Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

Principe - The Scientific RevolutionI have been reading Lawrence M. Principe’s The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (2011) slowly and periodically for the last couple of months, mostly on Sunday mornings. Principe is the Drew Professors of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of History of Science and Technology and the Department of Chemistry. His essay in Isis, “Alchemy Restored” (2011), drew some heavy criticism recently from founder of Science 2.0 Hank Campbell, which also received a biting rebuttal from another blogger. Principe’s most recent work, The Secrets of Alchemy (2013) is a continuation of that earlier essay, bringing alchemy out of the shadows and restoring it to its important place in human history and culture.

This emphasis on alchemy or the more esoteric currents in western civilization is also found in Principe’s very readable The Scientific Revolution. At the outset of this wonderful little book, Principe states that the “‘scientific revolution’, now more frequently called the ‘early modern period’, was a time of both continuity and change.” In his first chapter, “New worlds and old worlds,” he convincingly argues that “early modern accomplishments drew upon intellectual and institutional foundations established in the Middle Ages.” He outlines this “rich tapestry of interwoven ideas and currents” with succinct and apt comments on “the Renaissance and its medieval origins,” the periodization of history by humanist historians Floretines Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) and Flavio Biondo (1392-1463), the recovery of Greek and Roman learning in the fifteenth century, the invention and successful deployment of moveable-type printing by Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468), which “allowed for faster communication through broadsides, newsletters, pamphlets, periodicals, and a slew of other paper ephemera.” Principe continues with précis comments on the voyages of discovery and Christian reforms, all along the way emending and revising old, trite ideas of a “dark” and “stagnate” medieval period. By the 1500s, Europeans “inhabited a new and rapidly changing world.”

A cacophony of voices promoted a diversity of ideas, goods, possibilities. Throngs jostled elbows to test, purchase, reject, praise, criticize, or just touch the varied merchandise. Almost everything was up for grabs.

In chapter two, “The connected world,” Principe examines how early modern thinkers arranged and ordered the world. “There world,” he writes, “was woven together in a complex web of connections and interdependencies, its every corner filled with purpose and rich with meaning.” Working with certain categories of thought, early modern natural philosopher viewed everything in the world in a continuous hierarchy, a scala naturae or ladder of nature. “The scala envisions of a world in which every creature has a place, and each creature is linked to those immediately above and below it, such that there is a gradual and continuous rise from the lowest level to the highest, without gaps, along what has been called ‘the Great Chain of Being.'” This connectedness of the natural world gave the natural philosopher “wider vision,” one which included an imitate knowledge of theology and metaphysics.

Principe calls this the “cosmic perspective,” and it “undergirded a variety of practices and projects” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most conspicuously in magia naturalis, or natural magic. “The goal of the practitioner of magia,” he informs the reader, “is to learn and to control the connections embedded in the world in order to manipulate them for practical ends.” To this end, magia naturalis promoted careful observation, reading of texts, networks of compilations, a interconnected world of sympathies and analogies—these early modern thinkers thus created complex webs of correspondences with objects of nature. According to Principe, “they were trying to understand the world; they were trying to make sense of things and to make uses of the powers of nature. They moved inductively from observed or reported instances to a general principle and then deductively to its consequences and applications.” Principe concludes chapter two with a brief word on “religious motivations for scientific investigation.” The early moderns saw “a cosmically interconnected world, where everything, human beings and God and all branches of knowledge, were inextricably linked parts of a whole.”

In chapter three, Principe discusses how the intellectual world of the sixteenth century divided the universe into the sublunar world and the superlunar world. The superlunar world, for example, was anything beyond the earth and moon. Here Principe discusses the historical background to early modern astronomical models, beginning from Plato (427-347 BC), Claudius Ptolemy (c. 90-168 AD), to Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), and Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Principe peppers this discussion with short comments on the ubiquity of astrology and notions of divine harmonies among early modern natural philosophers. He also rightly argues that the “Galileo affair” resulted from a “tangle of intellectual, political, and personal issues so intricate that historians are still unraveling them. It was not simple matter of ‘science versus religion.'” He concludes by reminding readers that “Newton believed in the prisca sapientia, an idea popular among many Renaissance humanists of an ‘original wisdom’ divinely revealed aeons ago and corrupted over time.” Newton, moreover, believed “that gravitational attraction resulted from the direct and continuous action of God in the world.” He saw the “task of natural philosophy as the restoration of the knowledge of the complete system of the cosmos, including God as the creator and as the ever-present Agent.”

The sublunar world is the focus of chapter four, and Principe recounts how “early moderns re-examined the Earth, the elements, and the processes of change and motion, and formulated a range of systems for making sense of things.” Here he provides brief but apropos comments on William Gilbert (1544-1603), Nicholas Steno (1638-86), and Athanasius Kircher (1601-80). His pithy remark that the scientific revolution was the golden age of alchemy is well-attested in the historical record.

In chapter five Principe addresses “The microcosm and the living world,” that is, the early modern cataloging of living creatures as a result of “voyages of exploration but also to the invention of the microscope, which revealed unimagined worlds of complexity in ordinary objects and new worlds of life.” Here too Principe reveals the importance of astrology and alchemy in early modern medicine and anatomy. In studying the flora and fauna of plants and animals, early modern “natural historians” blended “naturalistic and descriptive details about various species with a mass of literary, etymological, biblical, moral, mythological, and metaphorical meanings that had accumulated around each animal or plant since antiquity.”

