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The Discoverers

by Daniel J. Boorstin
Random House, 745 pp., $25.00

Daniel Boorstin became Librarian of Congress in 1975. As professor of American history at the University of Chicago and subsequently as director of the National Museum of History and Technology at Washington, he had established a reputation as the author of The Americans, a prize-winning trilogy painted on a broad canvas and with wide popular appeal. Since becoming librarian, he has had to confine his writing to the hours before breakfast, but this has not prevented him from completing a large and even more ambitious work which is clearly destined for the same commercial success. The Discoverers is written with great verve. It is founded on a vast amount of reading and it contains much entertaining material. In microcosm (if that is the word for a work of more than seven hundred pages) it reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of the kind of history book that is intended from the outset to reach a mass market.

The book’s scope is enormous. It tells the story of “man’s search to know his world and himself.” This search is divided by the author into four parts. First, there is the discovery of Time, that is to say, the development of calendrical systems, the emergence of the seven-day week, and the invention of the mechanical clock, which is seen as the archetype of all other machines. Second comes the discovery of “the Earth and the Seas.” This involves an account of changing ideas on the shape of the earth, the invention of latitude and longitude, the migration of peoples, and the great geographical discoveries from the Vikings and Marco Polo to Columbus and Captain Cook. The crucial instrument was the mariner’s compass, which did for space what the mechanical clock and uniform hour did for time.

Third, there is the investigation of Nature. Dr. Boorstin chronicles the development of astronomy and astrology, the invention of the telescope and the microscope, the growth of anatomy, physiology, physics, botany, and geology, and the rise of evolutionary theory. The final part, labeled “Society,” begins with systems of artificial memory and moves on to the development of the printed book, the standardization of vernacular languages, the birth of historical consciousness, the rise of archaeology, chronology, and the history of ideas, and the founding of the sciences of anthropology, economics, and demography. Only on the last page, however, does Dr. Boorstin venture into the science of the twentieth century. The book ends rather abruptly with a brief sketch of the nineteenth-century origins of modern physics. There is no mention of genetics and molecular biology, of space travel, or of computers and high technology. An unkind critic might say that Dr. Boorstin stopped when the subject got too difficult for a layman to understand.

This brief paraphrase makes the book sound very abstract. In fact, it is nothing of the kind. The author’s approach is vivid, anecdotal, and, above all, biographical. He sees discoveries as “episodes of biography”; and his aim is to evoke “the courage, the rashness, the heroic and imaginative thrusts of the great discoverers.” His pages are filled with vignettes of memorable figures: Columbus, Balboa, and Magellan; Copernicus and Kepler; Paracelsus, Vesalius, and Harvey; Ray and Linnaeus; Adam Smith and J.M. Keynes. Dr. Boorstin’s heroes range from Prince Henry the Navigator, whose planned expeditions down the coast of fifteenth-century Africa he sees as “a grand prototype of modern exploration,” to Adolphe Quetelet, whose pioneering researches into the statistical regularities of human behavior enabled him both to predict crime rates and to determine the extent of draft evasion in the French army in 1844 by proving that about two thousand men must have avoided conscription by claiming to be shorter than they were.

Many readers will enjoy Dr. Boorstin’s colorful anecdotes and memorable quotations. He excels at communicating the excitement of discovery and it is hard not to be gripped by his account of how the Mongols opened the way to China or of how the Eskimos drove the Vikings out of Newfoundland. He has lively passages on surprising subjects: the religious meaning of mountains; the political influence of eunuchs; the medicinal value of sauerkraut. He draws attention to much obscure information, ranging from the date of the invention of quotation marks in the seventeenth century to the UNESCO definition of a book (a “non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages excluding covers”).

More importantly, he raises many large historical questions. If Ptolemy had not underestimated the distance to Asia, he asks, would the European encounter with the New World not have been postponed for centuries? If the Christian kings and popes had been willing to ally with the Mongols against Islam in the thirteenth century, might they not have eliminated the Muslims for ever? Dr. Boorstin has a keen eye for the might-have-beens of history, especially the repeated failure of the Eastern civilizations to seize the opportunities with which they were presented. He emphasizes the inability of the mechanical clock to transform Chinese society, the indifference of the Arabs to exploration in the West, the Japanese abandonment of movable type, and the sudden withdrawal in the fifteenth century of the Chinese from contact with the external world, just when their navy had reached the very tip of Africa: “Fully equipped with the technology, the intelligence and the national resources, to become discoverers, the Chinese doomed themselves to be the discovered.”

