Penelope Sitter – Science, Art and Astrology



Contemporary discussions of astrological theory consider questions about the nature of horoscopic astrology. The question arises, for example, whether horoscopic astrology is a science, an art, or something else. This paper focuses an aspect of what horoscopic astrology is and how it relates to art and science. Tradition, theory, and practice suggest that practice of the arts instills science. The modern Western paradigm would confine science to modern technology, and would confine scientific method to the method that governs the practice of modern technology. In the view the paper states, the modern paradigm—a paradigm that elides the very possibility that astrology reveals the real world—is founded in modern technology and its practice. The paper argues that what modern technologists—usually termed “scientists”—do or discover is not properly accorded status as the sole modern instance of science or the sole means to knowledge of the real world. Modern technology is an art whose proper practice establishes the method and sets the rules for the practice of modern technology. Neither modern technology, however, nor any other single art, properly establishes the method and rules for all arts whose practice instills science. The paper considers the Indo-European root of “science” and scientia, a root that suggests that science is discernment of the world’s parts and categories. From the point of view taken in the paper, horoscopic astrology is an art whose practice reveals the real world, whose theory explains it, and whose model represents it. We use horoscopic astrology to understand the ordered categories of the manifest world, and we practice it to reveal and work with the world from within it. In the view stated in the paper, horoscopic astrology is an art whose proper practice instills a fundamental science of the manifest world.


Current and ongoing projects to uncover the great and disrupted tradition of horoscopic astrology (1) as it developed in the Middle East and the West are enriching contemporary astrological practice. The project to reconstruct and revivify practice that accords with astrological tradition, fractured though it is in the West, benefits greatly by consideration of some foundational things about astrology, its method, and its practice. We need to know and be able to state what it is to do astrology, and what it is to understand the world with use of an astrological frame. We need to be able to speak of what it means that we can look into and through the frame of horoscopic astrology to see a wonderfully coherent, meaningful, dynamic, communicative, and soul-forging world.

Contemporary theoretical considerations of astrology may discuss whether astrology is an art, sacred art, science, divinatory method, occult practice, mantic art, archetypal schema of cosmos, therapeutic resource, religion, or a combination or variety of those things and perhaps others. In the point of view stated here, astrology is an art whose practice instills science in the well-trained, well-practiced, and science-attentive practitioner.(2) To explain this view, the paper uses and comments on words to state a view of what science is, what art is, and how art and science relate to each other and to astrology.


The Latin verb scire is usually translated as “to know” and scientia, which derives from scire, ordinarily is rendered as “knowledge.” Yet, upon further inquiry and reflection, one encounters a difficulty. The word “knowledge” does not trace its etymology through scire or scientia, and those Latin words derive from a different Indo-European root (3) than that from which “knowledge” derives. The modern English word “knowledge” traces its etymology through gnosis (which itself is Greek but has a Latin form), a word whose Indo-European root is gn (or gno).(4) The very different Indo-European roots of “science” and “knowledge” suggest that “science” means something distinctly different from “knowledge.” The difference between the meanings of “science” and “knowledge” suggests, in turn, that science and knowledge differ.

Consider the use of the word “knowledge” to translate scientia. If both gnosis and scientia are translated as “knowledge,” a speaker of modern English is lead to believe that gnosis and scientia are identical, and to treat them that way. Such a speaker, moreover, becomes heavily trained and determined to equate the words “science” and “knowledge,” and, consequently, to understand neither. The equation of the word “science” with the word “knowledge” leads, moreover, to the view that science and knowledge are one thing and the same.

The word “knowledge” already works overtime when assigned to translate scientia. Yet that single word— like the generic “snow” of people who live far from the polar circles—is piled with still greater responsibility. When the usual English translation of the Greek episteme as “knowledge” is added to the job, “knowledge” works triple-time. One could go further and add the Sanskrit veda, which also gets thrown into the modern English “knowledge” pot to stew a soup that swirls with numerous possible, ambiguous and confounded meanings. From this overuse alone, confusion arises. It becomes no wonder, therefore, that since the beginnings of the modern period in the 16th and 17th century thinkers have so often and so much considered questions about what knowledge is and how human beings grasp it.(5)

It is error to translate scientia as “knowledge,” and the equation of science with knowledge is false. If scientia is not knowledge, then scientia and “science,” and their shared Indo-European root, may be supposed to have other meanings to reveal and make available for human use than do “knowledge,” gnosis and gn.

The reconstructed Indo-European root of “science” and of scientia is sek, a root that means “cut, split; divide, part, drop off.” From sek and roots that are its forms or extensions or that intertwine with it, come, for example, “cut,” “incise,” “decide,” “precise,” “chisel” and “sculpture.” “Prescience,” “conscious,” “conscience,” “omniscience,” and “sift,” “ascertain,” “discern” and “skill,” all have sek as a common Indo-European root.

In their Latin dictionary, Lewis and Short defined scientia as “a knowing or being skilled in anything, knowledge, science, skill, expertness.”(6)Lewis and Short defined s c –   o as “knowing, understanding, acquainted with, skilled, versed, or expert in any thing.” The Oxford English Dictionary (7) defines “scient” as “having science, knowledge or skill.”

