The “Scientific Revolution” as Narratology (Part 1)

Roy Porter’s essay, “The scientific revolution: a spoke in the wheel?” in R. Porter and M. Teich (eds.) Revolution in History (1986) led me to I. Bernard Cohen’s “The Eighteenth-Century Origins of the Concept of Scientific Revolution” (1976), and then his expanded Revolution in Science (1985). In the next several posts, I want to address Cohen’s argument and compare it to several other recent work on the historiography of the “scientific revolution.”

I.B. Cohen - Revolution in ScienceAccording to Cohen, “for some three centuries there has been a more or less unbroken tradition of viewing scientific change as a sequence of revolutions.” But the term “revolution” only came into general use during the eighteenth century to denote a “breach of continuity or a secular change of real magnitude.” It was only after 1789 that a new meaning came to surround the term “revolution,” imbibed with “radical change and a departure from traditional or accepted modes of thought, belief, action, social behavior, or political or social organization.”

This new understanding of “revolution” replaced its older sense, as a cyclical phenomenon, a continuous sequence of ebb and flow. Its origins lie in scientific jargon, as applied to works of astronomy and geometry. This definition would then be applied to a range of social, political, economic, and cultural activities. In this context the term would gain a new definition diametrically opposite to the original, strict etymological sense of “revolution.”

During the eighteenth century, writes Cohen, “the point of view emerged that scientific change is characterized by an analog of revolutions that alter the forms of society and the political affairs of the state.” Understanding the transformation of the term “revolution,” then, from the cyclical, revolving view to a radical, discontinuous breach in history, is crucially important for the historian of science, for it construes our perspective on the development of modern science.

Cohan asks whether or not Galileo, seen by many as a revolutionary figure, considered himself to have been a revolutionary? Did Newton? When did the value of progress become linked to the concept of change by revolution? Such questions shed light on the nature of scientific change by making precise the scientists’ image of himself, which is directly related to the public image of the scientist.

Steven Shapin has discussed the “image of the scientist” in several places and his comments  are worth reviewing. But what makes Cohen’s argument unique, if not prescient, is the question of whether the scientists allegedly participating in such supposed revolutions may or may not have considered themselves to be active in a “revolution.” Newton, for instance, did not see himself so much as a revolutionary as a “reformer,” rediscovering the knowledge of nature that had been known among certain ancient sages. We will return to these images of Newton later.

Cohen sketches out how “revolution” was understood during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In both instances “revolution” was understood to be the “rise and fall of civilizations or culture, as a kind of tidal ebb and flow.”

Those who wrote about revolutions in political affairs in the late seventeenth century most often had in mind some kind of “restoration,” or “reform,” a return to a former or original state, or at least the completion of a cycle. Thus it was during this time that some ambiguity arose with the term “revolution.” As Cohan points out, “revolution” could and did mean a dynastic change or a dynastic restoration, or a change in the actual form or system of government rule, as well as a cyclical change in administration, economics, and the social life of a people. English philosophers and political theorists Hobbes (1588-1679) and Locke (1632-1704), for example, used the term “revolution” in this double sense.

Early in the eighteenth century, however, “revolution” gained currency as a radical or significant change. A characteristic revision to “revolution” as a “radical change” occurs, unsurprisingly, among French writers. For example, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) credits Newton (1642-1727) and Leibniz (1646-1716) with ushering in a  “total revolution in mathematics,” emphasizing that this “revolution was progressive or beneficial to mathematical science.” Elsewhere, in his éloge of mathematicians, Fontenelle would continue to use the term in the sense of “radical change.”

Another Frenchmen in the eighteenth century, Alexis Claude de Clairaut (1713-1763), also made reference to Newton as ushering a “revolution” in the sciences, arguing that Newton’s Principia marked an “epoch of great revolution in Physics.”

EncyclopedieThe Encyclopédie (1751-1772) of Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783) contains a number of notable references to “revolution.” According to d’Alembert, in science Newton brought to fulfillment a revolution that Descartes had prepared but had never actually achieved. D’Alembert makes this even more explicit in the article in the article entitled “experimental.” Here he not only expresses a philosophy of historical development in science according to generation, he also centers the great revolution in science on the work of Newton. Diderot’s own article on “Encyclopédie” leaves no doubt as to the significance of “revolution,” conceiving that the progress of science is marked by a succession of revolutions.

