Veil of Isis

At the end of the eighteenth century, the same judicial metaphor is found in Kant, in the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason. For him, physics began to make decisive progress from the moment when, with Francis Bacon, Galileo, Torricelli, and Stahl, it understood that it had to ‘oblige nature to answer its questions.’ With regard to nature, reason must behave “not like a student, who lets himself be told whatever the teacher wishes, but like an appointed judge, who forces witnesses to answer the questions he asks them.” Curvier’s celebrated formula takes up the same metaphor: “the observer listens to Nature, the experimenter submits it to interrogation and forces it to unveil itself.” And even when Bacon says that “nature can be commanded only by obeying it,” thus appearing to urge scientists to submit to nature, one cannot help thinking, with Eurenio Garin, evoking the comedies of Plautus, that for Bacon, “man is a tricky servant who studies his master’s habits in order to be able to do whatever he wants with him.

Here violence becomes ruse, and the Greek word that denotes ruse is precisely μηχανή, mēkhanē. For the Greeks, mechanics first appeared as a technique for tricking nature, particularly by producing movements that appear to be contrary to nature, and by obliging nature to do what it cannot do by itself, by means of artificial and fabricated instruments, or “machines”–scales, winches, levers, pulleys, wedges, screws, gears–which can serve, for instance, for the construction of war machines or automata.

– Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis (Harvard, 2004; 94)

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