Scientific Revolution

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SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION. The scientific revolution took place from the sixteenth century through the seventeenth century and saw the formation of conceptual, methodological, and institutional approaches to the natural world that are recognizably like those of modern science. It should not be seen as a revolution in science but a revolution in thought and practice that brought about modern science. Although highly complex and multifaceted, it can essentially be seen as the amalgamation of what was called natural philosophy with various so-called subordinate sciences, such as the mathematical sciences, astronomy, optics, and geography, or with separate traditions, such as those of natural magic and alchemy. The traditional natural philosophy, institutionalized in the universities since their foundation in the thirteenth century, was almost entirely based upon the doctrines of Aristotle and followed rationalist procedures. When those trained in natural philosophy began to recognize the power of alternative traditions for revealing truths about the physical world, they increasingly incorporated them into their natural philosophies. In so doing, these natural philosophers inevitably introduced different methods and procedures to complement and refine the earlier rationalism. To fully understand the scientific revolution, however, requires consideration not only of what happened but also of why it happened. Before looking at this, it is necessary to consider the status of the scientific revolution as a historiographical category.


The scientific revolution is the historians' term and should be seen as a shorthand way of referring to a multitude of historical phenomena and processes, not all of which were directly related to one another. Although potentially misleading in so far as there were not, for example, defining moments when the revolution can be said to have begun or to have ended nor a recognizable body of revolutionaries who were all self-consciously affiliated with one another, it continues to be recognized as a valid label. The lengthy time span of this revolution might also seem anomalous, but this is easily outweighed by the undeniable fact that approaches to natural knowledge in 1700 were completely different from those deployed in 1500 and that there is no exaggeration in calling these changes revolutionary. Those historians who have chosen to emphasize the undoubted continuities between the thought of the scientific revolution and medieval thought nevertheless concede that, by the end of the period, things were completely different from the way they had been at the beginning. It is perfectly possible, for example, to see Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543), who first suggested that Earth was not stationary in the center of the universe but was revolving around the Sun, not as the first modern astronomer but as the last of the great medieval astronomers. Far from being an indefensible position, this is the only way to fully understand what Copernicus did and how he did it. Nevertheless it remains true to say that the switch from an Earth-centered universe to a Sun-centered planetary system had revolutionary consequences that cannot possibly be denied.

An important indicator of the persuasiveness of the notion of a scientific revolution is its role in one of the most influential works in the modern philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn's (19221996) Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Inspired chiefly by the Copernican revolution (which he made the subject of an earlier book) and its farreaching aftermath, Kuhn developed a theory about the nature of scientific progress based upon radical innovations that mark a revolutionary disruption from earlier thinking. Kuhn's influence has been greatest among philosophers and sociologists of science concerned with understanding the nature of scientific innovation and advance, but his ideas were directly inspired by and modeled upon the historiography of the scientific revolution.

Given the importance of this historiographical category, it is hardly surprising that it has attracted a number of attempts to provide a simple key for understanding it. Two of the most serious attempts to explain its origins are the so-called scholar and craftsmen thesis and the Protestantism (or even Puritanism) and science thesis. Deriving essentially from Marxist assumptions, the scholar and craftsmen thesis takes for granted the idea that modern science is closer to the work of elite craftsmen and skilled artisans than it is to the ivory tower philosophizing of the medieval university. All that was required to bring about the scientific revolution therefore was a realization by educated scholars, provoked by the economic stimulus of the incipient capitalism of the Renaissance period, that artisans were producing accurate and useful knowledge of the physical world. This thesis is untenable on a number of grounds. Among the more wide-ranging are the fact that it pays insufficient attention to the continuities between the natural philosophy of the scientific revolution and medieval natural philosophy and the obvious fact that craftsmen and artisans do not, as a rule, rely upon, much less produce, scientific thinking while doing their work. There is too much reliance in these Marxist accounts on glib talk to the effect that experimentation is manual work, craftsmen indulge in manual work, therefore craftsmen do experiments. Nonetheless it is certainly true that scholars began to pay attention to the work of technical artisans in the Renaissance, and this no doubt owed something to economic factors. But the scholars took this craft knowledge and turned it into something closer to modern science; the artisans themselves were not already in possession of scientific knowledge.

The Protestantism and science thesis, based more on statistical claims that Protestants play a disproportionate role in the development of modern science than on causative explanation, is also problematic but much harder to dismiss. Although it is quite clear that Roman Catholic thinkers, notably Copernicus, Galileo Galilei (15641642), and René Descartes (15961650), played a major role in the early part of the scientific revolution, the later period does seem to be dominated by developments in Protestant countries, even though the Protestant population as a whole remained the minority in Europe. Nevertheless the reasons advanced to explain why this might be so remain unconvincing. One of the most powerful refinements of this thesis, by the American sociologist Robert K. Merton (19102003), seeks to explain the culmination of the scientific revolution in late-seventeenth-century England, with the formation of the Royal Society and the appearance of its most illustrious fellow Isaac Newton (16421727), as the result of the rise of Puritanism in the civil war period. Here the statistics have proved much less satisfactory, since it is virtually impossible, without merely begging the question, to say who was a Puritan and who was not. Moreover the suggested reasons seem to apply equally to all English Protestants, not just Puritans, and indeed in some cases to European Catholics as well. The starting point for these explanations is the claim of the German sociologist Max Weber (18641920) that the "spirit" of capitalism is linked to the Protestant work ethic. Again it is difficult to accept the suggested reasons for this link, and yet, as a result of collective prosopography, a feeling remains that there must be some truth in it.

Another influential historiographical claim about the scientific revolution, but this time one that does not seek to explain its origins but its cultural impact, links the development of the scientific revolution with a vigorous reassertion of patriarchal values and the subjection of women. Based on a historiography that presents premechanistic worldviews as holistic, organic, vitalistic, and feminine, the mechanical philosophy of the scientific revolution (see below), by contrast, is shown to be manipulative, exploitative, and aggressively masculine. Supported by pointing to the routine use of sexual metaphors by the new natural philosophers in which the investigator is recommended to subdue, constrain, and bind into service Mother Nature in order to facilitate penetrating her inner secrets, feminist historians have seen these attitudes as a reason for the gendering of science that persists into the twenty-first century. There seems to be a prevailing assumption that science is a masculine pursuit and that women are somehow mentally unsuited to it. This is a legacy not of the ancient period or of the Middle Ages, feminists claim, but of the new approach to the natural world developed during the scientific revolution. Although there is some interesting and undeniable evidence for this general view, the claim that earlier natural philosophy was in some way feminine or feminist seems merely tendentious. The magical worldview, for example, was exploitative and manipulative for centuries prior to the scientific revolution. What's more, traditional natural philosophy excluded women throughout the Middle Ages.

If the historians' concept of a scientific revolution remains indispensable for understanding the origins of modern science, it raises another important set of historiographical issues. Why did the scientific revolution occur when it did (at the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the early modern period)? Why did it occur only in western Europe? More to the point, why did it not occur in ancient Greece, early imperial China, medieval Islam, or Byzantium, where there is enough historical evidence to suggest it might have occurred? To what extent was the scientific revolution responsible for the subsequent cultural dominance of the West? Debates on these issues continue in the twenty-first century. Requiring a wide-ranging familiarity with the history of diverse cultures as the basis of comparison and an enlightened caution against chauvinistic assumptions that Western culture is somehow innately superior, there has so far been little or no consensus. It seems likely, however, that this aspect of the historiography of the scientific revolution will grow as awareness of the need for multicultural perspectives to reach a full understanding of the past increases.


In its origins the scientific revolution can be seen as another outcome of that sea change in European life and thought known as the Renaissance. In particular the new emphasis by intellectuals on the studia humanitatis, the 'study of humanity', with its concomitant concern for the vita activa, the 'active life' lived for the public good, as opposed to the traditional religious emphasis upon the contemplative life, stimulated new attitudes toward natural knowledge. Traditional natural philosophy had always been seen as a "handmaiden" to theology, the queen of the sciences, and as such it was a contemplative pursuit concerned with understanding God's creation for its own sake. The Renaissance humanists, concerned with living the active life, increasingly looked to alternative intellectual traditions with more pragmatic aims, in particular the mathematical sciences and the traditions of what was called natural magic.

