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Dr Robert A. Hatch  -  University of Florida


Forty years ago the British historian Herbert Butterfield proclaimed that the 'so called 'scientific revolution,' popularly associated with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries... outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom.'

It was a remarkable claim. But in the generation following Butterfield's classic survey, The Origins of Modern Science, much was written to extend and enrich the vision. And there are good reasons. Because the Scientific Revolution is the acknowledged birthplace of the history of science, it was the first specialty to benefit from the professionalization of the discipline, from its increasing specialization, diversification of methods, and from the simultaneous broadening of scope and narrowing of focus prompted by sociologists and philosophers of science. But ironically, while Europeanists in general have come to accept the legitimacy of the Scientific Revolution, there is a growing sense among specialists that the very nature of the enterprise has all but exhausted itself, that the once proud periodization has been lost in a wave of 'New Eclecticism.' At risk of dramatization, I reduce the problem to a simple question:  Is the Scientific Revolution a 'paradigm lost'?

The purpose of this modest essay is twofold. First to trace traditional themes in the historiography of the Scientific Revolution by means of a bibliographic essay; and second, to identify new and emerging areas of research by suggesting trends in recent publication.  The essay is written for non-specialists, and it is appropriate to mention several other introductory works.  Readers interested in historiographic issues could profitably begin with George Basalla's brief but useful collection of essays, The Rise of Modern Science: External or Internal Factors, or with Vern Bullough's The Scientific Resolution. A more general overview of the discipline as a whole, which identifies the Scientific Revolution as the locus classicus of the discipline, is Arnold Thackray's lucid and provocative essay, 'History of Science' in A Guide to the Culture of Science, Technology, and Medicine, edited by Paul T. Durbin. Finally, historians seeking suggestions for courses in Western Civilization could do no better than to obtain Richard S. Westfall's pamphlet, 'The Scientific Revolution,' a teaching guide in the series, 'Teaching the History of Science: Resources and Strategies,' published by the History of Science Society.

Although Butterfield was among the first to articulate a central problem in linking science and Western Civilization, he was not the first to emphasize the essentially intellectual character of science. In large measure philosophers-- or students of philosophy-- established the foundations for the early historiography of the discipline, and they began with the Scientific Revolution. Going beyond the pioneering efforts of retired scientists writing about their disciplines, E. A. Burtt provided a bold vision of the Scientific Revolution in his classic study, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, as did A. N. Whitehead's Science and the Modern World, with its memorable chapter on the 'Century of Genius.' In a similar mode, Arthur O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being, J.B. Bury's The Idea of Progress, and R. G. Collingwood's brilliant essay, The Idea of Nature, each seized on the power of ideas and the explosive force of seventeenth-century thought. Viewing science in the context of ideas about knowledge, truth, and reality, these studies were a clear departure from disciplinary narratives that often took science to be a series of right-thinking lads and crucial experiments, where the trajectory of science was predictably rational, linear, and progressive.

But the most prominent figure of this early school (the so-called internalists) was undoubtedly Alexandre Koyré. A student of Edmund Husserl and an associate of Léon Brunschvicq and Emile Meyerson, Koyré extended the approach of Burtt and others by combining philosophy, technical expertise, and persuasive prose. Koyré's powers of conceptual analysis, so clearly demonstrated in his Études Galiléennes, quickly transcended the methodological limitations of positivist historians and the view that science was somehow untainted by religious, philosophical, or cultural bias. Koyré placed science, as an essentially intellectual enterprise, squarely in the historical mainstream of modern thought. While critics claimed his methods made science seem too abstract and austere-- likened by one critic to a series of immaculate conceptions-- no one denied the brilliance of his work, the clarity of his vision, or his enduring influence. In the end, Koyré's later studies, The Astronomical Revolution and From the Closet World to the Infinite Universe, helped move the discipline into solid, sophisticated, and subtle history.

Most general studies of the Scientific Revolution available today are written from the perspective perfected by Koyré. In England, following Butterfield's lead, A. Rupert Hall spent his early career defending and articulating the internalist perspective, notably in his Scientific Revolution and in his subsequent From Galileo to Newton. Two other influential works cannot go unmentioned, Charles Gillispie's penetrating but highly readable The Edge of Objectivity, and E.J. Dijksterhuis' more expansive but thoughtful The Mechanization of the World Picture. For the sixteenth century, two works remain important and useful, W. P. D. Wightman's Science in a Renaissance Society, and Marie Boas Hall's The Scientific Renaissance 1450-1630. More recently, several excellent surveys have appeared as part of a series. The first by Allen Debus, an authority on the Renaissance alchemical tradition, Man and Nature in the Renaissance, and Richard S. Westfall's The Construction of Modern Science, one of the most widely used texts in history of science courses. Also worth mentioning is Robert Mandrou's balanced study, From Humanism to Science, 1480-1700, which provides a broad cultural and social background for the period. Other shorter or less detailed works include Hugh Kearney's Science and Change, 1500-1700, A. G. R. Smith's Science and Society in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, and there is also a brief introductory pamphlet by Peter Harman, The Scientific Revolution.  More recently two brief studies have appeared, Stephen Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago 1996) and John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (St Martin's 1997).