In his concluding chapter on “Building a world of science,” Principe concentrates on how the new scientific knowledge was used to control and change the world, giving “human beings greater power over it.” The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries “witnessed a special turn towards applying scientific study and knowledge to address contemporaneous problems and needs.” The “world of artifice constructed by technology” began in Renaissance Italy, transforming landscape and cityscape, but also altering, with the introduction of gunpowder and bronze cannons, warfare forever. The quest for property and the desire to “order the world” led to developments in cartography and navigation. In this sense, science, technology, and statecraft were inextricably linked.

According to Principe, the “linkage of scientific discovery to practical application” is most associated with Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). But what historians of a previous generation most negated is now made clear: “Bacon saw the goal of such operative knowledge as to regain the power of human dominion over nature bestowed by God in Genesis, but lost with Adam’s Fall.” This was Bacon’s motivation: the restoration of both nature and religion. The Christian community of Bensalem in Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1626), for instance, was the home of Solomon’s House, “a state-sponsored institution for the study of nature devoted to ‘the knowledge of causes and the secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” Many after Bacon attempted at building scientific societies modeled after Solomon’s House.  The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge (1662), writes Principe, “can be seen as an attempt to realize Solomon’s House.” Other scientific groups and societies grow beyond the confines of the academy. In the end, however, “amid our enviable store of natural knowledge, the wise, the peaceable, and the orderly Bensalem continues to elude us, even if it has never ceased to inspire.”

In an Epilogue, Principe almost laments the dramatic change in contemporary scientific research. “The constant awareness of history, of being part of a long and cumulative tradition of inquirers into nature, has been largely lost…The vision of a tightly interconnected cosmos has been fractured by the abandonment of questions of meaning and purpose, by narrowed perspectives and aims, and by a preference for a literalism ill-equipped to comprehend the analogy and metaphor fundamental to early modern thought…The result is a scientific domain disconnected from the broader vistas of human culture and existence. It impossible not to think ourselves the poorer for the loss of the comprehensive early modern vision, even while we are bound to acknowledge that modern scientific and technological development has enriched us with an astonishing level of material and intellectual wealth.” Enriched? Perhaps a better word here is “distracted.” Solomon’s House is indeed a distant dream.

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A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science, Volumes II and III

Cambridge History of Science 2Those looking for a comprehensive history of science, the Cambridge History of Science series are an invaluable resource. To date, volumes 2-7 have been published, its most recent being The Cambridge History of Science Volume 2: Medieval Science (2013), edited by David C. Lindberg and Michael H. Shank. The Middle Ages has been characterized—and caricatured—as a period of  “darkness”; but this characterization began as “a slur born from Petrarch’s nostalgia for lost Roman power.” Despite long-standing criticism, the Middles Ages as “Dark Ages” “remains firmly anchored in our conceptualization of the past.” As Lindberg and Shank write in their introduction, “newspaper editorials and ordinary language continue to cast a pall of negativity on the period and its image,” and “no one has diffused [the schema of the “Dark Ages”] more widely than astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996), whose television series Cosmos drew an audience estimated at half a billion.” In Sagan’s schema, the Middle Ages was a “poignant lost opportunity for mankind.” But as the editors of this compelling volume argue, Sagan’s “the timeline reflected not the state of knowledge in 1980 but [his] own ‘poignant lost opportunity’ to consult the library of Cornell University, where he taught. In it, Sagan would have discovered large volumes devoted to the medieval history of his own field, some of them two hundred years old.”

Indeed, this volume reveals the diversity of goals, contexts, and accomplishments in the study of nature during the Middle Ages. Synthesizing a vast array of sources, these essays cover topics such as Islamic culture and the natural sciences (F. Jamil Ragep), including mathematics (J.L. Berggren, Elaheh Kheirandish), astronomy (Robert G. Morrison), and medicine (Emillie Savage-Smith); science in Jewish communities of the medieval period (Y. Tzvi Langermann), and the Byzantine Empire (Anne Tihon); cathedral schools and universities (Michael H. Shank) and its organized curriculum (Joan Cadden). Midway in the volume Lindberg (“Science and the Medieval Church”) instructs us that “in the long relationship between Christianity and the natural sciences, the medieval chapter is one in which (contrary to the old stereotype of bloody suppression) Christianity and the classical tradition made peace.” There follows essays on natural knowledge in the early Middle Ages (Stephen C. McCluskey), including cosmology, astronomy, and mathematics (Bruce S. Eastwood), medicine (Vivian Nutton), the translation and transmission of Greek and Islamic science to Latin Christendom (Charles Burnett) and the twelfth-century renaissance (Burnett). There are also entire chapters devoted to medieval alchemy (William R. Newman), change and motion (Walter Roy Laird), cosmology (Edward Grant), astronomy and astrology (John North), light and color (Lindberg and Katherine H. Tachau), mathematics (A. George Molland), logic (E. Jennifer Ashworth), geography (David Woodward), natural history (Karen Meier Reeds and Tomomi Kinukawa), anatomy, physiology, and medical theory (Danielle Jacquart), medical practice (Katherine Park) and technology (George Ovitt).

Organized by topic and culture, Medieval Science offers the most comprehensive and up-to-date history of medieval science currently available.

Cambridge History of Science 3The following volume, The Cambridge History of Science Volume 3: Early Modern Science (2006), edited by Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston, provides a comprehensive account of knowledge of the natural world in Europe from roughly 1490 to 1730. This period saw major transformations in fields as diverse as anatomy and astronomy, natural history and mathematics. This was indeed the “age of the new”: “New worlds, East and West, had been discovered, new devices such as the printing press had been invented, new faiths propagated, new stars observed in the heavens with new instruments, new forms of government established and old ones overthrown, new artistic techniques exploited, new  markets and trade routes opened, new philosophies advanced with new arguments, and new literary genres created whose very names, such as ‘news’ and ‘novel,’ advertised their novelty.”

