The “Scientific Revolution” as Narratology (Part 3)

Following a suggestion from my supervisor, I have looked at a collection of essays contained in  European Review‘s (2007) forum Focus: Thoughts on the Scientific Revolution. Some of the essays in this journal were reproduced, albeit modified, in Recent Themes in The History of Science and Religion: Historians in Conversation (2009), edited by Donald A. Yerxa, which were conversations selected from a series of forums appearing in the journal Historically Speaking from 2005 to 2008.

Donald A. Yerxa begins the discussion by assessing the “turmoil” within the historical profession caused by postmodernist thinking and literary theory. The postmodernists “dismissed as epistemological naivety the notion that historians employing detached empirical methods can arrive at narratives that reasonably correspond with the past.” The past only reaches us “configured, troped, emplotted, read, mythologized and ideologized.” As a compromise, practicing historians are now more “open to almost any aspect of human experience,” yet have rejected the “nihilistic tendencies of postmodernism in favor of a commonsensical approach to their craft.”

These challenges and changes in the historical profession calls for “revisiting the question of whether there was such a thing as a Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” According to Yerxa, recent historiography has not been kind to the concept of a coherent and momentous scientific revolution. He fears a historiographical “climate that celebrates novelty, the particular, the local, in a word, complexity.” Why? He says that “if the quest for a coherent Scientific Revolution is deemed a fool’s errand, what then of other historical frameworks like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment?” “Absent the search for coherence,” he goes on, “historical inquiry as a meaningful intellectual enterprise flirts with bankruptcy and historians risk becoming guardians of antiquarianism.” One should not however overemphasize these fears. Yerxa himself comes to a more measured conclusion in his introduction to Recent Themes, aided by a closer reading of John Hedley Brooke’s Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement if Science and Religion (1998), who maintained that “paying attention to complexity does not eliminate the historical patterns needed to make coherent historical narratives; it just yields ones that are more intricate.”

The following essays in European Review “maintain that the Scientific Revolution, refined in various ways, remains a functional historical framework.” Peter Harrison, for example, asks “was there a Scientific Revolution?” and responds with a resounding “yes,” but adds it was more philosophical in nature than scientific. Following Pierre Hadot’s recent suggestion, who understood pre-modern philosophy “‘as a way of life’ rather than a body of philosophical doctrines,” Harrison argues that in the early modern period we see “a major reorientation of the goals of philosophy, a reorientation that will eventually produce not only something more akin to modern science, but also something more like modern philosophy.” This philosophical reorientation begins with Francis Bacon’s new vision of knowledge. According to Bacon, the study of nature should not be a passive, contemplative activity; rather, it should be a collective and cumulative endeavor. As Harrison rightly points out, “although Bacon is generally regarded as having made no substantive contribution to science, his ideas about its goals and method were influential and served as the inspiration for scientific societies both in England and Continental Europe.” In the end, Harrison sees in the seventeenth century the appearance of “new attitudes and values that will promote…’the emergence of scientific culture.'”

William R. Shea’s essay argues that the scientific revolution is best “described not by imposing a twentieth-century template on the seventeenth-century, but by attending to the actual unfolding of science against the background of the richness and the idiosyncrasies of human nature.” The work of Paolo Rossi and Frances Yates, Shea tells us, offers a fresh interpretation of that great philosophical innovator, Francis Bacon. According to Rossi, Bacon was an alchemist and was inspired by the Hermetic tradition. Indeed, his “experimental science” was partly rooted in the “occult philosophy” of the Renaissance. Thus in Sylva sylvarum (Forest of Forests), a natural history book that emphasized the necessity of practical experiments, Bacon stated that he considered experimental science as a “high kind of natural magic.”

Shea also argues that new technology opened new vistas. The telescope and microscope, the thermometer and the barometer, changed the philosophers’ attitude toward their craft. This new attitude was that knowledge is power, and that “power is to be used not only to contemplate nature but to modify and improve it.” Shea concludes his essay by admitting that the desire of achieving mastery over nature was present in the Hermetic tradition, but during the scientific revolution achieving that mastery was “profoundly different.” “Modern science,” he says, “favoured logical rigour, experimental control and public debate where hermeticism merely dreamt of leaping over rationality itself.” Shea’s tendentious language here reveals his partiality. Such seemingly innocuous terminological (“misguided,” “irrational,” “dangerous,” “ridiculous,” and the like) conventions are often the reflection of hidden or implicit ideological agendas. Often this perception of “modern science” has led to serious distortions of the historical record, usually in the form of simplified pictures of complex realities and the creation of imaginary “enemies.” It is odd that Shea would come to such conclusions while being familiar with the exceptional and path-breaking work of Rossi and Yates. Ideologies die hard.