Science is understanding of how the world and the things it comprises are divided or categorized. It is discernment of how the world can be divided to reveal itself, its parts and its construction. Science is the comprehension of how things and world work in accord with regularities that rest on natural laws.

Discernment is closely related to science, and is one of its foundations. Discernment, like science, is founded in attentive and skillful sifting or division. We discern when we attend to and skillfully distinguish one part, category or kind of thing from another. The exercise of skill in cutting, sifting and discernment also results in continued development of the skill exercised.

We need to sift, cut, categorize and otherwise divide to know the world we inhabit. Yet, neither cutting and sifting nor dividing and categorizing are themselves knowledge, nor do either reveal all about a thing or world divided and categorized. Even discernment reveals less than full knowledge of a thing discerned.

Science is useful, and even necessary, to full knowledge of things and the world of things, and science and knowledge may overlap and otherwise relate. Scientia, however, is not well translated as “knowledge,” and science and knowledge are not coextensive. One may speak of “scientific knowledge” (the term usually used to translate the Greek episteme) but, and despite dictionary definitions and usual contemporary usage, science and knowledge do not equate.

In the viewpoint represented here, modern and contemporary use of the word “science” misleads in fundamental ways. This misuse of language encourages and produces—even requires—significant shrouding and distortion of reality. On one hand, we equate science and technology, purporting to reduce science until it becomes so much less inclusive than it is traditionally known to be that it becomes something else altogether. On the other hand, we equate knowledge and science, purporting to reduce knowledge to the more limited purview proper to science. To reduce knowledge to science, while simultaneously reducing science to technology, reduces knowledge to technology.

The work of Thomas Kuhn (8) focused attention on what Kuhn termed “paradigms.” Since the time of Kuhn’s work, others have identified and considered what has come to be called “the modern paradigm,” or the “disenchantment” of the world.(9) The technological foundation of the modern paradigm becomes apparent when one sees the paradigm routinely, and usually unquestioningly, applied to all statements that purport to speak of the real world. Those who operate within the modern paradigm would subject all statements that claim to speak of the real world to the methods and rules by which modern technology is practiced and confirmed. In the view taken here, science is far more fundamental and inclusive than modern technology. As a result, the world that science models is much fuller, and therefore much more fully real, than the world modeled by application of the theories and method of modern technology.

In the modern West, we generally assume that science is what Isaac Newton did when he promulgated his laws of motion. We see science in what Albert Einstein did when he set forth his theories of relativity. Robert Boyle, we say, practiced science when he measured properties of air, as did Charles Darwin to develop a theory of evolving life. We assume that we know science when we see it. We see science in the acknowledged and technology-conforming practices and theories of Newton, Einstein, Boyle and Darwin, and in those of countless other practitioners and theorists of modern technology, known and unknown.(10)

The decision what to include in the category of science and what to exclude is one that implicates important theoretical questions. We, nevertheless, often make the decision to include or exclude in an automatic or reflexive manner. The reflex is born of the modern paradigm, and the modern paradigm holds the reflex in place. From within the modern paradigm, one categorizes as science only that which is recognized as founded in the interests, practices and theories of modern technology.

Until the work of Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and others,(11) historians as a group largely ignored, and largely— though temporarily—buried, significant aspects of the work of those who studied the natural world in the 16th and 17th centuries. Failure to appreciate the import of Isaac Newton’s lifelong engagement with alchemy— and, particularly, failure to recognize the integral part, perhaps even central role, alchemy played in the development of Newton’s thought—provides an outstanding example. Since about the 1970s, many historians of science take a fuller, less dogmatic view of the work of Newton and others. From the view taken in this paper, this development represents a refocus from an appreciably fabricated history of modern technology to a broader and truer history of modern science.

This more recent view of the history of science in the modern West emerges from a time when the history of modern technology was conceived in a manner that would eliminate from science all but technology, and so would eliminate science as a whole. That view, and therefore that elision, is no longer sustainable. It is no longer possible to reasonably sustain a view that would set the narrow interests, approaches, values and views of modern technology retrospectively, anachronistically and otherwise falsely in science’s proper place. The more recent view, and the related ongoing work, contributes significantly to inquiries that call into question the modern technology-based paradigm.

Art and Science

Art can be defined as “skill in doing anything as the result of knowledge and practice.” The word, particularly in its plural form, can be explained as:

Certain branches of learning which are of the nature of intellectual instruments or apparatus for more advanced studies, or for the work of life[. T]heir main principles having been already investigated and established, they are in the position of subjects requiring only to be acquired and practiced.(12)

Art rests upon practice. Art, from the Indo-European root ar, “reckon, arrange, fit, join,” or “to fit together,” is founded in practical know-how, in developed capacity, and in entrained, practiced ability to arrange things and fit them together. Science takes things apart in body, image or thought. Accordingly, science derives its name from a root that means “cut.” Art fits things together; its name derives from a root that means “join.” Art and science go hand in hand. Both require skill, and discernment of the structured or organic order of the things to which they attend.

