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The Scientific Revolution


Professor Robert A. Hatch - University of Florida

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

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

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

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

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

More About the Scientific Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

Further Complexity for the Scientific Revolution

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

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

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

Additional Details - The Scientific Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scientific Revolution - Table of Contents

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