Stephen Gaukroger, H. Floris Cohen, and the Scientific Revolution (Part One)

Gaukroger - The Emergence of a Scientific Culture
The Emergence of a Scientific Culture (2005)

In the recent April 2013 issue of Historically Speaking, there is a fascinating forum about Stephen Gaukroger’s massively ambitious, multivolume historical project on the emergence and consolidation of a “scientific culture” in the West in the modern era. A total of four historians participated in the discussion, but the most important contributions came from Gaukroger himself and another “big history” scholar, H. Floris Cohen.

The two volumes under consideration here is Gaukroger’s The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1210-1685 (2005) and The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1682-1760 (2010).

Gaukroger begins the discussion by noting that one of the “most distinctive features of Western culture since the 17th century is the gradual assimilation of all cognitive values to scientific ones.” In short, “science has come to serve as a model for all forms of purposive behavior, providing cognitive norms for everything from morality to philosophical dispute, from political organization to religion.”

Science made the modern world, and it’s science that shapes modern culture. The drastic change that occurred during the early modern period, whatever names we want to give it—globalization, the networked society, the knowledge economy—it’s science that’s understood to be their motive force. It’s science that drives the economy and, more pervasively, it’s science that shapes our culture. We think in scientific terms. This is what Gaukroger seeks to explain, how the scientific revolution came permanently to change Western society, transforming it into a scientific society.

In saying this Gaukroger seems to have followed Alfred North Whitehead’s claims in his Lowell Lectures in 1925, Science and the Modern World. But do we live in a scientific world? Assuming that we could agree on what such a statement might mean, suffice it to say there is much evidence that we do not now and never have lived in such a world. But let us assume for the sake of argument that Gaukroger is correct. All cognitive values have assimilated to scientific ones.

So, how did this happen? Gaukroger makes a crucial distinction in his project: “that between the emergence of theoretical and experimental developments that initiate scientific programs and cultural consolidation of these programs.” The former applies to other cultures at other times outside the west. But in typical case, so Gaukroger argues, “science was just one of a number of charities in the culture,” and one that had no special place: “Science was just one of a number of activities in the culture, and attention devoted to it changed the same way that attention devoted to other features change, so that there was competition for intellectual resources within an overall balance of interests within the culture.” Thus interest in the sciences waxed and waned, as science competed with other aspects of the culture for attention and resources.

This kind of science followed a boom/bust pattern. Thus what happened in the west in the 17th century was quite unique: “traditional balance of interest was replaced by a dominance of scientific concerns.” But we should reject traditional accounts of the scientific revolution, as if what was unique about it was that its practioners hit upon the only really successful way of doing “science.” “A moment’s reflection,” says Gaukroger, “shows that such developments could not possibly explain how the scientific revolution subsequently came to be consolidated, if only the sheer contingency involved in consolidation.”

The key concept in Gaukroger’s argument is consolidation: “what distinguishes these earlier cultures is there apparent failure to consolidate scientific gains.” Gaukroger characterizes consolidation as the aim to “promote the cognitive claims of science and build a legitimate scientific culture around,” or “to establish science as a model of cognitive activity.” He argues that the idea of a large-scale consolidation is not something inherent in the scientific enterprise; yet it is inherent in western scientific enterprise after the scientific revolution. Thus his project with respect to consolidation is to understand why it became attached to the scientific enterprise, how it became attached to the scientific enterprise, and how it succeeded in its goal of establishing science as a model of cognitive activity over a wide domain of western culture.

In The Emergence, Gaukroger concentrates on the period between late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but emphasizes a crucial series of events that occurred in the thirteenth century, when theologians decided that Aristotelianism provided far more useful philosophical resources than anything else available. Aristotelianism made sense perception the sole source of knowledge, so that, in contrast to the Platonism that had dominated theological philosophical thought to that time. In short, it was in the thirteenth century that there first emerged scientific culture, in the sense of a culture in which scientific values take center stage.

Gaukroger interestingly enough criticizes the assumption that western science lay in its ability to disassociate itself from religion. Rather than being inimical to religion it was in many respects a turn toward it. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were intensely religious and thus “a good part of the distinctive success of the consolidation of the scientific enterprise derived not from a separation of religion and natural philosophy, but rather from the fact that natural philosophy could be accommodated to projects in natural theology…far from breaking free of religion in the early modern era, its consolidation depended crucially on religion being in the driving seat.”

The union of natural philosophy in Christian theology meant that the former took on aspirations of the latter, as it became part of a project not just of understanding the world but also understanding our place in. This legitimation of science was unique the early modern west and it provided science with a role that its technical successes could never secure for it.

But this partnership, according to Gaukroger, came under threat of mechanism, a model of a systematic natural philosophy reducing all physical phenomenon to mechanically characterized behavior of microscopic corpuscles. Thus the mechanical philosophy offered an exhaustive account of the natural world that made it the only serious competitor to Aristotelian natural philosophy.

But the promises of a mechanistic philosophy turned out to be empty, according to Gaukroger, failing in crucial areas such as chemistry, electricity, and physiology. Those working in these areas gradually turned away from mechanism to pursue “experimental natural philosophy.”

I take issue with Gaukroger’s characterization of mechanism, as if it threatened the partnership between natural philosophy and theology. For Newton, Boyle, Descartes, and Gassendi, for example, all subscribed to some version of the mechanical philosophy. But they also believed in an all-wise, all-powerful God who had created and continued to sustain this universe of matter in motion. None of these natural philosophers saw any difficulty between the two beliefs; in fact, one might go as far as to say that they found both Christianity and mechanical philosophy as inseparable and equally necessary.

Gaukroger - The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility
The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility (2010)

At any event, in his The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility, Gaukroger explores the consequences of the collapse of mechanism. According to his account, by the eighteenth century natural philosophy had lost much of the systematic coherence it once had, providing it as a model for knowledge and understanding the world more generally. In addition to the undoing of the union of theology and natural philosophy by Hume and the other skeptics,  there was concern that the whole enterprise would face ruin. But it remained standing not because of the authority of the physical science, says Gaukroger, but because of the emergence of human sciences. It was Diderot, during the so-called “Enlightenment,” who claimed that sensibility underlay our understanding of the world, not reason. “The fundamental role that sensibility took on meant that understanding our place in the world now came to be seen on a par with—and in some cases prior to—understanding the world.” It is in this context that the emergence of the human sciences, from the second half of the eighteenth century onward, should be considered. This is the core question Gaukroger will pursue in the third volume of his series, on the naturalization of the human and the humanization of nature. In both cases science took on a new legitimacy, as a means of understanding our relation to the natural realm, and above all as a route to self-understanding.

Gaukroger concludes that the consolidation of a scientific culture, although not in a linear fashion, was the transformation of natural philosophy from a set of technical problem-solving disciplines to something that could be allied with theology to form a comprehensive understanding of our place in nature. This was accomplished, he says, “via the relations established between it and a Christian understanding of the world.” But in the eighteenth century, a whole new area of empirical inquiry was opened up, in the form of the human science. But this too would not last, as systematic thought was revived with a vengeance in the early decades of the nineteenth century, with a new form of legitimacy established through an intimate association with technology. But even this was to be questioned in the wake of World War I, as science became compromised by its association with weaponry.


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