History Of Scientific Revolution Research Paper

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1. The Term ‘Scientific Revolution’

The term ‘Scientific Revolution’ was introduced to denote what has been considered since the nineteenth century one of the most important discontinuities in the history of European science (H F Cohen 1994, I B Cohen 1985, Lindberg and Westman 1990). It covered roughly the period between Copernicus and Newton, and led from Aristotelian natural philosophy (see Aristotle (384–322 BC)) deriving its dogmatic authority from the Church to the establishment of the classical sciences and their institutions, i.e., the period between 1500 and 1700.

This period can be characterized as one in which a new social group, the ‘engineer-scientists’ (consisting of engineers, scientists, inventors, artists, and explorers), emerged and became institutionalized. This group confronted traditional natural philosophy with the challenges of practice and experience, but also engaged in self-contained explanations of natural phenomena, expecting that science is a means to master nature, as Francis Bacon put it. Among the lasting achievements of the Scientific Revolution were the establishment of heliocentric astronomy, classical mechanics, as well as numerous contributions to optics, chemistry, physiology and other areas of modern science (for an overview see Butterfield 1965, Dijksterhuis 1986, Hall 1954). Many of these achievements became, in fact, the basis for technological breakthroughs. However, these breakthroughs occurred, as a rule, much later than anticipated by the protagonists of the Scientific Revolution. Further, the intellectual breakthroughs responsible for the revolution’s lasting impact on the development of science were mainly attained towards its end and only a generation or more after their proclamation by the early pioneers (Damerow et al. 1992).

The Scientific Revolution has become a paradigmatic reference for all approaches to the history and philosophy of science. At least since the Enlightenment it has been conceived as the triumph of the scientific method over the irrationalism of religious beliefs. Opposition to this view, together with a growing professionalization of historical studies, has opened up the space for other accounts, including attempts—such as that by Pierre Duhem—to deny that the Scientific Revolution actually represented a radical break, claiming instead that it merely constituted an episode within a continuous accumulation of scientific knowledge since the Middle Ages (Duhem 1996). Furthermore, the traditional emphasis on the role of outstanding protagonists of the Scientific Revolution, such as Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes, and their individual ‘discoveries’ (see e.g., Koyre 1978) has, in recent scholarship, increasingly receded in favor of an analysis of contexts tracing scientific achievements back to cultural, social, and economic conditions (Osler 2000, Porter and Teich 1992, Shapin 1996). The Scientific Revolution, on the other hand, itself provided a model for historical explanations when Thomas Kuhn radically challenged traditional historiography with his notion of ‘scientific revolution’ conceived of as a general structure of knowledge development (Kuhn 1962).

2. Historical And Sociological Context

From a sociological perspective, the Scientific Revolution appears as part of a wider social process in which technical knowledge assumed a new role in the organization of European societies. This process took off in the late Middle Ages and was primarily rooted in the larger cities, which saw an ever more diversified and developed artisanal culture and a growing accumulation of merchandise capital. The cities of early modern Europe thus offered favorable conditions for the rapid growth of technical knowledge and the reflection of this growth in political, philosophical and religious thinking. Large-scale ventures involving technical expertise, such as projects of military architecture, water regulation, military adventures, or seafaring expeditions, involved types of resources, social mobility, and an outlook on the world available only in urban centers such as Florence, Venice, Paris and London, which in fact became, long after they had attained an outstanding economic role, also the nuclei of the Scientific Revolution. Historians such as Edgar Zilsel (Zilsel 2000) have considered the early modern engineering projects as a decisive condition for the practical orientation and empirical knowledge base that distinguish the science of this period from its medieval antecedents.

Beginning in the fifteenth century, ambitious practical ventures (such as the building of the cupola of Florence Cathedral, the search for a sea route to India, or the development of a new military technology) increasingly relied on expert knowledge comprising both logistic and technological competencies exceeding those of traditional practitioners and artisans. Such competencies could only be gained on the basis of broader reflection on the relevant practical and theoretical knowledge resources available. This reflection became the specialty of the new group of engineerscientists such as Filippo Brunelleschi, Christopher Columbus, Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Tartaglia, and Galileo Galilei. While the states of the time (if not actually at war) competed with each other in the pursuit of practical ventures, for example, building projects and seafaring expeditions, the knowledge acquired in such ventures was nevertheless constantly spread among the engineer-scientists employed by them. In the social fabric of the early modern period, engineer-scientists occupied a place similar to that earlier conquered by Renaissance humanists, administrators and artists. These practically oriented intellectuals were, as a rule, highly mobile, offering their services to whatever patronage was available. At the same time, they constituted, as a social group, a collective memory, accumulating and transmitting the new knowledge long before appropriate institutions of learning emerged and in spite of the frequent political and military turnovers of the time.