The volume is divided into four parts. Part 1, “The New Nature,” “address shifts in the foundations and sources of natural knowledge as well as in its characteristic forms of explanation and proof,” and includes essays on physics and foundations (Daniel Garber), scientific explanation from formal causes to laws of nature (Lynn S. Joy), meanings of experience (Peter Dear) and proof and persuasion (R.W. Serjeantson). Part II, “Personae and Sites of Natural Knowledge,” deals with what David N. Livingstone has termed “geographies of scientific knowledge and practice.” Here we find essays on the man of science (Steven Shapin) and women of natural knowledge (Londa Schiebinger); sites of scientific knowledge such as markets, piazzas, and villages (William Eamon), homes and households (Alix Cooper), libraries and lecture halls (Anthony Grafton), courts and academies (Bruce T. Moran), anatomy theaters, bontanical gardens, and natural history collections (Paula Findlen), laboratories (Pamela H. Smith), military and technology (Kelly DeVries), coffeehouses and print shops (Adrian Johns), and networks of travel, correspondence, and exchange (Steven J. Harris).

Whereas Part II covers personae and sites of science, Part III offers readers disciplines of science. “Dividing the study of nature” into natural philosophy (Ann Blair) and natural history (Paula Findlen), medicine (Harold J. Cook), cosmology (Klaus A. Vogel and Alisha Rankin), alchemy and “chymistry” (William R. Newman), magic (Brian P. Copenhaver), astrology (H. Darrel Rutkin), astronomy (William Donahue), acoustics and optics (Paolo Mancosu), mechanics (Domenico Bertoloni Meli) and the mechanical arts (Jim Bennett), and pure mathematics (Kirsti Andersen and Henk J.M. Bos), the aim of these chapters is to “acquaint readers with the substantive changes that occurred in natural knowledge”; however, it is noted that “neither all of the chapter headings nor their arrangement would have been recognizable to early modern Europeans, even those most abreast of new developments,” for these were not disparate and specialized areas of research—like much of today’s science—but “crosshatched and complex.” Astronomy and astrology (including optics, acoustics, music, mechanics, and parts of the mechanical arts) were, for example, frequently pursued by the same mind, as were medicine and natural history. It wasn’t until much later, late in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that the sciences were specialized and categorized into disparate—some dropping from the definition of “science” altogether—fields of inquiry.

The chapters in Part IV, “The cultural meanings of natural knowledge,” “describe how natural knowledge interacted with the symbols, values, and imaginary of early modern Europe.” A compelling essay on religion (Rivka Feldhay) argues that “neither simple notions of conflict or separation nor general invocation of ‘interaction’ are powerful enough to capture the subtlety and complexity of the transformation of early modern European culture.” Also included in this final part are essays on literature (Mary Baine Campell), art (Carmen Niekrasz and Cluadia Swan), gender (Dorinda Outram), and European expansion and self-definition (Klaus A. Vogel and Alisha Rankin).

Such a wide-ranging and comprehensive volume is not easily navigable. Its scope, breadth, and range is simply overwhelming. But for all this attention to detail, the editors might be accused of one glaring omission: Where is the Scientific Revolution? This omission, however, is entirely deliberate. “The cumulative force of the scholarship since the 1980s,” they write in their introduction, “has been to insert skeptical question marks after every word of this ringing three-word phrase, including the definite article. It is no longer clear that there was any coherent enterprise in the early modern period that can be identified with modern science, or that the transformations in question were as explosive and discontinuous as the analogy with political revolution implies, or that those transformations were unique in intellectual magnitude and cultural significance.” Indeed, it is “the variety of these transformations that frustrates attempts to corral them into any single historical event, whether revolutionary or evolutionary, disciplined or dispersed.” They go on:

Yet the story of the Scientific Revolution retains its hold, even on those scholars who have contributed to its unraveling. Part of the reluctance to relinquish the historical narrative is due to the brilliance with which it has been told and retold in books that are deservedly numbered among the classics of the history of science. Its drama of worlds destroyed and reconstructed recruited many historians of early modern science to the discipline and still entrances students in introductory courses. But the magnetism of the mythology of the Scientific Revolution radiates beyond the classroom, to the airwaves of the public broadcasting system and the pages of the New York Times. It is a genuine mythology, which means it expresses in condensed and sometimes emblematic form themes too deep to be unsettled by mere facts, however plentiful and persuasive. The Scientific Revolution is a myth about the inevitable rise to global domination of the West, whose cultural superiority is inferred from its cultivation of the values of inquiry that, unfettered by religion or tradition, allegedly produced the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ‘breakthrough to modern science.’ It is also a myth about the origins and nature of modernity, which holds both proponents and opponents in its thrall. Those who regret ‘the modern mentality’ as the ‘disenchantment of the world’ are as captivated as those who celebrate it as a liberation from obfuscation and tyranny…

…The pessimistic conclusion that might be drawn from this account of the tenacity of the Scientific Revolution in the historiography of science is that it will last as long as the myth of modernity, of which it is part and parcel. But modernity itself has a history, myths and all. [There is a lingering image]…that emphasizes the enormous cultural difference between the elegantly clothed and technologically advanced Europeans and the culturally back-ward Americans, in a timeless rural landscape…[evoking] simultaneously the primitive inhabitants of the ‘New’ World and…Europe’s own primitive past. This is the early modern period’s own myth of modernity—one at least as spellbinding as that created for it by latter-day historians.

