And yet we were modern. The paradoxes of

HOS0010.1177/0073275316684353History of SciencePimentel and Pardo-Tomás
Special Issue: Iberian Science: Reflections and Studies
And yet, we were modern.
The paradoxes of Iberian
science after the Grand
History of Science
2017, Vol. 55(2) 133–147
© The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0073275316684353
Juan Pimentel
CCHS-CSIC, Madrid, Spain
José Pardo-Tomás
IMF-CSIC, Barcelona, Spain
In this article, we try to explain the origin of a disagreement; the sort that often arises
when the subject is the history of early modern Spanish science. In the decades between
1970 and 1990, while some historians were trying to include Spain in the grand narrative
of the rise of modern science, the very historical category of the Scientific Revolution
was beginning to be dismantled. It could be said that Spaniards were boarding the
flagship of modern science right before it sank. To understand this décalage it would
be helpful to recall the role of the history of science during the years after the Franco
dictatorship and Spain’s transition to democracy. It was a discipline useful for putting
behind us the Black Legend and Spanish exceptionalism.
Iberian science, Polemic of Spanish science, Black Legend, Scientific Revolution, early
modern Spain
In a revealing anecdote tucked away in a note to the introduction of Beyond the Black
Legend. Spain and the Scientific Revolution (2007), the editors described a point of contention that arose during the 2005 conference in Valencia, the origin of their book: “One
participant observed that, while the American scholars seemed eager either to make a
Corresponding author:
Juan Pimentel, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, Albasanz 26 Madrid, Madrid 28037, Spain.
Email: [email protected]
History of Science 55(2)
case for Spain’s inclusion in the narrative of the Scientific Revolution or to argue against
the very notion of a Scientific Revolution, to many of the Spanish Scholars, this sort of
exercise did not seem to pose interesting questions.”1 In a sense, this paper seeks to
investigate the origin of this little misunderstanding: the lack of agreement between the
agendas of historians of Spanish science in the Early Modern Era on either side of the
Atlantic. To do so, we recall two of the best lessons from the recent history of science:
the epistemological interest in misunderstandings and controversies and the relevance of
local contexts of knowledge production. Certainly, the Spanish historians’ lack of interest in these two issues could well have been due to their reaction to a dialectic that, on
the one hand, may have reminded them of the “polemic of Spanish science” (or of a
subject contaminated by or arising from such a controversy), and on the other might have
referred to a question emerging from a historical agenda that was not theirs (the appropriateness of the category of Scientific Revolution, a debate that has permeated the
Anglophone literature of the last twenty or thirty years).2 Quite possibly, they might have
felt that the first question sounded outdated and the second was not their concern, being
imposed from abroad. Wanting to disengage from inherited issues and opposed to adopting imported debates, the position of those Spanish historians reflects the refusal to
accept foreign models, but also – to be honest – a certain disinclination toward discussing their own tradition and thus engaging with those two issues which, however outdated
or external, are nonetheless relevant.
Our hypothesis is that the origin of this misunderstanding arises from a certain décalage, a gap between the horizons of either side; or rather, between the academic contexts
in which each side was trained. For whereas the work of those who taught the Spanish
historians who were in Valencia in 2005 had been directed toward bringing the Hispanic
past in line with the European tradition – understanding the “polemic of Spanish science” as a sterile debate associated with the uniqueness or exceptionalism of the Spanish
case – Anglophone historians in countries where the grand narrative of the rise of modern
science had been developed were beginning to call into question this very narrative.
Simply put, while in the seventies and eighties Spanish historians began to declare
that Spain had been modern, others in the rest of Europe and North American began to
declare that they themselves had never been, as Bruno Latour rightly summed up in his
1991 book.3 In this paper we want to show the paradoxes that arise from a double requirement that has marked the education of some Spanish historians, among whom we include
ourselves. On the one hand, we are the successors of López Piñero and the school that
1. Víctor Navarro and William Eamon (eds.), Beyond the Black Legend: Spain and the Scientific
Revolution (Valencia: Universitat de València-CSIC, 2007), p.11, note 8.
2. David C. Lindberg and Robert S. Westman (eds.), Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); H. Floris Cohen, The Scientific Revolution.
A Historiographical Inquiry (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1994); Steven
Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1996);
Peter Dear, Revolutionizing the Sciences. European Knowledge and its Ambitions, 1500–1700
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
3. Bruno Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes: Essai d’anthropologie symétrique (Paris:
Éditions La Découverte, 1991). English translation: We Have Never Been Modern (London:
Harvard University Press, 1993).
Pimentel and Pardo-Tomás
pushed the history of science as an undertaking that would surely generate modernity and
scientific culture in the Spain of the transition to democracy; and on the other, we are
aware of the drastic changes that have altered the face of the discipline in the international field and as a result of which the old narrative, if not completely dismantled, was
at least seriously questioned.
Like any work of historiography, this one is selective and partial: we do not intend to
comment on everything written about this topic in the last forty years. Nor do we hide the
difficulty of writing about a historiography of which we ourselves form part, along with
many others, some of whom have been our teachers and others who are friends and colleagues. Our aim is simply to shed a little light on some of the questions and answers, the
interests and agendas, of us, the historians who, on either side of the Atlantic, have tried
to fit the Spanish past of the Early Modern Era into the context of the creation and dissolution of the grand narrative of modern science.