There is no doubt of Dr. Boorstin’s ability to raise the interest and excitement of the reader, particularly the lay reader. The less one knows about a particular topic, the more likely is one to be stimulated by his account of it. The better informed, however, will gradually tire of a book that is seldom firsthand on any subject. Dr. Boorstin’s learning is wide rather than deep, and his dependence on secondary sources, inevitable in a work of this kind, is conspicuous. He tells us that he has deposited in the Library of Congress a copy of the manuscript giving sources for all his quotations. But even without that aid the scholar will at once recognize the passages that are virtual paraphrases of, say, Frances Yates on the art of memory or Lewis Hanke on Las Casas and the American Indians.

The bibliography at the end of the book is long and helpful, but it contains a revealing entry. In the list of recommended works on the history of calendars and time measurement there is included Arnold Palmer’s Movable Feasts (1952), a book whose title would look relevant enough to anyone leafing through a library catalog. But it is not the learned excursus on the date of Easter for which Dr. Boorstin has apparently mistaken it, but a charmingly lighthearted essay on English mealtimes as revealed in the works of Jane Austen and other nineteenth-century novelists. Trivial slips of this kind are not important, however embarrassing, but they serve to remind the vigilant reader that The Discoverers is a piece of haute vulgarisation, not a work of original scholarship.

Many works of vulgarization can enhance our understanding by raising large issues and sketching interesting answers. But at this deeper level The Discoverers fails to satisfy. The book has a large and epic theme, but it is not an entirely coherent one. In particular, it is not always clear whether Dr. Boorstin sees his subject as discovery (as in the discovery of America) or as invention (as in the “discovery” of the seven-day week). All societies, however primitive, classify space, time, and the natural world in an effort to impose mental order upon their environment. To divide the day into hours or to give plants names is a different sort of activity from inventing the compass or movable type. Classifying the known world is not the same as deliberately searching for the hitherto unknown. But in this book the two activities tend to be conflated.

Indeed Dr. Boorstin is perhaps unduly ready to label as “discoverers” people who were really inventors. He evidently believes in the existence of a firmly objective world, out there waiting to be discovered, and I suspect that he would be impatient of the view that the history of modern science is partly the story of one emotionally satisfying representation succeeding another. He is more inclined to see, say, Mercator’s projection of the earth or Newton’s cosmology as objective depictions of reality than as imaginative constructs. He recognizes that the motives of many of his heroes were complex, but he has no doubt that they were all occupied in the search for objective knowledge and that the quest in which they were engaged was essentially the same. As he puts it, “The work Prince Henry started would never end.” Yet it is not obvious that the Portuguese search for Christians and spices was the ancestor of modern landings on the moon, any more than that a line of descent links the Roman poet Lucretius to the modern physicist Rutherford simply because both were concerned with atoms. The danger of Dr. Boorstin’s somewhat teleological approach is that it easily leads to the construction of spurious pedigrees. No doubt, if Dr. Boorstin had more space at his disposal he would have drawn more distinctions, but his treatment is inevitably so compressed that there is never time to linger before the reader is swept on to some new theme.

Moreover, many of his anecdotes titillate but do not illuminate. It is only mildly interesting to know that the art critic Winckelmann was murdered by a thief, that the economist Adam Smith was abducted as a child by gypsies, that the French poets du Bellay and Ronsard were both deaf, and that the astronomer Tycho Brahe had a false nose. Colorful but essentially irrelevant information of this kind seems to have been included out of fear of boring the reader, rather than from a concern to advance the argument.

Meanwhile Dr. Boorstin’s relentlessly biographical emphasis serves only to hinder historical understanding. Every sphere of discovery is associated with a hero or heroes, each allegedly working on parallel lines. Thus, Ray and Linnaeus “would accomplish for all plants and animals what Mercator and his fellows did for the planet’s whole surface.” “Linnaeus was the Freud of the botanical world.” “What Newton did for students of physics‌Ray did for students of nature.” “What Sir [sic] William Harvey was to physiology, Tyson would be to comparative anatomy.”

