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Pseudodoxia Epidemica

Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica first appeared in 1646 and went through six editions, the last revision occurring in 1676. The preface to his work refuting common errors and superstitions of his age specifically employs the word encyclopaedia

and therefore in this Encyclopaedie and round of knowledge, like the two great and exemplary wheeles of heaven, we must observe two circles.

Ranging through from the cause of error (in Browne's Christian theology Satan the father of lies is the cause of all error along with Man's own fallen nature), to the time-honoured scale of creation, the learned doctor attempted to dispel errors and fallacies concerning the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms before refuting errors pictorial, of man, geography and astronomy and finally the cosmos.

An important chapter includes Browne's experiments with static electricity and magnetism (electricity being one of hundreds of words Browne introduced into the English language, too numerous to mention here, but medical, pathology, hallucination, literary, and computer will do for starters)..

Although Pseudodoxia Epidemica is occasionally ridiculed today for its own errors, often by those who have not perused its pages, nevertheless it was a valuable source of information which found itself upon the shelves of many English familes throughout the seventeenth century. In fact Browne's encyclopaedic work was in its day in the vanguard of scientific writing and it paved the way for all future popular scientific journalism. Its popularity is confirmed by the fact that it went through no less than six editions.

Throughout this vast work evidence of Browne's subtle humour can be detected, along with his prodigous learning (his sources included both the ancients Greekss and the latest available writing in scientific spheres). The pages of Vulgar Errors (its alternative Anglo-Saxon label) also contains evidence of Browne's adherence to the Baconian method of empirical experimentation. In fact throughout its pages evidence of Browne's empirical scientific nature and his formulation of scientific hypothesis can be found.

Today there is considerable confusion as to how best define Sir Thomas Browne's scientific credentials,these are best summarised by one critic thus-

'The electicism so characteristic of Browne...Browne does not cry from the house tops, as did Francis Bacon, the liberating power of experience in opposition to the sterilizing influence of reason. Nor does he guarantee as did Descartes, the intuitive truth of reason as opposed to the falsity of the senses. Unlike either, he follows both sense experience and a priori, reason in his quest for truth. He uses what comes to him from tradition and from contemporary Science, often perhaps without too precise a formulation. -E.S.Merton

Another useful description of the ambiguities of Browne's scientific view-point is encapsulated in the following quotation-

'Here is Browne's scientific point of view in a nutshell. One lobe of his brain wants to study facts and test hypotheses on the basis of them, the other is fascinated by mystic symbols and analogies.

As early as 1925 the author Robert Sencourt accurately concluded that-

"his is an instance of a scientific reason, lit up by mysticism, in the Church of England".


A detailed edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica in 2 volumes was published by Oxford University Press and edited by H. Robbins in 1986.