It is very common to point to Ciencia y técnica en la sociedad española de los siglos
XVI y XVII as the reference work for dealing with the subject, although it will soon be forty
years since its publication.4 Its author, José María López Piñero, is unanimously considered
as the founding father of the discipline in Spain. However, it is worth remembering two
facts that are far from trivial. First, that none of us, his disciples or his intellectual, critical,
or continuista heirs, have been able to produce a compendium work to succeed it, updating
topics and incorporating contributions (many, and some very notable) to the different subjects that fill the pages of that magnificent, but in good measure obsolete, book. Second, the
book was published in 1979, the year after the 1978 Constitution was enacted and voted for
in a referendum by the Spanish people, the charter that sanctioned the birth of the young
democracy in Spain. Outside Spain, this fact is not usually noticed; nor is it in Spain: like
the air we breathe, it is taken for granted. However, it is not hard to see in Ciencia y técnica
an intellectual product typical of the historiography that sought to restore Spain’s European
identity. After Franco’s long dictatorship, with the state adapting to the political form of a
parliamentary monarchy and knocking on the door of the European Community, the
Spanish historiography of those years was clearly directed toward matching its past to that
of the “countries around us,” to use a phrase typical of the time.
In the mid-seventies, for example, two prominent Spanish historians each published
books that opened the debate on the limits and nature of two other processes characteristic of modernity in Spain: the industrial revolution (Jordi Nadal) and the bourgeois revolution (Miguel Artola).5 Soon came the turn of the Scientific Revolution. Just as the
scope of other social processes in the Iberian Peninsula (feudalism, agrarian revolution,
liberalism) were being discussed, the degree of Spain’s participation in modern science
and the peculiarities and similarities between Spain and the rest of Europe would soon
appear on the agenda of the Spanish historiography of the seventies and eighties.
This explains some aspects in which the work of López Piñero shows interest, and
another toward which it shows aversion. The interest is quite clear: the brilliant moments
4. José M. López Piñero, Ciencia y técnica en la sociedad española de los siglos XVI y XVII
(Barcelona: Labor, 1979).
5. Jordi Nadal, El fracaso de la revolución industrial en España, 1814–1913 (Barcelona: Ariel,
1975); Miguel Artola, La burguesía revolucionaria (1808–1874) (Madrid: Alianza, 1973).
History of Science 55(2)
of Spanish science, understood as those when Spanish institutions and intellectuals made
or completed notable contributions, or else joined enthusiastically and promptly European
trains of thought which might rightfully be called modern. Hence his emphasis on
Renaissance natural history and cosmography in the context of colonial expansion, as
well as on post-Vesalian anatomy, which had many followers among Spanish physicians
and was seen as a forerunner of the Scientific Revolution. Hence, too, the creation of the
historiographical artifact of the “movimiento novator,” defined as a compact phenomenon advocated by the physicians who, at the end of the seventeenth century, embraced
the criticism of Galenism and the defense of the circulation of the blood as emblems of a
new form of medicine. At the same time, they defended experimental practices and
denounced Spain’s scientific ‘backwardness’, after declaring “the Spanish absence from
the starting point of the Scientific Revolution.”6 And finally, we see the interest in the
Spanish and Spanish-American Enlightenment in the works of many of López Piñero’s
His aversion, constant and occasionally evident (López Piñero was a rather passionate
man), was simply a deep disdain for la polémica de la ciencia española (“the Polemic of
Spanish science” – hereafter “the Polemic”). He always considered it a sterile, ‘ideologized’ debate, which he denounced along with other historiographical debates or positions he considered permeated with ideology. On reflection, it was a rather naïve
description – as if any debate could be neutral or impartial – but still a classic position
commonly held by those who see themselves as the heirs to the Enlightenment.
His aversion to the Polemic, inherited by many of his disciples and followers, can
only be explained in terms of the simplification with which this question cast a summary
judgment on Spain’s scientific past, and by doing so made López Piñero’s undertaking
redundant: scrupulous research; rigorous bibliometric analysis; the collection of sources
and materials prior to carrying out any historiographical work; and requiring those who
were interested in his proposals to avoid not only ‘uninformed speculation’, which he
claimed had typified previous approaches to the scientific past of Spain, but also the
hasty judgments and lack of rigor that in his opinion characterized most interventions by
foreign historians. Moreover, he felt that the Polemic plunged his project into the umpteenth cycle of peninsular self-absorption and into yet another episode about the ills of
Spain and her endless decadence, an analysis more appropriate for collective psychology
(or parapsychology) than for historical research. The Polemic was an almost metaphysical question, as proved by the title of the article by one of López Piñero’s teachers, Laín
Entralgo, “Sobre el ser de España” (1950), published the year following his book España
como problema (1949).7 Seen in this way, engaging with the Polemic meant continuing
6. Ten years before Ciencia y técnica, López Piñero had published his seminal work, La introducción de la ciencia moderna en España (Barcelona: Ariel, 1969), where he brought together
previous works and prepared the principal components that enabled him to defend the existence of a “movimiento novator,” a concept extensively used since then, both by him and by
those of his disciples who conducted their research at that period of time.
