Our Mole

How B and W does keep rising in the world. A couple of weeks ago we had our first plagiarist, and now we have our first mole. I’m very chuffed. A mole in the Open University, this is, who has discovered a little vein of woolly thinking there.

Students of the Open University current undergraduate course on Renaissance studies have to learn of “the occult sciences, and … their very great contribution to scientific developments in this period” – something which might raise the eyebrows of one or two scientist historians of science. But I think most scientists, and many philosophers, might question the assertion “natural magic is best thought of as an esoteric form of physics”. I did physics as a first degree and wonder how my professors from those days would react to this idea. Perhaps ‘natural magic’ is the answer to hidden variable theories of quantum mechanics.

This is all too credible, especially to anyone who’s ever read any Frances Yates. I did, ten or fifteen years ago, so well before Higher Superstition and the Sokal hoax, well before fashionable nonsense about science and epistemic relativism had the glare of unfriendly attention and publicity turned on them. I was intensely puzzled by Yates’ tone. She seemed to think Renaissance thinkers who were skeptical of alchemy and astrology and the like were not, as I would have expected, more shrewd and critical, better scientists than the non-skeptics, but on the contrary, bigoted and narrow and unimaginative. I can remember reading the pages over and over, trying to figure out what she meant by it. Now I realize, she was a sort of premature Bruno Latour.

And popular with it. I also remember discovering how bizarrely popular her book on Giordano Bruno was. Again, I was baffled at first. Eh? thought I. A book on a fairly obscure Renaissance ‘philosopher’? Why on earth? Then I realized it had to do with hermeticism and occultism and New Agery. And, oh dear, more painfully, I also remember asking a Renaissance scholar of my acquaintance, one I had always thought a sane and skeptical type, about the mystery of Yates’ credulous tone – and his agreeing with her. If he’d told me he’d become a Republican (US variety) I couldn’t have been more shocked. And only recently, he told me he didn’t agree with my definition of the Enlightenment in the Fashionable Dictionary. Oh dear oh dear, poor guy. He’s in Their Clutches.

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