These changes in attitude toward knowledge and what it was for went hand in hand with revelations emerging from the rediscovery of ancient wisdom. Humanist scholars systematically searched monastery libraries all over Europe for any surviving copies of ancient Roman and subsequently ancient Greek writings. Previously the only body of writing on natural philosophy available to Western scholars was that of Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), but for the first time it was possible to read the works of Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.), Epicurus (c. 341270 b.c.e.), the Stoics, various Pythagorean or Neoplatonic writers, and others. Plato proved especially influential, and this boosted the importance of the later Pythagorean and Neoplatonist writers who were seen to be his followers. Since these writers tended to see mathematics and especially geometry not merely as human constructs but as reflections of the divine mind, the principles of which had been built into the world in Creation, they stimulated humanist scholars to see mathematics as a legitimate and powerful means of discovering truths about the natural world. This was in stark contrast to the prevailing Aristotelian view of mathematics, which was dismissed as essentially irrelevant for understanding nature because it was abstracted from physical considerations and did not provide explanations in terms of causes.

Similarly, the discovery of a body of writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice-Great Hermes), who was assumed to be an ancient sage deified by the Greeks, gave a new legitimacy and intellectual kudos to magical traditions. Although actually written in the second and third centuries c.e., the Hermetic writings were assumed to be contemporary with Moses and his writing of the Pentateuch. Since these works were highly magical, it now seemed that magic was part of ancient wisdom, the wisdom known to Adam that gradually became forgotten after the Fall. Throughout the Middle Ages the church had condemned magic, declaring it to be entirely dependent upon demonic intervention. After the discovery of the Hermetic writings, for a brief period magic was seen as a powerful system of knowledge that exploited the natural qualities and powers of bodies to recover the dominion over all things that God had offered to Adam (Genesis 1:28).

The elevation of the intellectual status of mathematics and natural magic had far-reaching effects. Large numbers of mathematical practitioners of various kinds were quick to extol the virtues of their practice in terms of its certainty (unlike the speculative natural philosophy) and its pragmatic usefulness. The result was an increasing mathematization of the world picture, culminating at the end of the seventeenth century in the supreme achievement of Newton. The title of his great book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687; The mathematical principles of natural philosophy), still widely regarded in the twenty-first century as one of the most important scientific books, sums up the change from an Aristotelian natural philosophy where mathematics had no role to a physics dependent upon mathematics. Other salient points in this transformation were Copernicus's insistence in 1543 that Earth must move, in spite of the lack of compelling physical reasons for its movement, simply because the mathematics of a heliocentric system was more elegant and coherent, and the belief of the astronomer Johannes Kepler (15711630) that the world can be understood in geometrical terms because "Geometry, which before the origin of things was coeternal with the divine mind and is God himself . . . supplied God with patterns for the creation of the world" (1619; Harmony of the World [Harmonices Mundi ], p. 304). The great Italian mathematical physicist Galileo claimed that the book of nature "is written in the language of mathematics . . . without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it" (The Assayer, 1622, in Discoveries and Opinions, p. 238).

The increased concern with the practical utility of knowledge of the Renaissance humanists ensured that practitioners of occult arts, like alchemy, astrology, sympathetic magic, and what was called "mathematical magic" (the construction of technological devices and machinesregarded as occult because their operations could not be explained in Aristotelian terms), also earned enhanced intellectual status. The most important outcome of the rise of magic was an appropriation of one of its chief methods of explorationthe experimental methodand a far-reaching reassessment of the concept of so-called occult qualities.

The use of the experimental method in natural philosophy is undoubtedly a characterizing feature of the scientific revolution, but the method itself was not newly invented in this period. It was simply incorporated into the previously entirely speculative natural philosophy from the natural magic tradition. Alchemists and those seeking supposed sympathetic effects of one substance on another, in order to bring about desired ends, had long since developed and continued to use techniques of experimental manipulation. The most prominent figure in the scientific revolution responsible for promoting the experimental method was the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon (15611626), but it is perfectly clear that he took his inspiration from the magical tradition. Similarly William Gilbert (15441603), an English physician and author of a seminal book on magnetism generally seen as the first scientific book based almost entirely on the experimental method, was directly influenced by a medieval magical treatise. It used to be assumed by historians that Gilbert's De Magnete (1600; On the magnet) took its experimental method from craftsmen and artisans working with iron or manufacturing magnetic compasses, but all the features of his experimental method are in a Letter on the Magnet, written by the natural magician Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt (fl. 1269) and first published in 1558.

The issue of occult qualities came to prominence as a result of increasing dissatisfaction with Aristotelian matter theory and emerging awareness of alternative magical accounts. The aim of Aristotelian natural philosophy was to explain everything in terms of easily understood and obviously true factors. Accordingly, it tried to account for physical changes in terms of changes in the four manifest qualities, hot, cold, wet, and dry, all of which were obvious to the senses. In many cases, of course, a certain amount of ingenuity was required to refer changes back to these four qualities. A change from roughness to smoothness, for example, would be explained as a change from dryness to wetness. When ingenuity failed, however, there was often nothing for it but to admit that occult qualities were at workqualities that could not be referred back to the manifest qualities but whose effects were undeniable to the senses. The classic occult quality is magnetismthe lodestone's ability to attract iron does not seem to be reducible to the action of heat or any other manifest quality, but its effect, the movement of a piece of iron, is visible for all to see.

It was common in the magical tradition to assume that some bodies could act upon others by inherent sympathies or antipathies, a notion that was dismissed by Aristotelians as an "asylum of ignorance" because it explained nothing. As the experimental method became increasingly accepted as a legitimate aspect of natural philosophy, however, it became possible to demonstrate the operation of sympathies or antipathies experimentally (consider any of the phenomena, for example, that modern chemists refer to as elective affinities between chemical compounds) and to consider them as operationally defined. This in turn led to speculations about causes. Either bodies could act on one another at a distance, or there was some form of invisible interaction. For some, particularly those in England who were influenced by Bacon's emphasis upon experiment devoid of speculation, it was possible to accept action at a distance merely on empiricist grounds and forego further speculation. For others, however, this was too magical to concede, and it was assumed that effects must be brought about by invisibly small particles streaming between bodies. This strategy was favored by those aware of the alchemical tradition, which had a long history of explanation in terms of invisibly small corpuscles, and was further reinforced by the revival of ancient atomism as the result of the rediscovery of the writings of Epicurus and of the summary of Epicurean principles by Lucretius (c. 100 or 99c. 55 b.c.e.) in his De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things).

At its extreme the attempt to explain all physical phenomena in terms of the interactions of invisibly small particles led to a vigorous denial of occult qualities. Descartes, the French mathematician and philosopher, believed that his system was capable of explaining all phenomena without recourse to occult qualities and that all occult qualities themselves, including magnetism, were reducible to the motions of invisibly small particles. In England, by contrast, the Cartesian system was seen as unacceptably speculative and not always supported by the evidence. This was particularly apparent in what would now be thought of as chemical reactions (about which Descartes was largely silent) and in the case of gravitational attraction. If gravity was caused, as Descartes suggested, by continual streams of descending particles pushing things to Earth, why was it not possible to shield a body from these streams and keep it suspended? It is surely historically significant that the universal principle of gravitation, seen as an occult force capable of acting across vast distances of empty space, was developed by an English alchemist working within the tradition of Baconian empiricismNewton.

The new importance of matter theory in understanding the nature of the physical world is another characterizing feature of the scientific revolution. These variations on the use of invisibly small particles, their motions, and their interactions were generally referred to as the mechanical philosophy, a term first coined by the English experimental natural philosopher Robert Boyle (16271691). Although only the systems developed separately by Descartes and Thomas Hobbes (15881679) could be said to be strictly mechanical in the sense that they assumed particles of matter to be completely passive, capable of acting only by virtue of impact in collision with other particles, there was a range of other mechanical philosophies, such as those of Pierre Gassendi (15921655), Robert Hooke (16351703), and Newton, where particles were held to be endowed with various inherent principles of activity ("seminal powers" or "internal faculties" in Gassendi, for example, and gravitational attraction in Newton).