7. Pedro Laín Entralgo, “Sobre el ser de España,” Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 15 (1950):
467–95; and España como problema (Madrid: Seminario de Problemas Hispanoamericanos,
Pimentel and Pardo-Tomás
the diatribe started by Masson de Morvilliers with his famous article in the Encyclopédie
Méthodique (1782) in which he wondered what Europe owes to Spain.8 It also meant
pursuing the essentialist debate rekindled by regeneracionismo, the Spanish historian
Menéndez Pelayo, the generation of ’98, and Ortega y Gasset: the common themes that
led to Laín Entralgo and the problematization of Spain, a favorite subject among the victors – and a good many of the defeated – of the Civil War, before and after the conflict.9
Maybe as a result of this context and of his close personal contact with this area of sentimental patriotism, López Piñero and the history of science that he helped to create
sought to deproblematize Spain’s past and to set it in its European context. Faced with
the exceptionalism of Spain (“Spain is different” was a slogan used in the late Franco era
to attract European tourism, always in search of the exotic and inclined to treat Spain as
part of the Orient), the history of science began to establish itself in the Spanish academic
world with the opposite intention.
Despite not having any Newtons or Galileos, historians set out to show how Spain had
taken part in many of the typical undertakings of modern science. Renaissance medicine
was duly ‘Erasmized’, following the lead of Marcel Bataillon’s classic;10 Francisco
Hernández became a pioneer of the scientific expeditions to the New World; Juan de
Cabriada was the new prophet of the renewal of Spanish science; Alessandro Malaspina
was the “hero needed to understand the conflict felt at the end of the century between
new reason and old politics.”11 The Polemic, interpreted by these historians as another
episode of the Black Legend, should fade away like a worn-out debate, useful only to
revile Spain or to stress its ultramontanist apologetics.
This picture is something of a caricature, but it reflects the groundswell on which
more sophisticated arguments were developed. The history of Spanish science shied
away from the Polemic, but obviously still engaged with it, a feature that continued to
mark literature until the aforementioned collective work Beyond the Black Legend. This
text reproduced the arguments of the Polemic, including some of its traditional
8. “Mais que doit-on à l’Espagne ? Et depuis deux siècles, depuis quatre, depuis dix, qu’a-t-elle
fait pour l’Europe ?” Encyclopédie Méthodique. I, Géographie Moderne (Chez Panckoucke,
Paris, 1782), pp.554–68.
9. For the principal arguments of the Polemic, see García Camarero, La polémica de la ciencia
española (Madrid: Alianza, 1970). For a later reflection on the controversy and the history
of science in Spain: Agustí Nieto, “The Images of Science in Modern Spain. Rethinking
the ‘Polémica’,” in Kostas Gavroglu (ed.) The Sciences in the European Periphery During
the Enlightenment (Dordrecht: Springer, 1999), pp.73–94. More recently, Juan Pimentel, “El
peso del aire. La polémica de la ciencia española como narrativa de una modernidad elusiva,” in María José Villaverde and Francisco Castilla (eds.) La sombra de la leyenda negra
(Madrid: Tecnos, 2016), pp.425–50.
10. José Pardo-Tomás and Jon Arrizabalaga, “En torno al erasmismo y la medicina renacentista
española,” in Eliseo Serrano (ed.) Erasmo y España. 75 años de la obra de Marcel Bataillon,
1937–2012 (Zaragoza: Institución Fernando el Católico, 2015), pp.209–47.
11. José Luis Peset, “Malaspina, el héroe necesario (A modo de prólogo),” in Andrés Galera, La
Ilustración española y el conocimiento del Nuevo Mundo: Las ciencias naturales en la expedición Malaspina (1789–1794). La labor científica de Antonio Pineda (Madrid: CSIC, 1988),
History of Science 55(2)
arguments: the cultivation of applied sciences rather than theoretical in Spain (an idea
already invoked by Juan Pablo Forner (1756–1799) when he challenged Masson12), the
persistence of the Black Legend in a subliminal fashion in Anglophone historiography,
and the Iberian penchant for self-absorption and national self-assertion.13 The Polemic,
in a word, has come to play within the Spanish scientific community the role of family
secrets: nobody wanted to talk about them, but they are always there and at the most
unexpected moment – at a Christmas reunion or at a conference – they suddenly burst
But what we want to stress here is that, outside the Iberian Peninsula, the trend was
going against that modernity which Spain aspired to imprint on its Early Modern Era,
so that when Spain finally seemed to have achieved its status as a ‘full member of the
modern West’, the title was somewhat devalued or no longer meant the same thing.
Spain reached modernity on the day before modernity was called into question.
The title of the book by the French sociologist Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been
Modern, is self-explanatory, and here we use it simply to represent a quite widely held
view.14 As we know, the book as such does not mention anything relating to the past of
Spanish or Iberian science, but denounces the double division between nature/culture
and human/non-human which had marked modernity: a double but fictitious programmatic division. In Latour’s view, Europe had engendered the double artifice of the laboratory and Leviathan: while Hobbes and his followers created the principal resources to
speak of power, sovereignty, contract, property, and citizenship, Boyle and his supporters
produced and adopted a catalog of ways to discuss nature, experience, facts, evidence,
and testimony.15 Needless to say, Latour made extensive comments on Shapin and
Schaffer’s book, Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985); for the present paper it does not
matter how freely since, as we know, books – particularly classics – belong to their readers.16 In any case, Shapin and Schaffer’s book had rocked one of the pillars of the
Scientific Revolution, the birth of experimental philosophy, submitting it to the dual
scrutiny of literary technologies and the local conditions of the production of knowledge:
a sociological and anthropological perspective on the production and circulation of the
natural knowledge that would mark, if not the direction of the discipline (assuming that
there is a homogeneous discipline, always moving in one direction), certainly that of
much later study and research. Years later Shapin himself published a brief but lively
12. On Forner, see François Lopez, Juan Pablo Forner et la crise de la conscience espagnole au
XVIIIe siècle (Bordeaux: Institut d’Études Ibériques et Ibéro-américaines de l’Université de
Bordeaux, 1976).
