Very Short Introduction Scientific Revolution Essay

I have been reading Lawrence M. Principe’s The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (2011) slowly and periodically for the last couple of months, mostly on Sunday mornings. Principe is the Drew Professors of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of History of Science and Technology and the Department of Chemistry. His essay in Isis, “Alchemy Restored” (2011), drew some heavy criticism recently from founder of Science 2.0 Hank Campbell, which also received a biting rebuttal from another blogger. Principe’s most recent work, The Secrets of Alchemy (2013) is a continuation of that earlier essay, bringing alchemy out of the shadows and restoring it to its important place in human history and culture.

This emphasis on alchemy or the more esoteric currents in western civilization is also found in Principe’s very readable The Scientific Revolution. At the outset of this wonderful little book, Principe states that the “‘scientific revolution’, now more frequently called the ‘early modern period’, was a time of both continuity and change.” In his first chapter, “New worlds and old worlds,” he convincingly argues that “early modern accomplishments drew upon intellectual and institutional foundations established in the Middle Ages.” He outlines this “rich tapestry of interwoven ideas and currents” with succinct and apt comments on “the Renaissance and its medieval origins,” the periodization of history by humanist historians Floretines Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) and Flavio Biondo (1392-1463), the recovery of Greek and Roman learning in the fifteenth century, the invention and successful deployment of moveable-type printing by Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468), which “allowed for faster communication through broadsides, newsletters, pamphlets, periodicals, and a slew of other paper ephemera.” Principe continues with précis comments on the voyages of discovery and Christian reforms, all along the way emending and revising old, trite ideas of a “dark” and “stagnate” medieval period. By the 1500s, Europeans “inhabited a new and rapidly changing world.”

A cacophony of voices promoted a diversity of ideas, goods, possibilities. Throngs jostled elbows to test, purchase, reject, praise, criticize, or just touch the varied merchandise. Almost everything was up for grabs.

In chapter two, “The connected world,” Principe examines how early modern thinkers arranged and ordered the world. “There world,” he writes, “was woven together in a complex web of connections and interdependencies, its every corner filled with purpose and rich with meaning.” Working with certain categories of thought, early modern natural philosopher viewed everything in the world in a continuous hierarchy, a scalanaturae or ladder of nature. “The scala envisions of a world in which every creature has a place, and each creature is linked to those immediately above and below it, such that there is a gradual and continuous rise from the lowest level to the highest, without gaps, along what has been called ‘the Great Chain of Being.'” This connectedness of the natural world gave the natural philosopher “wider vision,” one which included an imitate knowledge of theology and metaphysics.

Principe calls this the “cosmic perspective,” and it “undergirded a variety of practices and projects” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most conspicuously in magia naturalis, or natural magic. “The goal of the practitioner of magia,” he informs the reader, “is to learn and to control the connections embedded in the world in order to manipulate them for practical ends.” To this end, magia naturalis promoted careful observation, reading of texts, networks of compilations, a interconnected world of sympathies and analogies—these early modern thinkers thus created complex webs of correspondences with objects of nature. According to Principe, “they were trying to understand the world; they were trying to make sense of things and to make uses of the powers of nature. They moved inductively from observed or reported instances to a general principle and then deductively to its consequences and applications.” Principe concludes chapter two with a brief word on “religious motivations for scientific investigation.” The early moderns saw “a cosmically interconnected world, where everything, human beings and God and all branches of knowledge, were inextricably linked parts of a whole.”

In chapter three, Principe discusses how the intellectual world of the sixteenth century divided the universe into the sublunar world and the superlunar world. The superlunar world, for example, was anything beyond the earth and moon. Here Principe discusses the historical background to early modern astronomical models, beginning from Plato (427-347 BC), Claudius Ptolemy (c. 90-168 AD), to Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), and Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Principe peppers this discussion with short comments on the ubiquity of astrology and notions of divine harmonies among early modern natural philosophers. He also rightly argues that the “Galileo affair” resulted from a “tangle of intellectual, political, and personal issues so intricate that historians are still unraveling them. It was not simple matter of ‘science versus religion.'” He concludes by reminding readers that “Newton believed in the prisca sapientia, an idea popular among many Renaissance humanists of an ‘original wisdom’ divinely revealed aeons ago and corrupted over time.” Newton, moreover, believed “that gravitational attraction resulted from the direct and continuous action of God in the world.” He saw the “task of natural philosophy as the restoration of the knowledge of the complete system of the cosmos, including God as the creator and as the ever-present Agent.”

