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What was the Scientific Revolution? March 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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So, I got Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House in the mail yesterday.  The book is about “the sciences” in London circa 1600, and won last year’s Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society.  So far I like it a lot.  Essentially, it’s kind of up the same alley as Cook’s Matters of Exchange with some key stylistic differences that I want to discuss later.

What I’d like to discuss now is a sort of uncomfortable relationship writers on early modern natural history seem to have with the idea of the Scientific Revolution.  I keep getting this Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect!” vibe from the literature, which seems to be born out of this idea that the Sci Rev (as we in the biz call it) was this physics-driven shift in “the way people thought” and a rejection of Ancient authority concerning natural knowledge, or something like that.

Thus we seem to have this burgeoning literature of the “big science” of the 1500s and 1600s (again, a sort of “us too!”, this time against 20th-century large scientific collaborations) insisting that vibrant cultures of natural inquiry existed well prior to the Royal Society, and had little to do with the Copernicus-Galileo-Newton lineage.  Here’s Harkness on the last page of her book:

At present, [the term Scientific Revolution] is being used in the history of science as a context that must surround all efforts to understand natural knowledge during the period from 1400 to 1800 [!]—and this book succumbs to that broad frame.  Even if we believe that it doesn’t exist, or find that it has outlived its usefulness, most historians of science still find they need to explain developments in natural knowledge as “leading up to it” or “resulting from it”.

This makes some sense to me, because it explains Hal Cook telling us that the empiricism of botany and medicine establish a sort of prerequisite to the Sci Rev.  We also have Harkness insisting that it’s OK to use the term “science” to describe these activities, because her actors used the term, whatever we are told about it being a 19th-century invention (the confusion, I think, has to do with a longstanding use of “a science” as a field of inquiry, versus “science” as a method-bound mode of inquiry; see my post on the British Association).

I regard the question “did the Sci Rev exist?” as a nonsensical distraction.  What is more important is to be careful in describing what we mean by it.  I think a lot of the problem has to do with this sort of residual notion that the Sci Rev actually had much to do with “the way people thought”, wherein we have Copernicus dislodging the earth from the center of the universe thereby shattering the Scholastic worldview, and launching the world into a new age of reason (damn those Enlightenment propagandists).*

I would not include Copernicus in the Sci Rev, for instance.  His work, radical as it was, was a pretty wonky affair that stirred up some astronomers, but augured no general shift in thinking.  Nor would I include all this medical and botanical empiricism circa 1600.  It’s not that this stuff isn’t important—it is, and I’m extremely interested in it—but, as Harkness seems to be saying, it shouldn’t be stuck to this great lynchpin in history.  It should have the confidence to stand on its own two feet.

If I had to date the Scientific Revolution, I’d go with 1650-1700, because it represents a point where a lot of different things that are going on—the revolt against Peripatetic natural philosophy, the development of an experimental physics, the development of observational anatomy and experimental physiology, the burgeoning of natural history, the reform of astronomy, the development of fine instruments and mechanisms—all come together as part of a self-conscious enterprise of general inquiry.

The reason the Sci Rev is important is because it provides a sort of institutional rubric for the systematic development of knowledge of all kinds.  It links practice, commentary, knowledge, cosmology, and philosophy (to use the terms of historical inquiry I outlined earlier this week) together in a more continuous way than had previously been done.

Notably, the Sci Rev was not necessarily transformative of inquiry.  As books like Harkness’ and Cook’s ably demonstrate, the development of natural history from the Renaissance to Linnaeus was gradual and nonlinear.  That John Ray came along during the Sci Rev is, I think, more a temporal coincidence than any consequence of the creation of the Royal Society.  Ultimately, the Sci Rev is vitally important to establishing a movement of inquiry that never abates thereafter and that has diverse historical effects: quickening technological development, assaulting university philosophy, inspiring Enlightenment-era thought…  However, its presence should not affect our periodization of individual traditions of inquiry.

So, what can we say about natural historical and medical traditions of inquiry predating the Scientific Revolution?  Well, they’re extremely important, because they bring together two medieval traditions in a productive way: a written tradition of what I usually refer to as “lore” which indifferently blends Aristotle with “books of secrets” and “bestiaries” and what not, with a more practical tradition, in a way that improves the quality of lore—cataloging and debating the properties of objects, and developing a detailed global cosmology, with some fringe assaults on Scholastic philosophy (clearly articulated by Francis Bacon), particularly in the case of debates on fossils.

The alignment of written and practical traditions strikes me as generally in line with what we know about the concerns of Renaissance Europe.  I mean, I think it’s well-agreed that the Renaissance was an intellectually vibrant period, so I don’t see any need to defend a study of its broad cultures of inquiry, just because Aristotle was still in vogue, and the Scientific Revolution hadn’t officially occurred yet.  To me it seems preferable to extending the boundaries of the Sci Rev only for the sake of encompassing the epistemic changes in all the fields bound up into it.

*Now I have this image of Copernicus prying the earth loose with a crowbar (a la Archimedes), and it goes rolling down a flight of stairs, crashing through a glass door/celestial sphere, and rolling off to freedom in the hills, like Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Great.

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