De-centring the Scientific Revolution, Paley’s Natural Theology, Mobilizing a Prophetic Newton, and Maxwell’s Design Argument

I still have several articles open on my pdf reader that are worth mentioning before I officially end my reading of The British Journal for the History of Science, and before tackling other articles from other journals and books.

In discussions over the historiography of the “Scientific Revolution,” almost all the authors I have recently read have mentioned Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams’ “De-centring the ‘big picture’: The Origins of Modern Science and the Modern Origins of Science” (1993). They argue that a big picture of the history of science cannot be avoided, and that “big pictures are both necessary and desirable.” Indeed, the “big picture” is crucial, if not necessary, for giving any localized, “small picture” meaning. But in saying this, Cunningham and Williams also want to expose and reconstruct the aims of the founders of the “old big picture” of the history of science (Herbert Butterfield and his followers), which maintained that “science…[is as] old as humanity itself.” This was a single, grand, and sweeping history of science.

Without usurping this “old big picture,” Cunningham and Williams want to promote a different account, one that emphasizes the idea that our world is fragmented into a plurality of local, autonomous discourses, and based on principles of postmodernism and poststructualism. They then rehearse the problems which have arisen with the concept of the “Scientific Revolution” since Butterfield. Modern notions of the scientific revolution derive from conceptions of science in the early and mid-twentieth century, including positivist definition of “science as a particular method of enquiry” that produces “knowledge in the form of general causal laws”; as essentially moral, “as the embodiment of basic values of freedom and rationality, truth and goodness”; and as a “universal human enterprise,” which emanates from some innate, human curiosity. In the 1940s, historians of science incorporated these characterizations of science as they developed the concept of the scientific revolution. In short, they projected their own contemporary definitions of science onto past.

According to Cunningham and Williams, such a view of the “Scientific Revolution” is no longer tenable. The “new big picture,” they argue, should view science as a contingent enterprise reflecting the aims and morals of a particular social group in a particular historical time; one among a plurality of ways of knowing the world, it must be seen as limited, bounded in time and space and culture. In their estimation, the origins of science “can be located in Western Europe in the period sometimes known as the Age of Revolutions—approximately 1760-1848.” “Every feature which is regarded as essential and definitional of the enterprise of science,” they write, is identifiable during the Age of Revolutions: “its name, its aim, its values, and its history.” On this view, “the history of science becomes a relatively short and local matter.” This realization, they maintain, is “de-centring,” in the sense that we realize “that external objects have permanence, that other people can have different knowledge, interests, feelings, and so on.” It is a shedding of egotism. “To see science as a contingent and recently-invented activity is to make such a de-centring, and to acknowledge that things about our primary way-of-knowing which we once thought were universal are actually specific to our modern capitalistic, industrial world.”

For those interested in the history of the publication, teaching, reception, and use of natural theology in the nineteenth century, Aileen Fyfe’s essay “The Reception of William Paley’s Natural Theology in the University of Cambridge” (1997) is essential reading. Studying the examination papers of the University of Cambridge, contemporary memoirs, autobiographies and correspondences, reveals, Fyfe argues, that Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) was not a set text at the university in the early nineteenth century. “Theology proves to have been a relatively minor part of the formal curriculum, and natural theology played only a small role within that.”

Writing in his dedication page in Natural Theology, William Paley (1743-1805) maintained that three of his books contained “the evidences of Natural Religion, the evidences of Revealed Religion, and an account of the duties that result from both.” The most recent was his Natural Theology (1802), preceded by his A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794) and the Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785). By all measures, Natural Theology was a great success, going to “through fifteen editions in as many years, and while the print runs are not known, this suggests sales of around 15,000 copies.” Reviews from Edinburgh Review, Monthly Review, Monthly Magazine, and Churchman’s Magazine found it most agreeable, and some even “mentioned its educational potential.” Some reviewers from the Evangelical Magazine, however, worried that Natural Theology would lead readers to “dangerously conclude that no other religion [that is Scripture] is necessary to their eternal salvation.” English politician, philanthropist, and leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade, William Wilberforce (1759-1833) wrote in the Christian Observer that Paley’s assertions were “both untenable and unsafe…We are the more suspicious of the sentiment…because we recollect that it was made the ground of the theological system of [the noted deist and radical] Thomas Paine.” As Fyfe write, some “Evangelicals associated Paley’s work with deism…[and] with [the] radicalism after the French Revolution.”

Despite these criticism, Paley’s Natural Theology was immensely popular. Moreover, when Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) emerged, “natural theology did not suddenly end in 1859,” a point Jon H. Roberts cogently confirms in his entry in Ron Numbers’ (ed.) Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009). But as far as being a set text at Cambridge, Paley’s Natural Theology was not used. Natural theological questions “rarely occurred in university or college examination,” and thus natural theology never quite achieved “equality with revealed theology.” As Fyfe concludes, “natural theology did not have very much formal recognition in the mathematical University of Cambridge at a time when Evangelicalism was spreading and deism was threatening. It could have been recognized only as a defense for theology or as an implicit background assumption for the natural sciences.”

Those curious about “geographies of reading”—I stand convicted—may turn to David N. Livingstone’s corpus, particularly (but not most importantly) his “Science, Religion, and the Geography of Reading: Sir William Whitla and the Editorial Staging of Isaac Newton’s Writing on Biblical Prophecy” (2003). “Writings of eminent scientists,” Livingstone claims, “can be mobilized in the cause of local cultural wars.” And indeed they have.

