Hermes and the Telescope

In the Crucible of Galileo's Life-World

by Paolo Palmieri (Author)
©2016 Monographs 236 Pages


This book explores the life of Galileo Galilei through a philosophical and scientific lens, utilizing an innovative hermeneutic perspective that places his work in the wider context of early modern hermeticism, religious heresy, and libertinism.
As the first comprehensive study of Galileo’s life and work from a phenomenological and existentialist viewpoint, Paolo Palmieri calls into question the positivist myth of Galileo, the founder of modern science, and interrogates the positivist historiography that has shaped the myth since the historic publication of the monumental edition of Galileo’s works at the turn of the twentieth century. The book highlights the entanglement of Galileo’s natural philosophy with his private unorthodox convictions about Christian theology, Biblical hermeneutic, sexuality, and the hidden traditions of Italian heretics and libertines. The text demonstrates the philosophical, pedagogical, and political implications of this new reading of one of the founding fathers of modernity for both the sciences and the humanities.
Addressing hotly debated questions of ethnicity, racism, subjectivity, the self, and pedagogy, this study will be of particular interest to scholars who teach both undergraduate and graduate courses in history of science, philosophy of science, phenomenology and existential philosophy, cultural studies, Italian studies, humanism, and the European Renaissance.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Myth
  • Chapter 2. Hermes
  • Chapter 3. Luna
  • Chapter 4. Sol
  • Chapter 5. Jove
  • Chapter 6. Heaven
  • Chapter 7. Hospitality
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix →


The journey that brought me to the project of this book started long ago. Its ideal beginning was an act of sincere hospitality by which I was accepted as a graduate student in the Science and Technology Studies department at University College, London. There I met Andrew Gregory and Hasok Chang, who became my doctoral supervisors. They were instrumental in helping me develop ideas in a spirit of total openness and liberal inquiry that paved the way for my professional pursuits. I thank them from the heart. It behooves me to remember that it was thanks to an extraordinary man, Colin Norris, that I was able to perfect (within limits) my knowledge of English to a point that I could express myself fluently in a second language. He taught me more than the passion for the idiomatic expression, or the perfect collocation of words, or the nuances of meaning and phraseology. He taught me a style of thought. My undergraduate years in Modena, Milan, and Bologna were life-changing. The foremost historian Paolo Prodi at the University of Bologna warned me that he needed to free me of the straightjacket of the history of science. It was a healthy warning that I have never forgotten. My friends William Shea and David Wootton have been wonderful mentors, from whom I learned how to temper my excessive polemical fervor. Stefano Gattei inspired me to pursue lines of research in the margins of seventeenth-century culture that proved to ← ix | x → be most important. Over the course of many years at Pittsburgh I was fortunate to share interesting conversations on philosophy, mathematics, cuisine, frivolities, and science with a motley crew of chivalry figures. I salute the paladins of the long seventeenth century, Oh gran bontà de’ cavallieri antiqui!, Ted McGuire, Ken Manders, Peter Machamer, and the apostate John Norton. Sprightly images of intellectual freshness crowd in my mind. Among them, Tiziana Bascelli, Bryan Roberts, William Lebig, Emi Iwatani, Elay Shech, Eric Hatleback, Michal de Medonsa, Pat Corvini, Marina Baldissera Pacchetti, George Borg, Giovanni Valente, Nora Boyd, Haixin Dang, Siska de Baerdemaeker, Michael Miller, Rebecca Thomas, Zina Ward, David Pence, Jacob Neal, Mahi Hardalupas, David Colaco, Trey Boone, Jason Rampelt and many others whose names have faded in my memory. Above all I must be grateful to the countless undergraduates at Pittsburgh who have been exquisite partners in sharing the most genuine interest in my research and teaching. I am especially indebted, in a mysterious way, to Aaron Novick whose brilliant mind and lovely friendship conspired with me over the last few years. Vivian Appler has been a wonderful companion in exploring cross-disciplinary pathways of inquiry that challenged my imagination. While writing the manuscript I met the exilic poetess, Edith Doron, who was moved by my teaching emancipatory acts. Her diamond-sharp intellect and angelic grace illuminated my groping towards individuation, revivifying the anarchist that slumbered in my spirits. But this book is the confluence of many secret undercurrents and turbulent rivers, whose sources are in a happy childhood and family, wonderful parents, Anna and Giorgio, industrious grandparents, and the wonders of an inclusive, freely accessible, humanistic educational system that Italy may justly be proud of. Destiny or providence steered my life-course through the alchemical works of the feminine, incarnated in my wife, Paola, urging me to think otherwise, in deeds of liberty and in freedom of thought, sentiment, and will. Last but not least I warmly thank my friend Frits Jonker for the cover artwork.

