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Robert Hooke, Micrographia (1665)

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Robert Hooke


It is the great prerogative of Mankind above other Creatures, that we are not only able to behold the works of Nature, or barely to sustain our lives by them, but we have also the power of considering, comparing, altering, assisting, and improving them to various uses. And as this is the peculiar privilege of human Nature in general, so is it capable of being so far advanced by the helps of Art, and Experience, as to make some Men excel others in their Observations, and Deductions, almost as much as they do Beasts. By the addition of such artificial Instruments and methods, there may be, in some manner, a reparation made for the mischiefs, and imperfection, mankind has drawn upon it self, by negligence, and intemperance, and a willful and superstitious deserting the Prescripts and Rules of Nature, whereby every man, both from a derived corruption, innate and born with him, and from his breeding and converse with men, is very subject to slip into all sorts of errors.

The only way which now remains for us to recover some degree of those former perfections, seems to be, by rectifying the operations of the Sense, the Memory, and Reason, since upon the evidence, the strength, the integrity, and the right correspondence of all these, all the light, by which our actions are to be guided is to be renewed, and all our command over things it to be established.

It is therefore most worthy of our consideration, to recollect their several defects, that so we may the better understand how to supply them, and by what assistances we may enlarge their power, and secure them in performing their particular duties.

As for the actions of our Senses, we cannot but observe them to be in many particulars much outdone by those of other Creatures, and when at best, to be far short of the perfection they seem capable of. And these infirmities of the Senses arise from a double cause, either from the disproportion of the Object to the Organ, whereby an infinite number of things can never enter into them, or else from error in the Perception, that many things, which come within their reach, are not received in a right manner.

The like frailties are to be found in the Memory; we often let many things slip away from us, which deserve to be retain’d, and of those which we treasure up, a great part is either frivolous or false; and if good, and substantial, either in tract of time obliterated, or at best so overwhelmed and buried under more frothy notions, that when there is need of them, they are in vain sought for.

The two main foundations being so deceivable, it is no wonder, that all the succeeding works which we build upon them, of arguing, concluding, defining, judging, and all the other degrees of Reason, are liable to the same imperfection, being, at best, either vain, or uncertain: So that the errors of the understanding are answerable to the two other, being defective both in the quantity and goodness of its knowledge; for the limits, to which our thoughts are confined, are small in respect of the vast extent of Nature itself; some parts of it are too large to be comprehended, and some too little to be perceived. And from thence it must follow, that not having a full sensation of the Object, we must be very lame and imperfect in our conceptions about it, and in all the proportions which we build upon it; hence, we often take the shadow of things for the substance, small appearances for good similitudes, similitudes for definitions; and even many of those, which we think, to be the most solid definitions, are rather expressions of our own misguided apprehensions then of the true nature of the things themselves.

The effects of these imperfections are manifested in different ways, according to the temper and disposition of the several minds of men, some they incline to gross ignorance and stupidity, and others to a presumptuous imposing on other men’s Opinions, and a confident dogmatizing on matters, whereof there it no assurance to be given.

Thus all the uncertainty, and mistakes of humane actions, proceed either from the narrowness and wandering of our Senses, from the slipperiness or delusion of our Memory, from the confinement or rashness of our Understanding, so that ’tis no wonder, that our power over natural causes and effects is so slowly improved, seeing we are not only to contend with the obscurity and difficulty of the things whereon we work and think, but even the forces of our own minds conspire to betray us.

These being the dangers in the process of humane Reason, the remedies of them all can only proceed from the real, the mechanical, the experimental Philosophy, which has this advantage over the Philosophy of discourse and disputation, that whereas that chiefly aims at the subtlety of its Deductions and Conclusions, without much regard to the first ground-work, which ought to be well laid on the Sense and Memory; so this intends the right ordering of them all, and the making them serviceable to each other.

The first thing to be undertaken in this weighty work, is a watchfulness over the failings and an inlargement of the dominion, of the Senses.

To which end it is requisite, first, That there should be a scrupulous choice, and a strict examination, of the reality, constancy, and certainty of the Particulars that we admit: This is the first rise whereon truth is to begin, and here the most severe, and most impartial diligence, must be employed; the storing up of all, without any regard to evidence or use, will only tend to darkness and confusion. We must not therefore esteem the riches of our Philosophical treasure by the number only, but chiefly by the weight; the most vulgar Instances are not to be neglected, but above all, the most instructive are to be entertain’d; the footsteps of Nature are to be traced, not only in her ordinary course, but when she seems to be put to her shifts, to make many doublings and turnings, and to use some kind of art in endeavoring to avoid our discovery.

The next care to be taken, in respect of the Senses, is a supplying of their infirmities with Instruments, and, as it were, the adding of artificial Organs to the natural; this in one of them has been of late years accomplished with prodigious benefit to all sorts of useful knowledge, by the invention of Optical Glasses. By the means of Telescopes, there is nothing so far distant but may be represented to our view; and by the help of Microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible World discovered to the understanding. By this means the Heavens are open’d, and a vast number of new Stars, and new Motions, and new Productions appear in them, to which all the ancient Astronomers were utterly Strangers. By this the Earth it self, which lies so near us, under our feet, shows quite a new thing to us, and in every little particle of its matter; we now behold almost as great a variety of Creatures, as we were able before to reckon up in the whole Universe itself.

