Other Englands
Utopia, Capital, and Empire in an Age of Transition
Sarah Hogan



Literary Knowledge

How did what came to be known as science differ from earlier intellectual work about the natural world? We can track the change in the shifting connotations of the term experiment. Before the seventeenth century, experiment conveyed explanation; facts were commonly known phenomena, generalized and universalized. In experiment’s explanatory mode, the particular instance of a phenomenon was irrelevant, if not entirely absent.1 In the Scholastic tradition, object and objective “referred to the presentation of an intelligible entity, universal essence, or ‘species’ to consciousness”; the “objective state of an entity’s essence [was] the mental mode in which the essence existed in the knowing mind.”2 Understanding the world was a matter of mental labor.

Historians of science have charted the emergence of early scientific practice from this earlier model of textual exegesis.3 Beginning in the seventeenth century, experiment came to mean discovery. Experiment in the epistemological world of Baconianism signified finding out new things. But this activity of experiment, of discovering, in turn introduced concerns about the authority one might have or not have to make such claims. As a result, modern experiment concomitantly required “means of protecting the discoverers from being disbelieved.”4 The discourse of objectivity began to take shape to provide a buffer of authority for experimentalists, converting the meanings of object and objective, as well as subject and subjective, into their modern, more familiar forms. To underscore the transformation: object and objective, which earlier understood the knowability of things as a feature of the mind, now indicated an independence from that same mind.

My excursus on experiment opens up the central concern of this chapter: the extent to which literariness is at the heart of the observational practices of experimental philosophy. The experimental imagination of this book’s title focuses our attention on the literary qualities of experimental philosophy as a mode of knowledge acquisition that redefined the natural world as well as the individual who understood it. Alongside efforts to construct objectivity as separate from the vagaries and influences of the imaginative mind, experimental philosophy also depended in fundamental ways on the possibilities available exclusively through the realm of the imagination. It is not too much of a surprise that natural philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries drew on a repository of metaphors to represent their findings. As we shall see, in spite of an overt caution about figurative language, literariness served a vital, definitional function in the textual rendering of early scientific knowledge. Textuality, of course, requires metaphors, but early advocates of natural philosophy variously utilized, acknowledged, and promoted figurative language in a descriptive capacity. They also endorsed figurative language—literariness—as necessary to their conception of science, specifically what it studies and who practices it.

Critical discussions of metaphors in science writing have become increasingly frequent, and their prominence attests to the inevitable interconnections of literariness and science. Historian of science Nancy Lays Stepan, studying the analogy in life sciences between race and gender in the nineteenth century, calls for “a critical theory of scientific metaphor” that reveals metaphors’ cultural referents and how metaphors shape scientific thinking.5 Within the context of late seventeenth-century scientific practice, Stephen Shapin and Simon Schaffer argue that Robert Boyle and his colleagues developed a scientific strategy that adopts “literary technology” in two ways. The first relates to the descriptions natural philosophers produce “to make representations that reliably imitated the act of unmediated seeing.”6 Shapin and Schaffer animate their own critical observations with a tour through Svetlana Alpers’s pictorial criticism of Dutch painting, drawing on the notion that descriptive practices in the seventeenth century use a “craft of realist representation” to “reliably imitate the act of unmediated seeing.”7 Pace Alpers, and Shapin and Schaffer’s admission that the comparison between these two domains does not always make sense; “realist representation” is left unacknowledged as a literary form, an assumption that unquestioningly replicates its effects.

The idea of “literary technology” for Shapin and Schaffer performs a second explanatory function: the concept of “virtual witnessing” through which experimental knowledge is both authorized and circulated relies on natural philosophers’ reading these descriptive accounts and, as a result, becoming convinced by them. Shapin and Schaffer specify that such witnessing occurs not in person, but in the reader’s imagination, and their own language is illuminating:

The technology of virtual witnessing involves the production in a reader’s mind of such an image of an experimental scene as obviates the necessity for either direct witness or replication. Through virtual witnessing the multiplication of witnesses could be, in principle, unlimited. It was therefore the most powerful technology for constituting matters of fact. The validation of experiments, and the crediting of their outcomes as matters of fact, necessarily entailed their realization in the laboratory of the mind and the mind’s eye.8

The account of how scientific knowledge acquires credibility admits that storytelling makes the difference. To phrase it this way reminds us that virtual witnessing—without which there would be no large-scale epistemological transformation—demands a literary quality that, in its effect, it also seems to deny. The term laboratory to describe the reader’s “mind and the mind’s eye” performs its own figurative transformation. The scene of experimental discovery is not bound by time and space, but is in effect created through the imagination.

To read a description of an experiment and then to see it is an act of imagination. Shapin and Schaffer’s explication of Boyle’s literary technology discloses this only insofar as it goes, which is to say that they stop short of considering figuration. The association of “realist representation” with early scientific writing (and Dutch painting) is suggestive, but presumes a stability and familiarity to what that might mean—not to mention that realism as a literary aesthetic emerges in the nineteenth century, not the seventeenth. The process of virtual witnessing relies on a conception of the imagination that cannot account for the fact that imaginative thinking occurs in the domain of the fictional. The imagination is metaphorical: figurative language is figurative because of its connections between two things that are unrelated but that one can imagine as related. In fact, figurative language requires the individual to forge those connections. Perception, the lifeblood of experimentalism, is short-circuited in the process, even though the imagination may seem to be like perception—which, indeed, is part of its efficacy. The protocols of Boyle and other Royal Society members are, in sum and essence, the work of the experimental imagination. Shapin and Schaffer impart a framework that begins to consider the literariness in experimental knowledge production. Yet it does not adequately account for the workings and possibilities of the figurative language that describes—and also constitutes—experimental knowledge production.

