he Competitiveness of Nations

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September  2002

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A. C. Keller

Zilsel, the Artisans, and the Idea of Progress in the Renaissance

Journal of the History of Ideas

Volume 11, Issue 2

Apr. 1950, 235-240.

The work of the late Edgar Zilsel, whose study of the sociological roots of science stressed the view that modern science owes its origin to the work and writings of artisans in the Renaissance rather than to humanists or scholars, was an important contribution to the history of the beginnings of modern culture.  Unfortunately for the world of scholarship, Zilsel could not carry his work to completion, and many points of detail remain to be supplied or clarified within the framework which he built. 1

One of the characteristics of scientific thought, according to Zilsel, is the belief in progress.  This complex idea involves “(1) the insight that scientific knowledge is brought about step by step through contributions of generations of explorers building upon and gradually amending the findings of their predecessors; (2) the belief that this process is never completed; (3) the conviction that contribution to this development, either for its own sake or for the public benefit, constitutes the very aim of the true scientist.” 2  But in his effort to emphasize the role of the artisans in the formation of this idea, Zilsel gave little consideration to the fact that the same idea was asserting itself in more academic pursuits.  He says, for example, that “in classical, scholastic, and humanist literature no statements on the necessity of the gradual improvement of knowledge exist.  Naturally only members of the most highly skilled crafts wrote treatises, and only a few of these craftsmen-authors conceived the idea of progress with any clarity.” 3

1. The following is a complete list of Zilsel’s writings, as nearly as the present writer can determine: Die Geniereligion: Em kritischer Versuch über das moderne Persönlichkeitsideat mit einer historischen Begrundung, Wien, 1918; Die Entstehung des Geniebegriffes: Em Beitrag zur Ideengeschichte der Antike und des Frühkapitalismus, Tubingen, 1926; “Copernicus and Mechanics,” JHI, I (1940), 113-18; “History and Biological Evolution,” Philos. of Sci., VII (1940), 121-8; “The Origins of W. Gilbert’s Scientific Method,” JHI, II (1941), 1-32; “Phenomenology and Natural Science” Philos. of Sci., VIII (1941), 26-32; “Physics and the Problem of Historico-Sociological Laws,” Philos. of Sci., VIII (1941), 567-79; “Problems of Empiricism:  Experiment and Manual Labor,” International Encycl. of Unified Science, II, 8 (Chicago, 1941), 53-94; “The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law,” Philos. Rev., LI (1942), 245-79; “The Sociological Roots of Science,” Amer. J. of Sociol., XLVII (1942), 544-62; “The Genesis of the Concept of Scientific Progress,” JHI, VI (1945), 325-49.

2. “Genesis of the Concept of Scientific Progress,” JHI, VI (1945), 326.

3. Ibid., 332.


He cites an impressive number of such treatises, in which the craftsmen-authors were transmitting their knowledge or discoveries to posterity with the conscious aim of promoting the understanding of their fields of work.  In some of the treatises one reads the statement, which was to play so important a part in the seventeenth-century quarrel of ancients and moderns, that nature, far from being exhausted, is still able to produce praiseworthy things now and in the future.  This dynamic view is closely associated by Zilsel with the rising capitalist economy, the spirit of competition, and the revolt against authority.

Modern science was born, then, in Zilsel’s view, when academic learning and the attitudes of the artisans joined forces, roughly about 1600.  What stood in the way before that time was the social barrier which led scholars to look with scorn upon the mechanical arts.  However, W. E. Houghton, Jr., has called attention to the importance of the mechanical arts in the learned writers as early as Rabelais and Vives, writing in the 1530’s. 4  I should like now to point out that the general notion of progress was not as unknown to the bookish writers of the sixteenth-century as Zilsel thought, and that the notion was evident both in technological and in scholarly writings, separated though they were to a certain extent by the barrier of social prejudice.  Nor should this be surprising.  The revolt against authority on all fronts, visible in Ramus and Montaigne as well as in Galileo and his precursors, was (and Zilsel understood this, as few have) an expression of a changing society.  It would therefore be strange that the idea of progress should have made its appearance in the pre-scientific writings alone.  The technological advances, which corresponded to the needs of the age and which inspired confidence in the continuing development of technology, were paralleled by advances in scholarship and academic learning, with parallel effects.  The power which the scholars, historians, and political theorists of the sixteenth century felt that they had acquired by the editing of texts and the increased accessibility of the sages of antiquity was not unlike that of the artisans in the face of the improvements in their tools and their technical knowledge.  If the growth of capitalism had a more powerful and direct impact on the artisans than on the scholars and made the thought of the former the more significantly “progressive,” the bookish men nevertheless were not so isolated from the movement of history as not to share the views attributed by Zilsel to the artisans alone.  The attack against tradition was carried on equally in science and philosophy, and the intellectual independence of the artisans is of a piece with that of the speculative thinkers.