The sublunar world is the focus of chapter four, and Principe recounts how “early moderns re-examined the Earth, the elements, and the processes of change and motion, and formulated a range of systems for making sense of things.” Here he provides brief but apropos comments on William Gilbert (1544-1603), Nicholas Steno (1638-86), and Athanasius Kircher (1601-80). His pithy remark that the scientific revolution was the golden age of alchemy is well-attested in the historical record.

In chapter five Principe addresses “The microcosm and the living world,” that is, the early modern cataloging of living creatures as a result of “voyages of exploration but also to the invention of the microscope, which revealed unimagined worlds of complexity in ordinary objects and new worlds of life.” Here too Principe reveals the importance of astrology and alchemy in early modern medicine and anatomy. In studying the flora and fauna of plants and animals, early modern “natural historians” blended “naturalistic and descriptive details about various species with a mass of literary, etymological, biblical, moral, mythological, and metaphorical meanings that had accumulated around each animal or plant since antiquity.”

In his concluding chapter on “Building a world of science,” Principe concentrates on how the new scientific knowledge was used to control and change the world, giving “human beings greater power over it.” The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries “witnessed a special turn towards applying scientific study and knowledge to address contemporaneous problems and needs.” The “world of artifice constructed by technology” began in Renaissance Italy, transforming landscape and cityscape, but also altering, with the introduction of gunpowder and bronze cannons, warfare forever. The quest for property and the desire to “order the world” led to developments in cartography and navigation. In this sense, science, technology, and statecraft were inextricably linked.

According to Principe, the “linkage of scientific discovery to practical application” is most associated with Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). But what historians of a previous generation most negated is now made clear: “Bacon saw the goal of such operative knowledge as to regain the power of human dominion over nature bestowed by God in Genesis, but lost with Adam’s Fall.” This was Bacon’s motivation: the restoration of both nature and religion. The Christian community of Bensalem in Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1626), for instance, was the home of Solomon’s House, “a state-sponsored institution for the study of nature devoted to ‘the knowledge of causes and the secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” Many after Bacon attempted at building scientific societies modeled after Solomon’s House.  The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge (1662), writes Principe, “can be seen as an attempt to realize Solomon’s House.” Other scientific groups and societies grow beyond the confines of the academy. In the end, however, “amid our enviable store of natural knowledge, the wise, the peaceable, and the orderly Bensalem continues to elude us, even if it has never ceased to inspire.”

In an Epilogue, Principe almost laments the dramatic change in contemporary scientific research. “The constant awareness of history, of being part of a long and cumulative tradition of inquirers into nature, has been largely lost…The vision of a tightly interconnected cosmos has been fractured by the abandonment of questions of meaning and purpose, by narrowed perspectives and aims, and by a preference for a literalism ill-equipped to comprehend the analogy and metaphor fundamental to early modern thought…The result is a scientific domain disconnected from the broader vistas of human culture and existence. It impossible not to think ourselves the poorer for the loss of the comprehensive early modern vision, even while we are bound to acknowledge that modern scientific and technological development has enriched us with an astonishing level of material and intellectual wealth.” Enriched? Perhaps a better word here is “distracted.” Solomon’s House is indeed a distant dream.

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The Scientific Revolution


Professor Robert A. Hatch - University of Florida

Working Definition: By tradition, the "Scientific Revolution" refers to historical changes in thought & belief, to changes in social & institutional organization, that unfolded in Europe between roughly 1550-1700; beginning with Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), who asserted a heliocentric (sun-centered) cosmos, it ended with Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who proposed universal laws and a Mechanical Universe.

Was there such a thing as the 'Scientific Revolution' -- and if the question makes sense, what is it, or what was it? Better still, what do historians mean when they speak of the 'Scientific Revolution'?

What follows is a modest attempt to clarify basic issues and suggest others that are less obvious. As an introduction to the concept of the Scientific Revolution, the following narrative provides examples that make the story increasingly complex, arguably, it may seem to undermine the very notion of a Scientific Revolution. In any case, this short essay should be viewed as but one example of how historians more generally think about history.