The Royal Society’s commitment to literariness shaped its lucrative book-selling business. As a new entity, the Royal Society brought together various scientific groups of the Interregnum, but it was chronically underfunded and needed to be financially self-sufficient.9 In 1662, a royal charter authorized the Royal Society to publish and sell books as a means of generating revenue, an endeavor that contributed significantly to the society’s financial health. The first titles were John Evelyn’s Sylva and Robert Hooke’s richly engraved Micrographia. As part of this publishing program, Robert Boyle issued forty-nine works, contributing “more than anyone else to the scientific book trade.”10 The popularity of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, first edited in 1665 by the society’s secretary, Henry Oldenburg, prompted reissues for an even broader audience, including the three-volume Miscellenia Curiosa (1705–1707; revised and corrected edition by William Derham, 1723–1727) and Memoirs of the Royal Society; Being a New Abridgement of the Philosophical Transactions (1739).

Within the context of this publishing initiative, the case of Hooke is significant. The title of his seminal Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses (1665) reflects the centrality of literariness to experimental philosophy. Hooke does not title his volume microscopy, but uses the word micrographia, with its linkage to the Greek graphia, the written word. In a title of an official publication of the Royal Society, a volume designed to draw readers into its intellectual purposes and to generate revenue, the qualities of textuality and writing cannot be separated from the development and legitimization of experimental philosophy.

In this chapter, I argue that natural philosophy in the long eighteenth century connoted a sense of modernity and enlightenment, attributes that bound science to meanings in excess of its practice and consumption, especially for enthusiasts in the London marketplace. The pliancy of science as a trope finds support in Boyle’s, Hooke’s, and others’ reflections on language as a scientific tool. Finding the best figure, the most salient metaphor, to represent one’s findings, Boyle contends, is part of the process of disseminating knowledge; at the heart of this principle is a belief in the experimental imagination as a source of intellectual illumination. Readers understand things better if they can visualize those things in familiar terms. This urgency for visualization applies to all experimental knowledge, but takes on greater consequence in Boyle’s studies of combustion with the air pump and Hooke’s of the subvisibilia with the microscope. In these experiments, Boyle and Hooke develop the literary principles that sustain their intellectual work. Natural philosophers may articulate their objects of study and their own subject positions through recourse to the imagination, itself an effect of literariness. Observation is not merely a rhetorical device, “hypotyposis,” a detailed rendering, but also a “key learned practice and a fundamental form of knowledge.”11 Observation is at once a figure and a scientific technology, and it can be so only through its reliance on imaginative work. As a consequence, I argue, the two dominant technologies of the experimental imagination are the observed particular and the modest witness. Observed particulars of empirical study are those nuggets of data that disclose themselves and, in their revelation, produce knowledge. The modest witness is the individual who is objective by virtue of erasing himself through his privilege. In readings of Boyle, Hooke, and others, I argue that both of these concepts, vital to the successful promotion of experimental knowledge, are possible only through imaginative thinking. At their core, scientific subjects, both the object of study and the individual who studies, require literariness to exist. Tropes are literary tools that not only enable practitioners to describe scientific findings, but also enable an even more fundamental component of experimentalism: literariness makes possible the conceptualization of scientific findings and the individual who produces them.

Metaphors of Modernity

Aristotle’s natural philosophy persisted for nearly two thousand years, reformulated and reimagined, up until Francis Bacon’s new work in the early seventeenth century. Where Aristotelian natural philosophy sought out teleological explanations for natural phenomena and promoted textual exegesis as the means to provide them, Baconian natural philosophy aggressively turned to a highly regulated program of experiment to learn about the natural world. The analysis of nature, according to Bacon’s plan in Novum Organon (1620), was founded on a methodology of observation and experiment, principles embraced and pursued by the founders of the Royal Society.12

This is a familiar history.

But what did science mean in the long eighteenth century? It could connote variously: insight or blindness; discovery or irrelevance; individual agency or wasteful self-interestedness; legitimacy or illicitness; civil society or social upheaval; modern enlightenment or trivial novelty. It could signal moral self-improvement and disinterestedness, or it could leave practitioners socially outcast and helpless in the marketplace. It could be conservative. It could be subversive.13

In his Diary, Samuel Pepys privately records a casual meeting in August 1666 on the streets of London that captures the multiplicity of these associations:

Up, and with Reeves walk as far as the Temple, doing some business in my way at my bookseller’s and elsewhere, and there parted, and I took coach, having first discoursed with Mr. Hooke a little, whom we met in the streete, about the nature of sounds, and he did make me understand the nature of musicall sounds made by strings, mighty prettily; and told me that having come to a certain number of vibrations proper to make any tone, he is able to tell how many strokes a fly makes with her wings (those flies that hum in their flying) by the note that it answers to in musique during their flying. That, I suppose, is a little too much refined; but his discourse in general of sound was mighty fine.14

As is the case throughout the Diary, the actors in Pepys’s report reflect new, urban practices and pastimes. Richard Reeve was the most prominent London instrument maker in the 1650s and 1660s, offering detailed tutorials for customers in his shop or their homes.15 Reeve, according to Christopher Wren, “makes the best of any microscopes to be had.”16 Although he came from relatively humble beginnings, Hooke was a brilliant and central figure in the newly established Royal Society, serving in a variety of posts, including curator of experiments (1662), Cutlerian Lector in Mechanics (1664), and Gresham Professor in Geometry (1664). He was also a special advisor to Reeve’s shop.17 Pepys, clerk of the acts to the Navy Board and later member of Parliament, was admitted as a fellow of the society in 1664–1665 and served as its president from 1684 to 1686. He is also famous for his love of wine, women, and the playhouse—this same entry includes details of meeting with one Mrs. Burroughs and “having much pleasure with her.”18