In a consideration of scientia as understood in the Middle Ages and in the modern period, the academic scholar, James S. Ackerman, explained:

In the Middle Ages, an “art” was a technique, and the seven liberal “arts” that constituted the core of education were not so much areas of knowledge as tools for getting and dispensing knowledge: the Quadrivium (arithmetic, music—because it taught proportion and harmony—geometry, astronomy) for penetrating into the structure of things, and the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) for representing the structure in words.(13)

Ackerman noted that scientia—science—“is inaccessible except through mastery of technique.” As Ackerman explained, in order to acquire science as understood in medieval Europe, “one must be grounded in the ‘arts,’ or at least one of them.”(14) Ackerman noted that “techniques gain an exaggerated position in a culture insufficiently controlled by scientia,”(15) and noted a modern “confusion of the scientific attitude with mere technique.”(16) He said that the modern scientia “has exalted the technician and thus actually has blurred the distinction between technique and scientia.”(17)

An art is a subject “requiring only to be acquired and practiced.” Traditional arts and their practice are a means by which a cohesive group of human beings organize a community’s productive, social, and sacred activities. Generally speaking, traditional arts change little and slowly. When not subject to destruction by outside forces, traditional arts remain notably stable over time. Their practice changes by accretion, adjustment, and occasional breakthrough. Accordingly, the science that practice of traditional arts instills is likewise stable and likewise creative. In individual practitioners, skill grows incrementally, and sometimes by a leap or a bound, as science accrues accordingly and proportionately with the increase of skill in practice.

Phillipus Aurelius Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), known by the name Paracelsus, emphasized the great and fundamental importance of practice. Paracelsus’ focus was the art of medicine, an art he practiced with enormous energy and devotion. Paracelsus had no use for academic treatments of medicine divorced from practice, or for medical scholars who confine themselves to book learning and to theories ungrounded in practice. He publicly and notoriously burned a copy of Avicenna’s classical work on medicine; some say he threw Galen’s work into the same bonfire.

Apart from his formal education as a physician, Paracelsus learned throughout his life, from experience and from those with experience. He learned from barber-surgeons, bath attendants, apothecaries, herbalists (including women, though he had notable misogynist leanings), alchemists, magicians, the Romany people, monks, peasants, and anyone else who knew what he needed to know. “Learn and learn, ask and ask, do not be ashamed,” he said, and said (again in translation):

We have personal teachers in nature… They are born through seeing and touching, and not through nonseeing. For seeing and touching beget truth.(18) Paracelsus intended to place theory in its proper place in relationship to practice. He did not intend to dismiss or denigrate theory that is founded in practice. He insisted instead that theory must always rely upon practice.

Theory and practice should together form one, and should remain undivided. For every theory is also a kind of speculative practice and is no more and no less true than active practice. But what would you do if your speculation did not jibe with findings based on practice? Both must be true or both must be untrue. Look at the carpenter: first he builds his house in his head. But whence does he take this structure? From his active practice. And if he did not have this, he could not erect his structure in his mind: thus, both theory and practice rest upon experience. Practice should not be based on speculative theory; theory should be derived from practice.(19)

“Art” does not polarize with “science” in the way it is often polarized in modern terms. We attempt to polarize art and science, for example, when we seek to determine whether astrology is an art or whether, on the other hand, it is a science. In the viewpoint taken here, horoscopic astrology is an art whose well-trained, skilled and attentive practice instills science.

Horoscopic astrology is a method by which we divide and discern reality when we study the logos of the living world through the stars.(20) It is an art by which we put together, in an image-derived, image-making, and animating synthesis, that which we first parsed and considered. Astrology depends on and generates science instilled in practice in accord with proper method understood in the light of sound theory.

Modern technology’s method applies to modern technology. The method and rules of practice of one art, however, neither establish the method nor define the rules of practice of other arts. Nor do the method and rules of one art set and limit generally applicable conditions under which science is attained. Modern technology and its method set no proper standard for a general method that would regulate practice of all the arts that instill science. The method and rules of modern technology are even less fit to define the scope, limits and nature of human understanding or of knowledge itself.

A maker of clay pots, even a fine master potter, would have no business prescribing method to a practitioner of T’ai-chi Ch’uan. Conversely, it would overstep the limits proper to the art of T’ai-chi Ch’uan if its practitioners defined the science instilled in the art’s practice as the only true science. Similarly, one who splits atoms or searches computed results for statistical significance is in no position to impose on others a view that is founded in the practice of atom-splitting or statistics, and defined as the sole science of the real world. Neither is the atom-splitter or statistician in a position to dictate method to one who divines from the stars. Each might learn something of science from the other, however, and each might pick up tips or perspective on method or technique by watching with a trained and attentive eye as the other demonstrates his art.

In a traditional view—and one in which astrology can be understood and to which, therefore, it can be admitted—“the scientific method,” understood in a generic sense, is the trained and skilled practice of the arts, fashioned for each art as the art requires. An art, and, therefore, its method, may be organized into various systems. Each system is practiced according to the system’s procedures, rules and particular techniques, set up and used in accord with method.


To be continued…



Recent Posts