Pseudodoxia Epidemica

From Academic Kids

Sir Thomas Browne's vast work refuting the common errors and superstitions of his age, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, first appeared in 1646 and went through five 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. Although often overlooked as an example of the genre of encyclopaedia, Browne, in the preface to Enquiries into presumed Truths, quite specifically defines his written work as an encyclopaedia in the statement,

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

Browne's three determinants for obtaining truth were firstly, the authority of past authors, secondly, the act of reason and lastly, empirical experience. Each of these determinants are employed upon subjects ranging from the cosmological to common folklore. Subjects covered in Pseudodoxia are arranged in the time-honoured Renaissance scale of creation, the learned doctor assaying to dispel errors and fallacies concerning the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms before moving to errors pictorial, to those of man, geography, astronomy and finally of the cosmos.

Throughout this vast work Browne's prodigious learning is evident. His sources included both the ancient Greeks 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.

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 libraries throughout the seventeenth century. In fact Browne's encyclopaedic work was in the vanguard of the scientific writing of its day and it paved the way for all future popular scientific journalism. Indeed many pages of Pseudodoxia not only are evidence of Browne's 'at-first-hand' empiricism but are also early examples during the seventeenth century scientific revolution of the formulation of scientific hypothesis. The second of its seven books entitled Tenets concerning Mineral and Vegetable Bodies 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.

The popularity of Pseudodoxia in its day is confirmed by the fact that it went through no less than five editions; the first edition appearing upon the eve of the English Civil War, during the reign of Charles I in 1646. No less than a further four editions followed; three times during an era of printing press liberalisation and social unrest during the Commonwealth era of Cromwell in 1650, twice in 1658, and in 1659. One final edition appeared in (1672) during the reign of King Charles II when the English scientific revolution was well in progress, culminating in Isaac Newton's discoveries. Pseudodoxia was subsequently translated and published in French, Dutch, Latin and German throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Today there is considerable confusion as how best to define Sir Thomas Browne's scientific methodology, described by E.J. Merton thus:

The eclecticism 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

whilst Robert Sencourt succinctly 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.

External links

  • text of Pseudodoxia ( (1672 edition)
  • Browne's Index to Pseudodoxia Epidemica ( entitled An Alphabetical Table, records the wide spectrum of subjects covered.

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