13. Ricardo García Cárcel, La leyenda negra. Historia y opinión (Madrid: Alianza, 1998); Joseph
Pérez, La leyenda negra (Madrid: Gadir, 2009).
14. Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes (note 3).
15. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, p.49 (note 3).
16. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump. Hobbes, Boyle and the
Experimental Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985). The book was not translated into Spanish until 20 years later and, typically, in an edition published by a public university in Argentina: El Leviathan y la bomba de vacío. Hobbes, Boyle y la vida experimental
(Quilmes: Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, 2005).
Pimentel and Pardo-Tomás
book summarizing the dismantling of the Scientific Revolution, a book that revisited the
points of discussion and the literature on the different aspects of such a broad subject.17
The Scientific Revolution, the historiographic artifact created by Herbert Butterfield,
Alexandre Koyré, Alfred Rupert Hall, Richard S. Westfall, I. Bernard Cohen, and other
distinguished historians, was the fruit of the Cold War and of a Western society that,
after Nazism and Hiroshima, sought to rescue what they felt was the greatest collective
undertaking of mankind. As a result, the narrative of the Scientific Revolution was
rather threadbare by the time it reached the end of the twentieth century, like other grand
narrative of a similar age or condition. Suddenly, it seemed like something coming from
an epic story, perhaps venerable but not terribly believable, a story with as much darkness as light.
In this revisionist context, it was only a matter of time before the fissures in this
Grand Narrative began to be seen as a window of opportunity for historians who wished
to incorporate the Ibero-American world into the mainstream. If the aim was “decentering the Big Picture,” to quote an article in the British Journal for the History of
Science in 1993,18 the Iberian world might play an important role in achieving this. In
the introduction to this special issue of the British Journal for the History of Science,
James Secord commented that “the striking lessons of recent research need to be applied
to longer time spans, a broader range of participants, and wider regional and global
perspectives.”19 Needless to say, none of these texts contain even the slightest mention
of Early Modern Iberian science. However, paradoxically, among the new interests of
this history of science in the nineties there were several that fitted in with the rehabilitation of Iberian science. The most obvious was that related to renewed interest in space
and geography, in other words, to globalization and spread of knowledge.20 In fact, if
there was one paradox in the problem we are discussing, it is the contrast between the
leading role of the Iberian Peninsula in globalization and its complete absence from the
narrative of the Scientific Revolution. How was this possible? Were they perhaps two
different unrelated processes?
In an article in 2000, one of us distilled this paradox into the image of the ship passing
between the pillars of Hercules on the frontispiece of Francis Bacon’s Instauratio Magna,
and in a Spanish navigation manual (the motif still appears in the coat of arms of the
Spanish flag).21 At that time it seemed to us to be symptomatic and rather shocking that a
17. Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press,
18. Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams, “De-centring the ‘Big Picture’: The Origins of
Modern Science and the Modern Origins of Science,” British Journal for the History of
Science 26 (1993): 407–32.
19. James A. Secord, “The Big Picture. Introduction,” British Journal for the History of Science
26 (1993): 387–9.
20. On spatial dimensions in the history of science, see David N. Livingstone, Putting Science
in its Place. Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago
Press, 2003).
21. The comparison between the two images was first dealt with at length in Juan Pimentel,
“La Monarquía Hispánica y la ciencia donde no se ponía el sol,” in Antonio Lafuente and
Javier Moscoso (eds.) Madrid, Ciencia y Corte (Madrid: CSIC, 1999), pp.41–61, the two
History of Science 55(2)
similar motif should be used to narrate the peaceful liberating adventure of modern science (undertaken by northern European countries) and the conquest of America (that other
story associated with Spain and the Black Legend). Others must have had the same
impression, for this iconographic statement has since been used by several authors.
Specifically, it was picked up and amplified by Jorge Cañizares in an article, the two versions of which have very programmatic titles. The first takes the form of a question:
“Iberian Science in the Renaissance. Ignored How Much Longer?” (2004), and the second
is more assertive: “Colonial Iberian Roots of the Scientific Revolution” (2006).22
These two titles of Cañizares summarize the two arguments used mainly by American
historians of Hispanic origin, who have kept alive the debate in a more visible way and
for two reasons. First, because they have acted as cultural mediators thanks to their total
bilingualism, which has allowed them to know the literature of both sides of the Atlantic
in depth, rather than superficially; and secondly, because they have published their work
in high-profile places (Isis, Chicago University Press, Stanford University Press, and so
forth). In a certain sense, Jorge Cañizares, Antonio Barrera-Osorio, Daniela Bleichmar,
and María Portuondo have been able to fulfill the slogan “speak English, think Spanish”
in an academic environment receptive to the demand to include the Latin-American
world in its narratives.
