, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 59–62 | Cite as

Mechanism and agency in science from premodern automata to cybernetics

Jessica Riskin: The restless clock: a history of the centuries-long argument over what makes living things tick. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015, 544pp, $30.00 PB
  • Victor D. Boantza
Book Review

In this ambitious and challenging book, Riskin takes up the history of a fundamental yet complex scientific quandary. How is nature to be described and understood: Is it essentially passive or is it possessed of inner activity? Are natural entities basically inert or do they have some degree of agency? These questions entail ontological, epistemological, and ethical concerns. The tensions they embody have been thrust to the fore with particular philosophical and cultural vigor during the 17th century, when proponents of the New Science championed the mechanistic worldview. As Riskin explains, echoing traditional interpretations, this “core paradigm of modern science … describes the world as a machine … whose parts are made of inert matter, moving only when set in motion by some external force, such as a clockmaker winding the spring.” Crucially, such “a mechanism is something lacking agency, produced and moved by outside forces; and nature, as a great mechanism, is similarly passive.”...

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Program in the History of Science, Technology, and MedicineUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA

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