Beyond Bacon: From Scientific Theory to Practical Medicine in Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica


Location: DeBartolo Hall, Room 126

Sarah Parker; Ph.D. candidate; English and comparative literature; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

English physician and author Thomas Browne has often been heralded as one of the first medical authors to take up the philosophy of science Bacon proposed in his Advancement of Learning (1605) and Novum Organon (1620). In book two of Advancement, where Bacon outlines his theory of the idols, he calls for a “Kalender of popular Errors, … chiefly, in natural Historie such as passe in speech and conceit, and are neverthelesse apparently detected and convicted of untruth” (AL, 2I2r 35–36).

By the middle of the century, Thomas Browne was working on, publishing, and continually expanding his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or enquiries into many received tenets and commonly presumed truths (1646–1672). The book uses authoritative sources and Baconian personal experiment to disprove a host of misguided beliefs in areas from natural philosophy and medicine to history and theology. The influence of Baconian methodology and the title’s seemingly pointed reference to Advancement have led to an understandable insistence on the influence that Bacon’s philosophy of science had on Browne’s encyclopedic work. Browne, however, in his copious references to approximately 1,200 authors, never once mentions Bacon’s name. The prefatory remarks outlining the inspirations for and goals of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica instead invoke the medical genre of “vulgar errors” that had been popular on the continent since the early 16th century.

In moving beyond a discussion of Bacon’s influence on Browne, Parker will consider the ways that Browne adapts a traditionally medical and pre-Baconian genre of “popular errors” to the demands of the newly developed scientific method. As a physician practicing in Norwich, Browne’s encounters with scientific theory took place outside of the controlled laboratory space of the Royal Society. Instead, his daily interactions with his patients, and even his training in the theoretical medicine of the continent in Montpellier, Padua, and Leiden, Parker argues, add a specifically medical dimension to the philosophical discussions of science in Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

Sponsored by the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values