In short, “by the time of the publication of the Encyclopédie, ‘revolution’ had gained currency…in its new meaning of a secular, rather than a cyclical, change of great magnitude.”

The writings of Jean Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793), published in the decade before the French Revolution, introduced revolutions of several sorts and magnitudes: they range in scope all the way from revolutionary innovations in the design and use of telescopes to the elaborate Copernican system of the world and the Newtonian natural philosophy. In Bailly’s writings there revolution is often a two-staged process, in which there is first a destruction of an accepted system of concepts, followed by the establishment of a new system. According to Bailly, Copernicus fulfilled these two necessary functions of revolution, as well as Newtonian natural philosophy.

By the 1780s, there is no difficulty in finding French authors who refer explicitly to one or another revolution in the sciences.

Condorcet (1743-1794) uses the concept of revolution in science in his éloges of deceased academicians. The major work of Condorcet in which the term and the concept of revolution figure most prominently is his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, first published in 1795. It is in this work where Condercet spells out the “pre-conditions” of a revolution.

According to Cohen, we also find this concept in the writings of the Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who once compared his “own philosophical revolution with initiated by Copernicus,” and Joseph Priestley, who was among those who transferred the concept of revolution from the political realm to science.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of revolutions in science had become firmly established. The first overall review of the intellectual accomplishments of the eighteenth century, Samuel Miller’s (1769-1850) Brief Retrospect, published in 1803, stated this plainly in its subtitle: a Sketch of the Revolutions and Improvements in Science, Arts, and Literature. Miller’s use of “revolution” to denote progressive steps is notable, according to Cohen, for he was an American clergyman.

Within a decade of Miller’s book there was a further recognition of the existence of revolutions in science, in the fifth edition of the Dictionaire de l’Academie Francoise, revu, corrigé et augmenté par l’Academie ell-méme, published in 1811. “Thus formally entered into the lexicographic record,” writes Cohen,  “the expression ‘revolution’ in science obtained official recognition as the name of an accepted concept to characterize scientific change.”

Cohen wants to point out the fact that “these earliest references to a revolution in science occur in relation to Newton.” It is also important to note that most of these earliest references come from French authors. This is not mere coincidence. Long ago Butterfield claimed in his The Origins of Modern Science (1949) that the construction of so-called “Newtonianism” was not primarily the work of scientists; rather, the translation of Newton’s scientific achievements into a comprehensive materialistic worldview was wrought primarily by literary men, who wrote for a rapidly expanding educated reading public. The works of popularizers, such as the French Fontenelle, Clairaut, Diderot, d’Alembert and others, more than scientists, constructed a revolutionary image in Newton.

The focus on Newton and Newtonianism is indeed important, but we ought to take into account the claims of Dan Edelstein, particularly in his The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (2010), and J.B. Shank’s The Newton Wars (2008). For example, although it was in the 1720s that Newtonianism emerged as a coherent physical and metaphysical philosophy, and only in the 1730s that one began to find self-identifying French “Newtonians,” none of them were to be found among the académiciens. According to Edelstein, Fontanelle remained throughout his life “the most famous defender of Cartesian physics.”

I have elsewhere commented on Edelstein’s The Enlightenment, so here my comments will be brief. The Enlightenment, Edelstein contends, was first and foremost a “story” that eighteenth-century men told about themselves. Yes, the Enlightenment was a story, a grand “master narrative” and “myth.” Edelstein traces its telling to a specific time and a contingent place. The narrative of the Enlightenment, he contends, was forged in France between roughly 1675 and 1730 in the context of the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, which “opened up a period of intense self-reflection in which the present was thoroughly studied and contrasted with the past.” Put another way, the quarrel invoked a new régime de historicité that bid contemporaries to reflect on what it was that distinguished their own time from those that had come before. The present age was “enlightened,” they came to believe, distinguished by a “philosophical spirit” that derived from new methods of critical inquiry elaborated since the “Scientific Revolution.” Crucially, that spirit had taken hold among important segments of the educated elites and was slowly infiltrating civil society at large. The narrative of Enlightenment gave society a starring role, subtly supplanting older accounts that afforded prominence to kings, heroes, Providence, or God in shaping human history.