John L. Heilbron rejects the advice of Tore Frängsmyr, who had argued that historians are better off avoiding the metaphor “scientific revolution” because it can only serve as a model, a heuristic approximation, not a literal truth, and thus cannot be used unambiguously. Heilbron, in contradistinction, wants to distinguish between revolutionary ideas, revolutionary situations, and revolution. By revolutionary ideas, Heilbron banally says “where they are encouraged and rewarded, there is no end to them.” By revolutionary situation, he means an event where “people lose confidence in existing law and authority, when they reject obligations as impositions, regard respect for superiors as humiliation, and condemn privilege as unfair and government as irrelevant.” And by revolution he means the lost sense of unity a community once held.

There was no scientific revolution in the sixteenth century, despite an amazing array of developments. Why? One reason, according to Heilbron, was that the best minds were engaged with doctrinal disputes and the wars of the Reformation and not the knowledge of nature. Its aftermath, the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent, “enforced a doctrinal conformity little conducive to innovation in natural philosophy.” The political situation of the Thirty Years War was not conducive to attaining natural knowledge either. It was not until the second half of the seventeenth century when “an exhausted Europe was able to devote what energy it had left to improving and dissemination natural knowledge.” Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), for instance, in his History of the Royal Society in London (1667) stressed the importance of equanimity, of a time and place “where people who might not agree on politics or religion could meet civilly and productively over a common interest” of natural knowledge. We see this same emphasis, Heilbrin asserts, in Louis XIV’s Académie Royale des Sciences and the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s Accademia del Cimento. From the founding of these scientific academies we may infer a revolution in ideas and practices. “That is what happened in natural knowledge in the second half of the seventeenth century, when ideas opposed to established learning took root in experimental academies.”

The “ingredients” that led to this revolution were “a powerful program to supplant established ways and teachings, the existence of vigorous well-educated cadres devoted to the program and the creation of new institutions and instrumentalities with which to preserve the gains of the cadres.”

This powerful program, Heilbron begins, appeared with the advent of Descartes and Cartesion physics, only reinforced by the rejection of scholastic forms, the privileging of quantifiable concepts, and a comprehensiveness in explanation. Indeed, Cartesianism quickly gained recruits, including Queen Christina, Elizabeth of Bohemia, physicians and doctors in medical schools of Utrecht, Leyden, and Naples. In France cadre were found among both Cartesian doctors and lawyers. In 1699, the Paris Academy of Sciences reorganized under its Cartesian secretary Fontenelle. In his éloges of deceased members, Fontenelle developed a standard account of enlightenment beginning with the discovery of Descartes and ending with admission to the pantheon of science. These ideas and the memory of these figures were preserved and multiplied in the academies and institutions built up around princes and prelates, librarians, lawyers, and professors. Heilbron maintains that these academies fought censorship on many levels, ushering a kind of “guerrilla warfare.” “Against this process of recruitment and cooptation, sterner censors and other guardians of the past could try to mobilize the church’s formidable machinery of repression.” The church, however, was forced to “modernize” on account of princes appointing “men more open to modern ideas to chairs of medicine” and the like. Heilbron ends with fustian praise for Isaac Newton, the “Napoleon of the piece, the Prince of Physics, the Emperor of Science.” Indeed, Newton, like Napoleon, “consolidated the gains of a revolution fought by others and extended it beyond their wildest dreams.” Heilbron leaves out Newton’s alchemical, theological, and hermetic influences, however. Indeed, in almost every way, Heilbron’s account is question begging and contested by most modern historians of science today. Heilbron certainly keeps the traditional framework of the “Scientific Revolution,” but offers little refinement.

Another essay comes from H. Floris Cohen, a scholar we have come across in previous posts. In relating how the master narrative of the scientific revolution was challenged, starting in the 1960s, Cohen tells us that many scholars began questioning an earlier generation of historical work as unreflective, often identifying present day definitions and classifications of scientific disciplines with their apparent seventeenth-century counterparts. Even the term “science” is disputed, as it carries too many associations far removed from seventeenth-century realities . Strikly speaking, science in its modern form did not appear until the nineteenth century. Modern scholars have placed scientific ideas in institutional and other sociocultural contexts, in local particularity over and against the claims of universal validity of the most seminal ideas of the scientific revolution.