The mechanical philosophy went hand in hand with two other innovations still seen as characteristic of modern science. Although the concept of laws of nature is as old as natural philosophy itself and can be found among the ancient Greeks, they were only invoked in a nonspecific, even vague way as principles of regularity in nature. The sun rises, for example, in accordance with a law of nature. Because Descartes was concerned with explaining all phenomena in terms of the motions of invisibly small particles out of which all gross bodies were composed and those motions were said to be the result of earlier collisions and could only be passed on by further collisions, he needed to be able to codify precisely how motions were passed on. This need for precision was also inspired of course by his background in mathematics and the rise in the belief that the world itself was mathematical through and through. Accordingly Descartes based his system of natural philosophy on three precise and carefully defined laws of nature supplemented by seven rules of impact (to clarify exactly what happens in different kinds of collision). Although now seen to be misconceived, Descartes's laws had an enormous influence and seemed to his contemporaries to be the major factor in radically transforming natural philosophy from a speculative to a certain, physically and mathematically grounded enterprise. This confidence in the new mechanical philosophy was fully justified not long after, when Newton's Principia established three revised laws of motion, which proved to be the correct basis for a highly successful mathematical physics until the advent of relativity and quantum theories in the early twentieth century.

Descartes was also aware that, in stark contrast to Aristotelian philosophy, which was supposedly based on common sense, his philosophy explained the world in ways that were not only contrary to sense impressions but were in principle undiscoverable by the senses. What the senses revealed was mere appearances; the underlying reality was one of crowding and jostling particles too small ever to be seen. Even light itself, according to Descartes and the other mechanical philosophers, was not what people might think. Either pressure pulses in the intervening medium between the eye and the thing observed or streams of invisible particles flowing into the eye, light and color were subjective experiences, the reality of which was different. This fundamental belief was open to different interpretations and gave rise to differing opinions. Where Descartes believed people could infer the reality underlying appearances by essentially rationalist procedures, others took a more skeptical line. Out of these debates the English philosopher John Locke (16321704) initiated the philosophical position known as British empiricism. Locke insisted, against Descartes, that one can never be sure about the nature of the substance underlying the subjective experience of reality and must rely on empirical investigation rather than potentially misleading rational reconstruction. Subsequent thinkers took even more radical positions. For instance, the Anglo-Irish philosopher and divine George Berkeley (16851753), later bishop of Cloyne, said that all people can know is what they perceive, and they cannot even know that there is an underlying reality. British empiricism is a movement in philosophy rather than in science, but the distinction between what are called primary qualities (the qualities of the invisibly small particles, like size, shape, motion) and secondary qualities (subjective qualities, like taste, color, temperature) remains an important distinction in modern science.


Although it is possible to present the major innovations of the scientific revolution, that is, the mathematization of the world picture, the experimental method, and the concern for a practically useful knowledge, as well as their development into the mechanical philosophy, as direct outcomes of the humanist movement in the Renaissance and its concern with the active life, there were other important elements in the historical context. As is well known, the Renaissance was also the period that saw the rise of city-states and regional and national principalities, to say nothing of wealthy mercantilist corporations, all of whom had not only the wealth but also their own reasons for patronizing various enterprises. The role of patronage in the fine arts is well known, and its effects on the more realist nature of Renaissance art compared to medieval art and its frequently more secular subject matter are plain to see. The role of secular patronage in changes in natural philosophy has not yet been fully explored, but it is already clear that this played a major part in the emphasis upon practically useful knowledge.

Royal courts employed mathematicians and natural magicians before they employed natural philosophers. Furthermore this kind of patronage led to the establishment of the first alternative institutional setting for learning about the natural world since the formation of the universities. At the Platonic Academy in Florence, under the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici (13891464), Marsilio Ficino (14331499) first translated not only the works of Plato into Latin but also those works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Subsequently, royal patrons began to support academies devoted directly to the investigation of the natural world, such as the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of the Lynxes) supported by Federico Cesi (15851630) that grew around the famous natural magician Giambattista della Porta (1535?1615) but later included Galileo among its members.

The importance of these academies and of the individual patronage of leading thinkers like Galileo (by Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici, 15901621) or Kepler (by the Holy Roman emperor Rudolf II, ruled 15761612) can be seen from the fact that virtually every conceptual or methodological innovation in the scientific revolution was introduced by thinkers working outside the university system. The most successful of these scientific research institutions were the Royal Society of London, founded in 1660, and the Académie des Sciences in Paris, set up in 1666, both of which consisted of the leading natural philosophers in their respective countries.

The universities should not be overlooked entirely, however. Although there was little innovation in the arts faculties where natural philosophy was taught, it was sometimes different in the medical faculties, where there was always a greater concern with the practical usefulness of knowledge. Most famous is the medical faculty at Padua, where Andreas Vesalius (15141564) revolutionized the traditional teaching of human anatomy by performing the dissections himself. More usually a lower-status surgeon performed the dissection for the class while the medical professor simply read from the relevant work of the ancient medical authority Galen (c. 130201 c.e.). By performing the dissections himself, Vesalius claimed to have discovered over two hundred errors in Galen's anatomical works. In particular Vesalius established that there was something seriously wrong with Galen's account of the heart and the movement of the blood. This led to the discovery of the lesser circulation of the blood (its circulation from the right ventricle to the left ventricle of the heart by crossing the lungs) by another professor at Padua, Realdus Columbus (15101559), in 1553 and the discovery of the full circulation by William Harvey (15781657), a former student at Padua, in 1628.

The medical faculties sometimes provided the institutional setting for advances in knowledge about the so-called materia medica, medicinal minerals, plants, animals, or parts of animals, although they had to compete for honors with the so-called cabinets of curiosities gathered by wealthy collectors that can be seen as the origins of modern museums. In many cases a wealthy patron not only set up a cabinet of exotic specimens from the natural world but also employed a learned curator, who then became well placed to revise current knowledge of flora and fauna. For example, Pierandrea Mattioli (15001577), curator of Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol's (15291595) collection, became one of the leading naturalists of the age.

Generally speaking, of course, universitytrained medical practitioners were able to make a good living, and many were able to pursue further study independently. Medical practitioners form the single biggest group of contributors to the scientific revolution. But it was not always university men who made the greatest contributions. The itinerant Swiss autodidact who called himself Paracelsus (c. 14931541) developed a new system of medicine and therapeutics based on assumptions about the alchemical nature of the whole of Creation, the macrocosm and the microcosm of the human being. Physiological processes were seen as alchemical processes within the body, and it was assumed that alchemically produced medicines could be as efficacious as traditional herbal remedies if not more so. Accordingly Paracelsians used far more mineral-based medicines than had been usual previously. Although Paracelsian methods were always controversial, some notable therapeutic successes (and the inadequacy of traditional cures) ensured that it was widely adopted by numerous followers throughout Europe.

Responses to Paracelsianism point to another important aspect of the reform of natural knowledge. For many contemporaries the radical and iconoclastic nature of Paracelsianism was seen as subversive of orthodoxy. Traditional Galenic medicine, like Aristotelian natural philosophy, was seen as guaranteeing what were regarded as traditional verities enshrined in university curricula and confirming the old authorities. More to the point, it was seen as all of a piece with orthodoxy in religion. In Catholic countries Paracelsus was regarded as the Luther of medicine, as subversive to the health of the body as the religious reformer Martin Luther (14831546) was to the health of the believer's soul. Paracelsianism tended to flourish therefore in societies riven by religious and concomitant political factionalism. In France it was promoted by the Protestant Huguenots, in Germany it flourished in the Protestant states, and in England after the Civil War it was promoted by parliamentarian physicians, who saw Galen as a tyrant in medicine who had to be deposed as Charles I (ruled 16251649) had been.

