Note on the Mechanical Arts


You have seen from your reading in Bacon’s Novum Organum that, not only does the valuation of the “new” come into prominence in the later 17th and 18th centuries, but also “the mechanical arts,” a medieval term, becomes more and more important. The mechanical arts are associated with handworkers’, not elites’ knowledge; with knowledge that increasingly becomes publicly disseminated and tested, not kept in secrecy; and with knowledge of nature that includes the humbler, “low,” and even offensive elements of nature, as opposed to ideal forms.

Now add one other feature to the list of what is associated with the mechanical arts: as Bacon writes,

For even as in the business of life a man’s disposition and the secret workings of his mind and affections are better discovered when he is in trouble than at other times, so likewise the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the vexations of art than when they go their own way.

At the extreme end, “vexations of art” means., some have held, that the mechanical arts need to put nature on the torture rack to make her reveal her secrets. (There is contention about whether Bacon meant this one-sided torturing or “an heroic mutual struggle”–see “Wrestling with Proteus: Francis Bacon and the “Torture” of Nature,”  Isis, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 81-94 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/237475. But either way, the mechanical arts were separating from and becoming even antagonistic to a still often–but less and less as time went on–personified nature.)

So science and technology from the later 17th century on became separated from and even antagonistic to nature and “her” forces, as the “arts” (which included agri-culture) were not. Some medieval instances of the mechanical arts–like making machinery to use wind and waterpower–didn’t vex nature with art. But others, from metallurgy to the steam engine, did, and these quickly became what people imagined when they imagined machinery.

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