While the works cited above deal in whole or in part with the Scientific Revolution, a number of other influential studies have limited their scope along traditional lines of space, time, topic, and theme, or by restricting themselves to the contributions of an individual. There exists, for example, a growing literature on national science, numerous studies limited to sub-periodizations, others still on specific sciences or conceptual themes, and finally a growing number of biographical or individual studies. Space allows brief mention of only the most influential, and these largely represent the physical sciences. Certainly among these is Thomas S. Kuhn's The Copernican Revolution, a seminal work still very much in use and on which many practicing historians of science were weaned. But Kuhn's work has further significance. While the so-called Copernican Revolution is only a temporal --technically conceptual-- subset of the Scientific Revolution (which might also include the Keplerian Revolution, the Cartesian Synthesis, the Newtonian Revolution), Kuhn's first book gave rise to his highly influential essay, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which extended his historical insights into a generalized and thoughtfully articulated philosophy and sociology of knowledge (see below).

Because Kuhn's writings are central to an understanding of the recent historiography of the discipline, it should be noted that the traditional notion of a 'Copernican Revolution' has largely fallen from favor. Simply put, it no longer has the chronological autonomy or conceptual coherence it once seemed to enjoy. It is now generally agreed that if there was a Copernican Revolution, it began and ended with the work of Galileo and Kepler, that is, with recognized achievements completed nearly a century after Copernicus' De Revolutionibus (1543). If I am not mistaken, part of the problem of the Scientific Revolution is tied to the fate of the extended reception of Copernicus' work --to ongoing articulations of the heliocentric theory itself-- and of particular interest here, to the communities that gave shape to subsequent debates on the nature of knowledge itself.

The traditional place to begin to appreciate the Copernican problem is with Angus Armitage's Sun, Stand Thou Still, and perhaps by consulting Copernicus's shorter texts themselves in Edward Rosen's Three Copernican Treatises. For a more general overview, there are relevant and lucid chapters in J.L.E. Dreyer's classic, A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler, while no appreciation of the Copernican debate can ignore the Tychonic System. Here Dreyer's Tycho Brahe is still useful but has now been replaced by Victor Thoren's Lord of Uraniburg:  A biography of Tycho Brahe.  Alas, there has yet to appear an acceptable replacement for Max Casper's dated but pioneering study, Kepler. There is, however, a widely read and accessible biography of Kepler entitled The Watershed, derived from Arthur Koestler's larger work, the provocative, sometimes penetrating, and consistently controversial The Sleepwalkers.

The literature on Galileo and Newton is staggering in scope and complexity. Since Koyré's early work, much has been done by Stillman Drake to bring Galileo's achievement into a different light, principally as an experimentalist at odds with Aristotelian philosophers. Drake has made a number of lasting contribution to Galilean scholarship, not least with excellent translations of Galileo's two major works, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, and Discourse Concerning Two Sciences. Of particular interest for classroom work is Drake's translated collection of Galileo's shorter works, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, which are lively, important, and accessible. For background to Galileo's achievement, Drake's Galileo At Work should be consulted, while the best biography remains Ludovico Geymonat's Galileo. For a balanced view of Galileo's most creative years, see William Shea's Galileo's Intellectual Revolution, which plots a via media between Koyré's Platonic reading of Galileo and Drake's emphasis on Galileo's positive contributions. More recently William A. Wallace's Galileo and His Sources: The Heritage of the Collegio Romano in Galileo's Science has attempted to align Galileo's work with a larger textual tradition and institutional community, a concern continued in part with one of Galileo's most influential followers studied by Peter Dear in Mersenne and the Learning of the Schools. Finally, for an understanding of Galileo's difficulties with theological authorities, it is instructive to compare Giorgio de Santillana's lively but polemical The Crime of Galileo with the more recent reconstruction of Redondi, Galileo Heretic, which is boldly conceived and imaginative in approach.