The most famous aspect of the alliance between traditional authority in natural knowledge and orthodox religion is, of course, the alliance between Aristotelianism and Roman Catholicism, particularly as manifested in beliefs about the stationary position of Earth. But the situation was significantly different from the response to Paracelsianism. Perhaps because astronomy was of less concern to people in their everyday lives than was medicine, little attention was paid to the innovations of Copernicus when they were first published in 1543. Only after Galileo widely publicized discoveries he had made by turning the newly invented telescope to the heavens in 1610 did the Catholic Church begin to take notice. Galileo's telescopic innovations could do nothing to prove the truth of Copernican astronomy, but they could and did show that Aristotle's ideas were significantly wrong. Galileo used his considerable rhetorical skills to imply that Aristotelian cosmology should be replaced by Copernicanism. Unfortunately, Galileo's rhetorical strategy included a widely circulated letter to Grand Duchess Christina (1615; the dowager duchess was the mother of Galileo's patron Cosimo de' Medici) in which he suggested that certain biblical passages should be reinterpreted to make them compatible with Copernican theory. The Catholic Church could not let this intervention by a layman into matters of scriptural interpretation pass and made a ruling in 1616 that confirmed the traditional, geostatic interpretation of Scripture and condemned Copernicanism as erroneous and heretical.

It is significant that the Protestant churches, usually more concerned with biblical literalism than the Catholic Church, took no comparable action against Copernicanism. The fact that the Catholic Church took no action until Galileo made the religious implications of Copernicanism highly public, some seventy years after the publication of Copernicus's book, suggests that analyses that have emphasized the local contingencies in the Galileo affair are correct and that it is wrong to use this affair to argue that science and religion are irreconcilable worldviews.

Indeed, most of the evidence from the scientific revolution points the other way, showing a strong alliance at this period between science and religious belief. The end of the sixteenth century saw the beginnings of atheism in Europe, arising at least partly out of a skeptical crisis among intellectuals as a result of the newly discovered alternatives to Aristotle from ancient thought, including ancient skeptical writings. It seems clear that early atheists (for the most part they covered their tracks wellatheism was, after all, a capital offense) used their interpretations of natural philosophy (at first Aristotelianism and subsequently the mechanical philosophy) to promote irreligion. Nevertheless, all the major contributors to the development of the scientific revolution seem to have seen themselves as "priests of the Book of Nature," to use Kepler's phrase. The starting point of Descartes's system of natural philosophy was an argument he saw as undermining any skeptical position, his famous argument, "I think, therefore I exist." And his next move was to prove the existence of God before going on to build up his rational system of nature. Once again the culmination of this line is in the work of Newton, who privately admitted, "When I wrote my treatise about our system, I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity; and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose" (Letter to Dr. Richard Bentley, December, 1692, in Papers and Letters, p. 280). Accordingly, in the second edition of the Principia (1713), he publicly declared that "to treat of God from phenomena is certainly a part of natural philosophy" (p. 943).

If modernity is associated with the advent of secularism, therefore, the role of early modern science is by no means unambiguous. On the one hand, the tradition of natural theology, that is, using the principles of science and close observation of the natural world to suggest that the world shows signs of intelligent design, can be seen as an attempt to resist secularization of the world picture. On the other hand, however, this same movement led believers away from Scripture and revelation to a rationalist and intellectual approach to God that ultimately came to seem indistinguishable from a science-based atheism. Similarly, although some early modern scientists used the limitations of the mechanical philosophy to point to the need to accept the existence of a spiritual realm, using accounts of witchcraft and ghosts to make their points, others insisted on the reality of the immaterial rational soul but proceeded to explain as many mental phenomena as possible in terms of a material "animal soul." Eventually the new science contributed to the movement toward secularization, but the process was not fully accomplished until the Enlightenment, the age succeeding that of the scientific revolution.

See also Bacon, Francis ; Berkeley, George ; Boyle, Robert ; Copernicus, Nicolaus ; Descartes, René ; Galileo Galilei ; Gassendi, Pierre ; Gilbert, William ; Harvey, William ; Hermeticism ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Hooke, Robert ; Kepler, Johannes ; Locke, John ; Matter, Theories of ; Nature ; Newton, Isaac ; Paracelsus ; Scientific Method ; Vesalius, Andreas .


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Weeks, Andrew. Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation. Albany, N.Y., 1997.

Westfall, Richard S. The Construction of Modern Science: Mechanisms and Mechanics. Cambridge, U.K., 1977.

Zilsel, Edgar. The Social Origins of Modern Science. Dordrecht, 2000.

John Henry

Scientific Revolution

views updated May 23 2018


As distinct from the centuries-old conception of scientific revolutions (plural), the concept of the one and only Scientific Revolution dates from the 1930s. What meaning, if any, to give the concept over and above its signifying the birth of modern science has been in lively, productive dispute ever since. This entry first outlines the historiographical vagaries of the term, then (from the heading "A Tentative, Synthetic Overview" onward) discusses the event itself in ways meant to do some justice to what historians' ongoing debates have yielded.

Historiographical Developments

The concept of the Scientific Revolution was introduced as part of a major historiographical overhaul that took place between the mid-1920s and the early 1950s. It was then meant to identify a period in European history, roughly between the second half of the sixteenth century and almost the full seventeenth century (that is, between Copernicus and Newton), when a unique, radical conceptual upheaval took place out of which modern science emerged essentially as we still know it. This view of a radical conceptual upheaval, first vaguely sensed in some earlier historiography, quickly began to be articulated in the budding field of the history of science in ways that turned the previously customary listing of one heroic scientific achievement after another into a careful reconstruction of the conceptual knots that those who brought about the Scientific Revolution actually had to disentangle.

A master narrative.

Within this emerging concept-focused mode of history writing came a variety of path-breaking narratives minimally sharing a focus on how the once self-evident conception of our Earth at the center of the universe gave way to the core of the modern worldview of the Earth and the other planets placed in a solar system occupying a tiny portion of an infinite universe. What brought about this fundamental conceptual shift to a non-Earth-centered universe, as well as new conceptions of motion and of the creation of space as a void? Historians held that a major contributor was the quickly expanding process of the mathematization of nature, that is, the subjection of increasing ranges of empirical phenomena to mathematical treatment in ways generally suitable to experimental testing. Several people were seen as key figures in this process. Copernicus (14731543) computed, down to the required detail, planetary trajectories in a Sun-centered setting. Johannes Kepler (15711630) turned Copernicus's formulation into a previously inconceivable "celestial physics," and this led to his discovery of the planets' elliptical paths. Galileo (15641642) mathematized a significant terrestrial, as opposed to celestial, phenomenonfalling and projected bodiesin an effort to counter major objections to Copernicus's formulation. René Descartes (15961650) mathematically conceived space and particle interactions in space. Sir Isaac Newton (16421727) capped these developments by uniting terrestrial and celestial physics in his mathematically exact, empirically supported conception of universal gravitation. This is not to say that historians equated these scientists and their principal accomplishments with the Scientific Revolution. Still, for decades historians were inclined to treat most other noteworthy modern scientific attainmentssuch as William Harvey's (15781657) discovery of the circulation of the blood and others' refinements in chemical analysisas somehow tangential to the main course of development.

New historiographical perspectives.

Starting in the 1960s, historians introduced a range of perspectives to widen (or in some cases to replace) the historiographical master narrative just outlined and some of the insights gained thereby. In fairly random (certainly not chronological) order, these perspectives are listed below.

Historians have ceased identifying the present classification of scientific disciplines with their seventeenth century counterparts. They are replacing it with a still increasing awareness that what we now call "mechanics," for instance, scarcely had a counterpart in the early seventeenth centuryso different, and differently aligned, was the intellectual context in which problems of motion used to be considered from the ancient Greeks onward. Some historians are even beginning to recognize that what we now call "science" developed at the time in several different modes, each with a distinct intellectual tradition, knowledge structure, mode of approach, and professional identity.

Historians are including in their narratives research subjects and/or people previously omitted or marginalized. Rediscovered research areas include ranges of (at the time) nonmathematical, chiefly descriptive subjects, like magnetism or illness, or subjects neglected because they are scarcely practiced anymore today, like musical science, and/or are held under grave suspicion, like alchemy. Rediscovered contributors, though important, fall below the first rank. Examples are hosts of able Jesuit experimenters, numerous practitioners on the European Continent, as well as a small number of women (e.g., Margaret, duchess of Newcastle, who developed a speculative Cartesian yet creative theory of moving particles, or Elisabetha Hevelius, coworker with her better known astronomer-husband).