In August 1664, two years before this chance encounter on the street, Pepys had bought a microscope from Reeve. Its outer tube would have been covered in dyed vellum (or a thicker leather) and adorned with decorative gold tooling, similar to book bindings.19 On delivery, Reeve gave Pepys a portable camera obscura called a scotoscope. With his typical concern about finances, Pepys marveled at the expense of the instrument. The microscope is “a most curious bauble” and the scotoscope “is of value; and a curious curiosity it is to look at objects in a darke room with.”20 That evening, Pepys consulted Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy in Three Books (1664) “to enable me a little how to use and what to expect from my glasse” and then tried it out with his wife, Elizabeth, the following day.21 The experience of excitement and frustration was typical for a new user. Samuel and Elizabeth embarked “with great pleasure,” but it was “with great difficulty before we could come to find the manner of seeing any thing by my microscope.”22 After the new year, Pepys spotted Micrographia at his booksellers, “bespoke” it on January 2, and collected it on January 20, at which point he calls Hooke’s text “a most excellent piece, and of which I am very proud,” and “most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.”23 The next night, Pepys stayed up until two in the morning reading it.

I enumerate these details to characterize what early science meant to a man such as Pepys. His purchase and use of scientific instruments and natural philosophy texts signal membership in an urban circle that mixed at the playhouse, the Royal Exchange, and the Royal Society. Pepys’s purchases are in company in the Diary with social events, cultural offerings, and commercial exchanges; that is, they are one of many ways that Pepys seeks entertainment and intellectual enlightenment, how he keeps up with the current modes of sociability in London. For Pepys, ownership of these items communicates his fashionability as a Londoner who was just as likely to receive a short lecture in the street from Robert Hooke as he was to patronize the playhouse tiring room and converse with Nell Gwyn. Pepys consumed information about the scientific instrument he bought and fell into the imaginative wonder available because of these new views, even because of the possibility of these new views. He then wrote about the experience, bringing the work of experimental discovery into the textual domain. Practicing experimentalism meant doing experiments and imagining how they might be done and, in the process, reformulating one’s sense of self as a specifically modern subject, a discoverer of natural knowledge—or at least a witness to it.24

In the example of Pepys, we can see that experimental philosophy connoted a sense of modernity, a new mode appropriate to the current time. Thomas Sprat, who was commissioned to write The History of the Royal Society not long after its founding, explains that natural philosophy produces a collective focus on the present rather than the past. Our bodies even confirm this forward-looking sensibility: while we “easily upon occasion turn about to look behind us; yet [nature] has plac’d the Eyes, the chief Instruments of Observation, not in our Backs but in our Foreheads.”25 Sprat conjoins physical and temporal presence. The body’s eyes not only function as veritable instruments for observation, but they also hold a connotative purpose as well. This is looking forward as both a physical, embodied practice and a metaphor. Sprat’s image correlates to the wider project of promoting natural philosophy. The experience of conducting or witnessing a scientific experiment produces a specific cognitive effect: the subject attends to the present and, as a result, is aware of being a modern individual, here and now. Experiments are therefore inherently about modernity, and this modernity is specifically English.

The processes of performing experiments and reading about them “give us a perfect Sight of what is before us; they bring us home to our selves; they make us live in England, and not in Athens or Sparta, at this present time, and not three thousand Years ago.”26 James Fortescue, in the following century, lauds the teachings of Bacon, Boyle, and Newton because they “Pierc’d the obscure, and taught us to be men.”27 Experiments produce specific knowledge, but they also perform the figurative work of expressing the practitioner’s identity. Experiments “bring us home to ourselves; they make us live in England.” They “taught us to be men.” The acts of practicing science and writing about science produce modern, enlightened subjects—masculinized and privileged certainly, but modern, enlightened subjects nonetheless. Science in this period “became public, fashionable and a matter of cultural status.”28 It was available through the Royal Society or the marketplace, in coffee houses and shops.29 (By these means, according to Margaret C. Jacob and Larry Stewart, it was also established as a major force in economic development, a fulfillment of Sprat’s earlier vision of improving England’s “Industry” and the Royal Society functioning as “the general Bank and Free-port of the World.”30) Microscopy and other forms of experimental philosophy became fashionable and, in the process, facilitated the articulation of what it meant to be a modern, enlightened subject. Scientific instruments and instruction gave consumers the promise of transforming themselves into experimental philosophers, delving into the natural and social worlds. Such enthusiasm reflects a vibrant commercial market for scientific instruments.31 The example of the microscope is illustrative. Small single lenses known as “flea glasses,” for instance, were widely available and extremely popular.32 In his 1691–1692 Cutlerian Lecture to the Royal Society, Hooke lamented that only the Dutch naturalist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, inducted an “overseas member” of the Royal Society in 1680, still used microscopes for science.33 For others, it was merely a “Diversion and Pastime.”34 By the mid-eighteenth century, “the Moderateness of the Price” enhanced microscopes’ availability and appeal, and they were used in homes and lecture halls.35

Collecting scientific instruments became increasingly popular for display, use, and edification.36 The instrument maker Benjamin Martin gave courses, lectures, and demonstrations in his shop on Fleet Street (Martin’s son, J. L. Martin, became his partner in 1780, two years before Benjamin’s death). In Lettres astronmiques (1771), J. Bernoulli observes, Martin’s “shop is one of the best equipped, and his courses are well attended.”37 Martin also published over thirty guides and instruction books, most of which were aimed at converting readers into practitioners.38 He made science a matter of public and fashionable knowledge, rather than being confined merely to “the country homes of the aristocracy or to those whom the Court chose to patronize.”39 Martin’s The Young Gentleman and Lady’s Philosophy (1759–1763) portrays a conversation between a young woman (Euphrosyne) and her brother (Cleonicus), who has just returned from university. Cleonicus praises his sister’s intellectual curiosity in no small part because it is à la mode: “Philosophy is the darling Science of every Man of Sense, and is a peculiar Grace in the Fair Sex; and depend on it, Sister, it is now growing into a Fashion for the Ladies to study Philosophy.”40 Cleonicus—sounding like Martin the instrument maker plying his wares—argues that consumers will want to buy microscopes, for example, because they “are very apt to be affected with Grandeur and Magnificence, in every Shape; and the Microscope, to many People, as much recommends itself by a pompous Appearance, as by its useful Effects.”41 Young women will appreciate that they are “neatly disposed in their Cases, with a Number of little Trinkets about them, all of elegant Workmanship.”42 Arthur Devis’s The John Bacon Family (1742–1743) features a domestic interior furnished with numerous scientific instruments, including a quadrant, telescope, air pump, a microscope, and two globes (see Figure 1.1). And even Jonathan Swift contemplated buying a microscope for his close friend, Esther Johnson, whom he called Stella.43