As the culminating figure of the Scientific Revolution, Isaac Newton has deservedly received much attention since the publication of Koyré's classic collection of essays, Newtonian Studies. Newton's obvious genius, diversity of interests, profound influence, and complex personality have demanded a variety of scholarly approaches, some specialized, technical, and traditional, others highly interpretive, exploratory, and novel. In certain respects the Newton Industry --as it has been called-- was the first group of specialists to experience and reflect the New Eclecticism.

But where to begin? Among the pioneering works of this century, I. Bernard Cohen's Franklin and Newton still provides one of the best traditional surveys of Newton's 'experimental' approach and its legacy into the eighteenth century. Certainly one of the foremost contributions to our understanding of Newton's work in mechanics is R. S. Westfall's Force in Newton's Physics, which traces the concepts of force through the Scientific Revolution. More recently, I.B. Cohen published The Newtonian Revolution, which focuses on Newtonian dynamics, though its perspective is drawn almost entirely from the pages of the Principia itself. Scholarly interest in Newton's scientific achievement is paralleled by a longstanding concern with his life, character, and influence. Frank E. Manuel's brilliant psychobiography, Portrait of Isaac Newton, is highly readable and boldly explores the limits of its genre. Most recently, Gale E. Christianson has written In The Present of the Creator: Isaac Newton and His Times, which also describes Newton's work for the nontechnical reader while capturing a lively slice of seventeenth-century intellectual life. Clearly the definitive biography is R. S. Westfall's Never at Rest, which balances rigorous research, technical mastery, and biographical insight.

Other facets of Newton's career have also received special attention. Among the more path breaking is Betty Jo T. Dobbs' The Foundations of Newton Alchemy, which attempts to place Newton and his philosophy of nature into the broader cultural and intellectual context of alchemical thought. A. Rupert Hall also has broadened his focus in tracing Newton's famous priority dispute with Leibnitz, a war of words that reverberated through the body politic of learned Europe, a story well told in his Philosophers at War. Also noteworthy is John L. Heilbron's delightful essay, The Royal Society Under Newton's Presidency, which artfully combines a concern for the evolution of Newton's later scientific work in the institutional context of the Royal Society, particularly its experimental tradition, changing structures and procedures, and in the publication patterns of its Transactions. The centrifugal tendency evident in recent Newtonian scholarship is perhaps most evident in the work of Margaret C. Jacob, notably The Newtonians and the English Revolution, 1689-1720, which attempted to find intersections between science and the broader socio-political fabric in England, and most recently in The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution, which extends this and other themes in suggestive ways for a larger reading audience.

There is no question that recent trends in interpreting the Scientific Revolution have been directly influenced, as have all areas of historical study, by the new social history. But it would be a mistake to conclude that interest in the social, institutional, or religious contexts of the Scientific Revolution is new. In 1931, nearly two decades before Butterfield's classic statement, the Marxist historian Boris Hessen published a classic statement on the application of dialectical materialism, The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's 'Principia.' In succeeding years Edgar Zilsel extended the argument from economic modes of production to social structure, publishing a number of pioneering works in what is now the sociology of science (samples of Hessen's and Zilsel's writings can be found in the volumes of Basalla and Bullough cited above).

A continuing area of interest among historians of science focuses on the origin, development, composition, and function of learned societies, formal academies, and universities. The classic study here, which has yet to be replaced for breadth of treatment, is Martha Ornstein's dated but useful The Rôle of Scientific Societies in the Seventeenth Century. More geographically focused treatments include Harcourt Brown's carefully researched and thoughtful classic, Scientific Organizations in Seventeenth Century France, which considers the literary and political interests of French savants in the context of the New Science and emerging state-sponsored academics. In a more limited way, W.E.K. Middleton's The Experimenters: A Study of the Academia del Cimento, portrays the informal structure and personal interplay of an important but short-lived Italian group. One of the more recent studies in this genre is Roger Hahn's The Anatomy of a Scientific Institution: The Paris Academy of Sciences. 1666-1803, though its treatment of the seventeenth century is largely introductory.

But the best work on the social and institutional history of science has focused on England. In large measure this is due to the influence of one individual, Robert K. Merton, and his classic study, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England. In certain respects, Merton is as central to the historiography of the social underpinnings of this period as Koyré was to the intellectual. Sophisticated in approach, rooted in the best available data, and carefully qualified, Merton's study extended the tradition of Max Weber, R. H. Tawney, and others, to apply statistical techniques to data gleaned from the Dictionary of National Biography and other sources in support of what became known as the Merton thesis: that there is a clear connection between the growth of scientific activity in seventeenth-century England and the social and religious presence of Puritanism. Since the appearance of this bold and provocative study, a spate of scholarly studies has appeared focusing on the relations between and among science, religion, society, politics, ideology, and institutions.

