Pseudodoxia EpidemicaThomas Browne's vast work refuting the common errors and superstitions of his age Pseudodoxia Epidemica first appeared in 1646 and went through six editions, the last revision occurring in 1672. Also known as Vulgar Errors derived from its full title, Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, Browne's encyclopaedia contains evidence of his adherence to the Baconian method of empirical observation of nature and her properties .
The three determintors for obtaining truth for Browne were firstly, the authority of past authors, secondly, the act of reason and lastly, empirical experience. Each of these determinators are employed upon subjects ranging from the cosmological to refuting of common folk-lore. Subjects covered in Pseudodoxia are arranged in the time-honoured scale of creation, the learned doctor assaying to dispel errors and fallacies concerning the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms before refuting errors pictorial, to those of man, geography , astronomy and finally the cosmos.
Although Pseudodoxia Epidemica has been ridiculed 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 paved the way for all future popular scientific journalism. Indeed many pages of Pseudodoxia besides being evidence of Browne's 'at-first-hand' empiricism are also early examples in the seventeenth century scientific revolution of the formulation of scientific hypothesis.
The popularity of Pseudodoxia is confirmed by the fact of its going through no less than six editions; the first edition appearing upon the eve of Civil War, under the reign of Charles I in 1646 , no less than a further four editions were published, during an era of printing press liberalisation and social unrest during the Commonwealth era of Cromwell in 1650, twice 1658, and in 1659, one final edition appearing in (1672) during the reign of King Charles II when the English scientific revolution was well in progress, culminating in Newton's discoveries. It was also subsequently translated and published in French, dutch, Latin and German.
Throughout this vast work Browne's prodigous learning is evident. His sources include both the ancients Greekss as well as the latest available writing in scientific spheres . Throughout its pages alongside its early usage of hypothesis and Baconian investigation Browne's subtle humour can also be detected.
An early chapter includes Browne's experiments with static electricity and magnetism (the word electricity being one of many neologisms along with words such as medical, pathology, hallucination, literary, and computer which Browne's vigorous inventiveness of scientific words introduced into the English language.
Although often overlooked as an example of the genre of encyclopaedia the preface to Enquiries into presumed Truths 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.
Today there is considerable confusion as to how best define Sir Thomas Browne's scientific methodology, described 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 summarised the ambiguities of Browne's scientific view-point thus -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.
Robert Sencourt defined Browne's relationship to scientific enquiry as - 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.