The characteristic features of the engineer-scientists and their work become understandable against the background of their uncertain social status and their dependence on the patronage of courts and city governments (see e.g., Biagioli 1993) with rapidly changing power structures. Examples are their incessant engagement with projects for potential future patrons; their usually unrealistic promises regarding the practical benefits of their theories, inventions or projects; the secretiveness with which they treated their discoveries; their frequent involvement in priority struggles; as well as the striving to ennoble their practical knowledge by the claim of creating ‘new sciences.’

The social and political ambitions of the engineerscientists were reflected in their pursuit of a literary culture of technical knowledge, largely emulating the humanist culture of the courts, including their reference to ancient Greek and Roman canons. Their contribution to the literary culture was in turn welcomed by those interested in challenging the transcendent, religious legitimization of the feudal order as an argument for the possibility of an immanent explanation of both the natural and the social world. This affinity, together with the fact that an allencompassing explanation of the world on the basis of Aristotelian philosophy had been adopted as the official doctrine of the Catholic Church, brought the engineer-scientists almost unavoidably into conflict with its power structures (Feldhay 1995).

Other developments contributed to turning the growth of technological and scientific knowledge into a force driving profound changes in the established structures of European society. The invention of printing offered a revolutionary new means of dissemination that challenged the exclusiveness of a literary culture based on manuscripts. The new dissemination technique contributed to overcoming the traditional separation between various branches of practical knowledge, confined by a transmission process relying exclusively on participation and oral communication as well as restricted by guild regulations. It also bridged the social gulf between such practical knowledge and the theoretical knowledge transmitted via scholarly texts at universities, monasteries, and courts. As a result, knowledge resources of different provenance were integrated and became widely available. Together with the accumulation of new knowledge in the context of the great practical ventures of the time, this process formed part of a veritable explosion of knowledge, both in the sense of its expansion and of its spreading across traditional social barriers.

In reaction to this knowledge explosion and its growing significance for the functioning of the advanced European societies, new institutions of learning such as the Accademia del Cimento (1657), the Royal Society (1660), and the Academie Royale des Sciences (1666) emerged in the middle of the seventeenth century. Traditional institutions, such as those of the Church, on the other hand, had to accommodate to the new situation, as may be illustrated by the prominent involvement of Jesuits in the scientific culture of the time (Wallace 1991). Parallel to this process of institutionalization, science had, towards the end of the period here under consideration, gradually emancipated itself from the expectation of immediate practical benefits and could increasingly be pursued for its own sake. In summary, as a result of the Scientific Revolution, not only the production and transmission of technological knowledge but also its representation by scientific theories became an essential factor in the social, economic, and cultural development of European societies. This is the context in which scientists such as Huygens, Leibniz, Hook, Newton, and Wallis, traditionally identified with the completion of the Scientific Revolution by the creation of classical terrestrial and celestial mechanics, achieved their celebrated results.

3. Structures And Achievements

The cognitive, social, and material structures and achievements of the Scientific Revolution have been extensively studied and discussed amid much controversy. Recent scholarship in the context of a cultural history of science has emphasized the possibility of an integrative treatment of these various dimensions. From the point of view of the traditional history of ideas, the Scientific Revolution appears primarily as the renewal of a knowledge development going back to antiquity, as a renaissance of Greek science. In fact, the ancient tradition of mathematical science, and in particular the ‘Elements’ of Euclid, provided the protagonists of the Scientific Revolution with the canonical model for a mathematical theory, a model which they systematically applied to new areas such as ballistics (Tartaglia) and even ethics (Spinoza). But the ancient tradition also had in stock designs for a theory of nature not based on Aristotelian views which they could hence exploit in their struggle against scholasticism, in particular Platonism and atomism. The ancient tradition finally offered a substantial corpus of knowledge in such domains as geometry, mathematical astronomy, and mechanics, serving as a point of departure for new scientific endeavors. The perception of their work as a renewal of antique science was typical of the self-image of the protagonists of the Scientific Revolution, who honored each other by such titles as that of a ‘new Archimedes.’ In short, the characterization of the Scientific Revolution as a renaissance of antique science by historians of ideas such as Koyre is in agreement with the claims of contemporary scientists to have accomplished a radical break with Aristotelian scholasticism (Koyre 1978).

