Astrology and Science in
Social Studies of Science
Volume 5, Issue 4
Nov. 1975, 399-422.
In recent years the task of distinguishing science from other cognitive systems has become much more complex. The traditional view that science is the polar opposite of such systems of thought as witchcraft, magic or astrology has been eroded almost to the point of extinction. 1 On the one hand, historians and sociologists of science have been building up a view of scientific activity strikingly different from the hitherto accepted one; on the other, social anthropologists, in analysing so-called ‘alien belief-systems’, have drawn attention to many features that appear to be far from alien to much scientific activity.
Nonetheless, although the distinction is far less clear-cut than it was once thought to be, and although most of us would not imbue it with the moral overtones that many of our nineteenth-century predecessors did, it is still a distinction that needs to be made. There is no escaping the fact that, in general, the consequences of what is usually accepted as being scientific activity are enormously different in their impact on other aspects of social existence from those of magical, religious or artistic activities. I do not want to deny that science may well fulfil many functions hitherto, or still, performed by other systems of thought. Still less do I wish to suggest that they are easy to distinguish either synchronically or diachronically: nonetheless, this paper is based on the assumption that the contrast between science and non-science
Author’s address: Department of Applied Social Studies,
An earlier form of this paper was presented to the
Sociology section of the annual meeting of the British Association for the
Advancement of Science at
1. This can be clearly seen from the general tone of the papers in R. Finnegan and R. Horton (eds, Modes of Thought (London: Faber, 1973).
which figures so largely in a wide range of nineteenth-century writings and was so important to Marx (as it was, in different forms, both to Durkheim and to Weber), was not merely some kind of fashionable idiom of the period, but actually marked out one of the most significant aspects of the development of Western capitalist societies.
It is my purpose to examine some of the difficulties
involved in the practice of research which attempts to demarcate science from
supposedly non-scientific systems of explanation: by so doing, it may be
possible to begin to isolate certain distinguishing features of scientific
activity without, at the same time, exaggerating the differences between
scientific and other forms of cognitive practice. In particular, I will try to make use of
one perspective which seems to embody this kind of emphasis - Robin Horton’s
view that science is rooted in a particular kind of social situation, one that
differs radically from that in which systems such as magic flourish. The material that I will use in my
discussion relates to the relative positions of astrology and what we now regard
(in retrospect) as ‘science’ in
Before discussing the application of Horton’s approach I believe it is useful to situate it by touching briefly on some of the other perspectives that are available to sociologists for distinguishing between science and non-scientific explanatory systems.
For long the most influential approach was that of Sir Karl Popper, who identified the distinguishing characteristic of science as the potential falsifiabiity of its theories. 2 It is interesting to note that Popper himself gives astrology as an example of a bogus science: one that possesses a few superficially ‘scientific’ features yet is not a science because of the inherently unfalsifiable nature of its predictions. 3 His general approach has frequently been criticized for presenting an oversimplified view of falsification by disregarding both the extent to which experimental data is itself impregnated with theoretical preconceptions, and the degree to which the acceptance or the refutation of a theory is also a social process. 4 Indeed, in the writing of Lakatos, himself very
2. This is a view that runs throughout Popper’s work: see particularly K. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (London: Routledge, 1963).
3. Ibid., 37.
4. See the papers in I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).
strongly influenced by Popper, one can see major concessions to a more sociological view of falsification arising in the course of the defence of a broadly Popperian position.
An approach involving still more stress on social elements is that of Thomas Kuhn. His celebrated emphasis on the ‘paradigm’ as the distinguishing feature of scientific activity leads him to suggest that it was not from the unfalsifiability of astrology that its unscientific nature came - indeed he insists against Popper that numerous predictions were seen to be wrong - but from the fact that it was not founded on a paradigm bearing a determinate relationship to empirical observation. He writes: ‘Though they [the astrologers] had rules to apply they had no puzzles to solve and therefore no science to practise’.5
A further approach which is coming to have increasing importance, particularly on the European Continent, is that of Gaston Bachelard and some of those influenced by him, particularly Louis Althusser. The common element in these orientations is the insistence that sciences can only come about with the elaboration of new, and distinctive, problematics whose growth constitutes an epistemological break with earlier forms of thought. Whilst Bachelard’s position is avowedly anti-sociological, it nonetheless seems to me that some features of his approach are highly germane to a sociological study of science. His detailed studies of the development of scientific concepts in conflict with the categories of everyday experience, for instance, are capable of providing many insights relevant to the discussion of an application of Horton’s model to the history of Western science.
It is this latter model which I want to describe in rather more detail, since it is the one upon which I will draw most heavily in trying to make sense of the data on astrology.
Horton argues that African traditional thought and modern Western science, despite their alleged opposition, have many common structural features. The fundamental distinction between them is not, primarily, that between ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’ modes of thought, but is rather to be sought in the social situations in which they are found: the ‘closed’ and the ‘open’ respectively. The ‘open’ situation is one where there is an awareness of competing world-views. The ‘closed’ predicament is where a single view dominates in the absence of any rivals. The absence of alternative modes of explanation entails, according to Horton, certain distinctive attitudes to thought. In such a situation words will tend to have magical significance; there will be little reflec
5. T.S. Kuhn, “Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research”, in ibid 7.
tion about methods of thought; ideas will tend to be bound to occasions, and there will be no segregation of motives in the search for explanation. It will also be a situation where divination will be a dominant practice for the pursuit of knowledge, and where there will be a protective attitude towards existing concepts and theories. Any form of experimental method is likely to be rare, and people will be unwilling to accept that they are ignorant of the causes of events that affect them deeply. As a result, there will be little acceptance of notions of chance or probability. The ‘open’ predicament contrasts with the ‘closed’ in each of these respects.