Perhaps most important of all, historians of science have strived to put the history of scientific ideas in institutional and other sociocultural contexts. Though history writing in the vein of "This thinker brought about this particular conceptual breakthrough; then that thinker that one" is still valuable for revealing the complex way in which conceptual innovation and continuity are intertwined, historians now feel that properly understanding scientific accomplishment requires a deep awareness of how it was situated in time and place. In this way historians have revealed, for example, the at times highly consequential dependence of practitioners on Europe's patronage market, and the link between the controversy over the validity of instrument-aided experimentation, as articulated in Robert Boyle's (16271691) and Thomas Hobbes's (15881679) early 1660s dispute over the void, and the politics of the Stuart Restoration. As a result, historians have increasingly focused on the local particularity, over the universal validity, of the most seminal developments of the Scientific Revolution. Among genuine accomplishments of this contextualist approach must be counted a heightened concern for the dayto-day practice of experimental research and for the trustworthiness of results thus attained, a heightened sense that the course of discovery is at times fortuitous, and an awareness that discoverers had other motives than sheer backwardness and/or superstition. In the past contextualization has at times focused on this or that piece of pertinent microhistory. We face a wide-open opportunity to extend contextualization by taking the world-historical peculiarities of Europe as the context in which to make proper sense of large-scale scientific developments. Indeed, most writing on the history of science has been confined, if not just to the English speaking world, then at least to the Western tradition held to run from the Greeks, via the purported holding action of the Arabs, to medieval then Renaissance Europe, then to postrevolutionary science as it unfolded principally in the Western heartlands. Despite some inspiring, pioneering efforts in the 1930s to 1950s, a cross-culturally comparative perspective on why modern science emerged where and when it did is still in its infancy.

Abandonment or new syntheses?

The net effect of this plurality of novel viewpoints has been the perhaps predictable one of resignation. What numerous historians of science have given up is not the ongoing production of partly novel interpretations of events in the history of seventeenth-century science, but the very idea that, deeply below the surface of singular events, something identifiable holds so complex an event as the Scientific Revolution together. True, we can no longer accept the once enlightening yet too one-sided formula "Scientific Revolution mathematization of nature." But the message that historians' resignation imparts to nonscholars is that one of the most decisive events in world history, one of the prime motors of our modern world, was due to little more than chance. We have ready to hand a great deal of material and hosts of penetrating yet partial interpretations to answer the question of how modern science emerged in seventeenth-century Europe, rather than in one of the other great pre-modern civilizations at that or some earlier time. Yet there has been no serious effort to come to grips with the question how modern science emerged in seventeenth-century Europe. Below is an inevitably idiosyncratic, highly schematic example of how we might grapple with the question.

A Tentative, Synthetic Overview

Of those civilizations where natural phenomena were subjected to scrutiny of a kind that went beyond their identification with the divine, only two did so against the background of an articulated worldview. In the Chinese tradition, which was uninterrupted until the Jesuits brought modern science along, practitioners were much inclined to an empiricist approach.

In contrast, two distinct Greek traditionsone mathematical, one philosophicalwere quick to rationalize the empirically given. The Greeks also experienced a range of potentially fertile transplantations from other civilizations. In one tradition, called "Alexandrian" for short, Archimedes (c. 450c. 388 b.c.e.), Ptolemy (2d c. c.e.), and others subjected a limited number of empirical phenomena (planetary positions, vibrating strings, and a few others) to mathematical treatment in highly abstract ways that left connections with reality minimal (i.e., the resulting science of music dealt with numbers, not with vibrations). In the other tradition, called "Athenian" for short, natural philosophers posited a limited number of first principles to explain the world at large (e.g., substantial forms in Aristotelianism, or indivisible particles and the void in atomism) and empirically shored up these principles by appeal to selected chunks of observable reality.

By means of three successive large-scale efforts at translation (second-/eighth-century Baghdad, twelfth-century Toledo, fifteenth-century Italy) these two modes of nature knowledge were transplanted, first to Islamic civilization wholesale, then (in a truncated manner) to medieval Europe, then (upon the fall of Byzantium) wholesale once again to Renaissance Europe. In each case the Greek legacy was received, then enriched in often creative ways that left the broad framework unscathed. As a result, the state that knowledge of nature attained in Europe by 1600 was broadly similar to what it had once been like in Islamic civilization before (in the fifth to eleventh centuries) waves of invasions nipped a possible next stage of radical transformation in the bud. For the second time, in Renaissance Europe, careful reconstruction of the legacy of the Alexandrian geometers gave rise to incidental enrichment, the way Copernicus improved on Ptolemy in trusted Alexandrian fashion. Also, the incessant, inherently irresolvable debate between the four schools of Athenian natural philosophy and their skeptical nemesis raged once again.

Beside these essentially backward-looking modes of nature knowledge, Renaissance Europe also developed a third mode, which, unlike the other two, reflected in its forward-looking dynamism certain peculiarities of the civilization at large. This third mode of nature knowledge, bent upon accurate, magic-tinged description, developed an empiricism different from the Chinese variety in that it was marked by a drive toward domination or at least coercion of the natural environment.

Onset of the revolution.

With this much as background, we can now conceptualize the onset of the Scientific Revolution very briefly as the near-simultaneous, revolutionary transformation of three traditions.

First, natural philosophers turned the Alexandrian tradition into the Alexandrian-plus tradition. In astronomy, Kepler and Galileo, in seeking to resolve major tensions in Copernicus's variety of heliocentrism, toned down the highly abstract approach of the Greek geometers with an infusion of physical reality. For terrestrial phenomena, other natural philosophers did this by means of experiments carefully designed to demonstrate the mathematically ideal phenomenon, and these served as an empirical check on theoretical outcomes. Central to such mathematization of nature was a new conception of motion as tending to persist and as relative, in ways tentatively worked out by Galileo and his disciples for a range of cases (like falling bodies and outflowing water).

Second, Isaac Beeckman (15881637), Descartes, and Pierre Gassendi (15921655) turned the Athenian tradition into the Athenian-plus tradition. Inside the atomist doctrine, which they adopted in its essentials, they shifted emphasis from the shapes and sizes of subvisible particles to their movements, and these movements, they held, were governed by general laws that conceived of motion as persisting and relative. Descartes gave systematic expression to this conception of a world fully explicable through the imagined motions of imagined particles. He found warrant for its truth in allegedly rigorous, pseudo-mathematical derivation from first principles and empirical backing in a wealth of examples taken, without experimental intervention, from real-life phenomena.

Third, in the uniquely European, coercive, and empirical third mode of knowledge of nature, setting up carefully designed fact-finding experiments was central. This contrasts with the Athenian-plus tradition, where experimentation was lacking, and the Alexandrian-plus tradition, where experimentation served as a means of a posteriori empirical support. This transformation occurred at the hands of, notably, Francis Bacon (15611626; who preached rather than practiced the approach), William Gilbert (15441603; magnetic and electric phenomena), Jan Baptista van Helmont (15791644; the chemical composition of matter/spirit), and William Harvey (the circulation of blood).

Ongoing innovation and remaining continuities.

In the hands of those who went along, the approaches of the traditions changed science drastically in each case. Natural philosophers mathematized an ever increasing range of phenomena, whether encountered in nature (like sound) or in contemporary craftsmanship (like gunnery), devised universal explanations through an endless variety of particle movements, and to a vast extent experimentally explored the unknown, whether encountered in nature (like wind) or in contemporary craftsmanship (like textile dyeing). What also changed was that the two first modes of explanation, which jointly defied common sense and conjured up the specter of a clockwork universe devoid of divine concern or human purpose, quickly became entangled in a battle of legitimacy of quite uncertain outcome. Meanwhile, what remained the same, at least up to the mid-seventeenth century, were the respective knowledge structures: in one case thinkers used first principles to attain at one stroke a definitive, comprehensive grasp of the world; in the other two cases, practitioners looked at phenomena to make piecemeal, step-by-step advances. Also, practitioners of each mode as a rule operated in insulation from one another. Even if an individual like Descartes or the English mathematician Thomas Harriot (15601621) did work in more than one mode, he made no effort to let results attained in one mode bear upon the other, let alone to reconcile (occasionally) incompatible outcomes (e.g., Descartes's Alexandrian derivation of his sine law of refraction required the assumption that light has finite velocity, whereas in his Athenian-plus philosophy its velocity is necessarily infinite).