The first question – how was the concealment of the Iberian world by Protestant or
Anglo-American accounts possible? – was actually one of the traditional arguments in the
context of the Polemic, but it has now managed to connect with postcolonial criticism and
the vindication of those subordinate or marginal subjects that emerge periodically in historiography (women, people of color, Grub Street hacks, artisans, and so forth). Nor was the
second question, concerning the pioneering nature of Iberian culture, completely new: it
had been commonplace among the exegetes of Iberian tradition. Since the late nineteenth
century, for example, Menéndez Pelayo, the great scholar and apologist for Catholic culture, argued that certain Spanish humanists (Vives, Sánchez, Valencia) had anticipated the
modern forms of criticism and of skepticism later found in Montaigne and even in Kant.23
The historiographical novelty now resided in the domain to which it was applied,
namely natural sciences, given that the mathematical sciences, natural philosophy, and
astronomy did not appear to be promising areas for the vindication of Hispanic
frontispieces on p.54; later in Juan Pimentel, ‘The Iberian Vision: Science and Empire in the
Framework of a Universal Monarchy, 1500–1800’, Osiris 15 (2000): 17–30, where it reached
a wider audience. These two articles were written at the same time. The destiny of this iconographic statement also reached the previously cited collective volume Beyond the Black
Legend (note 1), which again reproduced on its cover the image from Cespedes’s Regimiento
de Navegación.
22. Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, “Iberian Science in the Renaissance. Ignored How Much Longer?”
Perspectives on Science 12 (2004): 86–124; Jorge Cañizares, “The Colonial Iberian Roots
of the Scientific Revolution,” in Nature, Empire and Nation. Explorations of the History of
Science in the Iberian World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), pp.14–45.
23. Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, “De los orígenes del criticismo y el escepticismo y especialmente de los precursores españoles de Kant. Discurso de recepción leído en la Real Academia
de Ciencias Morales y Políticas el día 15 de mayo de 1891,” in Ensayos de crítica filosófica
(Santander: CSIC, 1949), pp. 119–216.
Pimentel and Pardo-Tomás
pre-eminence. Instead natural history, navigation, and geography (on which the scientific
interests of Spaniards in the New World were centered) appeared as the most suitable
areas to lay claim to the first forms of empiricism, only now situated in the sixteenth century and the Hispanic context rather than that of seventeenth-century Northern Europe.
Here we must mention the book by Antonio Barrera-Osorio, Experiencing Nature.
The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution (2006), the first monograph to defend this argument openly.24 Barrera also pointed to another subject which
has been gaining more substance: the forms of acquisition and management of information, a subject which was later rigorously developed with a solid conceptual apparatus by
the German historian Arndt Brendecke (2009).25
In an article relating to the introduction of the book Beyond the Black Legend, William
Eamon recapitulated the question slightly differently. What would happen if the narrative
of modern science, instead of centering on elitist disciplines such as cosmology and
mathematics, were to adopt the perspective of everyday culture? And furthermore, what
would happen if, instead of gazing at the stars and heavenly bodies, historians paid more
attention to ethnology and the sciences of mankind?26 In this vein, the predominance of
practical skills over theories, one of the most significant shifts in the new history of science and the subject raised in an exemplary fashion in The Body of the Artisan (2006),27
has offered a seam by which to re-attach Spain to the (new) mainstream. If the Grand
Narrative obstructed the incorporation of the Iberian world into the train of modern science, the new history of science has offered continual hints and readily followed paths to
achieve this end, to update it with Iberian nuances. However, as is usually the case, and
as we are discovering, this argument of practical skills cannot be considered as altogether
new. Henrique Leitão and Antonio Sánchez, for example, have reminded us that Edgar
Zilsel, the pioneer of sociology of the Vienna Circle, pointed out almost a century ago the
importance of craftspeople in the rise of modern science.28
Nothing new under the sun? Nothing entirely new, of course, but in cases that deal with
old arguments the interesting thing is that they adapt themselves in more sophisticated form,
with new dimensions and new effects, making use of the vocabulary and the problems of
modern historiography. So it has always been, and so it is today. We historians of science are
well aware of such cases: the rhetoric of novelty often camouflages the weight of tradition.
So, for example, Iberia’s pioneering developments in the methods and techniques of navigation and mapping, formerly found in the historiography of discoveries in Portugal and Spain,
24. Antonio Barrera-Osorio, Experiencing Nature. The Spanish American Empire and the Early
Scientific Revolution (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006).
25. Arndt Brendecke, Imperium und Empirie. Funktionen des Wissens in der Spanischen
Kolonialherrschaft (Köln: Böhlau, 2009).
26. William Eamon, “‘Nuestros males no son constitucionales, sino circunstanciales’: The Black
Legend and the History of Early Modern Spanish Science,” The Colorado Review of Hispanic
Studies 7 (2009): 13–30.
27. Pamela H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution
(Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).
28. Henrique Leitão and Antonio Sánchez, “Zilsel’s Thesis, Maritime Culture and Iberian Science
in Early Modern Europe,” manuscript in press, consulted with kind permission of the authors.
History of Science 55(2)
today find their place in the new historiography under the language of artisanal epistemology, or networks of knowledge at a distance and methods of long-distance control.29 The
Iberian world offers an extraordinary range of cases that can and actually do match the new
narratives and the new objects of interest in a history of science touched by science, technology and society studies (STS), by constructivism, and by other trends or orientations; notable among them, as is to be expected, are those that address imperial dynamics, colonial
relations, Atlantic studies, cultural hybridization, and globalization.
