadically only
Up to p. 35 (so far) I have the impression that he is not really seriously trying to explain what’s going on, only scintillates. He doesn’t explain, he drops charming hints
One of the main difficulties w/ this, as a text, is that the instr. must strive to justify gill., even w/o saying so to the class.
But it bristle’s [sic] with provocative insights.
It is an interpretative commentary—not an expository work—in style much like de. S’s Origin.
But it is elegant in places, and not just Roccoco [sic].
Cf. e.g. p.49
Elegant but uninformative
Chap. II, III, IV are quite good
Chap. V is potentially good, & good for the specialist, but pompous again.
Chap. VI is hopeless again. Here is a difficult subject presented by innuendo, as if to someone already well-versed in it.
Chap. VIII is his best so far, and is superb, though his judgement on biological romanticism—Lamarckianism, seems unduly harsh.
Chap. IX Energetics [& Entropy] is the best I can recall

I can’t help but admire his exhaustive and at times exhausting digestion of a text.