Which is to say, the Scientific Revolution provides an excellent exercise for thinking about how historical periodizations emerge, develop, and mature. Arguably, periodizations serve as paradigms, for students and scholars alike. They also serve as a forum for debate. Good periodizations foster debate, and the best among them grow more richly problematic, they promote ever more focused research and ever more imaginative and satisfying interpretations of past events.

All students of history confront these kinds of issues. They are ever present in any historical periodization, whether it be the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment, or the Colonial Period, Civil War, Gilded Age, 'Sixties', or Harlem Renaissance.

More About the Scientific Revolution

A traditional description of the Scientific Revolution would go much further than our opening mini-definition allowed. A good basic description would include some of the following information (and inevitably) interpretive claims. Most specialists would agree on the following basic interpretations traditionally associated with the 'Scientific Revolution'

As we have said, in European history the term 'Scientific Revolution' refers to the period between Copernicus and Newton. But the chronological period has varied dramatically over the last 50 years. The broadest period acknowledged usually runs from Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) and his De Revolutionibus to Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Some historians have cut this back, claiming that it properly extends only to the publication of Newton's Principia (1687) or to his Opticks (1704) or to Newton's death (1727). More radical proposals have suggested that the Scientific Revolution might apply to the so-called Enlightenment 'Newtonians' thus extending to roughly 1750. Further, as we shall see below, some historians have cut back the earlier period. Some have all but removed Copernicus from their chronological definition, claiming that the 'Copernican Revolution' virtually began and ended in 1610 with the work of Galileo and Kepler. Historians have consistently disputed the presumed beginning and ending dates of the much-disputed 'Scientific Revolution'.

Most historians agree, however, that the traditional interpretation (which has its own history) was based on belief in a core transformation which began in cosmology and astronomy and then shifted to physics (some historians have argued that there were parallel developments in anatomy and physiology, represented by Vesalius and Harvey).

Most profoundly, some historians have argued, these changes in "natural philosophy" (= science) brought important transformations in what came to held as "real" (ontology) and how Europeans justified their claims to knowledge (epistemology).

The learned view of things in 16th-century thought was that the world was composed of Four Qualities (Aristotle's Earth, Water, Air, Fire). By contrast, Newton's learned contemporaries believed that the world was made of atoms or corpuscles (small material bodies). By Newton's day most of learned Europe believed the earth moved, that there was no such thing as demonic possession, that claims to knowledge (so the story goes) should be based on the authority of our individual experience, that is, on argument and sensory evidence. The motto of the Royal Society of London was: Nullius in Verba, roughly, Accept nothing on the basis of words (or someone else's authority).

Further Complexity for the Scientific Revolution

As a periodization, the Scientific Revolution has grown increasingly complex. As it has attempted to take account of new research and alternative perspectives, new additions and alterations have been made. Among the most obvious additions over the last 50 years have been a number of sub-periodizations that have been spawned by more narrow research topics, usually from a more focused topical theme or from a more narrow chronological period. Among these sub-periodizations, the more widely accepted include: The Copernican Revolution; the Galilean Revolution; the Keplerian Revolution; the Cartesian Synthesis; and not least, the Newtonian Revolution and the Newtonian Synthesis.

Understood as an historical periodization (which inevitably place limits of 'space, time & theme' -- that is, periodizations are defined by geographical, chronological, topical elements) the Scientific Revolution refers to European developments or movements extending over periods of at least 75 to 185 years. These developments involve changing conceptual, cultural, social, and institutional relationships involving nature, knowledge and belief.

As mentioned, specialist do not agree on the exact dates of the Scientific Revolution. Generally speaking, most scholars have reduced or entirely denied the earliest years of the Scientific Revolution, usually associated with what has been long known as the 'Copernican Revolution'. One noted historian, for example, has argued that if there was a Copernican Revolution, then it began and ended in 1610 with the work of Galileo and Kepler. Other specialists, emphasizing the development of key conceptual elements, have suggested that the key period of the Scientific Revolution was 1610-1660. Other scholars, specializing in social and institutional elements, have suggested that the period after 1660 was critical, as it was then that scientific periodicals and state-sponsored science emerged.