These Latin-American historians educated in the USA (as is the case of Cañizares,
Barrera, Bleichmar, and Portuondo herself) or in Great Britain (Mauricio Nieto) have
been able to delve into Spanish archives, read the secondary literature written in Spanish
on the various subjects (not always very accessible), and connect them with the questions
and problems of the latest historiography. In many ways they have managed to internationalize the subjects of Iberian science, giving them greater solidity and thus breaking
down peninsular self-absorption; in other words, they achieve what López Piñero sought
to do, although paradoxically it has not been by rejecting the old Polemic but by updating
it, adapting some of its old themes to renovated perspectives and vocabularies. They are
not alone, of course, for there are also authors in the Peninsula who have been educated in
an international background and who relate effortlessly to the literature of both worlds.
This is the case of Henrique Leitão, mentioned above, an expert in Renaissance mathematics and astronomical navigation, and the commissioner of an exhibition in the
Gulbenkian Foundation which has brought these matters to public attention;30 or also that
of José Ramón Marcaida, educated in Spain and Great Britain and the author of a recent
study of the relationship between science and art in the Baroque, another of the strategic
headings vital for the understanding of the Hispanic universe in the early Modern Age.31
However, to return to the misunderstanding between Spanish and American historians
over the role of the Iberian countries in the Scientific Revolution and its different perspectives, there are at least two questions which may serve to illustrate these differences.
These are the two diverging attitudes to two central issues: identity and the Enlightenment.
Regarding identity, there is a considerable contrast. We Spanish historians who studied
under López Piñero, José Luis Peset, and Luis García Ballester have tended to shy away
from the issue of identity. Having lived through the final years of Franco and the arrival
of democracy in our adolescence and youth, we reached the university saturated with
(national) identity. If Spain caused pain to Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936), writer,
poet, and essayist of the generation of ’98 – the generation that saw the loss of the last
colonies – it basically bored us. We wanted other historiographical subjects, more cosmopolitan and cross-disciplinary, less Spanish. This also helps to explain our initial
resistance to the Polemic, which seemed to us to be an essentialist concept, something
29. John Law, “On the Methods of Long Distance Control: Vessels, Navigation, and the
Portuguese Route to India,” in John Law (ed.), Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of
Knowledge? (Henley: Routledge, 1986).
30. Henrique Leitão and Teresa Nobre de Carvalho (eds.), 360º Ciéncia Descoberta (Lisboa:
Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 2013).
31. José Ramón Marcaida, Arte y ciencia en el barroco español. Historia natural, coleccionismo
y cultura visual (Madrid: Fundación Focus-Abengoa, Marcial Pons Historia, 2014).
Pimentel and Pardo-Tomás
metaphysical, as we said before. After years of dictatorship and national Catholicism we
were looking for fresh subjects, for fresh air.
However, identity did figure in the agenda of those American historians with LatinAmerican roots, since unlike us they were perhaps not tired of thinking about identity,
but rather needed to do so, and even somehow to vindicate it in the face of stereotypes,
segregation, or simply marginalization within the academic context where they have
forged their careers. Several of them received guidance from Richard Kagan, a disciple
in turn of John Elliott, perhaps the two most authoritative voices on Hispanic subjects in
the English-speaking world. These historians were prepared to embrace the comparative
view and to observe the field of study with more modern and sophisticated instruments
and questions. Atlantic studies, for example, have been a central academic point where,
logically, these historians have been able to expound their theses.32 It is true that each of
them has done it in his or her own way, dealing with different issues. So, for example,
Puritan Conquistadors (2006) stressed the profound similarities between the two colonial models;33 Measuring the New World (2008) traced the flow of knowledge from
South America to the Encyclopédie;34 Visible Empire (2012) incorporated Enlightenment
botany into visual studies and the problems of the representation of nature, thus joining
Remedies for the Empire (1993), a study that had already considered this subject from the
point of view of the appropriation of territory, the formation of Creole elites, and the tensions between universal science and local knowledge.35
However, what is clear in all of them is the subject which Spanish historiography once
considered outdated, and that the new history of science has brought under the spotlight:
local knowledge, the point at which science, territory, and identity come together. No
doubt situated knowledge was a term (or a notion, still unformulated) that years ago
appeared to be the very antithesis of any attempt to connect the Iberian world with modern science. Today, however, we know that even the facts proved in the most centrally
placed laboratories imaginable are culturally and spatially located.
Related to this, the second front on which different approaches are clear is the
Enlightenment, which Dorinda Outram very aptly called “our contemporary,” for no
other period of history “has so insistently been viewed as the latency period of the twentieth century.”36 In this case too, the Enlightenment is a good catalyst, since what in some
32. Harald Braun and Lisa Vollendorf (eds.), Theorising the Ibero-American Atlantic (Leiden:
Brill, 2013); Neil Safier, “Itineraries of Atlantic Science: New Questions, New Approaches,
New Directions,” Atlantic Studies 7 (4) (2010): 357–64.
33. Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Puritan Conquistadors. Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).
34. Neil Safier, Measuring the New World. Enlightenment Science and South America (Chicago,
IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2008).
35. Daniela Bleichmar, Visible Empire. Colonial Botany and Visual Culture in the EighteenthCentury Hispanic World (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2012); Mauricio
Nieto, Remedies for the Empire: The Eighteenth Century Spanish Botanical Expeditions to
the New World (London: University of London, 1993).