A decisive, mid-century change of scenery.

Starting in the early 1660s, after the stabilization of princely authority in the wake of the Peace of Westphalia and (in Britain) the Restoration, a mood of reconciliation descended upon Europe. That mood helped overcome the rapidly expanding crisis of legitimacy. Efforts in the 1630s to 1650s to enforce a return to the fold (the trial of Galileo, the tribulations of van Helmont and Descartes) and countless cases of ensuing self-censorship gave way to conditional, religiously sanctioned acceptance. A prerequisite for this transition was the well-known shift of Europe's political, commercial, cultural, and scientific center from the Mediterranean (Italy, Spain, Austria, and Southern Germany) to the Atlantic (France and Britain). The new science was carefully walled off from all that might smack of heresy, and its experimental, and hence philosophy-free, aspects were institutionally emphasized. As a result, its widely perceived material and ideological promise of improvement of daily life and of a decisive edge in warfare earned the new science official sustenance in two major associations that came to dominate ongoing innovation of knowledge of nature in the second half of the seventeenth century and beyond. These were the Royal Society in London and the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris, both founded in the 1660s. As a result of breakthroughs in, for example, microscopy (Antony van van Leeuwenhoek's discovery of bacteria and spermatozoa) and telescopic measurement (large-scale revision of the size of the universe), the societies of London and Paris and the journals to emanate from both came to serve as rallying centers for intellectuals in Europe to contribute in a major way to ongoing innovation.

Even more revolutionary was a new mood of reconciliation in the sciences. The Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens (16291695) and the young Newtonin blending their prime allegiance to the Galilean approach with their acceptance of the doctrine of particles in ubiquitous motion not as comprehensive dogma but as a selectively applicable hypothesissought to resolve the tension between the Galilean and Cartesian conceptions of motion for a range of principal cases (impact, persisting motion, rotation, oscillation). At about the same time the British physicist and chemist Robert Boyle, the English scientist Robert Hooke (16351703), and again the young Newton, in blending their fact-finding experimentalism with the hypothesis of particles in ubiquitous motion, managed to anchor subtly particulate mechanisms in empirical evidence and by the same move to provide their fact finding with some badly needed coherence and direction. In the end, the mature Newton not only became aware of the limitations inherent in the two highly innovative approaches but even transcended these modes in ways codified in a book that rounded off the Scientific Revolution, his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical principles of natural philosophy), published in 1687.

The outcome.

The major result of all this was that science became a distinct enterprise, placed more prominently in society than at any other time and place. Its prominence was due not only to the promise of practical results widely attributed to it but also to intellectuals' desire to make mathematical-experimental or fact-finding-experimental assertions about natural phenomena clinching rather than at best plausible (as in speculative natural philosophy). Indeed, up against the perennial human inclination to let our bias decide, it is in the capacity of the new science to produce conclusive outcomes that its uniqueness as a mode of knowledge resides. Herein lies the deepest reason for calling the highly conditioned emergence of science and its ensuing staying power a revolution if ever there was one.

See also Classification of Arts and Sciences, Early Modern ; Enlightenment ; Historiography ; Knowledge ; Periodization ; Science, History of .


Applebaum, Wilbur, ed. Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton. New York: Garland, 2000.

Cohen, H. Floris. The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. The major works on the history of science are here assembled and critically compared.

Dear, Peter. Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 15001700. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Henry, John. The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Westfall, Richard S. The Construction of Modern Science: Mechanisms and Mechanics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

H. Floris Cohen

Revolutions, Scientific

views updated May 29 2018

Revolutions, Scientific


Although the expression scientific revolution is perhaps most closely associated with Thomas Kuhn (19221996), who embedded the phrase in a general theory of scientific change, it also names a specific time and placewestern Europe of the seventeenth centuryfrom which descend the modern institutions, methods, theories, and attitudes of science, as epitomized in the achievements of such figures as Galileo (15641642), Francis Bacon (15611626), René Descartes (15961650), and most of all, Isaac Newton (16421727). That sense was only coined in the 1940s by Herbert Butterfield (19001979) and Kuhns historiographical inspiration, Alexandre Koyré (18921964), an émigré Russo-French philosopher influenced in equal measures by Plato (c. 427347 BCE) and G. W. F. Hegel (17701831).

The use of the same phrase, scientific revolution, in its general and specific senses is only partly justified. The specific coinage was intended as provocative. It served to consign the Renaissance to a premodern past in which the scientific imagination (which Koyré understood as purely theory-driven) had been held back by the demands of secular governance and everyday life. Thus, Koyré contrasted two Italians who had been previously seen in much the same light: Galileos single-minded pursuit of a unified truth marked him as a scientist, whereas Leonardo da Vincis (14521519) jack-of-all-trades empiricism did not. The rhetorical force of this distinction was not lost in the postwar period. In the aftermath of two world wars that implicated science in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, the future of science required that it be seen as having revolted not only from religion but perhaps more importantly, technology.

A deeper point became more apparent with another postwar project: Joseph Needhams (19001995) multivolume comparative study of science and civilization in China. China was Europes economic superior until the early nineteenth century, though it had never passed through a scientific revolution. Science required the belief that humans enjoy a privileged cognitive position in nature, a status associated with the great monotheistic religions descended from Judaism but not those of Asia, where humans were seen more as one with the natural world. The idea that humans might transcendrather than simply adapt totheir natural condition so as to adopt a gods eye point of view, especially one that would enable the reverse engineering of nature, was profoundly alien to the Chinese way of knowing. In this respect, the scientific revolution marked a revolt against nature itself, which was seen as not fully formed, an unrealized potential. Francis Bacons account of experimentation famously expressed this sensibility as forcing nature to reveal her secrets, namely, possibilities that would not be encountered in the normal course of experience.

This deeper point had become widespread in the West by the late eighteenth century, especially after Newtons achievement inspired philosophersnot least those behind the American and French revolutionsto envisage society as something designed ex nihilo on the basis of a few mutually agreeable principles, what continues today as social contract theory. In this context, the precontractarian natural state of humanity appears unruly because its wilder animal tendencies have yet to be subject to a higher intelligence, secularly known as rationality.

The joining of political and scientific revolutions in this radical sense is due to the Marquis de Condorcet (17431794), who specifically connected the successful American Revolution and the ongoing French Revolution via the rhetoric of the first self-declared scientific revolutionary, Antoine Lavoisier (17431794). Lavoisier had recently reorganized chemistry from its traditional alchemical practices to a science founded on the systematic interrelation of elements. However, he himself was not an enthusiastic supporter of revolutionary politics, unlike his great English scientific rival, Joseph Priestley (17331804). Lavoisier believed that a scientific revolution could stabilize (rather than dynamize, as Priestley thought) the political order. Here Lavoisier fell back on the classical conception of revolution, suggested in the Latin etymology, as a restoration of equilibrium after some crime or societal disorder. Specifically, Lavoisier opposed Priestleys continued support for the practically useful, but logically confused, concept of phlogiston, the modern remnant of the ancient idea that fire is an ultimate constituent of nature.

Kuhns relevance emerges at this pointand not only because his own most carefully worked out case of a scientific revolution was the dispute between Priestley and Lavoisier over the nature of oxygen. Kuhn too thought that revolutions restored stability to a science fraught with long unsolved problems. But more generally, Kuhn portrays scientists as the final arbiters of when their knowledge has sufficiently matured to be applied in society without destabilizing it. This doubly conservative conception of revolutions reflects Kuhns definition of science as dominated by only one paradigm at any given moment. Consequently, despite Kuhns broad cross-disciplinary appeal, especially among social scientists, he consistently maintained that only the physical sciences satisfy his strict definition because only in these fields (and arguably only until about the 1920s) are scientists in sufficient control of the research agenda to determine when and how a revolution begins and ends, and its results spread more widely.

