Reading Galileo: Policing Knowledge in 17th-century Europe

America is in an unprecedented era, or so many commentators claim. Nowhere is this uniqueness more apparent, some assert, than in the new administration’s attitudes towards climate and environmental science. Trump’s declaration that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese, his shutting down of the EPA website, and his purported interest in creating a blacklist of scientists whose views oppose his—these are all cited as evidence for this idea. Yet, while Trump tends to both portray himself and be described as exceptional, as someone whose work leads her to spend a lot of time steeped in documents from the 1600s, reports on his efforts at policing knowledge have an eerily familiar feel. My Reading Galileo examines European responses to seventeenth-century attempts to regulate knowledge from above that have much in common with those we are seeing in today’s America. 

In the case of Galileo, a religious body with great political influence was the group spearheading the policing: the Catholic Church. Then, like now, the policing group deemed some disciplines and doctrines worthy, others less so or even dangerous. Most well known is the Catholic Church’s condemning of Copernicus’s sun-centered world system and effort to bring Galileo before the Inquisition in 1633 for defending it. However, other theories and approaches were also considered suspicious. Most of these fell under the loose rubric of what Europeans at the time labeled the “New Science”: a method of studying nature that privileged experiment and mathematics and that questioned the Aristotelian approach Europeans had inherited from the Middle Ages. 

Reading Galileo traces the fate of an important New Science publication, which Galileo published in 1638. Titled Two New Sciences, it was smuggled out of Italy following the author’s condemnation and is considered today the foundation of modern physics. How did readers judge and evaluate this book, a work that endorsed a type of knowledge considered suspect by authorities and written by a man censured by the Catholic Church?

We might be tempted to assume that Galileo’s book suffered a worse fate than that potentially facing climate-science research today. Perception of the historical Catholic Church is that it was a backwards, blind, and autocratic institution, populated by conservative theologians who couldn’t accept the clear-sighted reasoning of modern science. Surely the fate of Galileo’s final publication depended on which side of the knowledge-political divide one fell, with Galilean supporters wholeheartedly endorsing his methods and conclusions, while those with blind allegiance to religious authority rejected it? 

My book shows that such a story, of partisan loyalties and clear differentiation of right and wrong science, is incorrect. Many traditionalists found value in Galileo’s work, even when they disagreed with some of his conclusions and methods. Innovators who promoted a Galilean-type science at times also read the book using more traditional techniques. While some human truths and values may be universal, Reading Galileo suggests that partisan politics surrounding knowledge boundaries is not: Galileo’s readers, both supporters and detractors, proved capable of engaging in more productive dialogue than seems possible today.

Renée Raphael is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. Her book, Reading Galileo: Scribal Technologies and the Two New Sciences is available now.