Isaac Newton’s insistence that nature follows  mathematical laws, for example, was marshalled by seventeenth-century churchmen both to mount assaults on atheism and to curb radical inclinations towards religious enthusiasm. At the same time, the Newtonian system was also enlisted in contemporary debates about the role of the monarchy, the nature of the state and the constitution of the social order. In more recent times, American creationists have called upon the doctrines of earlier scientists as self-justification  for their own credo, while those inclined towards theistic evolution have likewise sought reinforcement from earlier advocates of a Christianized Darwinism.

These are tactics in the “attempt to create a suite of canonical scientific texts to serve the needs of some particular sensibilities.” In this way Livingstone wants to draw our attention “to the consumption sector of the scientific knowledge circuit, to the different ways texts were received in different localities and to the spaces in which theories were encountered and textual meaning made.” From Robert Chambers, Alexander von Humboldt, to Charles Darwin’s corpus, “the meaning of texts…shifts from place to place, and at a variety of different scales.”

Six years after his death, Isaac Newton’s commentary on the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation was published in 1733 as Observations upon Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John. In Two Parts. Nearly two hundred years after this first appearance, William Whitla, professor of Materia Medica at the Queen’s University of Belfast, in 1922 made Newton’s text available again to the reading public, under the title Sir Isaac Newton’s Daniel and the Apocalypse with an Introductory Study of the Nature and the Cause of Unbelief, of Miracles and Prophecy.

Whitla was fascinated with the prophetic writings of the Jewish prophets. He was also good friends with William Bramwell Booth, General of the Salvation Army, and dedicated the new book to him. Whitla wanted to use the book against those who were undermining the authority of the sacred text. Newton, who “in strong and childlike faith lent his mighty intellect to the study of this fascinating record.” As Livingstone puts it, “the aim was to muster biblical prophecy Newtonian-style in the conduct of current culture wars.” With the outbreak of the First World War, W.B. Yeats fearing the “reversal of Christian values,” and the 1920s “heresy trail of J. Ernest Davy in Northern Ireland, Whitla saw all these “ominous signs” as “an unmistakable mark of the ‘latter days’ which are to terminate the present dispensation.” Moreover, the “moral leprosy” of biblical critics was spreading “into the heart of the Church itself.” Whitla would use Newton to counter this European crisis.

Ironically Whitla did not “broadcast the fact that Newton had come to doubt the accuracy of the textus receptus of the New Testament”; and neither did he mention that Newton had rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Whitla also used Newton for anti-Catholic propaganda, re-staging Newton’s own anti-Catholicism, equating the Papacy with the “autocracy of the most satanic character.” Whitla thus valorized Newton’s text as a Protestant polemic. “All of this serves,” Livingstone concludes, “to underscore the salience of textual performance, spaces of reading and sites of reception in elucidating the dynamic geographies of scientific knowledge and religious belief.”

And finally, an intimate and complex relationship between religion and scientific practice is demonstrated in Matthew Stanley’s recent “By Design: James Clerk Maxwell and the Evangelical Unification of Science” (2012). Stanley argues that Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), known for his formulation of a set of equations that united electricity, magnetism, and optics into a consistent theory, “saw a deep theological significance in the unification of physical laws.” This search for unification was connected to Maxwell’s “particular evangelical religious views.”

Stanley also wants to compare and contrast Maxwell’s own design argument with Paley and those of the modern Intelligent Design (ID) theory. According to Stanley, “both Paley and [Michael] Behe [known for his molecular arguments of “irreducible complexity”] argue that a certain level of complexity could never be explained by naturalistic science, and thus the search for such explanations must stop.” Although Maxwell embraced claims of natural theology, “his evangelical religiosity gave him a rather different perspective.”

Maxwell believed that nature was like a book, with each element a manifestation of a deeper unifying principle. The connections between laws were a sign from above: “…the laws of nature are not mere arbitrary and unconnected decisions of Supreme Power, but that they form essential parts of one universal system, in which infinite Power serves only to reveal unsearchable Wisdom and eternal Truth.” The interrelationship of natural laws “was a way that God communicated His existence, and it was the unity of laws that revealed this communication.” Indeed, the “unity of nature was…guaranteed by theology.” Thus whereas “Paley emphasized complexity as the indicator of God’s hand, Maxwell emphasized unity.”

Stanley notes that Paley, Behe, and Maxwell would all agree that Darwinian evolution was not a reliable scientific theory. For his part, however, Maxwell argued that “Darwinian evolution relied on pre-existing variation, and thus perfectly uniform molecules could never have evolved.” His rejection of Darwinian evolution thus relied on his understanding of unity in nature, not complexity.

As a conservative evangelical Christian, Maxwell had specific notions about the nature of God. Victorian evangelicalism, Stanley tells us, was a “‘religion of the heart,’ with an emphasis on conversion, sin and grace, and moving away from the rationalizism of the Enlightenment in an attempt to resurrect the lost, primitive Church uncontaminated by human failings.” In the summer of 1853, Maxwell gained a newfound evangelical outlook. Maxwell wrote:

I maintain that all the evil influences that I can trace have been internal and not external, you know what I mean—that I have the capacity of being more wicked than any example that man could set me, and that if I escape, it is only by God’s grace helping me to get rid of myself, partially in science, more completely in society,—but not perfectly except by committing myself to God as the instrument of His will, not doubtfully, but in the certain hope that that Will will be plain enough at the proper time.