Experimental philosophy’s allure in the cultural marketplace was that it could represent newness and modernity, urbanity and sophistication. Whether as a practice, a theory, or a consumer good, experimental philosophy served as a metaphor through which advocates, enthusiasts, and consumers could imagine themselves and their worlds anew.


The commercial association of natural philosophy with metaphors of modernity was possible because of the imaginative connotations built into the practice, description, and aspirations of natural philosophers. Yet from the early days of the Royal Society, such figurative associations were admonished, particularly with regard to reporting scientific discoveries. The 1663 statutes governing its establishment and functioning deliberately outline what an experimental thing might be: “In all Reports of Experiments to be brought into the Society, the matter of fact shall be barely stated, without any prefaces, apologies, or rhetorical flourishes; and entered so in the Register-book, by order of the Society.”44 In other words, it is language that is emphatically not literary. The genre of the report suggests a purely descriptive quality to the writing, which is expected to obscure both its authorship and its existence as a piece of writing. An experimental report submitted to the Royal Society needs to be distinguished from the implied vagaries and indulgences of literariness. The purpose of the dictum is to inoculate experimental discoveries from the charge of incredulity. And the effect of this dictum is to institute an association and opposition—literariness with the imagination in contrast to experimentalism with the empirical.

FIGURE 1.1. Arthur Devis, The John Bacon Family (1742–1743). Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art.

The shorthand for this difference was words and things.45 Abraham Cowley’s encomium to the Royal Society praises Bacon for loosening the grip of “Words, which are but Pictures of the Thought,/(Though we our Thoughts from them perversely drew),” in favor of “Things, the Mind’s right Object.”46 Hooke shuns literariness as inferior to things, the former drawing on the imagination and the latter on observation: “The truth is, the science of nature has been already too long made only a work of the brain and the fancy: It is now high time that it should return to the plainness and soundness of observations on material and obvious things.”47 With mock humility, he turns away from “the brain and the fancy” as the source of figuration by demurring that “works of wit and imagination are above my weak abilities.”48 In this same vein, Sprat asserts that things facilitate social harmony, enjoining readers that “the most effectual Remedy to be us’d [against “Animosities”], is, first to assemble about some calm and indifferent Things, especially Experiments. In them there can be no cause of mutual Exasperations: In them they may agree, or dissent without Faction or Fierceness.”49

If the institutional documents of the Royal Society promoted, in Cowley’s words, “Things, the Mind’s right Object,” in Hooke’s, “material and obvious things,” and in Sprat’s, “calm and indifferent Things,” then the society’s members meditated on the explanatory role figurative language might serve in the reporting of experimental findings. Jonathan Lamb finds a turn to the imaginative in Locke’s empiricism, but the writings of Robert Boyle—chemist, physicist, a member of the “invisible college” of the 1640s, and later a founder of the Royal Society—vividly reflect the uneasy and yet persistent tension, characteristic of seventeenth-century natural philosophical texts, between the need to be spare and the need to draw on the reader’s imagination in order to make findings imaginable and thus not incredible but credible.50 Such pieces of writing, though dedicated to presenting scientific facts as inviolable, were often self-consciously literary, imbued with pleasure and promoting enjoyment.51

Boyle is famed for his endorsement of the plain style in writing experimental philosophy, a view that simultaneously maligns what he calls in A Proemial Essay (1661) “rhetorical ornaments in setting down an experiment.”52 In the essay, Boyle addresses the representation of experiments, not the experiments themselves. The imperative to persuade an audience outside those available to observe a singular experiment relied on the production of texts, facilitating the virtual witnessing central to the Royal Society’s process of authenticating experimental knowledge.53 Scholars have noted Boyle’s reliance on narrative, rather than mere description, as a way of constructing a text’s authority.54 Boyle cautions that these reports have an obligation to “inform readers, not to delight or persuade them.”55 Figuration, that is, the use of literary language, confirms this distinction. He continues, “to affect needless rhetorical ornaments in setting down an experiment, or explicating something abstruse in nature, were little less improper, than it were (for him that designs not to look directly upon the sun itself) to paint the eyeglasses of a telescope, whose clearness is their commendation.”56 The image of a telescope provided fodder for advocates and satirists alike. In Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686), dedicated to explaining Copernican and Cartesian cosmology, Bernard de Fontenelle endorses the use of telescopes, but understands them figuratively as tools for naturalists to imagine traveling to the moon, while the poet Samuel Butler ridicules a natural philosopher who claims to discover an elephant on the moon when in fact a mouse has “mistaken its Way and got into his Telescope.”57 The painted telescope lens is a central conceit of Aphra Behn’s The Emperor of the Moon (1687), wherein the patriarch-naturalist is duped by such images into believing he sees a royal court on the moon.