The greatest merit of this approach is that it both stresses the similarities of science and other cognitive systems as well as trying to provide a sociological analysis of the origins of their differences. 6 Because of this dual emphasis on both continuity and change, Horton’s model seems to be particularly appropriate to the study of the development of science in Western societies themselves. Surprisingly, however, he has very little to say about this: he touches on the topic in his 1967 paper and later expressed his antipathy to any account of the development of science at the expense of magic in terms of some kind of ‘contrast-inversion’ conception of the relationship between them. 7 Nonetheless, he does not examine in any detail the question of the extent to which the two kinds of predicament may co-exist in a given society: he simply leaves us with the tantalizing suggestion that the attitudes of ‘openness’ may be restricted, even in the modern Western world, to very small areas of life - and, presumably, to very small numbers of people. 8
If different world-views do continue to exist side by side even in societies where scientific activities are highly institutionalized, their juxtaposition and even interpenetration must have been far greater in, say, seventeenth-century England. In this event, the problem of explaining the decline of particular non-scientific forms of explanation, such as astrology, becomes yet more difficult. If witchcraft, for example, is really so convenient in providing a stereotypical interpretation of everyday misfortunes; is really so important in providing forms
6. Barry Barnes has criticized Horton’s paper - I think correctly - for over-estimating the openness of scientists when confronted by anomaly. See S. B. Barnes, ‘The Comparison of Belief Systems’, in op. cit. note 1.
7. A point which he develops at some length in his ‘Levy-Bruhl, Durkheim and the Scientific Revolution’, in op. cit. note 1.
8. R. Horton, ‘African Traditional Thought and Western
of social control; is really so protected against scepticism by techniques such as ‘secondary elaboration’; and so on - why should belief in it ever wane? As Jarvie and Agassi have suggested (with reference to magic) the key problem, perhaps, is that of why people ceased to believe in it. 9
Astrology too poses a remarkably similar riddle. In the mid-sixteenth century it was, as a historian has put it recently: ‘… not a coterie doctrine but an essential aspect of the intellectual framework in which men were educated’. 10
Astrology was imbued with the authority of the learning
of the classical world. There were
Chairs of Astrology at some universities, including those of
But astrology was far more than an explanatory system for small groups of savants: its influence seems to have permeated every level of society, as the wide range of surviving evidence amply testifies. 13 It seems to have provided a context of meaning and interpretation for all sections of the population in a period when, perhaps, institutionalized religion was less and less capable of providing this. 14
10. K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971), 285.
11. L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York: Doubleday, 1923-58), Vol. IV, 408; Vol. V, 238; Vol. VI, 165-6; Vol. VII, 89.
12. L. Thorndike, ‘The
13. See Thomas, op. cit. note 10; D. C. Allen, The Star-Crossed Renaissance (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina University Press, 1941); or Thorndike, op. cit. note 11.
14. See Thomas, op. cit. note 10
It is true that numerous attacks were directed against astrology, but they were typically aimed, not at the fundamental principle that the heavens influenced the affairs of men (or, still less, terrestrial nature), but at the practice of astrology. The situation, perhaps, was not unlike that of Azande scepticism towards witchdoctors. Many anti-astrological polemics, however, did not even go so far as to concern themselves with the inadequacies of explanations and predictions; instead, they concentrated on the dangers of such predictions for both true religion and political order. This form of attack, indeed, is frequently mirrored in the writings of astrologers and their sympathizers, who persistently attempt to evade the regal and ecclesiastical prohibitions of the subject (which become more common from the late sixteenth century) by pleading that it is legitimate to give astrological explanations of the weather, health and the general predilections of individuals based on the influence of the heavens at birth. What are generally condemned are precise short-term predictions, and attempts to calculate the nativities of the sovereign or of Christ.
What is most striking in some of the attacks on astrology (such as, for instance, Calvin’s’ 5) is the implication that the subject is not dangerous because it is false, but because it is a subversive truth. It is hardly surprising that, as a consequence, its prime critics are theologians and men of state: there is not a single attack published in English prior to the 1650s by anyone whom one could reasonably describe as a man of science; and there are precious few elsewhere. 16
Yet by the late seventeenth century the attitude towards astrology appears to have changed radically in educated circles. Admittedly, the evidence is rather confused and in part distorted by political changes affecting the application of censorship. 17 Nonetheless, a variety of documentary sources all indicate a decline in support for the subject. The increasing proportion of comic or critical references in contemporary literature; the number of critical asides in publications
15. Although Calvin makes some criticism of the inadequacies of astrological practice in his A vertissement contre 1‘astrologie (Geneva, 1543; republished Paris: A. Cohn, 1962), the burden of his objections to the subject seem to be the conflict between his notion of God’s Grace and a deterministic view of man in nature: see esp. 10-17, and passim.