Divine grace, submission to God, Christology, and Scripture were constantly upon his mind, as his letters to friends and relatives show. From this evangelical perspective, Maxwell saw humanity as “fallen, sinful and fallible.” But “God gave humans the ability to see his actions,” if they would only “embrace Him fully.” Revelation was ultimately mysterious, but so was nature, according to Maxwell: “I have endeavoured to show that it is the peculiar function of physical science to lead us to the confines of the incomprehensible, and to bid us behold and receive it in faith, till such time as the mystery shall open.” In his inaugural lecture at Aberdeen in 1856, Maxwell clearly shows how his theology of nature was manifested in his physical science:

Is it not wonderful that man’s reason should be made a judge over God’s works, and should measure, and weigh, and calculate, and say at last ‘I understand I have discovered—It is right and true’…we see before us distinct physical truths to be discovered, and we are confident that these mysteries are an inheritance of knowledge, not revealed at once, lest we should become proud in knowledge, and despise patient inquiry, but so arranged that, as each new truth is unravelled it becomes a clear, well-established addition to science, quite free from the mystery which must still remain, to show that every atom of creation is unfathomable in its perfection. While we look down with awe into these unsearchable depths and treasure up with care what with our little line and plummet we can reach, we ought to admire the wisdom of Him who has arranged these mysteries that we find first that which we can understand at first and the rest in order so that it is possible for us to have an ever increasing stock of known truth concerning things whose nature is absolutely incomprehensible.

Stanley writes, “Maxwell’s God was a teacher who wanted his students to learn all the details of the world, which He organized in such a way as to help them in their studies.”

Social Uses of Science

The intellectual history of the eighteenth century, including the history of eighteenth-century science, used to be summed up in the term “Enlightenment.” However, as we have seen, no one has been able to define the term with any precision; nevertheless, most historians continue to use it to identify a set of opinions that characterized the century. In The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth-Century Science (1980), edited by G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, the term scarcely makes an appearance. This is deliberate. The editors and authors of this collection of essays believe that historiography of science of the eighteenth century has been utterly changed by the advent of “contextual” scholarship in a number of disparate disciplines, from the history of ideas, mythology, new approaches within Marxism and French structuralism, techniques of historians of art, religion, philosophy, and ideology, to the seminal writings of anthropologists and psychologists and others.

In their introduction the editors rightly emphasize that we can “no longer ignore the fact that the eighteenth century ‘geography of knowledge,’ the relations between the sciences, was then markedly different from our own.” The introduction explains:

The last generation has wrought a revolution in the history of science…Certainties have given way to questions. The history of science is no longer a scientist’s hymn to science: it has become part of history itself…The development of science can no longer be served up as the sure tread towards truth. But exactly how it should be viewed is a question on which no consensus is in sight…This revolution is, of course, very familiar. Its relevance here is that this profound change in the orientation—one riddled with methodological anxieties—has as yet done little for the eighteenth century.

The aim, and hope, of the present volume is thus to present a “contextual historiography” of the eighteenth century as a corrective:

…we now take it as axiomatic—and correctly—that eighteenth-century science can be properly grasped only if its “external” relations to other intellectual and cultural systems, such as theology and epistemology, are tackled head-on…It seems elementary to us (now!) that eighteenth-century scientific ideas cannot adequately be translated one-to-one into twentieth-century terminology. Indeed, one of the aims of this book is precisely to distil and evaluate this substantial body of empirical research that has been conducted in the last generation.

To achieve its ends, the editors have compiled a series of twelve essays by twelve knowledgeable authors. Of all the contributions in this volume, Steven Shapin’s “Social Uses of Science” is perhaps the most provocative and stimulating contribution.

Shapin discusses the social uses of science by analyzing a number of studies which deal with the social significance of Newtonianism, “it is in the area of Newtonianism and its career in the eighteenth century that such perspectives show their greatest inadequacies and where new notions of science and its uses display greatest promise.” An essay by Arnold Thackray looks at political interpretation of the Leibniz-Clarke debate, “The priority disputes between Newton and Leibniz…cannot be understood without examining the dynastic politics of the period from the 1680s to the 1710s.” According to Thackray, “Newton set in motion a sustained collective effort to discredit the worth, religious significance, and originality of the German’s [i.e. Leibniz] science.” An essay by Frank Manuel supports Thackray’s account that Newton was an “autocrat of science.” And George Grinnell’s argument that Newton’s own motivation was not merely proprietary but party-political interprets Newton as an anti-Catholic Whig. Shapin concludes from these contextualist interpretations that “one cannot  understand scientific judgements without attaining to the context wherein scientific accounts were deployed.”

In several articles Margaret Jacob sets out to develop a connection between Newtonian natural philosophy and Low Church politics. Shapin positively evaluates M. Jacob’s view that “conceptions of nature are tools, instruments which historical actors in contingent settings pick up and deploy in order to further a variety of interests, social as well as technical.” According to James R. Jacob and Christopher Hill, “natural philosophy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century was powerfully shaped by the social uses of natural knowledge during Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration” periods.

From the contextualist interpretations of M. Jacob, J.R. Jacob, and Hill, Shapin offers a number of suggestions to explain how eighteenth century matter theory could be given a social interpretation:

First, it is to be noted that philosophies of nature were routinely seen by the actors as imbued with social meaning. This is not because of “mere” metaphorical glossing, but because in these (and later) cultural contexts nature and society were deemed to be elements in one interacting network of significances…Second, groups with conflicting social interests developed and sustained interestingly different natural philosophies; moreover, these philosophies were often produced explicitly to combat and refute those of rival groups. Third, the distribution of attributes between “matter” and “spirit” was an issue of intense concern in all these philosophies; the relations between the two entities seemed to be something upon which all cosmologies “had to” decide, and the boundaries between “matter” and “spirit” were treated as having particularly strong social significance.

