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SystemThe Shaping of Modern Knowledge$
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Clifford Siskin

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780262035316

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262035316.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM MIT PRESS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.mitpress.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright The MIT Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in MITSO for personal use (for details see www.mitpress.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy).date: 18 October 2018

Engaging System

Engaging System

(p.17) 1 Engaging System

Clifford Siskin

The MIT Press

This chapter explains how we can best “see” system using new tools, just as Galileo saw system using his improved spyglass. It starts with a graph of the astonishingly linear rise of the percentage of texts referencing system during the eighteenth century and then turns back to Bacon’s and Galileo’s efforts to use their new “resources” to move knowledge forward from Scholastic debate: the Jovian lunar “system” became evidence for a new “system of the world.” The chapter then engages Walter Ong’s question of how “system” took such rapid hold of the physical and intellectual worlds at the turn into the seventeenth century—a connection represented as a handshake in a 1640 frontispiece to Bacon’s Advancement of Knowledge. To Ong’s and Marshall McLuhan’s emphasis on the effect of print, the chapter turns to the concept of genre to add to the answer both a generic feature of system itself—its ability to act as a scalable technology—and a comparison to another genre—the fragmentary efforts of the “essay.” The chapter concludes with graphs comparing counts of “system” and “essay” during the eighteenth century and with an analysis of how system proliferated by scaling up parts into wholes and vice versa. That scalability allowed for both Enlightenment encyclopaedism and what the physicist David Deutsch calls “error-correction.”

Keywords:   Galileo, Francis Bacon, Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Print, Genre, Scalable, Essay, Encyclopaedism, Error correction

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