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Careless Engagements: Literature, Science, and the Ethics of Indifference in Early Modernity


This project offers a new interpretation of the beginnings of experimental science in seventeenth-century England, arguing that an emergent interest in states of muted feeling enabled the epistemological breakthroughs of Francis Bacon's "great instauration." I propose that ethical reflection on peaceful "nonchalance" (to use Michel de Montaigne's term) catalyzed scientific innovation: Baconian intellectuals (a category that includes theologians, essayists, and poets, as well as natural philosophers) advocated a state of heightened receptivity predicated on effortless serenity of mind, suggesting that cognitive freedom (from Aristotelian dogma and the prejudicial illusions of common sense) could only be achieved by surrendering the teleology of desire, especially the desire for certainty. By aligning Baconian experimentalism with neo-Stoicism, previous scholars have evaded the paradox at its heart. In fact, experimentalists differentiated their own brand of casual indifference from Stoic obstinacy, favoring the leisurely attention of carelessness over the arduous self-discipline of sheer dispassion. By promoting the cultivation of an experience defined by its uncultivated nature, experimentalists created a practical quandary. I explore the capacity of literary form to solve that problem: new literary genres made it possible for readers to experience the sensory awareness and cognitive flexibility on which the new science depended.

My argument shows that the motifs of "progress" and "method" that organize discussions of seventeenth-century intellectual history, with their suggestion that scientific modernity took its bearings from the imposition of instrumental reason on philosophical inquiry (both its experimental procedures and its manner of accumulating data over time), grossly misrepresent the ethos of experimentalism. Andrew Marvell's self-portrait as a "careless" natural philosopher who "languish[es] with ease" while inspecting and transforming his surroundings with the help of "multiplying glasses" captures the actual interest of scientists like Robert Boyle in risky states of subtle pleasure in which the mind wanders from its habitual course--an errancy John Milton's Son exemplifies. A better understanding of the origins of modern science requires an attention to waywardness and lapses of discipline, antitypes of "progress" and "method" that reframe the latter as fantasies of order that obscure a history in which scientists and likeminded intellectuals savored the disorder of experience and placed their trust in its capacity to yield insight.

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