← x | xi →


The book invites readers to encounter Galileo in his life-world, which also means encountering myself within my own life-world. I call life-world the familiar surroundings or dwelling-place for human beings that constitute their originary being at home, though the life-world should not be conceived as a reality existing independently of them. Correlatively, human beings cannot be portrayed separately from their being-at-home in a life-world, which is constitutive of human at-homeness. However, this primordial being at home is mediated by living presences encrusted within memorial traditions that define identities, objects, and thresholds. The rational fabric of Galileo’s life-world, ostentatiously certified by his sibylline motto, a yearning for sensate esperienze e certe dimostrazioni, is interwoven throughout with motifs of hermeticism. These motifs form a unique style of being-in-the-world, always poised between gloom and laughter. A jester survives in the comedy of heresy and libertinism, and yet a thread is traceable delineating a quest for the divine. The book responds to my Herculean labors to reenact Galileo’s experiments—a work that has occupied me, emboldening and frustrating, for two decades. The lesson I have drawn from that engagement with materials, reinvented apparatus, and reticent texts is that the role of experiential learning within Galileo’s life-world is intractable from historiographic perspectives that focus ← xi | xii → exclusively on textual exegesis. The latter must include an understanding of the involvements, his and ours, that are constitutive of the significance of the totality of his and our claims to the veracity of lived-through experience. Reenactment suggests that a tradition of textual memorials becomes intelligible only in a confrontation with life that embraces wholeness, which means transforming oneself continually in order to be at home in one’s transforming life-world. This conclusion is motivated by the stunning results of reenactment.1 Texts do not encode the Mercurial phenomena of lived-through experience. The veracity of lived-through experience transcends the descriptive power of language. The face-to-face with objects on the scene of experiment poses the problem of severance in the knowing process, the hiatus between the verbally articulable and the unspeakable, namely, the experiential. The exegete who withdraws from the scene is marooned on an island of deaf mutes. He lives in a state of destitution of the imagination that emasculates the heroics of hermeneutics. This is why, I think, Galileo’s experiments have been so often misunderstood, or their historical reality denied. This book offers a critical reflection on my attempt to restore Galileo’s life-world within my own life-world, or vice versa, on the mystery of my feeling at home in Galileo’s.

Most historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science, including my past self, have portrayed Galileo as a contributor to the scientific revolution.2 We have tended to privilege micro-history and a conceptual framework that speaks to analytic philosophy, or the sociology of science, regardless of the differences concerning the minutiae of the specific objects that were put under scrutiny. The unintended consequence of this wide-spread methodology has been the neglect of esoteric aspects of Galileo’s life-world that challenge the positivist schema of the emergence of modern science. However, Nicholas Jardine has warned that “it is misleading to credit Galileo with promotion of a modern mathematical-cum-experimental science”.3 I agree with his assessment, in the sense that friendly agreement gives me the opportunity to think with the freedom of suspending the prejudices of received historiography and of questioning my prejudices, by way of playing with them for the pleasure ← xii | xiii → and the sake of it, as if there were a deeper truth to be glimpsed when thought plays with itself. In this playful spirit, I read his admonition as an implicit invitation to reappraise the analytic framework that has prevailed in the field. Thus I have taken an integrative methodological stance while writing the book. I label it hermeneutic encounter. I summarize it briefly, to myself and to the benevolent reader, as follows.