Kuhns conception of scientific revolutions appeared radical in the late 1960s because it was conflated with the prevalent Marxist idea of revolution as an irreversible break with the past, something closer in spirit to Condorcets original conception. This conflation was facilitated by Kuhns portrayal of scientists in the vanguard vis-à-vis the direction of their own work and its larger societal import. This image was in marked contrast with the perceived captivity of scientists to what C. Wright Mills (19161962) called the military-industrial complex. However, Kuhns own reluctance to engage with his radical admirers suggests that his model was proposed more in the spirit of nostalgia than criticism and reform. This interpretation is supported by the original Harvard context for the restorative conception of revolution, the so-called Pareto Circle, a reading group named after the Italian political economist whose circulation of elites model was seen in the middle third of the twentieth century as the strongest rival to Karl Marxs (18181883) theory of proletarian revolution. This group was convened in the 1930s by the biochemist Lawrence Henderson (18781942), who taught the first history of science courses at Harvard, and who was instrumental in the appointment of chemistry department head, James Bryant Conant (18931978), as university president. As president, Conant hired Kuhn and coauthored the case history on the chemical revolution that launched the latters more generally influential thinking about scientific revolutions.

SEE ALSO Kuhn, Thomas; Philosophy of Science


Cohen, H. Floris. 1994. The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cohen, I. Bernard. 1985. Revolution in Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fuller, Steve. 2000. Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2nd ed., 1970.

Steve Fuller

Scientific Revolution

views updated May 23 2018


In the first half of the twentieth century it became a commonplace notion that modern science originated in a seventeenth-century "revolution" in thought precipitated by a new methodology for studying nature. In the last third of the twentieth century, a consensus developed among historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science that the emergence of modern science was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Furthermore, while modern science for 300 years claimed that its methodology generated value-free, objective knowledge, the late-twentieth-century consensus was that, implicitly and explicitly, the practice of science incorporated moral, ethical, and social value judgments.

The Seventeenth-Century Achievement

A fundamentally new approach to the study of nature did indeed emerge in seventeenth-century western Europe. The first herald of this development was Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who argued for a renovation in the human conception of knowledge and of knowledge of nature in particular. Especially in his Novum Organum (1620; New instrument [for reasoning]), Bacon formulated a radically empirical, inductive, and experimental-operational methodology for discovering laws of nature that could be put to use to give humankind power over nature. Bacon was primarily a social reformer who believed that knowledge could become an engine of national prosperity and power, improving the quality of life for all. To that end, he championed widespread education for all classes of society, featuring a strong mechanical-technical component that would assure widespread ability to create and maintain technological innovations. (The island of Laputa episode in Jonathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels (1726) mocks the Baconian faith in science-based innovation as improving the quality of life.)

Bacon was strongly opposed to mathematical accounts of natural phenomena, seeing in them a continuation of Renaissance magical nature philosophy and an erroneous commitment to deductive reasoning. René Descartes (1596–1650) by contrast, especially in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written 1628, but not published until 1701) and Discourse on Method (1637), roughly contemporary with Bacon's Novum Organum, articulated a mathematical and rigorously deductive, hence rational methodology for gaining knowledge of nature that employed experiment only to a limited degree and cautiously, because experimental results are ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations. Descartes's own theory of nature was mechanistic, materialistic, and mathematical, hence deductive and deterministic. It became the basis for the mechanical worldwiew that was incorporated into enlightenment thinking and epitomized the view of nature as a clockwork world. Unlike Bacon, Descartes was a practicing researcher and a mathematician. He introduced analytical geometry—enabling algebraic solution of geometric problems—developed a materialistic cosmology in which the solar system and Earth formed naturally, discovered the reflex arc in his anatomical researches, developed a mechanical theory of life and biological processes, and wrote influentially on mechanics and optics, formulating his own theory of light.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), in his Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences (1638), presented a deductive mathematical-experimental methodology that he attributed to Archimedes (c. 287–212 b.c.e.), several of whose treatises were translated into Latin and circulated widely beginning in the second half of the sixteenth century. In this work Galileo founded engineering mechanics and the mathematical theory of strength of materials, and he also extended and corrected earlier contributions to the science of mechanics (while perpetuating the mistaken notion that circular motion was "natural" and hence force-free). This work supplemented his more famous discoveries in astronomy based on his pioneering application of the telescope to the study of the moon and planets, and his defense of Copernicanism, the Sun-centered cosmological theory of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543).

The Newtonian Triumph

Galileo's methodology probably comes closest to what people mean when they refer to "the scientific method" and its invention in the seventeenth century. It reached its mature form in the hands of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) in the last third of the century. In all of his work, but especially in his majestic Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687), considered the single most influential scientific text ever, and in Optics (1704), Newton synthesized induction and deduction, mathematics, and experimentation into a powerful methodology capable of revealing, in his view, the hidden "true causes" responsible for the phenomena of empirical experience. Like Descartes, whose methodology (and theories) he dismissed contemptuously, Newton made major contributions to mathematics, inventing, independently of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), the calculus; to optics, inventing the reflecting telescope, discovering the phenomenon of diffraction and the seven-color composition of sunlight, and formulating a corpuscular, or particle, theory of light that would be dominant until the wave theory of light gained ascendance in the nineteenth century; to mechanics, in his famous three laws of motion; and to a theory of the universe based on his universal theory of gravitation, which provided a full account of the planetary orbits, confirming the validity of the earlier, scattered insights of Johannes Kepler (1571–1630).

Contrary to Descartes, who believed that matter was infinitely divisible, Newton favored an atomic theory of matter, and based physics and chemistry on a variety of forces acting nonmechanically and/or at a distance, rather than basing it only on mechanical contact forces. Newton's scientific style and his accomplishments represent the peak achievement of the seventeenth-century Scientific "Revolution." Until the mid-eighteenth century, many Continental natural philosophers—the term scientist was invented only in the 1830s—remained committed to Descartes's strictly mechanical model of scientific explanation while rejecting Descartes's particular theories. After that, Newtonianism effectively defined "modern" scientific study of nature until the early twentieth century and the rise of relativity and quantum theory.

By the end of the seventeenth century, then, modern science was firmly established, not only in mathematical physics and astronomy, but as a comprehensive philosophy of nature that was deterministic and materialistic, though explanations incorporated immaterial forces—such as gravity, electrical and magnetic attraction/repulsion, and selective chemical affinity—that acted according to strictly mathematical laws. This materialistic-deterministic approach to nature was broadly applied to biological and medical phenomena, especially in Italy and at the University of Padua, as reflected in William Harvey's (1578–1657) demonstration in 1628 of the closed circulation of the blood pumped by the heart and by the Galileo-influenced work of Giovanni Borelli (1608–1679) and others on the mechanics of the human skeletal and skeletal-muscular systems.

Even more than the telescope, the mid-seventeenth-century invention of the microscope by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) revealed the existence of new worlds. The demonstration by Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) and Evangelista Torricelli (1608–1647) of the mechanical pressure exerted by the atmosphere using a simple barometer, which also showed that a vacuum could be created, strongly reinforced the mechanical conception of nature. A critical contribution to the new philosophy of nature was Christiaan Huygens's (1629–1695) midcentury demonstration that circular motion required a force to maintain it, contrary to the previous 2,000 years of Western thought. Descartes and Galileo both misunderstood this fact, which became a cornerstone of modern mechanics in Newton's principle of inertia. By the rise of the enlightenment in the second half of the eighteenth century, an amalgam of Descartes's mechanical worldview Cartesian mechanism and Newtonian deterministic mathematical physics was applied to society and its institutions, for example, by the Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781), and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794) in France, and even to the human mind, for example, by David Hume (1711–1776) and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715–1780).

Newtonianism Dethroned

In the nineteenth century, Newtonianism was severely challenged, and in the twentieth century it was displaced. The relationship between increasingly abstract mathematical models of nature and "reality" became an issue. The models worked empirically, but did they also provide a picture of reality? Meanwhile, the wave theory of light overthrew Newton's corpuscular theory and when incorporated by James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879) into an electromagnetic field theory of energy led to attributing causal efficacy to space-filling immaterial entities. The introduction of the concept of energy on a par with matter diluted the deterministic materialism of modern science, while the new science of thermodynamics revealed that Newton's conception of time was flawed. Finally, with the kinetic theory of gases, statistical explanations were introduced into physics, which called determinism into question. With relativity and quantum theory, from 1905 on, Newtonian conceptions of space, time, matter, force, cause, and explanation, and Descartes's deductive model of rationality would all be replaced, and a fundamentally new form of science and a new, statistical conception of reality would emerge.