16. See P. Kocher, Science and Religion in Elizabethan England (San Marino, Calif.: Octagon, 1953, reprinted 1970).
17. There was a large upsurge of publications of almanacks in the period of the Interregnum which appears to have been largely the result of relaxations in the control of publishing.
dealing with science or education; the complaints of astrologers themselves; and perhaps most significant of all, the apparent lack of interest in the subject in the writings of major intellectual figures all help to suggest that, by 1689, astrological belief is a minority matter among the intellectual elite. In so far as its doctrines continued to have influence at this level, it was probably limited to physicians and certain groups influenced by the ideas of religious sectarians. The prevalent attitude among many of those whom we would now consider to be in the forefront of the scientific revolution would, very likely, be summed up by Seth Ward, astronomer and early member of ‘the Invisible College’, when he described astrology in 1654 as ‘… that ridiculous cheat made up of nonsense and contradictions’. 18
How far is it possible to explain this decline in terms of the kind of sociological distinction that Horton makes between science and magic? Does the ‘Scientific Revolution’ occur because there is a massive growth of awareness of the existence of alternative theoretical frames of reference in the period in question? If so, does this help to explain the decline in astrology? Is it perhaps the case that astrology persists in some kind of isolated social environment unaffected by the social and intellectual changes that are generally regarded as important to the growth of early science?
One difficulty that presents itself when one begins to try to answer this kind of question is that of deciding when, in fact, systems of thought and their typical forms of explanation may be said to be ‘conflicting’ - or even for that matter, ‘different’. It is easy now, with the benefit of hindsight, to present Kepler’s work on planetary orbits as a real science and to regard his mystical and astrological interests as some kind of irrelevant anachronism; but it seems to me far more plausible to argue that for him, and for many of his contemporaries, the one was a natural extension of the others. Is Kepler then a thinker involved in different and, indeed, conflicting explanatory systems, or is the conflict merely the product of a modern re-categorization of his activities? The problem crops up time and time again. Any attempt to solve it necessarily involves a number of fundamental issues about the relationship between conflicts of cosmology and the different kinds of social practice with which these cosmologies may be associated. These issues form the central thread of my discussion of astrology.
Certainly, when one regards the period between the mid-sixteenth
18. S Ward, (published under the anonymous authorship of
‘H.D.’), Vindicae Academiarum (
century and the late seventeenth it is easy to argue that this was a time when numerous different theoretical systems were available to the literate: and, in a time of fierce religious and philosophical controversy there was no shortage of material. Nonetheless, it is problematic what effect this had on the fate of astrology. To a certain extent, alternative world-views had been available to some of the educated from classical times onwards: after all, did not Copernicus himself use allusions to classical writings to bolster his own heliocentric theory of the universe? In the same way, many of the most frequently repeated arguments against astrology are merely reformulations of polemics originating in classical times.
Again, it is highly debatable how far this was a period of decline in ‘anti-scientific’ modes of thought. This becomes particularly clear if one compares it with previous centuries. There is now considerable evidence to suggest that some of the new intellectual influences in the Renaissance (neo-Platonism and Hermeticism, for example) gave far more encouragement to astrology than the philosophies that they were tending to supplant. 19 It is worth mentioning in passing too, of course, that the same period also appears to have seen an increased interest in both magic and witchcraft among the educated. To say the least, the general connection between the availability of alternative frames of reference and the decline in ‘pre-scientific’ forms of thought seems somewhat tenuous.
It is not sufficient, however, to treat the intellectual
environment of seventeenth-century
19. See, for example, F. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1964), and The Art of Memory (London: Routledge, 1966).
20. Although it is not possible to make an exclusive distinction between ‘scientists’ and astrologers because of the overlap of categories, and for other reasons, which I mention in the body of the paper, I am treating as an astrologer any individual known to have cast nativities or carried out other astrological operations, or who publicly defended the practice of astrology. I am regarding as [a scientist those who are, today, generally regarded as having made a valid contribution to the development of modern science. Because of the retrospective nature of this latter definition I will place the word ‘scientist’ in quotation marks wherever I use it in this sense.]
HHC : [bracketed] displayed on p. 407 of original.
If one takes, for example, the question of the magical attitude to words, it is easy to find instances of astrologers using words in such a way that they seem to have been inextricably entangled with the phenomena they purported to denote. A symptom of this is the way in which the supposed properties of planetary influence came to be embodied in the very words used - such as ‘jovial’, ‘mercurial’, ‘venerial’, ‘lunatic’, and so on. The question of causation is short-circuited by the unselfconscious use of analogy embodied in the very categories of thought and, as a result, colours the perception of experience. To attack the theory one must also call into question the supposedly commonsense categories of experience on which it appears to base itself.