Given a succinct and early articulation in Jean-Baptiste Dubos’ (1670-1742) Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture (1719), this narrative, in Edelstein’s estimation, was no simple tale of the new vanquishing the old. The Ancients and the Moderns shared a good deal in common, he insists, with defenders of the Ancients like Dubos frequently embracing modern science even as they praised the virtues of ancient art. Conversely, defenders of the Moderns took pains to claim their own reverence for the Classical age. The result of this convergence was a unique form of “modern paganism” that allowed eighteenth-century intellectuals to situate themselves in reference to those previous ages in which the philosophical spirit reigned (ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance), while at the same time permitting them to mark their distance from times of barbarism and superstition (Middle Ages).

Enlightenment thinkers’ hero worship of Descartes, Newton, and others is well known. The key French contribution to the genealogy of the Enlightenment, writes Edelstein, “was not epistemological but rather narratological: it simply happened that it was in France that the ramifications of the Scientific Revolution were interpreted as having introduced a philosophical age, defined by a particular esprit, and having a particular impact on society.” “This espirt philosophique,” he goes on, “allowed scholars both to identify a unity among the variegated scientific work and technological breakthroughs of the seventeenth century (a unity that we would come to call the Scientific Revolution) and to describe the transformation caused by the reception and effects of these breakthroughs in contemporary society—a transformation that led them to characterize their own age as enlightened.”

Indeed, what the Enlightenment narrative highlights is how the first theories of the Enlightenment started out as celebratory histories of “the Scientific Revolution.” In other words, these French thinkers needed the narrative, the story, of the “Scientific Revolution” to bolster their own self-fashioning as an “enlightened age.” So they set out to construct one, culminating in the figure of Isaac Newton.

Shank - The Newton WarsThe case of Newton is paradigmatic: often hailed as a founding father of the Enlightenment. In Shank’s The Newton Wars, he argues that the philosophes spun a mythology in promoting Isaac Newton’s theories. The philosophes, notably Voltaire (1694-1778), took far too much credit for having established Newtonianism as a new scientific orthodoxy, and even today some historians are all too ready to accept the philosophes‘ self-congratulations at face value. Shank contends, however, that Newton’s ideas had acquired a strong following within the French academy well before Voltaire and the “party of humanity” undertook to explain and champion them during the 1730s.

Shank teases apart the multiple strands of Newtonian thought to demonstrate how various factions within the French academy came to weave one or more of them into their pre-existing philosophical, scientific, religious, and methodological outlooks. He finds no single Newtonian party in France, but many, each with its own stake in Newton’s victory. Similarly, he shows that far from representing a clear and present danger to established religion, Newtonianism, at least in some of its versions, was perceived as a bulwark against the dangerous, allegedly Spinozist tendencies of the competing philosophy of Leibniz. In that light, Newton’s eventual victory now appears, if anything, overdetermined.

Voltaire was not the only French anglophile of this period, and Shank singles out as his major comrade-in-arms the mathematician Pierre-Louis Maupertuis (1698-1759). None was a match for the ideological vigor brought to the dispute in the 1730s by Maupertuis and Voltaire. Maupertuis used a genteel skepticism to avoid the issue of pantheism and mathematics to validate the Principia, while Voltaire became satirical and openly anti-church, a deist. According to Shank, Voltaire turned Newtonianism into “a creed or an intellectual identity…more than a scientific or philosophical position.” And the philosophe, “a new kind of critical, libertarian intellectual” was born in the French version of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques.

Newtonianism, in other words, is conceived of by Shank as a “discourse”; what mattered was the manner in which such ideas were deployed by Voltaire and “the particular self-fashioning he accomplished with them, a self-fashioning that led to the definition of a new kind of critical, libertarian intellectual in France.”

In short, the engrained notion that Newton’s genius can account for the advent of scientific modernity and the subsequent French Enlightenment is seriously misguided. Shank rejects the narrative of self-serving philosophes, whose version of events was accepted de facto and then perpetuated by generations of scholars.

Cohen, Edelstein, and Shank reveal that the transformation of the scientific movement of the eighteenth century into a comprehensive materialistic philosophy was largely achieved by literary men, who “invented and exploited a whole technique of popularisation.”  As Butterfield concluded, “the great movement of the eighteenth century was a literary one—it was not the new discoveries of science in that epoch but, rather, the French philosophe movement that decided the next turn in the story and determined the course Western civilisation was to take.”


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