I look at historical documents from a perspective that is hospitable to the ethnicity of reason (on which, I will say more below). The analytic framework aims at formulating logical arguments in support of historiographic or philosophical claims. In first approximation the hermeneutic encounter aims at experiencing the outgrowth of complex historical objects from their roots in the life-world. Within the life-world dereistic energies such as paradox, incoherence, or estrangement, nurture the soil in which creativity germinates. The notion of dereistic energies refers to modes of being-in-the-world that do not privilege one particular reality, or a particular formal order such as the polarization of knowing subject and object of knowledge. Dereistic energies disinhibit creative intercourse within the life-world. The hermeneutic of encounter empowers the reader to experience these active forces. It rehabilitates the epistemic value of paradox, incoherence, or estrangement, which only appear to be marginal, if not degenerative phenomena from the traditional viewpoint. I work by placing sundry historical sources on a larger historical canvass. First I contemplate them as uncooked materials in an alchemist’s crucible. Then I fire the furnace to vivify the mixture in my imagination. This iterative process of dissolution and coagulation of ideas (solve et coagula, the secret of the spagyrist) evokes formative realities as diverse as, say, astrological lore, or devotional pilgrimage, or the grotesqueries of Olympian deities on the stages of the commedia dell’ arte, or religious heresy. It depends on the ingredients in the crucible. Finally, I put the transformed materials to the test of encounter, letting their souls blurt out strange words in their own dialects. Thus I enter into a dialogue with them from within the horizon of my own life-world. The alchemy of the imagination reactivates the dereistic energies originally present in Galileo’s life-world, allowing me to synergize with his creative processes.4 Active imagination has the power to transcend the culturally ← xiii | xiv → sanctioned censorship of consciousness and corporeality, and thus attain a more genuine openness for being-in-the-world, towards and beyond the finite world horizon. This power of the imagination that resides beyond individual consciousness, with its marked pantheistic inspiration, was well known to the hermetic-spiritual alchemists of the seventeenth century, but it has since been obscured by Christian rationalism, the notion of truth as adequatio intellectus et rei, that quickly allied itself to early modern science, because it threatens Christian eschatology, i.e., the doctrine of the individual human soul that will face God’s final judgment.5

In the chapters I collate the products of this alchemy of the imagination. Their sequence is not intended to form an overarching deductive structure though fragments of aporetic argumentation will inevitably be intermingled in the text. It is the alchemy of the imagination that sustains the hermeneutic encounter. The chapters are canovacci (like the plots of the commedia dell’ arte), each featuring a principal character, or archetype, lending the chapter its evocative title. These archetypal figures were coaxed out of the crucible of Galileo’s life-world. They are imaginative transmutations of dereistic energies that I could resonate with. But Galileo’s life-world is not a territory open for exploration in a straightforward sense, for, as I already intimated, it is not an object that exists separately from my own life-world. Rather than being an adventurous explorer, I therefore prefer to play the host in a host-guest relationship that catapults both figures into the drama and revelation of hospitality.

There are features in the hermeneutic encounter which break with certain expectations. I reach no definitive conclusions that could be demonstrated in a ← xiv | xv → stringent form of argument such as a demonstrative syllogism. I find reasoning that seeks apodictic closure at all cost a degenerative pathology of mind that has affected my way of thinking, through both education and cultural conditioning, but which is not incurable. The received justification for seeking apodictic closure is supposed to be an ethical norm, the intellectual honesty that the investigator proclaims as unrenounceable commitment to eternal truth. But all to often, it seems to me, this justification is a mask hiding an inflated egotism that we have inherited with vengeance from the male-dominance hierarchies in our primate lineage. Behind it is the principle of pleasure. It is the pleasure of witnessing, or engaging in the violent diatribe in which a designated defendant is finally slaughtered in the public arena before a conniving audience.6 Hence a measure of relief, if not an impossible redemption, must be sought somehow, for human experience needs to be restored to the balance of health, which entails the recognition of our infinite obligation to all forms of existence. Throughout modern European history the violence of the controversialist, religious, political, intellectual, has all too often translated into the brutality of the fascist interrogator.7 Argument is a violence that coerces the litigants into an implosive, self-destructive state of mind, into a violation of each other’s at-homeness in their life-world. It denigrates whatever is perceived as resisting its belligerent logic.8 The hermeneutic encounter that ← xv | xvi → I propose does not reconstruct historical facts by way of violence, at least not consciously, or in order to demarcate orthodox styles of inquiry from deviant ones. Rather, it seeks to decipher the spectrum of involvements diffracted by the luminous presence of the guest. It entangles the object-guest with the nakedness of the host, revealing the queerness of their relationship. The renunciation of closure opens a door to the silent being of objects. For, as the poetess, Edith Doron, writes, “world, as that which is hidden in plain view, must be torn asunder, brought to the fore in order to free the being of that silent object which has ‘agreed to keep quiet about us’ from an imperial interpretive statement. If we are to understand encounter not as an act of comprehension in the sense of ‘grasping the world’ but instead as the immersive experience of de-familiarization, a dislodging of the concealed given ground of world, then the possibility of transformation is freed”.9 Thus, I hope the reader will be ← xvi | xvii → willing to join the jam session and extemporize on the schematics of action and thought that are offered in the canovacci, as enjoyable opportunities for encounter, for then the magic of transformation will be realized. My imaginations remain open and enthymematic, at times conflicting with one another, like melodic cues, dissonances waiting for a reader’s brilliant response, so as to depart anew in unforeseen directions. The archetypes occasionally recede, shadowy and ambivalent, and the flow of energy that returns the elements to massa confusa (primordial chaos) would require re-visioning the archetypes. I have striven to subdue my argumentative mindset, trying to resist the model of intentionality borrowed from the natural sciences that exacerbates the violence of the inquisitor. I have assembled the canovacci not so much from the perspective of the axiomatic ego, enjoining a foreclosure of mind, as from that of the exiled self, soaring in the nocturnal emptiness of encounter and willing to be lost in the immersive experience of de-familiarization.

