Mario Biagioli – Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism

29 September, 2017 - MA Coursework

Mario Biagioli, Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism (Chicago, U. of Chgo. Press, 1993).


[At the onset: I have serious doubts about my intellectual ability, in a short paper, to summarize Biagioli’s argument, assess its persuasive power, and consider the applicability of its proposed interpretive framework to other cases despite Biagioli’s suggested “homologies between Galileo’s experience and that of other scientific practitioners who happened to choose similar court- or patronage-based strategies of legitimation”]

Mario Biagioli’s Galileo, Courtier details the process of cognitive legitimation of the “new science” achieved in the context of northern Italian court patronage through Galileo’s acquisition of status within that patronage system. Biagioli argues that the social legitimation achieved by practitioners of the “new science” through the performative act of self-fashioning, facilitated by the munificence of their increasingly singular and powerful patrons, existed in a complex, mutually-reinforcing interplay of knowledge, power, and status. This social legitimation of the intellectual or artistic professional was translatable into the cognitive or aesthetic legitimation of that individual’s profession. Galileo, Courtier is neither a social history nor a biography of Galileo, and thus has no pretense of comprehensiveness (the bibliographic ecosystem of Galileo Studies is already overpopulated). Rather, Biagioli intends this work to establish a new interpretive framework for understanding early modern science. He does not intend to present this interpretative framework of socio-cognitive legitimation as the only avenue of legitimation for the new science. Often, he admits, the technical virtuosity of the mathematical sciences was a sufficient generator of legitimacy. The complex interrelationships between power, knowledge, and codependent individuals necessary for Biagioli’s argument requires a reorientation of our conception of power. According to Biagioli, power in this period of northern Italian courts was not an inanimate resource external to cognitive developments to be extracted, exploited, and accumulated in service to those cognitive pursuits, but rather a process — the logistical flow of goods, status, knowledge. Empowerment is the exercise of influence over this flow. The cognitive legitimation of Galileo’s technical and scientific developments, put simply, is the byproduct of his socioprofessional legitimation as an embedded participant in a culture of clientelism. This socioprofessional legitimation arises out of a process of what might be called socioprofessional actualization, what Biagioli terms “self-fashioning.” This distillate is the most concentrated form of Biagioli’s byzantine argument.

The above is an, admittedly, inadequate condensation of Biagioli’s argument. One could be forgiven for this inadequacy under the current constraints considering Biagioli himself requires a full ten pages of prologue (and several of the initial pages of the first chapter) to summarize his argument. The method via which these claims have been generated is what Biagioli describes as “epistolary anthropology,” a pedantic but entertaining way of describing the reading of other people’s mail.

The motives behind these arguments are more complex than the method, though. Biagioli seeks nothing less than to transcend two epochal historiographies of science. The first, characteristic of an older historical practice in our discipline, under the influence of the mind-body dualism to which Western epistemic practice so frequently falls prey, conceived of scientific evolution as a process of inexorable adoption of a theory on the basis of that theory’s inherent force (derivative from its undeniable truth). Science proper, from the perspective of this historiographic framework, is alienated from sociocultural context. The patronage system Galileo lived in is, from this point of view, seen as an externality only capable of supplying a research program or tainting it with irrational influences.

The more recent historiographic protocol (reductively) ascribed to Mertonion sociology of science and Kuhnian paradigmaticity, though less heuristically-crippling for Biagioli because of its dependence on scientific communities and professionalization, is little applicable Galileo’s system and perpetuates the otherness engendered by the bifurcation of “modern science” from “whatever came before it.” To address these issues, Biagioli has this to say, which, due to its novelty and idiosyncrasy, is difficult to summarize:

The sociological and conceptual dimensions of modern science that the historiography informed by Kuhn or Merton attributes to the professional identity one develops by being socialized into a scientific community or social group must be sought for in the process of self-fashioning that early modern scientists underwent by entering into patronage relationships and networks. I am not claiming that patronage is the early analogue of scientific community. I am suggesting that patronage is the key to understanding processes of identity and status formation that are the keys to understanding both the scientists’ cognitive attitudes and career strategies.


Knowing his arguments, method, and aims, let us turn to the first chapter wherein Biagioli details Galileo’s process of self-fashioning.

In brief, the patronage system of northern Italian courts at this time was not a simple hierarchical orientation between the grand duke or prince and everyone else. The system of patronage penetrate deeply into society through successively lower-status quanta of society as a recursive tree structure. Ascent in status, for Galileo as others, what Biagioli calls self-fashioning, was a process of acquiring, testing, and renegotiating patronage relationships with increasingly influential patrons whose influence, or patronage-potency, was inversely correlated to their relational distance from the epicenter of the influence network — the grand duke or prince. The lynchpin of Biagioli’s demonstration of this self-fashioning process is Marcel Mauss’s (and later Pierre Clastres’s) gift economy developed ethnographically (good thing Biagioli described his method as epistolary anthropology in the prologue). My, albeit amateur, understanding of this anthropological device causes notice of several important ingredients of the gift economy absent from and even contradictory to Galileo’s socio-cultural environment as described by Biagioli. Most essentially of all, in many of the indigenous non-Western cultures who use the gift economy, it is a powerful socio-economic device for preserving an egalitarian network of social relationships — it serves to flatten hierarchies; Biagioli is using it to explain the maintenance of a highly stratified hierarchy of inequality natural and necessary to clientelism. The gift economy is the essential theoretical framework Biagioli uses to substantiate the process of self fashioning. And though Biagioli amply demonstrates the process of self-fashioning in his 90 page first “chapter,” I see as much evidence for a different interpretive framework — a market economy in which status is the medium of exchange. Though Biagioli more than establishes the marginality of money and in part uses this to deemphasize the market nature of the economy of clientelism, I believe market economics has as much explanatory power as the gift economy if status, rather than financial remuneration, is repositioned as the primary currency.

It seems like, though the clients were incapable of returning equally monetarily-valued gifts to their patrons as they received, the gifts they provided, in terms of works of art, scientific discoveries, etc., had a status-value comparable to the stipends and titles the patrons could dole out. The art and science the patrons received substantiated their magnificence and provided them with a quality of status which distinguished them from other wealthy individuals incapable of patronizing the arts and sciences. In my estimation there is a kind of market economy of supply and demand dynamics at work here in which the client received that which the patron had in excess (material remuneration) and the patron received that which the client had in excess, but which the patron could not produce for himself (intellectual produce of the new science), all the while it was a mutually beneficial exchange that increased the “wealth” (status) of both, satisfying all of the fundamental criteria of proto-capitalistic systems. The interpretive framework would reorient the social-contextual focus onto the patron. The Medici, through this lens, would be understood as transmogrifying their financial acumen as bankers of financial value into bankers of social value. Our understanding of clientelism would be reconfigured, rather than as a gift economy, as a proto-capitalist exchange in which both clients and patrons invest in one another as assets in the hope of accumulating interest on social capital in the form of enhanced status. This conception is as thoroughly evidenced in the first chapter of Galileo, Courtier as the gift economy.


[as for the applicability of Biagioli’s interpretative framework to other cases, I am incapable of assessing that]




















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