Historiographies of the History of the Scientific Revolution

At the beginning of my research, I decided to start where I started many years ago, before I even began my time as an undergraduate.

I cannot now remember how I came across it, but when I encountered John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2002) in my early twenties, I was floored. In the first few pages of the book Henry notes that historians now argue that the very concept of the “scientific revolution” is “misplaced or misconceived”? This was stirring stuff.

I found Henry’s revised, third edition (2008) at the university library some weeks back. Picking it up mostly to reminisce, I was pleasantly surprised to find expansions of some very important sections. Having a little more experience in the academe now, I can better utilize this highly accessible and indispensable research guide, particularly its wonderful bibliography.

For example, in discussing the historian’s notion of the “scientific revolution,” Henry cites Roy Porter’s “The scientific revolution: a spoke in the wheel?” found in R. Porter and M. Teich’s (eds.) Revolution in History (1986), a text I had never read.

In this essay Porter argues, and I think quite correctly, that the idea that “science advances by revolutionary leaps has long been with us, ever since the eighteenth century in fact.” It was the Enlightenment propagandists, he goes on, “from Fontanelle and the Encyclopédistes to Condorcet who first began to depict the transformations in astronomy and physics wrought by Copernicus, Newton and others as revolutionary breaks with the past, creating new eras in thought.” Such a reading of scientific development rejects any notion of cumulative effort; it is, rather, punctuated by creative discontinuities.

But as Porter explains, under closer inspection, the scientific revolution is like the “Cheshire cat, its features dissolve before the eyes.” Dating the scientific revolution poses interpretive problems: does it stretch broadly over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? or can it be restricted to the seventeenth century? or did it really begin n the fifteenth century and carried on to the end of the sixteenth? or can it be traced as far back as the thirteenth century?

There are also interpretive problems with content. Was the scientific revolution a “revolution” in the astrophysical sciences? or should the life science also be included? Indeed, was the sine qua non, the core of the scientific revolution, a question of transformations in facts and theories, in scientific method, or in man’s relations to nature?

Faced with these confusions, Porter proclaims that “the idea of the scientific revolution, so often taken for granted, is in fact highly loaded.” Indeed, the idea was the “brain child and shibboleth of a specific cluster of scholars emerging during the 1940s.” Porter calls this the “classical interpretation,” a view that presents the scientific revolution not simply as a revolution in science but a revolution in thought. “For these historians, science was essentially thought—profound, bold, logical, abstract—and thought was ultimately philosophy.” This “idealism” become pervasive among historians; an ideal reading of the scientific revolution as disembodied thought; a romantic image of the scientist, typified by Newton the iconoclast. But as Porter puts it, the romantic view “that science proceeds by heroes making discoveries through Eureka moments, that the great scientist himself is an autonomous agent, and that science is value free, is historically question begging,” and played—and continues to play—a “polemical part within today’s politics of knowledge.”

The political agenda is clear: the scientific revolution ushered in the modern age. “It was…Europe’s intellectual ans spiritual coming of age, when western civilization grew out of traditional infantilizing pathologies and faced up to the stark realities of nature…it was the great divide between the traditional or primitive Ancients and the mature rationality of the Moderns.”

But in reality, as Porter correctly points out, the “classical interpretation” is a twentieth-century construction, one that has produced its own myths about progress and modernity.

Porter does not want to reject the scientific revolution tout court. He proposes that revolutions in science require (1) the overthrow of entrenched orthodoxy, with challenge, resistance, struggle, and conquest as essential; (2) grandeur of scale and urgency of tempo; and (3) the dawning of a new consciousness, a new worldview.

With this criteria in hand, Porter argues that core transformation in science occurred during the seventeenth century, when protagonists clearly cast themselves as crusaders for a “radically New Science.” These “standard-bearers” struggled against tradition, and their work forced the sciences to undergo fundamental reorientation.

Porter measures his argument, however, by admitting that the “New Science” was both “unscientific in its origins and ideological in its functions.” Religion, metaphysics, ideology continued to play key roles within science. Indeed, Porter wants to reserve the term “revolution” only for really fundamental transformations, as in the case, he argues, of the chemical revolution in the late eighteenth century and in the case of Darwinian evolution in the nineteenth.

But again Porter is careful to measure his argument, noting that the “crisis of the European mind” was precipitated not by scientists but by philologists and biblical critics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Essentially Porter does not want historians to retreat into an evolutionary metaphor of scientific development, all continuity and no discontinuity. He concludes that the “danger of facile demythologizations is that they all too readily induce myopia about the wider attractions, power and role of science in shaping the modern world.”

Now, I am in agreement with Porter’s claims that the scientific revolution is value laden and constructed by certain political and radical thinkers of the eighteenth century. But I contend that he does not go far enough in tracing this development. The idea of “revolutions in science” may have had its start in the eighteenth century, but it was the nineteenth century where it was solidified and made popular or more widespread, and in relation to the debate about the relationship between science and religion.

Also, Porter’s notions of the “chemical revolution” and the “Darwinian revolution” are, of course, a bit dated. Lavoisier’s contributions were not as revolutionary as he claims, and many historians of chemistry today are far less likely to regard Lavoisier’s contributions in themselves as having decisively inaugurated a new era. The same is true of the so-called “Darwinian revolution.” In particular, Porter’s claims that Darwinism “lobbed a bomb into the sacred temple of Nature’s divine order and man’s place in it” is not only exaggerated, it is also not true (See e.g. Jon Robert’s “That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology,” in Galileo goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion [2009]).

But Porter is an important source. His essay is a good example of getting-it-half-right. His own discovery of I.B. Cohen’s essay, “The Eighteenth-Century Origins of the Concept of Scientific Revolution,” written a decade earlier, shows that scholars are becoming increasingly perceptive of the seductive narrative of the scientific revolution. Both Porter’s essay and Cohen’s work, including his Revolution in Science (1985), and a slew of more recent scholarship, provide a helpful framework to imitate in tracing the tendentious narratology of the scientific revolution. I will be discussing more of these works in upcoming posts.