Book of Experience

One of the gems from the second-to-last edition of On the Shoulders of Giants (which will now migrate to a weekly post here) was the discovery of a blog called Conciatore written by Paul Engle about 17th century glass maker Antonio Neri, who was, as per the blog title, a "specialist in alchemy who formulated glass from raw materials".
The most recent post, a very interesting guest post by Maria Grazzi, is about how Neri was plagiarised by a Jesuit scientist - but the part I want to respond to are her describing the "'scientific' mindset" as the study of the "book of Nature" and knowledge being acquired "with the practice of many experiences" (emphasis added).
Pierre Hadot in The Veil of Isis reads the book of Nature as follows: "Bernard Silvester reserves the word integumentum to designate myths intended, as in Plato's Timaeus, to explain a natural phenomenon (they reveal a true meaning hidden beneath a fabulous story), as opposed to allegoria, which is proper to the explication of biblical texts (it reveals a new meaning in a veridical historical narration). We find this distinction again in Dante. It corresponds to an opposition between the two books written by God, the Bible and Nature, both of which can be deciphered only if one uses an allegorical exegesis, which, in the case of the Bible, refers to sacred texts and, in the case of Nature, to myths. This Nature, we must recall, was conceived in the Middle Ages as a power subordinate to God but enjoying a certain autonomy."
Hadot later notes the resurgence of viewing Nature as a language or code, signature, hieroglyph and book in the seventeenth and also eighteenth centuries (the latter in Kant, Hamann, Goethe).
There are precedents of viewing nature as a book, like in the Pythagorean view of nature as being written in the language of mathematics. One might also observe that Homer's description of Achilles' shield fabricates the world as a reduced symbolic model.
While I understand combining the study of the book of nature with knowledge of such gained through experience to describe 'science', I wonder how many scientists actually fit this simplified model.
On Engle's blog itself, we read in From Beads to Belief Reprise that not only did Neri read Psalms by way of keeping time for his extraction of colours and dying but that he made glass beads that were not only material but of spiritual value: "they served as sequential placeholders in prayer, as objects made by man in the fashion of natural stones or gems, which were physically held and invested with hopes and dreams".
Similarly, and to choose an example of a later scientist whose narrative also addresses allegoria and integumentum,  J. C. Maxwell wrote, "We may use our knowledge of such truths for purposes of deduction, but we have no data for speculating as to their origin." This complies with Engle's observation of Neri in Beads: "At first blush, it might seem that religion would be at odds with alchemy and glassmaking. In reality, practical elements of Neri's religious life integrate seamlessly with his work at the furnace and in the laboratory."

In another context, Maxwell wrote: "I would be very sorry if an interpretation founded as a most conjectural scientific hypothesis were to get fastened to the text in Genesis, even if by doing so it got rid of the old statement of the commentators which has long ceased to be intelligible. The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of Biblical interpretation, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten."
That the distinction between the 'two books' may be seamless can be seen by Maxwell explaining, "and I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of. But I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonise his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself and to him only for a time, and should not receive the stamp of a society."
To this very day, there are bishops ready to cite science for change or scientisimists who are ready to say that scientists cannot possibly have faith if they are to be successful.
What Maxwell writes might also be considered as advice against the trend of scientistic social interpration. I was thinking about that when I read Engle's post on Turquoise where Neri stresses the importance of experience when making the "sky blue" of turquoise: this privileging of science applies only to this very particular work in the laboratory. It does not apply to a life figured out through experience only.  Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος writes about such an approach to spiritual progress, saying this is a long (possibly uncertain) path, as opposed to learning via υπακοή - which I would describe as the leap of love, where one is devoted to the person, place, instruction not so much for what it is, but as a form of anchor to a type of flightiness that might otherwise get the better of one. (Maybe this is not an accurate description.)
Viewed as a book or books, the natural life of man contains so many rich stories. To return to Engle's blog, we learn of the 'evil spirits' of cobalt (kobald - this is particularly amusing if you are learning German here), which were the toxic fumes released in its making; the insects used in crimson dyes and for medicinal purposes from the Mediterranean and later from Mexico; the "as it is" in perspective painting and in science; trade agreements blocking access to raw materials - know-how unto itself may not always be enough, though the blog, being about alchemy, frequently stresses the rarity or non-existence of published know-how. But today, Conciatore, the blog about a book in part about the book of Nature, is to become a book. We say well done, and wonderful guest contribution by Grazzi.

Book: Midwest Modern. Brush: Ewansim tape at deviantART.


  1. Thanks so much for the thoughtful reflections - you have made several interesting connections between posts that I hadn't thought about.

    -Paul Engle

  2. If I might also thank you for sharing some of your work on your blog and wish you the best of success with your upcoming book.