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Selected Writings (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 9 Feb 2012
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includes substantial explanatory notes and a useful introduction, but what really brings it alive is the readable modern language of the translations ... it makes [Galileo's] ideas accessible ... and available to a much wider audience. (Astronomy and Geophysics)
This book is an absolute joy. (The Observatory)
Includes substantial explanatory notes and a useful introduction, but what really brings it alive is the readable modern language of the translations ... it makes [Galileo's] ideas accessible ... and available to a much wider audience. (Astronomy and Geophysics)
About the Author
Mark Davie has taught Italian at the Universities of Liverpool and Exeter. He has published studies on various aspects of Italian literature, mainly in the period from Dante to the Renaissance, and has edited Tasso's The Liberation of Jerusalem, tr. Max Wickert, for Oxford World's Classics. He is particularly interested in the relations between learned and popular culture, and between Latin and the vernacular, in Italy in the Renaissance. William R. Shea is the author of several books including Galileo's Intellectual Revolution (Macmillan, 1972), Galileo in Rome (OUP, 2003), and Galileo Observed (Science History, 2006), the last two co-authored with Mariano Artigas.
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I want to voice something of a gripe, however. The translators have apparently conceived this project from the point-of-view of today -- an era when modern physics and the other scientific disciplines are firmly established. We are in the habit of back-projecting the stability of these disciplines onto the past, and above all onto the figure of Galileo, who is imagined (most famously by Brecht) as a sort of modern scientific soul living amidst darkness and ignorance. Some of the terminological decisions evident in this translation reinforce this view of Galileo as "man of science before his time" -- when in fact "science" as we know it didn't exist during his time, obviously, or he couldn't have been so crucial in helping to establish it.
Two concrete examples that might help to make my point. In the well-known letter to Benedetto Castelli discussing his reasons for rejecting the Church's use of the Book of Joshua (in which God apparently stops the sun in midair to allow Joshua more daylight to rout his enemies) as an argument against heliocentrism, Galileo says at one point that Scripture should not be cited in matters "di conclusioni naturali," that is, "of natural conclusions." The translators have Galileo say that Holy Scriptures should not be cited "in disputes on matters of natural science." This perhaps seems like a quibble, but it quite inaccurately makes Galileo sound like he recognizes that something called "natural science" already exists in his time and would be recognized as existing by his correspondent. But science, in this sense, doesn't exist in 1613. It is in the process of coming into being. "Natural science" is a loaded term, developed in the centuries after Galileo's existence.
A second example. In this translation of the same letter, Galileo says that it is an error to insist upon "the literal meaning" of Scripture. But in the Italian he actually writes, instead of "literal meaning," "puro significato" -- which means "pure" or "simple" meaning or signification. Again, this term makes it sound as though Galileo is self-consciously involved in a longer and later discourse regarding the interpretation of scripture. There is certainly a case to make that "literal meaning" and "pure meaning" are at some level synonymous -- but it's not what Galileo writes. "Significado litterale" as opposed to "figurato" (figurative) is a phrase as available in Italian as in English.
Again, these might seem like quibbles. But they accumulate to produce a sense of Galileo as a man of the early 17th century with a fixed idea of later philosophical, theological, and scientific concepts. This obscures what's really interesting and wonderful about Galileo -- the fact that he had to work with the concepts and notions of his time to express new and revolutionary insights. He couldn't refer to "science" because science didn't exist -- because it was coming into being by way of his very activity. This is something to cherish and I wish it were represented more accurately.
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