The trouble with this method (the superficiality of the comparisons apart) is that it does inadequate justice to the intellectual setting in which these men worked, and it frequently exaggerates the scale of their individual achievement. Thus we are told that it was the printer William Caxton who “did as much as any man before Shakespeare to standardize the English language.” “Before Caxton the outcome had been uncertain, and it was conceivable that the literary language of the island [of Great Britain] might have been some version of French.” This is an implausible judgment. French had ceased to be the official language before Caxton was born; and it was the Chancery clerks of the early fifteenth century who standardized the written language, well before the efforts of the early printers.1

Dr. Boorstin’s concentration on selected “discoverers” pulled out of their context often makes it impossible to understand why scientific change occurred. He remarks, for example, that Karl Marx’s economic theory took its origin from the classical economics of Smith and Ricardo. But this does not greatly help the reader, since he is not told anything about Ricardo. Smith, in turn, is said, rightly enough, to have drawn on the ideas of Sir William Petty, Locke, Beccaria, Turgot, Hume, Dugald Stewart, and Francis Hutcheson. But this catalog of unexplained names can mean little to the uninitiated. As a result, Smith in Dr. Boorstin’s pages remains an unaccountable prodigy. This is the price which has to be paid if the history of ideas is to be simplified by presenting it as “episodes of biography.”

Dr. Boorstin’s approach to intellectual history is thus distinctly old-fashioned. Nowadays, historians of science seek to reconstruct bygone systems of thought in their entirety so as to reveal their internal logic and consistency; they do not concentrate exclusively on the winners who anticipated current modes of thought. “Rather than seeking the permanent contributions of an older science to our present vantage,” writes Dr. T.S. Kuhn, “they attempt to display the historical integrity of that science in its own time.”2 Dr. Boorstin, by contrast, shows little sympathy with outmoded systems of thought. To him the geographical notions of the medieval world were a “hodgepodge of fantasy and dogma”: the topography of the sixth-century writer Cosmas of Alexandria “is still very much worth consulting as a wholesome tonic for any who believe there may be limits to human credulity.” Time and again, he makes now-rejected doctrines look intrinsically absurd by failing to fit them into their cosmological context.

He is particularly hostile to the thought of the Middle Ages, which he sees through the spectacles of the Renaissance as a time of darkness and ignorance. Christian dogma, he thinks, blocked the progress of geography after Ptolemy; and the period between 300 and 1300 AD is dismissed as one of “scholarly amnesia,” when men retreated “into a world of faith and caricature.” There is little similarity here to the picture drawn by Lynn White, Jr., of the early Middle Ages as a time of extraordinary technological innovation;3 and not much sympathy with the notion that the scientific innovations of the seventeenth century may have had medieval roots.

Dr. Boorstin’s view is also markedly Eurocentric, or at least Eurasia-centered. The inhabitants of Africa living in “the unknown” wait passively to be “discovered.” The American Indians are interesting only as objects of moral debate or anthropological study. The aboriginals of Australasia and the migrations of the Polynesians are undiscussed. This is presumably because the only “discoveries” in which Dr. Boorstin is interested are those that anticipate the modern world (“the world we now view from the literate West,” as he puts it). Yet the capacity of Eskimos or Australian aborigines to find means of subsistence in what Europeans still find impossibly hostile and barren environments could be regarded as a “discovery” no less notable than some of those he chronicles.

In the end, Dr. Boorstin offers no very clear answer to the problem of just what it is that helps or hinders the course of scientific discovery and innovation. Yet this is a question that has been continuously discussed by historians and philosophers for many decades. Nearly two hundred years ago, Adam Smith made one of the most brilliant contributions to this debate in a posthumously published essay on the history of as tronomy (unmentioned here).4 Smith suggested that the preconditions of scientific discovery were assured subsistence and a stable social order, but that the real stimulus to the formation of what he called “philosophical systems” was a psychological need. These concepts were “inventions of the imagination,” designed to alleviate the feeling caused by “jarring and discordant appearances.” He illustrated this proposition by considering four successive astronomical theories, showing how each was designed to “soothe the imagination.”