Thus “contextualism” for Shapin is the study of natural philosophy “entirely in terms of its uses in specific historical contexts,” or, as his title suggests, its “social uses.”

In the next section of the essay Shapin wants to juxtapose this new contextualist approach, of which he is a member, against the historiographic theories of post-Koyréan “intellectualist” practice, which includes, he argues, Gerd Buchdahl, Henry Guerlac, P. M. Heimann, Robert Kargon, David Kubrin, J. E. McGuire, Ernan McMullin, P. M. Rattansi, and Richard Westfall. In short, Shapin concludes that while traditional intellectualist histories of science situate scientific thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries firmly within the intellectual context of metaphysics and religion, the context of ideas, both in their formation and in their use, has not been treated adequately. At best, he argues, we have been given “footnote contextualism,” an “apparent stipulation that such context impinged peripherally or in some unspecified, but insignificant, way.” In other words, the intellectualist historiographic approach relegates the effects of social-political context on scientific ideas to footnotes and asides, therefore to an implicitly peripheral and unimportant role. Shapin disagrees and argues that in the contextualist historical research: “what we begin to see in work of this kind is a sensitivity to a variety of conceptions of nature distrubuted among different social groups. We see how divergent bodies of natural knowledge were used to further social interests and were produced in processes of social conflict.”

In the final sections of his essay, Shapin provides a contextualist interpretation of the “new science” of the early and mid-eighteenth century as a strategy reflecting its social-political uses. He maintains, for example, following M. Jacob, “where the Newtonian cosmology of the Boyle Lectures was developed partly as a defense of the Protestant succession and the court which underpinned the moral and social authority of the latitudinarian Low Church,” the hylozoist cosmology—in which outside, immaterial forces are unnecessary to move matter—of “freethinkers” such as John Toland “was the voice of conflicting social tendencies.” The latter were at odds with the Newtonians because they “perceived them to be ‘propagandizers for a science of God that would enhance the authority of ruling oligarchies and established churches.'”

Although M. Jacob’s thesis has received criticism, particularly from Christopher Wilde, who provides similar historiographic techniques to show an important English anti-Newtonianism of High Church divines, both work demonstrate that “‘dialectical’ processes of social conflict in the cultural domain may be needed to account for historical changes in dominant cosmologies.”

But intellectualists and the new contextualist can work together, according to Shapin. For example, there has been some major historiographic bridge-building between the two in accounting for Joseph Priestly’s natural philosophy. The work of J.G. McEvoy and J. E. McGuire have demonstrated that “Priestly was not embarked upon any ‘atheistical’ or ‘secularizing’ enterprise,” but a cosmology of “rational dissent,” one specifically committed to “undermining the authority of the state Church and justifying liberalism and toleration in religious matters.” Thus Priestly’s materialist monism becomes a “hierarchy-collapsing strategy.”

In conclusion Shapins lists three themes that emerge from social studies of uses of scientific knowledge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. First it shows the important role for social interests in scientific change or in sustaining scientific accounts. Second, science is revealed to us only in some context of use; “science” is never disembodied—it is always put to use in some particular social context. And third, historians of science are revealed to be implicit anthropologists, considering “collective representations of nature…to be institutions inextricably bound up with the social affairs of the communities which generate and sustain them; they are explained by identifying the ‘social work’ the beliefs do in these communities.”

Finally, this anthropological perspective, according to Shapin, represents a non-deterministic sociology of scientific knowledge. “By emphasizing that cosmologies are constructed in the contexts of use, they replace the ‘automaton-actor’ of metaphysical-influence studies with an active, calculating actor whose intellectual products are crafted to further the variety of his interests.”

Our Pervasive Stories about Science

Shapin - The Scientific RevolutionIn an oft quoted sentence, Steven Shapin opens his The Scientific Revolution (1996) with dramatic flourish: “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.” He begins his introduction with a brief historical survey, citing the scholarly opinion of generations past. A familiar cast appears. Koyré had judged the scientific revolution as a “profound intellectual transformation” and a “dissolution of an older worldview.” Likewise, Buttefield had said that the scientific revolution “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity,” reducing the Renaissance and Reformation to the “rank of mere episodes.” A. Rupert Hall also claimed that it was “an a piori redefinition of the object of philosophical and scientific inquiry.” These scholars would go on to influence and shape historical scholarship of the next generation. There was something truly “revolutionary,” “cataclysmic,” and “coherent” that occurred in seventeenth-century Europe, something that “irrevocably changed what people knew about the natural world and how they secured proper knowledge of that world.”

But his introduction Shapin also lists reasons why today’s historians of science, himself included, are reluctant to embrace such pronouncements. First, historians are no longer satisfied with treating ideas as if they were autonomous, disembodied, free-floating conceptions, and as a result have insisted on the importance of cultural and social context. Second, and related to the first, ideas ought to be understand in the context of human practices. And finally, it follows that historians now look more closely into the “who” of the scientific revolution, those who wrought such changes.

Claiming to take full account of recent scholarship about the period of the scientific revolution, he posits that science is a “historically situated and social activity and that it is to be understood in relation to the contexts in which it occurs.” He does not consider that there is “anything like an ‘essence’ of seventeenth-century science or indeed of seventeenth-century reforms in science.” He observes that important as developments in mathematical physics were in the seventeenth century, this does not provide a model adequate for explaining developments in every other area of science. For these reasons he rejects the possibility of providing a “single coherent story that could possibly capture all the aspects of science or its changes.”

