The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

December 20, 2011

December 20, 1862

Robert Knox (September 4, 1791 to December 20, 1862) was a famous Scottish surgeon associated with the  Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, for some of his career. 

In a book titled Great artists and great anatomists (1852) Knox presents a quixotic approach to the organization of human knowledge, which is interesting in that it recalls for us a Victorian flux in establishing modern standards of knowledge. 

... Art[s],... distinguish man from the mere animal. All men are not destined merely to wield a sabre and to feed a pig. The connexion of Art, with some knowledge on the part of the artist of the interior structure of man, has never been questioned ; but the precise relation which Anatomy bears to Art, has not yet been, in the Author's opinion, determined. —What is the relation of Science to Art? ...

The author of the following ... has been long persuaded that the true relation of anatomy to science, philosophy, and art, has not yet received from thinking men the attention it merits. To supply a deficiency which he believes to exist in the history of the progress of the human mind from error to truth, the discovery of which he presumes to be the only rational end of human existence, he ventures to offer to the public, in a biography of George Cuvier and [others the] ...application of anatomy, transcendental and abstract, but still essentially descriptive, to philosophy...

..... Cuvier,... made of zoology a science. But, above all, by this method, by this new element of knowledge, was he enabled to read the true character of the fossil remains of all epochs, and, for the first time, to present man with a " History of the Earth," not founded on fables, but on facts.

From the beginning to the end of his career, the nature of his inquiries was either mistaken or misrepresented in Britain. His philosophic discourse on the changes which the surface of the globe and its living inhabitants had undergone "in time," was presented to the British public as a " Theory of the Earth," a " New Theory of the Earth!" He gave us instead a " History of the Earth," whereon to build a theory. It was the old mistake of Bolingbroke, who called history, philosophy teaching by examples. But history is not philosophy. Cuvier gave us a history of the world; the philosophy of that history he never attempted.

Prior to Cuvier, geology, paleontology, cosmogony, had really no existence ; what passed for such were dreams. ...before Goethe, the origin of life, the phases and metamorphoses of living beings, from the period when this orb commenced its wild but measured career through space, had been wholly misunderstood; a slavish terror of free inquiry hung over men's minds, dark as the pall of night.

.... [N]aturalists ... belong... to a class of men who investigate the external characters of animals, with a view to discover how far they differ from each other; in what a dog, for example, differs from a cat; a gull from an oyster-catcher; a sparrow from a linnet;.... Their definitions of animals, plants, and minerals, are generally diverting, often ludicrous. They take the trouble to prove, that man is not a monkey, and never was a monkey, ..... They give you rules and definitions of character, to enable you to distinguish..., a whelk from a periwinkle....In this endeavour to create terminology, the terminology, too, of beings for which man has no sympathies, into a science, they forgot and forget the principles of all education, and the nature of the human mind.... [Typically, for example] Minerals of exquisite beauty he tramples under foot, converts into metal for his roads, or hews into blocks for walls and bridges.

Knox in the above excerpt sees some science as misleading because the obvious is used to destroy the factual. His conflation of the factual with art is interesting, because he sees that  "it is all utility with man." 

Utility indeed. This was written after a scandal in 1828 when Knox was found to have bought corpses from men who murdered the homeless in order to supply the medical school's pedagogical need for such. 

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