Seventeenth-century nature philosophy had presented itself as a body of impersonal knowledge, as simply descriptive of the way things were "out there," independent of personal, social, and cultural values. Given the religious wars of the first half of the seventeenth century, and the explicitly values-steeped character of Renaissance nature philosophy, this was a major epistemological innovation. The value-free character of the knowledge was guaranteed, it was thought, by a methodology employed in acquiring it that eliminated the influence of the subject on knowledge. However attractive such a conception of knowledge was then and continued to be through the nineteenth century, it created a gulf between facts and values, between knowledge and its applications, that in principle could not be bridged by reason, which increasingly came to be defined as reasoning in the scientific (hence objective) manner.

Bacon tacitly assumed that people would know what to do with the new mastery of nature that scientific knowledge would give them. But already by the mid-seventeenth century, the educational reformer John Amos Comenius (1592–1670) was warning that the new science was as likely to create a hell on Earth as a manmade heaven if application-relevant values were not explicitly linked to knowledge. In fact, right through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, modernism, first in the West and then globally, has borne witness to the accuracy of Comenius's warning. While the scope and explanatory/predictive power of science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries increased dramatically and became the basis of life-transforming technological innovations, there was no commensurate increase in conceptual "tools" for identifying which innovations to implement or how to implement them. Elimination of any influence on knowledge of the values held by the subject of knowledge eliminated any influence of knowledge on the values held by subjects!

As a result, even as science and technology became, after 1800, the primary agents of social change around the world, scientists and engineers remained outsiders to the terms of that change, which was driven overwhelmingly by scientifically nonrational political and market values. Both government funding of scientific research, especially in the United States after World War II, and industry dependence on science for technological innovations blurred the distinction between pure and applied science, reinforcing the post-1960s critique of science as in fact a value-laden ideology and not objective knowledge.


SEE ALSO Enlightenment Social Theory;Industrial Revolution;Moderniation;Secularization.


Hankins, Thomas L. (1985). Science and the Enlightenment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Outlines the spread of Newtonianism in the eighteenth century.

Harman, P. M. (1982). Energy, Force, and Matter. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Traces the growing conceptual complexity of nineteenth-century science.

Nye, Mary Jo. (1996). Before Big Science: The Pursuit of Modern Chemistry and Physics, 1800–1940. New York: Twayne. Excellent account of physics and chemistry at the dawn of their connection to government.

Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. (1985). Leviathan and the Air-Pump. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Classic study of the sociocultural context of the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution.

Webster, Charles. (2002). The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine, and Reform, 1626–1660, 2nd edition. Oxford, UK: Peter Lang. Detailed account of the social context of Bacon's ideas and their influence on modern science.

Westfall, Richard S. (1971). The Construction of Modern Science. New York: Wiley. Excellent short history of seventeenth-century science.

Westfall, Richard S. (1993). The Life of Isaac Newton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Revised version of classic biography.

scientific revolution

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scientific revolution. Herbert Butterfield called attention in 1948 to the tremendous intellectual change he saw taking place during the 17th cent., when the modern scientific world-view was propounded by Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and their disciples. This change was reflected in institutions, notably the Royal Society and the Paris Academy of Sciences, and in publications—especially journals. It meant a break with the servile attitude to Aristotelian philosophy, and also with Platonic toying with magic. The science which had made the running was astronomy: the heavens had been demystified, and the power of mathematics demonstrated. Bacon's view that experiments must be fruitful made science seem a matter of organized common sense, accessible not only to a highly educated élite but to craftsmen: having been something for a few soloists, science now acquired a chorus.

Butterfield's thesis went with the self-image of the great thinkers of the 17th cent., and made history and philosophy of science fashionable. It has been criticized by medievalists who have seen little new in the New Philosophy; by historians of medicine, where magical and Aristotelian ideas (in Paracelsus, and in William Harvey) went with progress; and by students of astrology, alchemy, and apocalyptic, who have shown how important these were to people we think of as ‘modern’. Research into rhetoric has indicated how important that was for virtuosi anxious to promote their world-view: the plain style, sometimes verbose, was chosen deliberately to carry conviction. To be too ready to see modernity among the fellows of the Royal Society was to write Whig history.

Butterfield had seen one revolution: but it might be that, like the French, science has had several. Thomas Kuhn in 1962 came to see things this way. A science came into being when a mass of facts was ordered by someone, whose work became paradigmatic and led to a period of normal science, which has something in common with painting by numbers or solving puzzles. It is dogmatic, and deals with questions difficult to answer; but there comes a time for questions difficult to ask, when anomalies have blurred the picture, and a revolution and new paradigm are needed. This will be incommensurable with the old one, and the change is like a religious conversion, a leap of faith; the revolutionary has to work to make converts, and the middle-aged will probably refuse to shift. Thus we have revolutions associated with Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and perhaps Michael Faraday or J. J. Thomson.

A. L. Lavoisier succeeded before his death in the Terror in 1794 in changing the language of chemistry in accordance with his new theory of combustion. His great book came out in 1789, and he was self-consciously bringing about an intellectual revolution, using that frightening word—which previously had evoked feelings of a return to the good old days. He and his contemporaries were Kuhnians before Kuhn, though no doubt he believed that like Newton his paradigm would last for ever, and that only one revolution per science was required. Nineteenth-cent. chemists had a great respect for tradition, and liked to look back through their ‘fathers in science’ to Lavoisier's time; but there were other claimants for his title, including Humphry Davy with electrochemistry, John Dalton with his testable atomic theory, and Marcellin Berthelot with chemical synthesis.

Studies of the 19th cent. indicate how many elements of modern science we owe to that epoch rather than to an earlier period, and may make us wonder if it was not the Age of Science, or the period when science began to revolutionize everyday life. Formal courses in physical sciences began with the revolutionary École Polytechnique, where the teachers also undertook research, and were then taken up in the German universities. At Giessen, Justus Liebig began laboratory instruction and then independent research for the PhD degree from 1825; and his pupil A. W. Hofmann came to Britain in 1845 at Prince Albert's instigation to start the Royal College of Chemistry, subsequently part of Imperial College, London. Science was no longer a matter of informal apprenticeship.

The Royal Society was joined in 1831 by the more open and democratic British Association for the Advancement of Science, promoting public awareness and local pride. It had earlier been joined by specialized societies, dedicated to natural history, geology, and astronomy; and later to chemistry, statistics, and physics. John Herschel decided not to specialize, but for most people this was not possible. Education began to divide the scientists (a word coined by William Whewell in 1833) from humanists; and as the former divided into chemists and physicists, and then further into organic or physical chemists, so the latter began taking degrees in history or English. Scientific societies with narrower and narrower scope were founded, with journals addressed to experts only.

Science also became a profession. Davy was one of the first in Britain to make his way by research and lecturing in a great London institution; with an expanding educational system, this became more possible as the 19th cent. went on. The earliest scientific societies (outside medicine) had been learned ones; but during the 19th cent., as science at last really became useful, they were joined by societies promoting the interests of qualified engineers and applied scientists.

Exponential growth also became evident in the 19th cent., so the question whether there was one scientific revolution or many, or evolution, is open. Clearly, science has been developing in ways that Bacon could only have dreamed of, and it has transformed the way we see the world. Whereas Bacon and Galileo hoped that science would bring certainty, where the church and the ancients had failed as authorities, and T. H. Huxley thought that science had never done anybody any harm, we are now sadder and wiser.

David Knight


Butterfield, H. , The Origins of Modern Science (1949);
Cohen, I. B. , Revolution in Science (Cambridge, Mass., 1985);
Knight, D. M. , A Companion to the Physical Sciences (1989);
Lindberg, D. C., and Westman, R. S. (eds.), Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, 1990);
Shea, W. R. (ed.), Revolutions in Science: Their Meaning and Relevance (Canton, Mass., 1988).

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