Yet Boyle’s comparison between “rhetorical ornaments” and adorned lenses accomplishes more than a satiric end. The potential for telescopes to reveal and obscure was always at issue, but the image of a painted telescope lens, as Boyle imagines it, transforms this concern about the reliability of optical perception into a denunciation of figuration—that is, rejecting metaphors as unreliable. “Rhetorical ornaments” and painted lenses convey aesthetic, not empirical, knowledge; in this they are similar. But they are also significantly distinct, as Boyle’s own simile confirms. If the painted lens corrupts the transparency—the “clearness”—of the observation possible through a telescope, then the metaphor relies on a firm belief in optical instrumentation as reliable and true, an assumption that was not yet historically settled.58 But the comparison between an aesthetically modified lens and aesthetically modified language as similarly misleading presumes a stability to figurative language that, we shall see, Boyle’s own writing rejects.

The metaphor of clarity to bolster the credibility of experimental writing exfoliates a double bind: scientific writing requires literary knowledge but suppresses it simultaneously. A few years after Boyle’s A Proemial Essay, Cowley praises Sprat’s History for the author’s “candid Stile [which] like a clean Stream does slide,” unmarked by pollution.59 Here, Cowley uses a simile. Here, too, language is transparent. Ennobling the simile by alluding to an unwavering faith in first causes, Cowley characterizes the currents of the Thames as guided gently by God’s “judicious hand.”60 Verbal clarity is not only accurate; it also serves as the vehicle for physico-theology.

In contrast to his statements against literary language in A Proemial Essay, Boyle confesses in The Christian Virtuoso Shewing that by Being Addicted to Experimental Philosophy, a Man is Rather Assisted than Indisposed to be a Good Christian (1690), “I think myself here obliged to acknowledge, once for all, that I did it [used metaphors] purposely.”61 The justifications are twofold. “Comparisons fitly chosen” help a reader understand science better. They also serve as “a kind of Argument.”62 In the latter case, Boyle offers a theory of language that reverses his earlier position. Metaphors, like microscopes, advance scientific learning: “Proper Comparisons do the Imagination almost as much Service, as Microscopes do the Eye.”63 The optical instrument “gives us a distinct view of divers minute Things, which our naked Eyes cannot well discern.”64 So, too, does the proper metaphor: “a skilfully chosen, and well-applied, Comparison much helps the Imagination, by illustrating Things scarce discernible, so as to represent them by Things much more familiar and easy to be apprehended.”65 Boyle claims that metaphors bring the object into view. Here, literary language operates as a scientific instrument unto itself, one that uncovers, rather than distorts or creates, natural phenomena.

The Christian Virtuoso embraces the potential for literary knowledge to function as an effective translator of scientific knowledge. Boyle’s concern with making “a skilfully chosen, and well-applied, Comparison” plays out in an early treatise, New Experiments Physico-mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects (1660), which recounts the results from experiments conducted in Oxford using an air pump designed and constructed by Hooke and Ralph Greatorex. The air pump introduced technology to visualize combustion and respiration, and it enabled the study of “airs,” which were ordinarily detected only through their effect on other objects. Boyle faces a rhetorical and intellectual challenge—how to convey his discovery that common air has elasticity. He famously conceptualized this feature as a spring, which, as Jayne Elizabeth Lewis notes, points in two directions, to air’s “measurable and defining attribute” and its “difference from the infinite fluency of aether.”66 If air is simultaneously measurable and unmeasurable, then a spring is illustrative for Boyle because it requires a limit: a spring “needs a wall to hit if it is to happen in the first place.”67

Spring in Boyle’s usage is not a verb but a noun.68 What does air’s spring—its elasticity—look like? In answer, Boyle, like many others following him, turns to the logic of similitude by referring to things from everyday life, a move that uses figurative language for two ends. Such metaphors make air visible imaginatively and also underscore its familiarity, even ubiquity. Boyle does not merely slip into metaphor: he actively searches for the right one, skillfully choosing and applying well. First, he selects a sponge, and then suggests that the pressure of air against bodies is akin to the tension one feels in a stretched bow.69 Yet neither metaphor suits fully. Boyle continues to cast about and finally encourages the reader to picture

the Air near the Earth to be such a heap of little Bodies, lying one upon another, as may be resembled to a Fleece of Wooll. For this (to omit other likenesses betwixt them) consists of many slender and flexible Hairs; each of which, may indeed, like a little Spring, be easily bent or rouled up; but will also, like a Spring, be still endeavouring to stretch it self out again.70

The care to eliminate a broad comparison “to omit other likenesses betwixt them” is palpable. The metaphor of wool does not specify whether it is still attached to the sheep’s body, whether it continues to grow or is held in organic suspension. The singular likeness on which Boyle grounds the justness of the comparison is the curved buoyancy of air particles. The reader cannot see air: it is invisible to the naked eye except as an effect on other objects. Leaves flutter. Feathers lilt. But air remains stubbornly transparent and, by extension, unknowable. Boyle’s figuration transforms that transparency into the material form of wool. The exactness of this demarcation requires, not suspends, the experimental imagination.

Yet Boyle’s wool metaphor is not merely a visual substitute: the metaphor simultaneously endows air with tactile qualities. Boyle elaborates the somatic effects of air particles in a discussion of “the compactness and pressure of Inferior Air.”71 Wool operates as an effective metaphor because it replicates specific qualities of air. Rather than conjure the experience of wind, Boyle provides a tactile comparison:

when a man squeezes a Fleece of Wool in his hand, he may feel that the Wool incessantly bears against his hand, as that which hinders the hairs it consists of, to recover their former and more natural extent. So each parcel of the Air about the Earth, does constantly endeavour to thrust away all those contiguous Bodies, whether Aerial or more gross, that keep them bent, and hinder the expansion of its parts.72

The order of information contributes to Boyle’s figuration. We begin with the vehicle—the detailed experience of compressing wool in one’s hand and how the substance feels against one’s skin. The man’s hand forms the boundary against which the wool, structurally designed to expand into springs, presses. As both a visual and somatic metaphor, the tangibility of wool in one’s hand illuminates Boyle’s arguments about air, but it does so through figuration. Then an adjunctive “So” signals the pivot of the metaphor’s meaning making, turning to the particles of air and their relation to earth. In material substance and action, the metaphor registers the experimentalist’s need to convert specialized knowledge into common knowledge.73 The choice of wool is not so casual either: it is a specifically English commodity that Daniel Defoe later argues is the cornerstone of the national and patriotic economy.74 The metaphor of wool thus encourages readers to think of Boyle’s experiments with air as especially English—familiar and necessary. The literariness built into Boyle’s accounts of combustion and respiration exposes a sustained use of metaphoric language to describe experiments. The crux for Boyle is selecting the best comparison to convey his findings, in no small part because the process of finding that comparison is equally important. The metaphor’s vehicle conveys meanings that enable the naturalist to make his observations comprehensible. It serves as a sort of tutor for the reader, translating science analogically.