The result, according to Cohen, has been skeptical resignation. “Numerous historians of science have…given up the very idea that…something identifiable holds so complex an event as the Scientific Revolution…” But this is no celebration. Indeed, Cohen laments this resignation, and that it is tantamount to giving up the quest for coherence. The general message is that the advent of modern science in our modern world was in “effect due to chance.” But in following Joseph Needham, Cohen argues that to “attribute the origin of modern science entirely to chance is to declare the bankruptcy of history as a form of enlightenment of the human mind.”

Historical scholarship requires concepts and carefully delineated theories and hypotheses. But historians often keep their conceptulaizations “fuzzy,” to avoid clear-cut, black-and-white explanations, for historians work with a fugitive called “change.” And “change over time cannot be captured well by means of fixed concepts over time.” Thus historians, Cohen argues, sometime borrow conceptual apparatuses from other disciplines. In the 1980s, for example, historians borrowed social-constructivist conceptions. But Cohen wants historians to develop their own apparatus, from the “inside,” so as to avoid a propri limitations on historical figures.

Cohen wants to replace the Euro-centric account of the history of science with a globalized account, or a “world history of science.” Previous attempts have been made by a few scholars, including Harold Dorn and Toby E. Huff, but by and large these attempts have been “unidirectional.”  What Cohen calls for is a “full-scale comparative approach.” Comparison, he tells us, is “indispensable for coming to grips with the big questions.” And then, quoting Huff— who he just criticized—Cohen argues that  “from a comparative and civilizational point of view, the rise of modern science appears quite different than it does when seen exclusively as an intra-European movement.” By the comparative approach, Cohen believes, historians can once again discover underlying patterns, and, therefore, coherence in their craft.

The final essay in the forum is by Theodore K. Rabb. Rabb begins with some personal reflections of his time as a PhD student in the 1950s. During that time he learned about the basic divisions of the past (e.g. the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, Early Modern, Enlightenment, and Modern). “The boundaries may sometimes have been vague,” he writes, “but the essential contours were clear.”

But all that changed in the intervening half century. Added to this basic division was Buterfield’s pioneering construction of the “Scientific Revolution.” Other scholars, such as Charles Gillispie, Marie Boas Hall, Richard Westfall, and others, soon followed suit. Rabb recounts how in the 1970s he attempted to integrate the scientific revolution into the crisis literature so as to create a comprehensive interpretation of the structure of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European history. “In my view,” he writes, “the discoveries in astronomy, physics, and anatomy were not only integral to the era, but were essential to its definition.” It is undeniable that remarkable changes took place between the 1530s and the 1690s: “objects no longer had a natural resting place; the crystalline spheres were gone; the moon was not in fact smooth and unchanging; the heart was no longer a strange organ of unknown function.” Here was a “revolution in knowledge and outlook.”

The scientific revolution, according to Rabb, “offers a means of organizing the period whose implications go well beyond the specifics of astronomy, anatomy, or physics.” It is, he says, “a shift in mentality of immense import.” This shift, or change, was from a reliance on the authority of the past to reliance on observation, mathematics, and certain kinds of reasoning. The forces at work during the scientific revolution was an increase of skepticism and the establishment of scientists as new authority figures. The religious wars of the previous century saw Europe searching to restore a sense of confidence. That confidence was found, according to Rabb, in the reassurance and tangible certainty of the increasingly united claims for the new truth about the physical world. But there is more. “What the Scientific Revolution accomplished was not merely to provide the underpinnings for a reassertion of confidence in the culture of the late seventeenth century. It achieved such status by helping shift that culture away from the assumptions it had held to be virtually inviolate for some 400 years.”

Rabb recounts a familiar narrative. In saying that “Europe would not move on from the assumptions of the Renaissance until the hold of the ancient past was broken, until it became clear that the ‘moderns’ might be able to move past these masters and establish their own authority,” he repeats the simplistic narrative of the philosophes.

This collection of essays achieves some important refinements to the scientific revolution narrative (particularly Harrison’s emphasis on a new understanding of “philosophy), but most, it seems to me, simply repeat the commonplace of a previous generation of historical scholarship. This commonplace is entrenched not only in popular interpretations but, as we have just seen, among scholars of repute as well.

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One thought on “The “Scientific Revolution” as Narratology (Part 3)

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