The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science and Second Sight in Late 17th Century Scotland (review)

Journal of the History of Philosophy 40 (4):545-546 (2002)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.4 (2002) 545-546 [Access article in PDF] Book Review The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science and Second Sight in Late 17th Century Scotland Michael Hunter, editor. The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science and Second Sight in Late 17th Century Scotland. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. vii + 247. Cloth, $90.00. This is a superb collection of original materials (including a range of private correspondence, scribal works, and printed texts) related to the "strange reports" of incidence of "second sight" in Scotland from the 1680s to the 1700s. The material includes literary exchanges between powerful figures in the Anglo-Scottish intellectual community like Robert Boyle, John Aubrey, Robert Kirk, John Frazer, and Samuel Pepys. All of these texts are edited with immaculate care and informative annotation. The lengthy introduction provides both intellectual context and a detailed bibliographical account. Collectively the texts reproduced here provide a comprehensive resource for the examination of attitudes to magic and the supernatural in the late seventeenth century. From these texts one can reconstruct the battle between "orthodox" Anglican defenders of a "spirit world" and the sceptical assault on its authenticity. This was a war of ideas with the victors hoping to fix the meaning and nature of second sight as either supportive or corrosive of the established ecclesiastical institutions. Was this phenomena an established "matter of fact" which proved the routines of nature and also the paranormal intervention of God? Or was it, as some sceptics argued, evidence of priestly fraud and manipulation? The debates over the meaning and significance of these transgressions of the ordinary course of nature vacillated between treating them as acts of God or the Devil, as manifest frauds or ignorant misunderstandings. As Michael Hunter argues in his introduction, men like Boyle focussed upon the issue of second sight because it was a less exotic and less controversial phenomenon than the more culturally unstable manifestations of witchcraft. Fundamental to the orthodox cultural project was the creation of an empirically robust form of knowledge that combined folklore, antiquarian erudition, and biblical exegesis to establish the reality and boundaries of the natural and the divine.Although Hunter establishes the "origins" of the interest as an intellectual spin off from Boyle's project for the "Protestantisation" of the Highlands, the core text reproduced here is Robert Kirk's The Secret Commonwealth. Kirk, educated in Edinburgh and St. Andrews, was minister of Aberfoyle and worked with Boyle on his Gaelic Bible after 1684. This scriptural labor brought him to London in the late 1680s and into an elite Anglican circle that included Edward Stillingfleet. The text edited here is based on the earliest surviving manuscript of the early 1690s which was compiled from earlier notes. It is clear that the work was circulated in the period only in scribal form: a partial version was first printed in 1815 and a complete text in 1964. As Hunter establishes by examining Kirk's overlooked student notebooks from the 1660s and 1670s, it is possible to reconstruct the eclectic intellectual culture that formed the background to the work—here Aristotelian texts mingled with more modern authors like Campanella and Descartes. These notebooks not only record Kirk's pastoral concerns and the spiritual health of his flock, they also register a range of more exotic interests in folkish charms and the various operations and manifestations of the "invisible powers." The discovery of a "kingdom of fairies," which was apparently comprehensible to certain individuals with second sight, was ideal material upon which Kirk was able to synchronize the findings of Holy Scripture and modern natural philosophy.As Hunter's elegant and effective introduction outlines, men like Kirk, Frazer, and later Martin Martin, deliberately mimicking the epistemological strategies of the London-based Royal Society, aimed to display matters of fact as a dispassionate means of responding to the cultural assault of the sceptical wits who dismissed stories of the "lychnobious" world as [End Page 545] idle fantasy or deliberate fraud. Although this work was learned, serious, and erudite, and in the...

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