Additional Details - The Scientific Revolution

As we have said, a strong traditional claim is that the Scientific Revolution stands for a series of changes that stemmed from Copernicus' bold claim that the earth moves. This claim clearly ran contrary to tradition, to the authority of the Ancients and to established views in the universities and most church officials. Copernicus claimed that the earth is not fixed and stationary in the center of the cosmos (geocentric and geostatic) but instead argued that it rotates on its axis each day and revolves around the sun each year.

From Copernicus' bold but simple claim, so the story goes, a complex series of new developments were necessary to support his view and, at the same time, to replace earlier beliefs. What was needed, at least in retrospect, were new astronomical observations, these now associated with Tycho Brahe (1546-1601); new theoretical modifications concerning planetary orbits and their motions, now associated with Johannes Kepler (1571-1630); and not least, new theories of motion that would accommodate a moving earth, these theories now associated with Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), René Descartes (1596-1650), Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), and of course, Isaac Newton (1642-1727). The latter, by acclaim, joined heaven and earth by uniting terrestrial and celestial bodies under one set of universal laws of motion. Newton invented the universe. It displaced the traditional Aristotelian cosmos. This widely held view was due largely to the work of the historian Alexandre Koyré.

In this view, the 'Newtonian Synthesis' marked the shift from a closed, finite, hierarchical, qualitative cosmos to an infinite, homogeneous, quantitative universe. This change signaled that all things were one. There is one kind of matter, one set of laws, one kind of space, one kind of time. Everything is always and everywhere the same: Space, Time, Matter, Cause. Hence the very word: Universe.

This shift from Cosmos to Universe also marked a transformation from an Organic Worldview to a Mechanical World Picture. That is, the Modern World Machine. All of this, according to traditional definitions, would have been rather important in itself, given the importance of science to 20th-century civilization.

But in the bargain, so the argument goes, not only was the world of Nature entirely re-conceptualized, so was the nature of Human Knowledge. This in turn raised questions about the traditional Human Eternal Verities -- how humans understood themselves in relation to 'God, Nature, and Man'.

From these concerns came the 'Clockwork Universe' debates about God's relationship to Nature and whether God was rational or willful. One historian suggested that God, in effect, had been excommunicated from the world of humans -- not to the edge of Space (as with Aristotle and Aquinas) but left there at the beginning of Time. From such debates (according to this narrative) came new distinctions that walked the line from Theism to Deism to Agnosticism and Atheism. Koyré, among others, was concerned about alienation.

In sum, as a simple overview, the traditional definition of the Scientific Revolution with which we began focused on a wholesale redefinition of nature and the categories of human knowing. The result was a deep and enduring shift that led some historians to make the first appearances of Science synonymous with Modern and Western. These historians found it difficult to talk meaningfully about their world without 'Science' -- the defining characteristics of Modern and Western, they seemed to suggest, were inconceivable without 'Science'. Further, they saw Science as the defining element of the early modern period, more important than the wars or forgotten treaties.

Why has the Scientific Revolution persisted as a periodization? In the end, there are several reasons. Not least is the simple utility of the phrase. However unfortunate and potentially misleading, it continues to serve as a convenient division for textbooks and curricula. Second, some historians believe there is fair evidence that something very dramatic unfolded during this complex and disputed period, call it the New Science or the New Philosophy (they argue) the name hardly impinges on the thing that happened. Third, and perhaps not least, the periodization called the 'Scientific Revolution' has been useful in drawing together very disparate disciplines. New historical, philosophical, psychological, and sociological problems have emerged from the same basic set of beliefs, fruitful questions have been defined, extended, articulated, and often enough, accommodated. Overall, the 'Scientific Revolution' have been a resilient -- albeit problematic -- periodization.

For further information about the history of this periodization, consult sections at this WebSite, note especially: The sections on 'Scientific Revolution Historians' and 'Scientific Revolution - Major Interpretive Theses' -- most notably: The 'Koyré Thesis' - 'Merton Thesis' - 'Hessen Thesis' - 'Yates Thesis' - and 'Zilsel Thesis'.

The Scientific Revolution - Table of Contents

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