Astrological practice was permeated with the use of such analogical language. A typical example is the following quotation from the work of Nicolas Culpeper, a seventeenth-century astrologer and apothecary, who was also responsible for making the Latin Pharmacopoeia of the Royal Society of Apothecaries available in English for the first time. He writes, in defence of astrology, that men are made of the same materials as the universe but not of the same forms. He goes on to liken heavenly influence to the way in which a man’s head sweats when his feet are on a hot water bottle. The reason for this, he observes, is:
… the mutual harmonic of one part of the body with another; why then as well should not the actions of one part of creation produce as well effects in another that being also one entire body, composed of the same elements and in as great harmonic?... Should not Celestiall bodies act upon the Terestriall, they being made of the same matter, and by the finger of the same God? He that will not believe Reason, let him believe experience… 21
This is a question-begging use of analogy which is certainly alien to modern views of scientific method! But was it so very different from the celebrated passage in Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus… where the author gives a lyrical account of the central position and importance of the sun in terms reminiscent of Hermeticist writing? 22 Was it
21 N. Culpeper, Semiotica Uranica
22 N. Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium
(1543: republished, with translation and parallel text, ed. A. Koyré,
different either from Kepler’s quest for planetary harmonies or Gilbert’s belief that magnetism was a further illustration of the microcosm-macrocosm analogy? Perhaps we find not a distinction between the use of words in science and in magical thinking, but rather a kind of transitional situation in both forms of thought.
That this may be the case is further suggested by the fact that some of those who were opposed to the use of unquestioned analogy, and to what could be described as ‘a magical attitude to words’, are themselves defenders of astrology. John Webster, for instance, the sectarian educational reformer who launched a virulent attack on University education in 1654 (and who supported his arguments with the writings of Descartes, Gassendi, Bacon and many others who are seen as key figures in the scientific revolution), nonetheless advocated both astrology and natural magic. He summed up his argument by calling for:
discovering and rectifying the delusions and fallacies of the senses, and for drawing adequate and congruous notions from things, and giving opposite and significant denominations to notions. 23
What could be a clearer plea for a non-magical use of language?
Again, there is no clear distinction between the fields with respect to the extent that they employed ideas bound to occasions. It is true that much astrological writing was concerned merely with ad hoc explanation, but it is also true that the early proceedings of the Royal Society are full of reports the reasons for whose inclusion seem to have derived solely from ad hoc, commonsense, understandings rather than from some theoretically rooted problematic. In the early l660s, for instance, the records of the Society received reports of:
… a Spring in
The only way in which it seems possible to explain the selection of these particular topics is that they represented, in terms of the everyday, commonsense, understandings of its members, the extraordinary: that which demanded explanation. In this respect they appear not unlike the views of Azande tribesmen when they feel that a particularly
23. J. Webster, Academiarum Examen
24. T. Sprat, A History of the Royal Society
severe and persistent case of sepsis demands a
witchcraft explanation. Nor for
that matter, are they unlike the example of the
I do not wish to give the impression that the discussion of this kind of topic was all that the Royal Society concerned itself with: it certainly was not. In the same years, some of its members were also carrying out detailed experimental work on topics that were not ‘extraordinary’ in the everyday sense; for instance, studies of combustion and air pressure, whose interest arose from a burgeoning scientific problematic rather than from intrinsic oddity. Nonetheless, I would insist that here, too, there is no clear division between the astrologer and the ‘scientist’. Just as there were ‘scientists’ whose work seems nowadays to be close to a magical mode of thought, so also there were astrologers whose procedures seem to have been much closer to what is often taken as a model of early scientific method. One can cite the example of John Goad, an astrologer, who as late as 1686 26 published a volume in which he attempted to provide an astrological explanation of the weather based on correlations between weather conditions and planetary movements over the previous 150 years or so. This was a generalizing theoretical project of a Baconian flavour which seems to have little kinship with most models of non-scientific thought.
If one turns to the extent to which the motives for explanation were segregated in astrology and science in this period, the situation again seems to be similar. Astrology certainly produced explanations where it is difficult to separate the causal thread from the aesthetic, the psychological, or the religious. As a modern biographer has written of the sixteenth-century astrologer - and mathematician - John Dee:
His science and his magic, his art and even his antiquarianism, all form part of a universal vision of the world as a continuous and harmonious unity. 27
But, to a certain extent, the same could have been written of many of the leaders of the scientific revolution: Newton’s work, for example, was very far from being simply the expression of a segregated scientific role, but was, as Rattansi has argued, 28 intimately involved with
25. Thomas, op. cit. note 10, 643.
26. J. Goad, Astro-Meteorologica
27. P. French, John Dee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 208.
28. P. M. Rattansi, ‘Some Evaluations of Reason in Sixteen- and Seventeenth-[Century Natural Philosophy’, in M. Teich and R. M. Young (eds.), Changing Perspectives in the History of Science (London: Heinemann, 1973).]
HHC : [bracketed] displayed on p. 410 of original.
religious and mystical concerns. The cases of
The only characteristic which does, to some extent, appear to distinguish the two is the fundamental concern of astrology for coincidence, accident, and so on. This Horton regards as the typical, divinatory preoccupation of non-scientific thought. I am far from convinced, however, that this is really the case here. Rather than being a symptom of some underlying difference in the structure of astrological and scientific thought, it seems to me that the difference is far better understood in terms of the specific professional need of practising astrologers. Indeed, I want to argue that the sole sustainable distinction between astrology and science in the period prior to the l650s is one based on a professional definition of astrology: a definition which includes some figures now viewed as scientists of that time, but which also excludes others.
