In my conversation with Hannah Marcus, a few key points are worth noting. First, Galileo's life and work are enduring reminders of the value in challenging systems of thought. Galileo pushed against the Aristotelian understanding of the cosmos. In doing so, he found conflict with another entrenched system of thought - the Catholic Church. Galileo's support for the Copernican universe moved early science forward. Revisiting the life of Galileo is also timely. Today, in the United States, we see science under attack. Although torture is not a threat, attempts to extinguish knowledge persist. Galileo's persistence against dogma makes him a germane historical figure in our present moment.
The second point deals with the illusion of historical inevitability. Galileo's confrontation with the Catholic Church was not preordained. As Professor Marcus notes in our conversation, the events leading to Galileo's condemnation by the Church would not have been predictable in the 1620's. In this period, Galileo was on good terms with Pope Urban VIII. But we tend to look for neat causal contexts when formulating narratives born of dramatic confrontation. These contexts generate an oversimplified version of events. In this way of doing history, a binary conflict emerges where two sides appear destined to clash. (Example: Galileo versus Catholic Church).
In historical research, the origins of the 'inevitability' problem emerge from a few areas. A bias toward a specific outcome is certainly one. Another area is a failure to consider the contingency embedded in human affairs. Lastly, there is the habit of poorly framed questions. (Of course, the latter contributes to problems that go beyond the fallacy of historical inevitability.) Historical research questions that begin with "Why" tend to produce less than desirable results. Why did the Catholic Church condemn Galileo? This question demands an answer. Implied but not stated, one hears: What happened and who is to blame? Well, the Church is to blame, of course. And so, it goes. The narrative generates a sequence of events that 'inevitably' leads to Galileo's trial and punishment. "Why" questions seek something specific and narrow our field of vision.
A better approach is to frame a question around the adverbs: who, when, how, or what. These lines of inquiry encourage the researcher to confront the complexities inherent in human affairs. (David Hackett Fischer calls out "why" questions in his book. Historian's Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. Readers of this blog will see this reference again. ).
The final point is simply the advantages of using digital technologies with primary sources. The Stanford Galileo Project and efforts like it produce valuable insights. These projects illuminate our understanding of the early modern era.
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