A metaphor’s effect, however, introduces the potential that figuration may displace the referent altogether. Henry Power’s vivid account of a horse fly captures the ever-present possibility that a naturalist’s object of study comes to be transformed through its description. Power, a member of the Royal Society who primarily worked independently on his Yorkshire estate (a practice that Sprat endorsed), published Experimental Philosophy in Three Books (1664) a year before Hooke’s richly engraved Micrographia. The section devoted to microscopy faces a challenge similar to Boyle’s study of combustion and respiration: How can Power describe something that the human eye cannot perceive? He relies on simile: the horse fly’s “eye is an incomparable pleasant spectacle . . . it looks like green silk Irish-stich, drawn upon a black ground, and all latticed or chequered with dimples . . . her body looks like silver in frost-work, only fring’d all over with wise silk.”75 Power’s use of one form of visual perception (microscopy) to study another (the eye of an insect) is a self-conscious meditation on the process of experimental observation. If Power assumes a transparency to microscopy as an instrument, then his metaphors present these microscopic findings as aesthetic objects, surprisingly rendering an insect beautiful. Certainly microscopy in particular “had an immediate aesthetic appeal.”76 But this does not capture the literariness of microscopic demonstrations. The fly’s eye “looks like” silk, jewelry, brocade, and lace. Power’s rhetoric draws not only on similes, but also on the literary trope of ekphrasis, the “verbal representation of visual representation,” something that is itself the result of artistic labor.77 Silk, jewelry, brocade, and lace may be consumer goods, but they are also manufactured aesthetic objects.

Power’s “skilfully chosen, and well-applied” similes create the effect of displacing the object under view such that the reader comes to imagine the fly’s eye as made up of these jeweled, filigreed, and latticed parts. If the air pump’s air figuratively converts into wool, then the microscope’s insect transforms into a work of art. Metaphors, whether of wool or jewelry, enable experimental philosophers to describe things, but in so doing, metaphors simultaneously endow these things with a value and meaning that exceeds their original state. Inert bodies become active agents.78 Through the imaginative power of metaphor, the eye of a horse fly transmutes into a beautiful luxury item. This is the basic lesson a metaphor teaches. Literariness, that “skilfully chosen, and well-applied, Comparison,” instructs readers in the work of experimental observation: what you see is visible to you through your own imaginative activity.


1. Peter Dear, Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500–1700 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 132.

2. Julie Robin Solomon, Objectivity in the Making: Francis Bacon and the Politics of Inquiry (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 28. See also R. W. Newell, Objectivity, Empiricism, and Truth (London: Routledge, 1986), 16–38. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison locate the emergence of objectivity later in the nineteenth century. See Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 55–113.

3. Charles Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine, and Reform, 1626–1660 (London: Duckworth, 1975); Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985); Daston and Galison, Objectivity; and Dear, Revolutionizing the Sciences, 131–148.

4. Dear, Revolutionizing the Sciences, 147–148.

5. Nancy Leys Stepan, “Race and Gender: The Role of Analogy in Science,” Isis 77, no. 2 (1986): 261.

6. Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump, 18.

7. Ibid., 17–18.

8. Ibid., 60.

9. See A. R. Hall and M. B. Hall, “The Intellectual Origins of the Royal Society: London and Oxford,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society 23 (1969): 157–168.

10. R. G. Frank, Jr. Harvey and the Oxford Physiologists: A Study of Scientific Ideas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 44.

11. Lorrain Daston, “The Empire of Observation, 1600–1800,” in Histories of Scientific Observation, ed. Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 81. For a recent discussion of observation in German science and literature, see the special issue of Monatshefte, “Observation in Science and Literature,” 105, no. 3 (2013): 371–488.

12. Michael Hunter, Establishing the New Science: The Experience of the Early Royal Society (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1989), and Marie Boas Hall, Henry Oldenburg: Shaping the Royal Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

13. For this final point, I am inspired by Richard Kroll’s claim that empiricism can function “as a way of thinking, as a way of behaving . . . [that] could likewise prove subversive.” In Richard Kroll, “Instituting Empiricism: Hobbes’s Leviathan and Dryden’s Marriage à la Mode,” in Cultural Readings of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English Theater, ed. J. Douglas Canfield and Deborah C. Payne (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 41.

14. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Mathews, 11 vols. (London: Bell & Hyman Limited, 1985), 7.239 (Wednesday, August 8, 1666).

15. A. D. C. Simpson, “Robert Hooke and Practical Optics: Technical Support at a Scientific Frontier,” in Robert Hooke: New Studies, ed. Michael Hunter and Simon Schaffer (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1989), 36–41. Reeve’s son helped Pepys at home, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 7.254 (August 19, 1666).

16. Quoted in Simpson, “Robert Hooke and Practical Optics,” 37, note 15.

17. Ellen Tan Drake, Restless Genius: Robert Hooke and His Earthly Thoughts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 16–23; and Lisa Jardine, Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution (New York: Anchor, 2000), 49.

18. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 7.240 (Wednesday, August 8, 1666).