By way of overview, it is useful to begin with religion itself. Here it is instructive to compare several studies, Paul Kocher's Science and Religion in Elizabethan England, Richard S. Westfall's Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, R. Hooykaas' Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, and finally, Charles Webster's balanced and thoughtful statement on science and the Puritan Revolution, The Great Instauration, Science, Medicine, and Reform, 1626-1660. Other background studies include Christopher Hill's Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution and his The World Turned Upside Down. More recently Michael Hunter has provided one of the best surveys of this period with his learned and balanced study, Science and Society in Restoration England. Elsewhere, however, Hunter also has brought clarity to the issue of the nature, role, and composition of the membership of the Royal Society (a lightning rod for debate on religion, class, political ideology, and science) in his institutional and prosoprographical study, The Royal Society and its Fellows 1660-1700. Hunter's study has helped to place earlier interpretations in quite a different light, notably Dorothy Stimson's Scientists and Amateurs: A History of the Royal Society, Margery Purver's somewhat dated The Royal Society: Concept and Creation, and the controversial but often insightful study of Lewis S. Feurer's, The Scientific Intellectual: The Psychological and Sociological Origins of Modern Science.

It is not possible to conclude any historiographical discussion of the Scientific Revolution without addressing Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that an entire generation of historians of science came under its spell, if not in their research or the classroom, in informal discussions about the nature of science and the practice of history. Kuhn provided a paradigm which, for many historians, held out the prospect of bridging the omnipresent historiographical gaps, the apparent polarities of internal-external, idealist- materialist, and continuity- discontinuity. This shared vision--or at least common coin--provided a forum for discourse, a happy blend of coherence and flexibility for a generation of young scholars keen to connect ideas, individuals, and institutions.

Shortly after Kuhn's Structure appeared, Frances Yates published what appeared to many young scholars as a natural extension, the influential and highly suggestive Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Here Yates argued, as in her succeeding publications, that alternative philosophies of nature --Hermetic, alchemical, Rosicrusian-- might well serve as a broader cultural backdrop from which to judge the emergence of modern science. Subsequently, historians began to discuss Copernicus's deleted Hermetic lines in the holograph copy of his De Revolutionibus, a vigorous exchange unfolded in various scholarly journals over Koestler's 'sleep-walking' thesis, and soon there were heated discussions about Kepler's mysticism and the meaning of Newton's alchemical affinities.

Yates, of course, was not the only one interested in the 'non-rational' aspects of science. One need only recall Walter Pagel's earlier Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance which was later complemented by Allen Debus' Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and, in the same tradition, Paolo Rossi's Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science. While some of the implications of this approach were questioned, for example, R.S. Westman and J.E. McGuire's Hermeticism and the Scientific Revolution a number of other studies and collections have continued to appear, among them M. L. Righini Bonelli and W. R. Shea's (eds.) Reason, Experiment and Mysticism in the Scientific Revolution and Brian Vickers' Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance. The role of sociology, anthropology, and gender studies, also are evident in recent scholarship. Certainly among these is Keith Thomas' brilliant study, Religion and the Decline of Magic and more recently studies by Brian Easlea, Witch Hunting Magic and the New Philosophy and Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution.

The Scientific Revolution remains very much alive as a research problem, or, at least, a set of problems. To be sure, there are difficulties with any periodization. Understood as an historical reality, it is not at all clear that there was a single or unitary 'scientific revolution,' any more than there was but one 'renaissance,' or that 'the sixties' has any historical coherence. What is clear is that a profound and enduring transformation occurred between Copernicus and Newton.  In coming to grips with this change, specialized scholarship has slowly silenced the simplest clichés, just as the New Eclecticism has raised challenging questions and enlivened the tempo of debate. In the end, the Scientific Revolution may refuse to be reduced to an 'idea,' an 'event,' or an 'episode,' or, for that matter, to yield to conceptual or social analysis. For all of that, there may be solace if not consensus in Lord Acton's recurring phrase, 'Study problems in preference to periods.' In the end, the scientific revolution - if such a thing ever existed - seems substantial enough to suggest new areas of difference, indeed, to excite old scholarly passions, to remain, in a word, problematic.

  Robert A. Hatch
  Univeristy of Florida
 


 
An earlier and shorter version of this brief historiographic essay was published in the OAH Magazine of History, 4, 2 (1989): 34-39.  The present version of that essay includes a handful of notable books published since 1990 but makes no organized attempt to list subsequent works or to assess more recent historiographic trends.

The Scientific Revolution - Table of Contents



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