The strength of the analytic method is that it posits particular historical objects as given at the beginning of inquiry, typically those studied by micro-history, such as Galileo’s law of falling bodies, or the discovery of the moon’s craters, to mention a couple of well-known examples. This givenness of the objects creates a starting-point for analytic reason to effect the dismantling of the objects into structural components that are taken to be explanatory (in some sense) of the formation of the whole. It subsequently reconstructs the putative logic that is presumed to be inherent in the objects as they have been handed down, be it the logical-mathematical argument that allowed Galileo to derive the law of falling bodies from first principles, or the social history of artisanship, labor, and embryonic capitalism, encrypted ← xvii | xviii → in the technology of polishing precious stones that was perfected by the Venetian artisans, and which inspired him to build his first telescope. Very often, however, the historical objects posited as worth investigating within the analytic framework are the cultural heritage of nineteenth-century science and positivism. The ideology of the positive sciences that colonialist Europe opposed to the magical thinking of ‘uncivilized’ societies had racist implications that have remained unexamined in the field of the history and philosophy of science. These prejudices have restricted the scope of inquiry. I am not suggesting that scholars, including myself, have been consciously racist, rather I am suggesting that nineteen-century racist prejudices have been molded into our research and educational institutions. For instance, most scientific journals reject submissions in other languages than (typically) English, and many scientific and educational institutions tolerate or passively encourage ignorance of languages, one of the most pernicious manifestations of institutional racism.10

The analytic process of inquiry in the history and philosophy of science does not seem to have been efficacious in questioning the racist myth of ← xviii | xix → science as the supreme court of knowledge. In sharp contrast, hermeneutic encounter is willing to acknowledge the institutional racism that has become part and parcel with our intellectual practices, including science, and hence to start a process of reparation aimed at integrating itself, on a humble level field, with the ethnical backgrounds of reason. It invests no objects, cultures or languages with special rights at the beginning of research. It renounces the principle that an absolute dialectics transcending the hermeneutic process is to be discovered within historical objects assumed as worth investigating. Rather, it mobilizes a motley assortment of world-less materials and objects, in the sense that they initially appear in self-reflecting consciousness as withdrawn from the world which originally constituted their meanings. It endows them with equal rights to enter into a dialogue with us. The alchemy of the imagination pursues their possible transmutations in order to liberate them into the totality of significance for universal existence. This non-violent hermeneutics of liberation reawakens the historical determinations that marked off the possibilities of being in which life has been involved in order to lay those possibilities open once again for involvement.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XXXIII, 234 pp., 8 b/w ill., 1 table

Biographical notes

Paolo Palmieri (Author)

Paolo Palmieri received his Ph.D. in history and philosophy of science at the University of London. He currently teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, exploring the traditions which shaped modernity during the late middle ages through the twentieth century. His research includes work on the creativity processes at the crossroads of art, science, philosophy, and pedagogy. Dr. Palmieri’s special interests also include early modern science and philosophy, hermeticism, the Montessori method, pragmatism, existentialism, and phenomenology. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books.


Title: Hermes and the Telescope