It is impossible to find an adequate body of evidence for regarding astrology and science as conflicting intellectual systems. Up to the mid-seventeenth century, the vast majority of men of science seem to have accepted the basic postulates of astrology however strongly critical they may have been of its practitioners. Many would probably have shared Bacon’s view 29 that the subject needed to be reformed, not abolished. This is an attitude not totally unlike that of the Azande who are able to combine critical and, even contemptuous, opinions of individual witch-doctors with a profound belief in the fundamental truth of witchcraft and divination.
If one is to use a professional definition of astrology, it is necessary to say a little about the professional astrologer and the process by which he learned his skill. Unfortunately, little precise information exists about the practice and training of what were almost certainly the most numerous group of practitioners: the relatively unsuccessful figures, both in town and country, who have left no documentary evidence in the form of published almanacks and other works, but who
29. Quoted in Thomas, op. cit. note 10, 416.
probably employed astrological techniques for a variety of purposes, including healing and divination. For many, astrology may have been only one of several activities. These consultants would have lacked first-hand acquaintance with classical sources such as Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblios, but would have had some hazy knowledge of the actual techniques for calculating a nativity. Some would have been likely to have read a few of the numerous vernacular works on astrology published in increasing numbers from the mid-sixteenth century. Some also certainly cheated their clients, in the sense that they told them what they wanted to hear rather than what could be justified in terms of astrological techniques.
On the other hand, however, we occasionally find
practitioners of the highest intellectual standing who also made important
contributions to the development of modern science. John Dee is an example from
Evans was, apparently, an M.A. and in sacred orders, but after dying as a result of excessive drinking, was found only to possess two books; Halley’s De Judicis Astrorum and a volume of astronomical tables. What is most striking about such an example is the relative ease with
30. It is sometimes argued that Kepler and Galileo carried out astrological operations ‘tongue-in-cheek’. Be that as it may, there is no necessary contradiction between belief in fundamentals and scepticism towards the practice. For a work that argues that their involvement was genuine, see M. Graubard, Astrology and Alchemy, Two Fossil Sciences (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953).
31. W. Lilly, A History of His Life and Times,
which a smattering of astrological technique could be obtained from other self-styled practitioners, or even printed sources in the vernacular. This contrasts sharply with the long and arduous training that the novice in esoteric learning is frequently subjected to in many cultures. The difference suggests that the success of the professional astrologer depended in large measure upon his personal skills in the consulting room and upon his journalistic abilities when compiling almanacks, rather than on any great formal knowledge of astrological literature or technique. If this is so, we have a situation not unlike that of the medical practitioner of the day. Indeed it is interesting to note the frequency of the links between astrology and medical practice. Several of the best-known astrologers coveted the desire to practise medicine, and some did in fact obtain the licence that enabled them to do so. This is true of Forman, Ashmole and Lilly himself.
The parallels between the professional positions of
astrologers and physicians do not seem to have been entirely fortuitous. There certainly seem to have been
attempts by professional astrologers to provide themselves with some kind of
professional organization in the seventeenth century. This endeavour is hardly likely to have
been uninfluenced by the example of the power and success of the professional
medical bodies. There is evidence
that a Society of Astrologers was formed in
The Royal Society, as a body selfconsciously committed to the advancement of learning, would have felt itself called upon, from time to time, to produce justifications of its activities in terms of the
32 See Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Catalogi Codicum Manuscriptorum Bibliothecae Bodleianae, Part X, Catalogue of Ashmolean Mss., entry: Astrologers, Society of
dominant religious and political world-views of its day. However sincere these may have been, they would nonetheless have served as forms of public relations necessary for the maintenance of patronage - and even, possibly, of existence. In the case of astrology, also, such practices would have been necessary, but they would have assumed an additional importance that they did not hold for the Royal Society, simply because, for professional astrologers, religious systems of interpretation were not only aspects of a dominant ideology with which their practice had to be reconciled - they were also frequently a source of direct opposition to astrology. As Kocher has pointed out, polemics against astrology, prior to about 1650, were in almost every case religious. 33
Whereas the primary preoccupation of a majority of the active members of the Royal Society seems to have been the explanation of puzzling natural phenomena, that of the Society of Astrologers would appear to have been the legitimization of their position: in this respect its activities resemble, above all, those of an occupational interest group.
What I am suggesting is that astrology was not simply a cosmology but also a craft, whose practice gave rise to particular professional interests. These two aspects are intimately associated, but nevertheless some attempt has to be made to analyse them separately if we are to arrive at an understanding of the difference in evolution of astrology and science. The polemics that I have mentioned earlier, for example, were almost entirely directed against the practice of this craft, and not against its cosmological assumptions. It is therefore not surprising that most of its opponents were clergymen (who could be seen as being in a situation of potential professional conflict with astrological consultants) and not ‘scientists’ (who at this time had no institutionalized role or clear professional interests).