36. Dorinda Outram, “The Enlightenment Our Contemporary,” in William Clark, Jan Golinski
and Simon Schaffer (eds.) The Science in Enlightened Europe (Chicago, IL: The University
of Chicago Press, 1999), pp.32–40.
History of Science 55(2)
places has been experienced as a defect, in others has been seen as an excess. Thus, while
in the Spain of the Democratic Transition after Franco’s death (1975) the Enlightenment
was invoked in the same way as our noble or heroic ancestors, in Europe and North
America there has been a consistent questioning of its extent and its limits.
In the international context and in general terms, the shadow of The Dialectic of
Enlightenment (1944), Horkheimer and Adorno’s brilliant text, has hovered over the end
of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.37 It is not so strange. Other
projects of modernity are also showing signs of exhaustion: from the world of the printed
book to the old political divisions into blocs, and environmental and financial crises, all
indicate that we have entered a new age, marked by globalization and digital technologies. Like the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment has shown cracks. For the historians of science, this idea of truth opening a path in time and space – the favorite metaphor
of the Enlightened – has been shown to be a social construct, the result of a series of
agreements, negotiations, and translations.
However, rather than the misrepresentations or abuses of the Enlightenment, what
was noticeable in Spain for a long period was its absence, its weakness, or its insufficiency, to use the description in the book by Eduardo Subirats, a Spanish philosopher of
the time of the Transition.38 Two centenaries celebrated at that time deployed resources,
grants, and research projects aimed to recover and exhibit the legacy of the Iberian
Enlightenment. The first was the centenary of Carlos III (1988),39 about which distinctive books, now classics, were published, among them La Ilusión quebrada, Los caballeros del punto fijo, De Palas a Minerva, Ciencia y libertad.40 A few years later was the
fifth centenary of the discovery of America (1992),41 which was used by the Spanish
authorities to spread an image of the Hispanic presence in the New World more closely
linked to knowledge than to conquest: in a word, more Enlightened.
But, as historians, we are now faced with the question: should we save the
Enlightenment or denounce it? Here we have a crossroads similar to that offered by the
old controversy of Spanish science in a country clearly prone to polarization and snap
judgments; although, on second thoughts, “to save or denounce the Enlightenment” is
also a challenge faced by countries of other longitudes and latitudes, as well as many
37. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung, hektografiertes
Manuskript, 1944.
38. Eduardo Subirats, La ilustración insuficiente (Madrid: Taurus, 1981).
39. Manuel Selles, Jose Luis Peset and Antonio Lafuente (eds.), Carlos III y la ciencia de la
Ilustración (Madrid: Alianza Editorial-Caja de Ahorros de Madrid, 1988).
40. Javier Puerto, La ilusión quebrada: botánica, sanidad y política científica en la España
Ilustrada (Barcelona; Madrid: Serbal-CSIC, 1988); Antonio Lafuente and Antonio Mazuecos,
Los caballeros del punto fijo: ciencia, política y aventura en la expedición geodésica hispanofrancesa al virreinato del Perú en el siglo XVIII (Barcelona; Madrid: Serbal-CSIC, 1987);
Horacio Capel, De Palas a Minerva: la formación científica y la estructura institucional de
los ingenieros militares en el siglo XVIII (Barcelona; Madrid: Serbal-CSIC, 1988); José Luis
Peset, Ciencia y libertad: el papel del científico ante la independencia americana (Madrid:
CSIC, 1987).
41. Antonio Lafuente, Alberto Elena and Manuel L. Ortega (eds.), Mundialización de la ciencia
y cultura nacional (Madrid: Doce Calles, 1993).
Pimentel and Pardo-Tomás
citizens of the world, intellectuals or otherwise. On one hand, to defend the idea that
Spain or the Iberian countries were already modern, before anyone else was and to just
as great a degree, is to show evidence such as the fact that Mexico was a thriving cosmopolis when New York did not yet exist; but on the other, it also means getting into a
rather childish competition, more appropriate for nationalist histories and the format of
the Grand Narrative. Without doubt, the emphasis of new historiography on certain items
seems to tip the balance in favor of episodes of Iberian science: scientific practices,
empiricism, natural history, ethnography, networks, circulation, and globalization. But to
claim Hispanic origins for the Scientific Revolution is perhaps counter-productive: to put
Fernández de Oviedo or Francisco Hernández in the place of Bacon or Boyle is to
become bogged down in questions of priority belonging to an outdated agenda.
Furthermore, to declare that the Iberian countries were eminent under the Habsburgs
or the Bourbons leads to the need to explain when and how they lost that position. As
James Amelang has recently pointed out,42 reading certain expressions vindicating
Iberian modernity in the sixteenth century leaves the question, “And then what went
wrong?” hanging in the air. Indeed, if we choose to stay in that room we will eventually
not be able to avoid mentioning the elephant standing in the middle of it: something did
go wrong. Some will continue to pose the question in terms of ‘failure’ in the scientific
trajectory of the young Ibero-American nations and of their Creole elites, just as there is
still talk of the failure of the modernization of post-imperial Spain. In this process, which
puts the accent on the practices and knowledge evolved over the centuries of Iberian
colonial expansion, the ‘failures’ of the nation-states arising from the collapse of the
Ancien Régime, including Spain, become clearer and more obvious. It is a way to confirm that they were unable to overcome their ‘self-imposed immaturity’, to put it in
Kantian terms.