19. Gerard L’E. Turner, “Decorative Tooling on 17th- and 18th-Century Microscopes and Telescopes,” in Essays on the History of the Microscope, ed. G. L’E. Turner (Oxford: Senecio Publishing Company, 1980), 70-108; and Marc Olivier, “Binding the Book of Nature: Microscopy as Literature,” History of European Ideas 31 (2005): 173–191.

20. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 5.240 (August 13, 1664).

21. Ibid., 5.241 (August 13, 1664, August 14, 1664).

22. Ibid., 5.241 (August 14, 1664).

23. Ibid., 6.2, 6.17 (January 2, 1664/1665, January 20, 1664/1665).

24. My argument and terminology contrast sharply with Joanna Pioccioto’s claims that what she calls the “experimental text” of the seventeenth century “offered itself as an instrument to escape fiction, to purge perception of the false images generated by custom, idols of the mind, and the fallen body itself,” enabling these writers to “align themselves against literature conceived of as fiction.” The Experimental Imagination counters that such “experimental texts” looked not to the past but to the future, a future bound up with the literary imagination. In Joanna Picciotto, Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 15–16.

25. Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London, For the Improving of Natural Knowledge, 3rd ed. (London, 1722), 338.

26. Ibid.

27. James Fortescue, Science: An Epistle on Its Decline and Revival (London, 1750).

28. Jeremy Black, Eighteenth-Century Britain, 1688–1783, 2nd ed. (London: Palgrave, 2008), 159. See also Michael Hunter, Science and Society in Restoration England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 22, 55–56, 75, 84–86, 96, 97, 191–192, 195, 216; Larry Stewart, The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660–1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), xxiv–xxv; Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760–1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Robert Markley, Fallen Languages: Crises of Representation in Newtonian England, 1660–1740 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 208; and Patricia Fara, Sympathetic Attractions: Magnetic Practices, Beliefs, and Symbolism in Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 37. For scientific consumer goods, see Simon Schaffer, “The Consuming Flame: Electrical Showmen and Tory Mystics in the World of Goods,” in Consumption and the World of Goods, ed. John Brewer and Roy Porter (London York: Routledge, 1993), 489–526; and Larry Stewart, “Seeing through the Scholium: Religion and Reading Newton in the Eighteenth Century,” History of Science 34 (1996): 123–165. By the end of the eighteenth century, children were increasingly educated in science, according to James Secord, “Newton in the Nursery: Tom Telescope and the Philosophy of Tops and Balls, 1761–1838,” History of Science 23 (1985): 127–151.

29. Larry Stewart, “Other Centres of Calculation, or, Where the Royal Society Didn’t Count: Commerce, Coffee-Houses and Natural Philosophy in Early Modern London,” The British Journal for the History of Science 32, no. 2 (1999): 133–153. A 1750 text dedicated to discussing “Royal Societies” in France (where “every thing here was Irregularity and Confusion”) and England concludes with a long account of the coffeehouse gathering that took place following the English Royal Society’s official meeting. See A Dissertation on Royal Societies. In Three Letters (London, 1750), 9, 32–35.

30. Margaret C. Jacob and Larry Stewart, Practical Matter: Newton’s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire, 1687–1851 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 15; and Sprat, The History of the Royal Society, 421, 64.

31. English instrument makers belonged to either the Clockmaker’s Company, founded in 1631, or the Spectaclemaker’s Company, neither of which had particularly dogmatic regulations (e.g., the right to search a workshop was abandoned by 1735). They became firmly established in the early eighteenth century and greatly expanded their production and commercial presence from 1750 to 1790; they also shared their manufacturing techniques and materials with one another, keeping these innovations from Europeans, particularly the French. Moreover, optical instrument makers could make microscopes and telescopes without belonging to the Spectaclemaker’s Company. Comparing the availability and quality of optical instruments in England and France, Maurice Daumas argues that the comparative weakness of the English guild system (as compared to that of France up until the Revolution) paired with English trade monopolies created a culture where “English scientific and technical circles, more broadminded in their outlook, showed also a certain solidarity, and the success of the more gifted constructors helped to raise the standard of work among the artisans.” See Maurice Daumas, Scientific Instruments of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, trans. and ed. Mary Holbrook (New York: Praeger, 1972), 91–93, 104. Later in the century, Martin observes that the microscope uses sophisticated glass-making technology: “the Glasses in each Sort are the largest and best that can be made, and therefore the Perfection of these Microscopes the greatest that possibly can be.” See Benjamin Martin, Micrographia Nova (Reading, 1742), vii.

32. Edward G. Ruestow, The Microscope in the Dutch Republic: The Shaping of Discovery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 6–24.

33. Leeuwenhoek was a minor city official in the Dutch town of Delft who, for fifty years beginning in 1673, wrote long, detailed letters to the Royal Society describing observations through his homemade single-lens microscope; he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1680. Henry Oldenburg (born in Germany and fluent in French and Dutch) and Hooke (who taught himself Dutch) translated Leeuwenhoek’s letters, and the Royal Society commissioned Hooke and Nehemiah Grew, a botanist who was also appointed secretary, to replicate Leeuwenhoek’s experiments. See A. Schierbeek, Measuring the Invisible World: The Life and Works of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1959), 60, 34; Ruestow, The Microscope in the Dutch Republic, 146–200; Catherine Wilson, The Invisible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 88–90; and Marian Fournier, The Fabric of Life: Microscopy in the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 75, 97.

34. Robert Hooke, “Discourse concerning Telescopes and Microscopes,” in Philosophical Experiments and Observations (1726), ed. W. Derham, facsimile reprint (London: Cass, 1967), 261. Natural philosophers and instrument makers such as Henry Baker and George Adams worried that consumers would discard it after only a few uses. See Henry Baker, The Microscope Made Easy (London, 1742), 51, and George Adams, Essays on the Microscope (London, 1787), 127.

35. Martin, Micrographia Nova, vii; and Jutta Schickore, The Microscope and the Eye: A History of Reflection, 1740–1870 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 17.