Both the clergy and astrologers can be seen as providing interpretations of day-to-day events in terms of wider systems of meaning. Although the two had co-existed over long periods of time, there was a chronic source of religious opposition to astrology in the fact that the latter potentially provided a wider field of explanation than Christianity. The realization of this threat can be seen in the virulence with which the Church reacted to what it considered as the heresy of attempting to cast Christ’s nativity. Although science may also be seen as providing an all-embracing system of explanation (something which
33. See Kocher, op cit., note 16, 224
certainly brought it at times into conflict with religious cosmologies), its explanations were of a different type; they did not provide a context of meaning for the interpretation of everyday events, as did astrology, witchcraft and certain forms of religion.
It is this distinction between scientific knowledge and astrological practice that also helps to throw light on attitudes towards astrology within the Royal Society. There is clear evidence that several of the early members of this body were supporters (or, even, practitioners) of astrology. For instance, Lord Brounker, the first President, is known to have set a nativity; Elias Ashmole, another early member, was well known both as an advocate and as a practitioner of astrology and various occult subjects; John Aubrey, the diarist, another early member, was also favourable to it. In contrast, several other members (including Thomas Sprat and John Wilkins) had condemned the subject in print. Despite this, however, there are no records of a controversy over astrology within the Society. Had astrology really been perceived as an alternative system of explanation in conflict with modern science, as has often been assumed, this would really seem quite unbelievable. Such a state of affairs is, however, easily compatible with the view of astrology as a professional practice. Just as the Royal Society scrupulously avoided topics that could stimulate political or religious differences, so also it would have seemed natural not to have discussed astrology since it seemed to be a craft practice that had little to say about most of the topics under discussion to those who did not accept its conceptual framework.
To conceive an activity as a craft is, perhaps, to lay emphasis on three major elements. Firstly, it is to see it as a process directed towards the achievement of more or less utilitarian ends, often of a traditional nature. Secondly, it is to draw attention to the fact that occupational demarcation may be a more important factor than continuity of subject matter in the delineation of its boundaries. Finally, it is to stress the relatively unreflective nature of its method, a feature which can result in the lack of clearly spelled-out theoretical links between a general explanatory model and the problems of day-to-day practice. (To this extent, at least, it differs from a science in Kuhn’s definition.)
In many cases such a craft may ultimately be supported by a general theoretical model (whether magical, scientific or whatever) whose fundamental role will be to legitimize the craft in general, and not to aid the resolution of the detailed problems of everyday practice. A modern example of such a craft would perhaps be the activity of cookery. A trained chef may well know much of the basic science which helps to
explain, and legitimize, his skills in general terms. Nonetheless, his everyday success in avoiding lumpy sauces, fallen souffles or separated cream is a practical skill which is usually both learned, and taught, primarily in terms of practical experience and direct observation. Indeed, one has only to note the diversity, even the contradictory, nature of some of the instructions given in cookery books to realize that at least a proportion of the techniques proposed are not susceptible to direct evaluation in terms of criteria of technical efficiency.
Such a general model also, I believe, fits the practice
of seventeenth-century astrology fairly well. Firstly, it seems to have been largely
the case that the astrologers accepted the aims and the questions of their
clientele, rather than seeking to impose any esoteric problematic upon them.
Indeed, if one considers the
surviving evidence of the consultants, one can see that their clients presented
them with a bewildering variety of problems. Astrology seems to have provided a
context of meaning, interpretation and even security for the conduct of everyday
life, but was not concerned with any single material need.
34 Astrologers provided answers to people who wanted to
know whether they should get married or who wanted to know why their businesses
had failed. Wives of soldiers
enquired whether their husbands were dead, householders wanted to know if there
were buried treasure in their gardens, and serving maids frequently wanted to
know if they were pregnant. Charles
I even paid for astrological advice as to the best time to escape from
Secondly, it appears that what was accepted as an astrological problem was, to some extent, a result of the interplay of a range of political and social factors. There are indications, for instance, that during the Interregnum the control over medical practice in London by the Royal College of Physicians was not strictly enforced, and that it may have been easier for astrologers such as Lilly (as well as unlicensed empiricists like Sydenham!) to treat what are, from 1663 or so, redefined as professional medical matters. 35
Thirdly, it seems to be the case that the conduct of astrological practice failed to reflect back upon, and modify, the explanatory model which astrologers used. I believe that an important reason for this was the difficulty of deciding exactly what would constitute ‘unsatisfactory’ astrological explanation. I do not mean to suggest that astro-
34. See Thomas, op. cit. note 10, Chapter 10.
35. See K. Dewhurst, Dr. Thomas Sydenham, 1624-89 (London: Wellcome Medical Library, 1966).
logers did not occasionally make predictions that were unambiguously seen to be wrong: they did. I merely want to emphasize that this of itself does not seem to have undermined their credibility with their clients. This need hardly surprise us, since there was never any shortage of ad hoc technical reasons available to explain any particular predictive failure. Similarly today, public credence is not necessarily impaired by the repeated predictive shortcomings of modern sciences (such as medicine or meteorology) or even the less common errors of more exact disciplines like astronomy (e.g. the over-estimation of the visibility of the comet Kohoutek in 1973-4).
