Friday, January 13, 2017

"Renaissance man", the learned and practical traditions, and crossing social barriers

This article, alas, behind a paywall, looks interesting and important.

J. V. Field, The Unhelpful Notion of ‘Renaissance man’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Volume 41, 2016 - Issue 2-3: Some Significances of the Two Cultures Debate, pp. 188-201.

Abstract: The current journalistic use of the term ‘Renaissance man’ to describe someone whose work straddles boundaries between today's specialisms is a hindrance to understanding almost any aspect of the culture of the Renaissance — a culture within which both ‘art’ and ‘science’ had meanings different from those they have now, the most significant intellectual division being between the learned and the practical traditions. We look first at the learned tradition of the universities (where teaching was in Latin). The people considered include William Harvey, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, Regiomontanus and (very briefly) Isaac Newton. Within the practical tradition, centred on workshops, we consider the state shipyards in Venice (where Galileo claimed to have learned much), workshop practices in general and the emergence of the notion of ‘Fine Arts’. The individuals considered include Piero della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael, as well as the famous clockmaker Jost Bürgi (who taught Kepler about algebra). We conclude by considering the transfer of skills between these two traditions. There are several areas of overlap, but here we concentrate attention on the story of algebra. Algebra was invented by al-Khwarizmi (whose name gives us the term ‘algorithm’) in the ninth century, within learned mathematics, in Baghdad. In the West, elementary algebra, derived from al-Khwarizmi's work but in the simplified form of problems, became part of ‘practical mathematics’. Slowly, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, developed forms of algebra crossed over into the learned tradition. This is as much a matter of crossing social barriers as of crossing intellectual ones. Eventually, the practical tradition as a whole became absorbed as an elementary part of the learned one.

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