There is much left to do. The decade that has passed since the appearance of Beyond
the Black Legend has seen novelties and new branches related to the many faces of
modernity: its heterogeneity. The old lineal process has become a group of paths which
do not always converge. Problems have multiplied, a fact which seems to disconcert
some. Others of us, however, find it satisfying because it is enriching: history is not a
litany inexorably telling us who we are, but a collection of stories which seek to explain
and help us to understand the diversity of the world and its numerous pasts.
The Iberian world is fertile territory for exploring these pasts – a territory, by the way, not
restricted to the Hispanic historians of either side of the Atlantic. To begin with, there is a
need for more dialog with Portuguese historians, an Iberian viewpoint which is less Spaincentered.43 In addition, we need a dialog with other academic traditions. It should be pointed
out that some of the most significant contributions to the studies of the Hispanic world have
come from authors such as Serge Gruzinski, and more recently Alessandra Russo, whose
42. James S. Amelang, “Review on Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire,”
Dynamis 35 (2015): 501–3.
43. Palmira Fontes da Costa and Henrique Leitão, “Portuguese Imperial Science, 1450–1800,”
in Daniela Bleichmar, Paula De Vos, Kristin Huffine and Kevin Sheehan (eds.) Science in
the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, 1500–1800 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,
2009), pp.35–53.
History of Science 55(2)
work on native mapmakers from the viewpoint of the history of art has relaunched a subject
already explored by Barbara Mundy in another classic work.44 Nor can we forget works
such as Relocating Modern Science, by Kapil Raj, since it shows how similar problems have
been studied from other cultural backgrounds.45 The history of archeology, to give one final
example, is another field which has offered an interesting meeting point with the history of
science, as is the case of the collective book Nature and Antiquities, edited by P. Kohl, Irina
Podgorny, and Stefanie Gänger.46 Globalization, cross-cultural studies in science, the histories of art and archeology, and studies of other colonial contexts are some of the areas from
which light can be shed on new studies of Iberian science.
Obviously, in any historiographical work the answers are determined by the questions. In
this sense, it might be better to shift the focus from the Hispanic component to modernity
itself. From this point of view, it may be worthwhile to demonstrate the strategic nature of
the scientific practices in the Iberian world, made up of different contact zones in which
those Local Exchanges and Networks of Circulation described by Lissa Roberts have taken
place.47 The Iberian world of the Early Modern Era is a heterogeneous mixture of regions
and spaces from which it is possible to discuss what Cañizares called the “segregated cultural cartographies of modernity.”48 Following in the wake of López Piñero himself, it would
perhaps not be a bad idea to deproblematize the Iberian world in order to problematize
modernity or global history. Far from the siren songs of the Grand Narrative, as called for
recently by Jo Guldi and David Armitage in their controversial History Manifesto (2015),49
the historians of the Iberian world have material with which to play down the exceptional
nature of our historical objects and to show their parallels with other scenarios and trajectories of science. Perhaps then we would discover that the exception has been the rule: that
modernity is a heterogeneous phenomenon, that the ‘kaleidoscope’ effect may well be the
ideal perspective to understand our discipline better in the age of globalization, as well as
better to understand our own world from the perspective of the history of science.50
44. Serge Gruzinski, Les quatre parties du monde. Histoire d’une mondialisation (Paris: Éditions
de la Martinière, 2004); Alessandra Russo, El realismo circular: Tierras, espacios y paisajes
de la cartografía indígena novohispana, siglos XVI y XVII (México: UNAM / Instituto de
Investigaciones Estéticas, 2005); Alessandra Russo, The Untranslatable Image. A Mestizo
History of the Arts in New Spain, 1500–1600 (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2014);
Barbara Mundy, The Mapping of New Spain. Indigenous Cartographies and the Maps of the
Relaciones Geográficas (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1996).
45. Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science. Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in
South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
46. Philip L. Kohl, Irina Podgorny and Stefanie Gänger, Nature and Antiquities. The Making of
Archeology in the Americas (Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2014).
47. Lissa Roberts, “Situating Science in Global History: Local Exchanges and Networks of
Circulation,” Itinerario 33 (2009): 9–30.
48. Jorge Cañizares, “Foreword,” in Harald Braun and Lisa Vollendorf (eds.) Theorising the
Ibero-American Atlantic (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp.vii–xii, p.viii.
49. Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2015).
50. Antonella Romano, “Fabriquer l’histoire des sciences modernes. Réflexions sur une discipline à l’ère de la mondialisation,” Annales, HSS 2 (2015): 381–408.
Pimentel and Pardo-Tomás
We have received some generous comments from Simon Schaffer, and the encouragement of María
Portuondo since the ASPHS conference at The Johns Hopkins University in 2015.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article: This paper has been supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and
Innovation (Research Projects HAR 2014-52157-P and HAR 2015-64313-P).
Author biography
Juan Pimentel is a senior researcher at the Department of History of Science, Spanish National
Research Council (CSIC, Madrid, Spain). He has published on the political, literary and visual
dimensions of early modern science. His latest book is The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium. An
essay in Natural History (Harvard University Press, 2017).
José Pardo-Tomás is a senior researcher at the Department of History of Science in the “Milà i
Fontanals” Institute, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC, Barcelona, Spain). He has published on social and cultural history of medicine, natural history, and scientific books in Early
Modern Spain, Italy or Mexico.