All of this strongly suggests that it is wrong to consider predictive failure independently of its cultural context. Not only does the perception of failure depend upon the disposition of a given audience to accept the underlying plausibility of an explanatory system but it also requires the availability of certain forms of knowledge and technique. For example, to give a precise evaluation of those aspects of astrological practice which we would today regard as ‘medical treatment’ or ‘careers advice’ would involve the development and application of such modern techniques as double-blind tests and the statistical analysis of their results. It would therefore be anachronistic to try to explain their decline by the availability of ‘better’, more scientific beliefs. Even if late seventeenth-century medicine were more effective than astrology, I would doubt whether the clientele of the period had rational evaluating techniques for discriminating between the two practices. What is more, the documentary evidence of both consultations and almanacks suggests that, although some of the questions to which astrologers addressed themselves were ones to which scientific techniques were later to give precise answers, many were not and could never be. In consequence, it seems difficult to see how the functions of astrology could have been assumed by any new science or technique.
As a result of the social functions of astrology its relations with developments in scientific knowledge were different from those of crafts such as building or metal-working. Because these latter skills were concerned with problems whose solutions were capable, in large measure, of objective evaluations, they were also influenced by scientific change in neighbouring fields. Because astrology seems to have operated primarily as an interpretative system, it seems to have been relatively immune from the impact of science except in so far as the latter provided a basis for the interpretation of everyday life.
In general, then, it would seem that, given the nature of the demands made on astrologers, very little of the advice that they gave could be
assessed other than in terms of subjective satisfaction. If this is true, it would imply that the perception by a client of an astrological explanation as ‘unsatisfactory’ would be more likely to elicit from the astrologer a generalized defence of the plausibility of the whole system, rather than to provoke a critical re-evaluation of the relationship between the advice and the supposedly underlying astrological theory. I would suspect that astrologers largely saw their declining influence in terms of the poor ‘brand image’ of their subject, rather than in any intrinsic weaknesses in their practice that might cause them to return to their general theoretical framework in the hope of refining or re-formulating it. If this is how astrologers reacted (and the evidence of their frequent complaints about the falling status of astrology suggest it was), it could be argued that they had a fundamentally correct, if unconscious, appreciation of their own role.
But if astrology functioned mainly as an interpretative system, the problem still remains as to why it lost this function among the educated elite. This does not appear to be a question that can be answered in terms of the technical difficulties of astrological practice. Instead, one must squarely confront the difficulty of explaining why, in the last half of the seventeenth century, the problems that had hitherto been presented to astrologers were apparently losing their poignancy, and the advice, its powers of persuasiveness.
It is debatable to what extent such a general question, which touches on a whole series of issues relating to the perception of the ‘meaningfulness of life’, can ever be answered entirely satisfactorily. Nonetheless, I believe that several points for consideration can be indicated.
Firstly, this transformation of outlook in relation to astrology is not an isolated development, but can be linked to a whole series of intellectual changes which are roughly contemporaneous. Michel Foucault has suggested that the period is one of transition between two kinds of discourse about the world and man’s relationship to it, and that this transition manifests itself in fields as apparently diverse as painting, medicine, grammar and the study of man. The shift is one from a discourse framed in terms of notions such as ‘harmony’ and ‘meaningfulness’, where causation is seen as inextricably linked to resemblance, to a situation dominated by notions of abstract classification.36 A similar transition in relation to changes in man’s attitude to life has also been charted by the geneticist François Jacob. 37
36. M. Foucault, The Order of Things (London: Tavistock, 1970), 43.
37. F. Jacob, La Logique du vivant (Paris: Gallimard, 1970).
Secondly, I believe it is also possible to sketch, very
tentatively, the ways in which explanatory systems, whether crafts or not, might
be classified, as a first step towards identifying some of the ways in which
they could interact - and so support, or undermine, each other’s credibility as
systems of interpretation or explanation. For example, within the crafts
themselves, there are variations in the extent to which purely symbolic or
interpretative elements seem to be important. Even in modern
On the first level one could, perhaps, place crafts such as navigation, ship-building and metalwork in this period since criteria of evaluation were available, at least potentially, in terms of the profitability of the application of a given technique. If one goes further and accepts the type of analysis of the development of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that writers such as Christopher Hill have proposed, 38 one can also suggest that there was an intimate reciprocal connection between such crafts and the development of science - a connection frequently reflected in the emphasis placed by many of the Royal Society’s early members upon efficacy as a proof of truth. 39
On the second level one could, perhaps, place a system of explanation such as medicine - an activity which has tended, over the centuries, to move up and down somewhere around the mid-point of the continuum, as a result of changes in the balance between interpretative and technical factors within medicine itself. One could describe as interpretative all those culturally derived elements such as notions of ‘illness’, ‘normality’, ‘unbearable pain’, etc., which can be contrasted with such technical and more objective indices of body-functioning as white corpuscle counts, recordings of brain waves, X-ray photography, and so on. At certain times (such as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) the weight of purely technical factors has probably been very slight. In such periods, there is little evidence that the activities of medical men did much to improve their patients’ health and may, in
38 C. Hill, The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965).
39. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for drawing my attention to this.
fact, frequently have worsened it. If this is a fair assessment of medical practice in the period under discussion, 40 it provides a fascinating contrast with that of astrology. It is not implausible to argue that both activities were manifestly incapable of providing verifiable results: yet astrology declines, while medicine survives for many years before it can be said to have made any measurable success in treating illness. 41
However, perhaps the strength of medicine from the
seventeenth century onwards was that at least parts of it were perceived as
harmonizing increasingly with aspects of the ideology of powerful sections of
the elite. 42 Its most advanced elements may often have been seen, for
instance, as coinciding with a Baconian notion of the domination of nature
rather than of acquiescence to it. Some medical practitioners seem also to
have stressed a genetic causal approach to illness more in accord with certain
religious and commercial notions of the organization of life, and even the
conception of ‘vocation’ to which Weber accords so much importance.