36. Daumas, Scientific Instruments, 136, 142.

37. Ibid., 239.

38. See, for example, A Plain and Familiar Introduction to the Newtonian Experimental Philosophy, 5th ed. (London, 1765).

39. Stewart, The Rise of Public Science, 108.

40. Benjamin Martin, The Young Gentleman and Lady’s Philosophy, 2 vols. (London, 1759–1763), 1:2. In the section of their dialogue in which Cleonicus outlines the benefits to women of the pocket microscope and the “Parlour-Microscope,” Euphrosyne says that her brother has brought examples “of the newest Fashion and Taste.” When Martin endorses a specific kind of “Parlour-Microscope” for women, it is not only for two technical features that make the microscope easier to use in a variety of conditions (it can be used either perpendicularly or horizontally and has a circular stage that allows the viewer to rotate the specimen with ease). But Martin also recommends this “Parlour-Microscope” because “the Lightness, Air, and elegance of the Form, render it, in my Opinion, most proper for a Lady’s Use.” He continues: “To which may be added, it being contained in a neat Shagreen Case, with a complete Apparatus, renders it much more portable than those of the unusual Forms kept in wooden Boxes” (Martin, The Young Gentleman, 2:181). For a discussion of women and the pocket microscope, see Deborah Needleman Armintor, The Little Everyman: Stature and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century English Literature (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 62–66.

Scientific practice was ever more available, conceptually and historically, to women. See Patricia Phillips, The Scientific Lady: A Social History of Woman’s Scientific Interests, 1520–1918 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990), 57–188; Gerald Dennis Meyer, The Scientific Lady in England, 1650–1760: An Account of Her Rise, with Emphasis on the Major Roles of the Telescope and Microscope (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1955); and the essays in Men, Women, and the Birthing of Modern Science, ed. Judith P. Zinsser (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005).

41. Martin, The Young Gentleman, 2:175.

42. Ibid., 2:163.

43. Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella: Letters to Esther Johnson and Rebecca Dingley, 1710–1713, ed. Abigail Williams, vol. 9 of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift, general eds. Claude Rawson, Ian Higgins, David Womersley, and Ian Gadd, 17 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 68–69 (November 15, 1710) and 96 (December 22, 1710).

44. The Record of the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, 4th ed. (London: Morrison & Gibb, 1940), 290.

45. See William T. Lynch’s discussion of “things” in Solomon’s Child: Method in the Early Royal Society of London (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 21–25: “Bacon’s view of ‘things’ served as a metaphorical ontology enabling nature to speak once the interference of the idols had been checked” (21). See also A. C. Howell, “Res et verba: Words and Things,” ELH: English Literary History 13 (1946): 131–141; and Martin Elsky, “Bacon’s Hieroglyphs and the Separation of Words and Things,” Philological Quarterly 63 (1984): 449–460.

46. Abraham Cowley, “To the Royal Society,” in The History of the Royal Society, 3rd ed. (London, 1722), iv.

47. Robert Hooke, Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies (London, 1665), Preface.

48. Ibid.

49. Sprat, The History of the Royal Society, 426.

50. Jonathan Lamb, “Locke’s Wild Fancies: Empiricism, Personhood, and Fictionality,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 48, no. 3 (2007): 192.

51. Cynthia Sundberg Wall, The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 72; Lynch, Solomon’s Child, 21.

52. Robert Boyle, A Proemial Essay (London, 1661), 2:16.

53. Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump, 22–79.

54. Jan V. Golinski, “Robert Boyle: Scepticism and Authority in Seventeenth-Century Chemical Discourse,” in The Figural and the Literal: Problems of Language in the History of Science and Philosophy, 1630–1800, ed. Andrew E. Benjamin, G. N. Cantor, and J. R. R. Christie (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1987), 68; and Laura Baudot, “An Air of History: Joseph Wright’s and Robert Boyle’s Air Pump Narratives,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 46, no. 1 (2012): 15–18.

55. Boyle, A Proemial Essay, 2:16.

56. Ibid..

57. Samuel Butler, “The Elephant in the Moon,” The Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Mr. Samuel Butler (London, 1749), 1, note.

58. Barbara Maria Stafford, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 346. See also Introduction.

59. Cowley, “To the Royal Society,” IX.

60. Ibid.

61. Robert Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso Shewing that by Being Addicted to Experimental Philosophy, a Man is Rather Assisted than Indisposed to be a Good Christian (1690), in The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999), 11:11 (“The Preface”).

In his will, Boyle endowed a lecture series devoted to discussing the existence of God. The Boyle lectures ran from 1692 to 1732, and Richard Bentley delivered the first, “A Confutation of Atheism.” See Henry Guerlac and M. C. Jacob, “Bentley, Newton, and Providence: The Boyle Lectures Once More,” Journal of the History of Ideas 30, no. 3 (1969): 307–318.

62. Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso, 11. “The Preface.”

63. Ibid.

64. Ibid.

65. Ibid.

66. Jayne Elizabeth Lewis, Air’s Appearance: Literary Atmosphere in British Fiction, 1660–1794 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 47. See also 43–58.

67. Ibid., 51.

68. Ibid., 52.

69. Boyle, New Experiments, 165, 170

70. Ibid., 165.

71. Ibid., 169.

72. Ibid.

73. Dear, Revolutionizing the Sciences, 137.

74. Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (London, 1724–1727).

75. Henry Power, Experimental Philosophy in Three Books (London, 1664), 1:6–7.

76. Christa Knellwolf, “Robert Hooke’s Micrographia and the Aesthetics of Empiricism,” The Seventeenth Century 16 (2001): 196, 198.

77. James A. W. Heffernan, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 3. See also Frédérique Aït-Touati, Fictions of the Cosmos: Science and Literature in the Seventeenth Century, trans. Susan Emanuel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 149–51.

78. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 23, 28.