Specifically, the general concept of progress appears fairly clearly, among the best-known authors, in Rabelais, Bodin, and Leroy, from the

4. Houghton, Walter E., Jr., “The History of Trades: Its Relation to Seventeenth-Century Thought,” JHI, II (1941), 33-60.

236 Index

1540’s to the 1570’s. 5  Were their statements isolated from the rest of their work and from their times, they might be regarded as exceptions, like Seneca, in antiquity.  But in all three cases, the statements were supported by attitudes of intellectual independence, by vigorous departures from and criticisms of ancient authorities, and by a keen awareness of the dawning of a new age.

Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel is too well known to need much comment.  It is enough to quote from the last chapter of his book to see how aptly he expressed in general and philosophical terms the sentiment expressed in particular matters by the technological writers.  “Your philosophers,” he says, “who complain that the ancients have left them nothing to write of or to invent, are very much mistaken.  Those phenomena which you see in the sky; whatever the surface of the earth affords you, and the sea, and every river contains, it is not to be compared with what is hid within the bowels of the earth.” 6  As far as the beginnings of science are concerned, such statements are not comparable in importance with the work and writings of the artisans, which led in an unbroken chain to Gilbert and Bacon; but they merit attention in a study of the idea of the progress of knowledge.  Rabelais was, in fact, one of the early writers in whom scholarship and artisanship were already joined.  Not only did he advocate education in the mechanical arts, but as a doctor he did not disdain dissection, though, according to Zilsel ‘s thesis, his scholarly work on ancient medical texts might have precluded such manual work.  The barrier between the intellectual and the manual was, surely, already weak in Rabelais’ case.

Jean Bodin, France’s most learned political writer in the sixteenth century, and author of the Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem (1566) and Les six livres de la République (1576), is best known, where the idea of progress is concerned, for his broad and effective attack on the theories of degeneration and the golden age.  Whether he believed in progress in a positive sense is a question complicated by his adherence to the famous theory of cycles.  But on the progress of knowledge - and that by accumulation - there can be little doubt.  He says, for example,

Some one will say that the ancients were inventors of the arts and to them the glory ought to go.  They certainly did discover many things - especially the power of the celestial bodies, the calculated courses of many stars - but yet not all - the wonderful trajections of fixed stars and of those called ‘planets.’  Then they noted carefully the obscurities of nature and explained many things accurately, and yet

5. An excellent sketch of the idea of progress in Renaissance thought, citing Leroy and Bodin among others, may be found in H. Weisinger, “Ideas of History during the Renaissance,” JHI, VI (1945), 415-35.  As Weisinger says, Bury’s and Delvaile’s books (The Idea of Progress, London, 1924; L’ideé du progrès, Paris, 1914) are both weak on the Renaissance, and much work remains to be done.

6. Gargantua and Pantagruel, Urquart-Motteux trans.


they left incomplete many of these things which have been completed and handed down to posterity by men of our time.  No one, looking closely into this matter, can doubt that the discoveries of our men ought to be compared with the discoveries of our elders; many ought to be placed first.  Although nothing is more remarkable in the whole nature of things than the magnet, yet the ancients were not aware of its use… Nature has countless treasures of knowledge which cannot be exhausted in any age. 7

More than this, Bodin lists some of the lines along which progress has occurred - discovery, exploration, commerce, geography, medicine, warfare, weaving, handicrafts – “with which the life of man has been aided in a remarkable way”; so that, making social utility an aim of learning, Bodin shows much the same concern as the artisans cited by Zilsel.