It seems not improbable, but that by these helps the subtlety of the composition of Bodies, the structure of their parts, the various texture of their matter, the instruments and manner of their inward motions, and all the other possible appearances of things, may come to be more fully discovered; all which the ancient Peripatetics were content to comprehend in two general and (unless further explained) useless words of Matter and Form. From whence there may arise many admirable advantages, towards the increase of the Operative, and the Mechanic Knowledge, to which this Age seems so much inclined, because we may perhaps be enabled to discern all the secret workings of Nature, almost in the same manner as we do those that are the productions of Art, and are managed by Wheels, and Engines, and Springs, that were devised by humane Wit….

The truth is, the Science of Nature has been already too long made only a work of the Brain and the Fancy: It is now high time that it should return to the plainness and soundness of Observations on material and obvious things. It is said of great Empires, That the best way to preserve them from decay, is to bring them back to the first Principles, and Arts, on which they did begin. The same is undoubtedly true in Philosophy, that by wandering far away into invisible Notions, has almost quite destroy’d it self, and it can never be recovered, or continued, but by returning into the same sensible paths, in which it did at first proceed.

If therefore the Reader expects from me any infallible Deductions, or certainty of Axioms, I am to say for my self, that those stronger Works of Wit and Imagination are above my weak Abilities; or if they had not been so, I would not have made use of them in this present Subject before me: Whenever he finds that I have ventured at any small Conjectures, at the causes of the things that I have observed, I beseech him to look, upon them only as doubtful Problems, and uncertain guesses, and not as unquestionable Conclusions, or matters of unconfutable Science; I have produced nothing here, with intent to bind his understanding to an implicit consent; I am so far from that, that I desire him, not absolutely to rely upon these Observations of my eyes, if he finds them contradicted by the future Ocular Experiments of other and impartial Discoverers.

As for my part, I have obtained my end, if these my small Labours shall be thought fit to take up some place in the large stock, of natural Observations, which so many hands are busie in providing. If I have contributed the meanest foundations whereon others may raise nobler Superstructures, I am abundantly satisfied; and all my ambition is, that I may serve to the great Philosophers of this Age, as the makers and the grinders of my Glasses did to me; that I may prepare and furnish them with some Materials, which they may afterwards order and manage with better skill, and to far greater advantage.

The next remedies in this universal cure of the Mind are to be applied to the Memory, and they are to consist of such Directions as may inform us, what things are best to be stored up for our purpose, and which is the best way of so disposing them, that they may not only be kept in safety, but ready and convenient, to be at any time produced for use, as occasion shall require. But I will not here prevent my self in what I may say in another Discourse, wherein I shall make an attempt to propose some Considerations of the manner of compiling a Natural and Artificial History, and of so ranging and registering its Particulars into Philosophical Tables, as may make them most useful for the raising of Axioms and Theories.

The last indeed is the most hazardous Enterprise, and yet the most necessary; and that is, to take such care that the Judgment and the Reason of Man (which is the third Faculty to be repair’d and improv’d) should receive such assistance, as to avoid the dangers to which it it by nature most subject. The Imperfections, which I have already mention’d, to which it is liable, do either belong to the extent, or the goodness of its knowledge; and here the difficulty is the greater, least that which may be thought a remedy for the one should prove destructive to the other, least by seeking to enlarge our Knowledge, we should render it weak, and uncertain; and least by being too scrupulous and exact about every Circumstance of it, we should confine and straiten it too much….

If once this method were followed with diligence and attention, there is nothing that lies within the power of human Wit (or which is far more effectual) of human Industry, which we might not compass; we might not only hope for Inventions to equalize those of Copernicus, Galileo, Gilbert, Harvey, and of others, whose Names are almost lost, that were the Inventors of Gun-powder, the Seaman’s Compass, Printing, Etching, Graving, Microscopes, &c. but multitudes that may far exceed them: for even those discoveries seem to have been the products of some such method, though but imperfect; What may not be therefore expected from it if thoroughly prosecuted? Talking and contention of Arguments would soon be turn’d into labors; all the fine dreams of Opinions, and universal metaphysical natures, which the luxury of subtle Brains has devised, would quickly vanish, and give place to solid Histories, Experiments and Works. And as at first, mankind fell by tasting of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, so we, their Posterity, may be in part restored by the same way, not only by beholding and contemplating, but by tasting too those fruits of Natural knowledge, that were never yet forbidden….

And as Glasses have highly promoted our seeing, so ’tis not improbable, but that there may be found many Mechanical Inventions to improve our other Senses, of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. ‘Tis not impossible to hear a whisper a furlongs distance, it having been already done; and perhaps the nature of the thing would not make it more impossible, though that furlong should be ten times multiply’d. And though some famous Authors have affirm’d it impossible to hear through the thinnest plate of Muscovy-glass; yet I know a way, by which ’tis easy enough to hear one speak through a wall a yard thick. It has not been yet thoroughly examined, how far Otocousticons may be improv’d, nor what other wayes there may be of quickening our hearing, or conveying sound through other bodies then the Air: for that that it not the only medium, I can assure the Reader, that I have, by the help of a distended wire, propagated the sound to a very considerable distance in an instant, or with as seemingly quick a motion as that of light, at least, incomparably swifter then that, which at the same time was propagated through the Air; and this not only in a straight line, or direct, but in one bended in many angles.

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