43 In general, it may be suggested that late
seventeenth-century medical practice in
40. It might be queried whether certain changes in
seventeenth-century science and medical practice (physiological discoveries or
the empiricism of Sydenham, for
instance) were not in fact rendering medical practice more efficient.
This raises many tendentious
issues, not least that of whether seventeenth-century observers could have had
any satisfactory techniques for evaluating its success. My own hunch is that medical practice in
41. The inherent difficulty of evaluating the material
success of medical practice is further emphasized by the fact that Ivan Illich
(in Medical Nemesis [
42. The question of the nature of the development of
medical knowledge and practice in late seventeenth-century
43. M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner & Sons, 1958).
44. See M. Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organisation (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964).
contributed towards the ideological preparations of the English Revolution. 45
Astrology, however, after about 1650, seems to have provided forms of interpretation which certainly had no directly measurable consequences in the economic field, nor provided symbolic re-interpretations of experience in terms which were attractive to the elite of the period. As a form of explanation in this context, and at this time, it can, perhaps, be classified as occupying a third level in my suggested schema: an interpretative system of no material utility which was also losing its ideological appeal among dominant groups because of its failure even to produce a form of interpretation in the idiom of the materially effective techniques of the period. In consequence, it was probably also losing its professional practice among the educated.
This suggested schema is only proposed as a possible way of ordering the relationships between material explanations and interpretative explanations in this period. There are many other basic tasks that have to be carried out if a satisfactory account of changes in attitude towards the meaningfulness of explanations are to be investigated fruitfully. An analysis of the relationships between the social factors and the changing boundaries dividing different systems of meaning and levels of theoretical knowledge still remains to be done - although, in their different ways, both Mary Douglas and Berger and Luckmann have begun to provide a basis for such research. 46
Nonetheless, the suggestion that the needs that astrology had fulfilled were ceasing to be perceived as ‘needs’ by some sections of the population does provide a clue both to the decline of what one might call ‘the underlying cosmology of astrology’, and of the way in which it passed away. In my view, one of the great contributions of both Evans-Pritchard and Kuhn has been to emphasize that, in their own particular fields, a system of knowledge has to be understood in relation to the social practice which accompanies it and supports it. Azande witchcraft beliefs without witchdoctors, or Science without scientists pursuing the puzzles of normal science, are both meaningless hypothetical notions.
Systems of meaning have to be reinforced in particular social prac-
45. Hill, op. cit. note 38, Chapter II.
tice for them to persist. In a period where astrological practice was becoming less relevant to the educated, so the astrological cosmology in turn became more distant. This seems to correspond exactly with the way in which the debate over astrology actually evolved. As the second half of the seventeenth century proceeded, so polemics against the subject became fewer; the impression is, overwhelmingly, not of death when under attack but of a gradual fading-away.
The fate of astrology, then, seems largely to confirm the views of those writers who have argued that such systems are impregnable to refutation by contrary instances. The reason for this, however, seems not to reside in the vagueness of astrological theory or in the powers of secondary elaboration, but rather in the power of astrologers and their audience to tolerate anomalies in the period of the subject’s greatest popularity. In this respect, at least, it does not seem to differ greatly from modern science. 47 The decline of astrology does not appear to come about at a time of mounting anomaly: certainly there is no increase in polemics against it. The period seems rather to be one of lack of interest in the subject.
In conclusion, my suggestion is that some attention should be given, when looking for an explanation of the demise of such symbolic systems as astrology, to a consideration of the way in which changing material, and economic needs, mediated through a variety of social factors, may be connected with movements in the boundary between what is ‘taken for granted’ and what is considered ‘problematic’ by a particular group in a particular society.
I would suspect that a consideration of such issues could help in turn towards clarifying the basis for a sociological distinction between sciences and other systems of knowledge. After all, what seems frequently to be given little attention in sociological accounts of the comparability of scientific and other modes of thought is the vulgar, naïve, yet possibly sound, assumption that science ‘works’ in some way that magic and astrology do not. Although partially eroded of late, it is
47. As examples of the toleration of anomaly in the history of the sciences one might cite (among many): (a) The acceptance through much of the nineteenth century of Dulong and Petit’s law on the relationships between atomic weights and the heat capacities of solid elements, a law which was known to have several exceptions, only to be explained much later by Quantum Mechanics; (b) The problem of explaining Brownian movement prior to Einstein’s explanation in 1905; (c) The continued use of Bode’s law on the positions of the planets, even though it is always qualified by the remark that the position of Neptune is an exception to it and that of Pluto only a rough approximation.
still likely to be a dominant belief in most Western societies. A minimum requirement of any sociological account of the relationship of different systems of knowledge would seem to me to be the analysis of their perceived effectiveness.