Was There a Scientific Revolution?

History has often been marked contrasts, "before's," and "after's." BC/AD, Medieval/Renaissance, pre-industrial/post-industrial, post-9/11...

The 17th and 18th centuries are linked, of course, to a big break: the Scientific Revolution. Big S, big R. Of course, some Very Big changes--big V, big B--took place in the early-modern era. Copernicus's heliocentrism (image above) for one. But the question is: was it a specific moment of Revolution...or more of progressive sea-change in world view?

Scholars have spilled gallons of ink exploring this question: Michel Foucault, Frances Yates, Alexandre Koyre, Raymond Williams, just to name the few who come immediately to mind. And still more gallon have been spilled by the vociferous responses their works have elicited.

But what are your thoughts? Be sure to leave a comment!

Here at Wonders & Marvels, one of our favorite quotes comes from Steven Shapin's The Scientific Revolution.

"There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution," he writes, "and this is a book about it."

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  1. This is such a great question! I think that I generally find myself in Steven's camp. There have certainly been moments in history where either a scientist is more vocal about a breakthrough or society is more intent on squashing one. Both proponents and opponents to a scientific announcement help to fuel rumors of a discovery's role in the moment's "revolution". I like the idea of a progressive, rolling sea of changes rather than sharp points of history marked by enlightenment or darkness. I'm really excited about the book, now!

  2. Two terminological issues.

    "Scientific" was not used in our modern sense, because "Science" in our sense was an early 19th-century creation. "Science" was sometimes used to describe particular technical knowledge shared by only a few craftsmen, but intellectuals used "Science" -- scientia in Latin -- to describe knowledge that was certain and the method of obtaining it through logic.

    That was why Theology was the Queen of the Sciences, the others being Law and Physic (as opposed to practical medicine), the only disciplines awarding doctorates for members of the three learned professions.

    That was why John Locke stated that the new experimental natural philosophy -- what we call Science -- was unlikely ever to become scientific. It was always going to be probabilistic.

    That was why Galileo and Newton could not be motivated by the desire to become exemplary scientists. They and their contemporaries were trying to establish the place within natural philosophy of the novel methods of observation and mathematics.

    Secondly, "revolution" was a term of astronomy / astrology, as in the title of the work of Copernicus. It was not much used for anything else until the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688.

    Thus, "Scientific Revolution" is clearly our term rather than theirs. It came into frequent use in Cambridge during the period around the end of the Second World War. The scientists, mostly left-wing, who had previously dominated the history of science had been seconded for war work. The historians had been much engaged in wartime propaganda broadcasts. The idea of a Scientific Revolution, which always points towards the Royal Society, the Glorious Revolution, and towards Boyle, Locke and Newton, could be deployed as a Cold War concept.

    The line was that the hands-off methods of government sponsorship, limited government, and religious toleration were the real road towards modernity, not the French Enlightenment, which led towards ideologies such as Nazism and Marxism. Anglo-American science had beaten the Nazis and it would overcome Bolshevism too. The concept was carried to America, where it achieved immediate success for precisely this reason.

    Rather than "the Scientific Revolution", which is always modern-minded and tends to exclude theology, history, music theory, alchemy, social applications, practical skills and so forth, it is less misleading to speak of "the new philosophy". However, "the Scientific Revolution" will continue to appear in book titles and the names of university courses, however much historians dislike it.

    David Harley


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