The third notable case is that of Loys Leroy (or Regius), whose De la vicissitude des choses en l’univers appeared in 1577.  As early as 1540, exhibiting an irreverent spirit toward the writers of antiquity, Leroy held that much learning had been accumulated since the days of Aristotle.  In his G. Budaei Vita (1540) he asserted that nature is not so exhausted that she cannot produce as great works now as in times gone by, 8 the very idea which Zilsel finds in a work by Peter Apian written in the same period.  On the gradual building up of knowledge, Leroy spoke as follows:

Arts and sciences receive their perfection, not by relying upon the sayings and opinions of men of former ages, of how great authority soever they were, but by correcting of the same, and changing in them whatsoever is found not to be good… I have collected [historical and political data] to the intent to add the same to the governments of Plato and Aristotle, as a thing most necessary for the understanding of their books, and for the knowledge of the faculty of government, which is not all so manifest in their observations, how learned and elegant soever they be, but there doth and will remain many precepts and observations behind for learned men to join thereunto, and that without losing their labour.  Truth sheweth herself to all such as will seek for her, and are of capacity to receive her.  She is not yet all taken up and engrossed, great things come slackly forward, and shew not themselves manifestly together at one instant, but are from time to time augmented or brought to better order and elegance.  And so it may fall out in this science politics, after the help that we receive by the observations of the ancients, after so many examples wherewith we are instructed by them that have been before us, after so long experience and practice of two thousand years or thereabouts, which have passed since the time wherein our authors wrote till this present. 9

Beginning, in the Vicissitude - as the title implies - with the idea of cycles or ups-and-downs, Leroy was carried away in the course of his study by the gradual ascent of humanity, and his final chapter is a veritable

7.  Methodus, cli. 7. (Eng. trans. by Beatrice Reynolds, New York, 1945.)

8. Edition of 1542, p. 4.

9. Les Politiques d’Aristote (Paris, 1568), argument to Bk. II. (Eng. trans., London, 1598.)

238 Index

paean to progress.  Indeed, it would be difficult to find a more complete statement of the idea of progress anywhere in the sixteenth century.  The following sentences indicate the tenor of the whole last book:

So almost all the arts were found by use and experience, then systematized by observation and reason, consequently reduced to better and surer form… not by stopping at what the first men had done, said, and written: but by later generations adding their own, so that things were discovered and made clear as time went on - the honor usually going to the last as most accurate and accomplished… If the ancients had proposed to write or say nothing but what had been written or said before them, no art would have been invented and all would have remained in their first stages without being increased… It is therefore reasonable to apply industry and research to the truth, as they did, and to try to augment the knowledge of those who went before… Nothing prevents this age from producing in philosophy men as eminent as Plato and Aristotle, or in medicine as Hippocrates and Galen, or in mathematics as Euclid, Archimedes and Ptolemy, after the help which we get from their books, after so many observations and inventions made since them, after such a long experience in all things: so that, when we consider well, there was never a century more happily placed for the advancement of letters than the present one.

There is no substantial difference between these statements of Rabelais, Bodin, and Leroy on the one hand, and those of the progressive artisans quoted by Zilsel on the other - e.g., the following from the surgeon Ambroise Paré:

The arts are not yet so perfected that one cannot make any addition: they are perfected and polished in the course of time.  It is sloth deserving blame to stop with the inventions of the first discoverers, only imitating them in the manner of lazy people without adding anything and without increasing the legacy left to us… More things are left to be sought after than have been found10

Zilsel’s erudition undoubtedly embraced the works of Rabelais, Bodin, and Leroy.  That he failed to give proper emphasis to their statements of progress must be attributed partly to the fact that his studies inevitably focused more on Italy than on France, and partly to his enthusiasm for the more continuous “progressive” work of the artisans.  But in the long run Zilsel would not have allowed himself to adopt what is almost the same kind of scorn for the scholars as some of the early scholars had for the artisans.  What is more, Zilsel would surely have found that the men discussed here, and others like them, had been strongly affected by technological innovations and discussions, and he would have integrated them in the larger presentation which he planned.  It is with a view to establishing such

10. Malgaigne ed. (3 vols., Paris, 1840), I, 8. Quoted by Zilsel


a balance, and not for the purpose of criticizing an important and original student of the Renaissance, that this note has been written.  The idea of progress in the Renaissance, was an expression of real progress, and scholarship had as much ground on which to base its view of cumulative advance as had technology.  Renaissance scholars cannot seriously be thought of as unaffected by the world about them; humanists like Rabelais, Bodin, and Leroy were not unaffected by technological progress, which, joined with the enthusiasm for the progress of scholarship, produced well before 1600 the general statements of the progress of knowledge cited above.

University of Washington.



The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

September  2002

AAP Homepage