This characterization, however, is in apparent conflict with the results of studies inaugurated by scholars in the tradition of Duhem, pointing to a conceptual continuity between early modern science and its medieval predecessors (and even with contemporary scholasticism), in spite of the anti-Aristotelian polemics (Duhem 1996). Such studies have provided evidence that the intellectual means available to the engineer-scientists engaged in creating new sciences were essentially still rooted in traditional conceptual frameworks. For instance, Galileo Galilei and his contemporaries allowed their investigations of motion and mechanics to be shaped by such Aristotelian notions as the distinction between natural and violent motion and the assumption that violent motion is caused by a moving force (Damerow et al. 1992). Studies of medieval natural philosophy have revealed, on the other hand, that the advanced explanations of phenomena such as projectile motion, by which early modern scientists distinguished themselves from Aristotelian natural philosophy, make use of concepts of causation such as that of ‘impetus’ (or ‘impressed force’) and techniques for conceptualizing change such as Oresme’s doctrine of the ‘latitude of forms’ that had already been developed by late antique or medieval commentators on Aristotle (Clagett 1968).

Such contrasting accounts of early modern science appear less incompatible if other dimensions of the development of scientific knowledge are taken into account. For instance, epistemological considerations have suggested that one should differentiate between the claim of Renaissance engineer-scientists to have created a new science or a new scientific method, on the one hand, and the knowledge base they shared with their contemporaries, on the other hand. Using the terminology introduced by Elkana (1988) we can say that their ambitious claim resulted from their ‘image of knowledge,’ which was determined by their fragile social status. This image is to be distinguished from the shared ‘body of knowledge’ comprising the antique and medieval heritage which determined what challenges they were able to master. The role of this shared knowledge for the Scientific Revolution has been analyzed not only from the point of view of the history of ideas but also from the viewpoint of its actual function in the social and material contexts of this revolution. It has thus turned out that the material culture of the Scientific Revolution decisively shaped the way in which the knowledge of antique and medieval science was taken up or newly interpreted.

It has become evident, for instance, that the knowledge resources available to the engineer-scientists, largely structured by traditional conceptual frameworks, were challenged by their application to the new objects of a rapidly expanding range of experience, acquired in the context of the practical ventures in which the engineer-scientists were engaged. While investigations of ‘challenging objects’ such as the pendulum, the trajectories of artillery, purified metals, the dissected human body, the terrestrial globe, and the planetary system often remained less successful than their protagonists hoped and claimed, they nevertheless triggered elaborations and modifications of these traditional frameworks creating the foundations for the accomplishments of the age of classical science. Columbus searched for the sea route to India, but discovered America. Kepler tried in the Pythagorean tradition to unravel the harmonies of the world but from the harmonies he found only three laws of planetary motion that became the starting point of Newtonian cosmology. Galileo explained ballistics and pendulum motion on the basis of the impetus concept, but in fact he contributed to a new mechanics, which expelled this concept once and for all from science. Harvey defended Aristotle’s claim of the primacy of the heart among the organs, but became the founder of an anti-Aristotelian theory, a mechanistic medicine. All these achievements resulted from coping with challenging new objects while relying on essentially traditional intellectual means.

Classical science, often considered an accomplishment of the Scientific Revolution, was actually established for the most part only in the course of the eighteenth century. Even classical mechanics, the pilot and model science of the Scientific Revolution, assumed the formulation familiar from today’s physics textbooks only in the aftermath of Newton’s pioneering work. The characteristics of classical science, relatively stable theoretical frameworks and generally accepted standards for the production of knowledge serving as the canonical reference for a scientific community, were, in any case, not yet shared by the scientific endeavors of the Scientific Revolution.

The conceptual framework of classical science comprising basic concepts such as inertia, a new methodical canon including the experimental method and mathematical techniques such as the differential calculus, new images of knowledge such as the mechanization of the world view, and the new institutions of classical science such as the academies were nevertheless consequences of the Scientific Revolution, as a belated result of reflection on its accumulated experience.


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