Dr. Boorstin’s concern to present a colorful narrative deters him from embarking on a systematic analysis of the kind offered by Smith. But he is very well aware of the problem and a reader seeking enlightenment on the causes of intellectual change and the reasons for the progress of modern science will find plenty of suggestive obiter dicta. Like Smith, Dr. Boorstin seems to favor a psychological explanation. The urge to discovery is presented as an internal craving: “man’s need to know“; the discoverers are “men with an insatiable hunger for knowledge.” Curiosity becomes an innate drive like hunger or sex; and the impulse can take an aesthetic form, like the “quest for symmetry” that underlay the astronomical constructs of both Ptolemy and Copernicus. Dr. Boorstin also makes much of the need to have “courage and self-denial” and generally to be a bit larger-than-life. He stresses that the discoverer will have to believe the improbable and to defy common sense, in other words to break out of the reigning paradigm.

The material circumstances in which such psychological attributes are likely to be displayed do not receive any systematic treatment: Dr. Boorstin’s story deliberately excludes “the shaping of governments, the waging of wars, the rise and fall of empires.” But he has a good deal to say about the role of religion. Whereas the influence of medieval Christianity on science is seen as almost wholly bad, the Islamic requirement that mosques should face Mecca was a stimulus to Arab astronomy; medieval Moslems were less imprisoned by their faith than were their Christian counterparts. In China too, the progress of optics was not hindered by Christian notions of a “soul,” even though Confucianism made the Chinese people isolationist and inward-looking. The replication of images demanded by Buddhism was a great stimulus to printing. Islam, however, rejected the printing press, out of fear of heterodoxy and blasphemy.

It is possible to extract many such stimulating, if debatable, insights from Dr. Boorstin’s pages. But one is left with a feeling that the advancement of such arguments is not his main purpose. His book is too loosely constructed to sustain any overall thesis. Rather his work is a celebration of the heroic exploits of his discoverers. It also offers implicit reinforcement to some contemporary American values by celebrating the triumph of science (rather than religion), of the individual pioneer (rather than the scientific community as a whole), and of Western civilization (rather than the alternative cultures of the third world). During the last hundred years there have been many such works written in celebration of the modern achievement as reflected in geographical exploration, world conquest, and the progress of natural science. In England they used to be popular as presents to teen-agers and they bore titles like Heroes of the Empire or The Miracle of Mankind. Invariably they depicted past history as a sort of preparation for the twentieth century; and they commemorated those historical figures whose contribution to the present was most obvious.

Dr. Boorstin’s book belongs essentially in this tradition; and he has taken some steps to ensure that it too will be given to the rising generation. He unashamedly exploits the techniques of modern advertising in order to reach the maximum readership. He begins with what he calls “A Personal Note to the Reader” (which, I fear, makes it sound about as personal as A Personal Welcome to your Holiday Inn) and he ends with a bibliography whose injunctions to the reader have all the spurious allure of a travel agent’s brochure: “Meet the magnificent and inscrutable Kepler in Max Caspar, Kepler (1939)”; “On Winckelmann, begin by tasting his fluent and enthusiastic History of Ancient Art (Alexander Gode, trans., 2 vols., 1969)”; “Resist Emil Ludwig’s sensational Schliemann of Troy: The Story of a Gold-Seeker.” The book itself betrays the author’s sympathies. They lie with Schliemann, the publicity-seeking archaeologist, whose “instinct for the flamboyant, his melodramatic appeal to ancient heroes, awakened the historical curiosity of millions”; with John Lubbock, whose Pre-Historic Times (1865) was “widely read by laymen, who imbibed prehistory and evolution in a single delightful read”; and with J.M. Keynes, whose readers “were delighted by his unforgettable caricatures.” Dr. Boorstin will not satisfy every academic critic, but his learning, wit, and lucidity should ensure that he too will bring pleasure to a large group of readers.


Moveable Feasts’ July 19, 1984

  1. 1

    John H. Fisher, “Chancery and the Emergence of Standard Written English in the Fifteenth Century,” Speculum lii (1977), and “Chancery Standard and Modern Written English,” Journal of the Society of Archivists (vol. 6, 1979).

  2. 2

    Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (second edition, Chicago, 1970).

  3. 3

    Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford, 1962).

  4. 4

    Available in his Essays on Philosophical Subjects, ed. W.P.D. Wightman and J.C. Bryce (Oxford, 1980).

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