In short, the historiographic notion of the scientific revolution is mistaken. The development of the modern scientific worldview was a complex process contested by many seventeenth-century practitioners (note that this is an altogether distinct argument than what I. B. Cohen and D. Lindberg have put forward): experimentalism was both advocated and rejected; mathematical methods were both celebrated and treated with doubt; mechanical conceptions of nature were seen both a defining proper science and as limited in their intelligibility and application; and the role of experience in making scientific knowledge was treated in radically different ways.

But like his predecessors, Shapin losses some nerve, claiming that his aim is not a full-scale rejection of the scientific revolution. For starters, many key figures in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw themselves as “modern.” Secondly, and quite simple, historians—like most of people—want to find meaning in history, we “want to know how we got from there to here.” The key, according to Shapin, is recognizing that “intellectual change occurred while at the same time recognizing that change is not necessarily linear or self-evident progress toward our modern way of thinking.” Shapin thus settles for the following understanding of the scientific revolution: “We can say that the seventeenth century witnessed some self-conscious and large-scale attempts to change belief, and ways of securing belief, about the natural world. And a book about the Scientific Revolution can legitimately tell a story about those attempts, whether or not they succeeded, whether or not they were contested in the local culture, whether or not they were wholly coherent.”

Shapin divides his book into three substantive chapters: “What Was Known?” “How Was It Known?” and “What Was the Knowledge For?” In “What Was Known?” Shapin gives an account of some of the major scientific advances , from Galileo to Newton, from cosmology to microscopy, from the mechanical philosophy to the mathematization of nature. It was Copernicus and Galileo who established a new cosmology. Boyle and Descartes popularized the new mechanical philosophy. And Kepler and Newton ushered in a mathematical framework for natural philosophy.

But Shapin also wants to divulge the complexity in what was known. Galileo’s discovery of sunspots, along with a body of other observations and theorizing, “profoundly questioned a fundamental Aristotelian distinction between the physics of the heavens and that of the earth.” According to that tradition, the sun, stars, and planets obeyed different physical principles than did those objects on earth. In their domains there was no change and no imperfection. Galileo was not simply documenting observational data from his telescope, he was undermining the “traditionally accepted belief that the sun was immaculately and immutably perfect.” Thus when some (careless) historians claim that Copernicanism demoted humans from their egocentric center, what heliocentrism actually did was wrest the immutable to the mutable, to an earthly existence which was regarded as miserable and corrupt.

Aristotelian physics also came into question. Aristotle and his followers believed that natural motion had a developmental character. “Bodies naturally moved so as to fulfill their natures, to transform the potential into the actual, to move toward where it was naturally for them to be.” In some sense, Aristotelian physics was modeled on biology and employed explanatory categories similar to those used to comprehend living things. Thus with Copernicus and Galileo the teleological and animistic features of the traditional physics of motion were rejected.

The framework that modern natural philosophers preferred was one that explicitly modeled nature on the characteristics of a machine. Descartes, for instance, announced that “there is no difference between the machines built by artisans in the diverse bodies that nature alone composes.” And of all mechanical constructions whose characteristics might serve as a model for the natural world it was a clock more than any other that appealed to many early modern natural philosophers. Kepler, for instance, described his aim as the attempt to “show that the machine of the universe is not similar to a divine animated being, but similar to a clock.” Boyle likewise wrote that the natural world was “as it were, a great piece of clockwork.” Thus Boyle, Kepler, Descartes and other mechanical philosophers recommended the clock metaphor as a philosophically legitimate way of understanding how the natural world was put together and how it functioned. But this mechanical account of nature was anything but atheistic. In fact, mechanical philosophy was used to defend monotheism, and was explicitly contrasted with the anthropomorphism and animism, or occultism, of much traditional natural philosophy.

The mathematization of reality was just as a complex process has its mechanization. Early modern natural philosophers turned to Pythagoras and especially Plato to legitimate a mathematical treatment of the world, quoting Plato’s dictum that “the world was God’s epistle written to mankind” and that “it was written in mathematical letters.” Thus Shapin concludes in the first chapter that there can be no “facile generalizations” about Copernicanism, mechanical philosophy, or the mathematization of nature.

In “How Was It Known?” Shapin deals with experience, experiment, and authentication. Among the topics covered are Bacon’s advocacy of a new method, Boyle’s pump experiments, observational methods, development of experimentalism, and the formation of the Royal Society. Shapin argues that the seventeenth century’s supposed emphasis on experience and observation over authority was not as clear-cut as banal versions of the scientific revolution have always insisted. Modernist rhetoric embracing a totally new and wholly rejecting the past does not adequately describe historical reality. The very identity and practice of early modern astronomy, for example, depended on observational data compiled by the ancients. Copernicus himself, and many of his followers, liked to argue that heliocentrism was in fact an ancient view, corrupted over the centuries, and only renewed or restored in modern times. Newton likewise believed that natural philosophy had been corrupted over generations, and that his life work would restore it to its original, pristine quality.

But what was said to be overwhelmingly wrong with existing natural philosophical traditions was its dependence on textual authority. “The proper object of natural philosophical examination,” Shapin writes, “was not the traditionally valued books of human authors but the Book of Nature.”

This is the root idea of modern empiricism, the view that proper knowledge of nature is derived from direct sense experience. But as Shapin is careful to note, both the practice of observation and the credibility of observation reports in the early modern period could be intensely problematic. “It is important to understand how precarious experience might be and how much work was required to constitute it as reliable.” Christian theology, for example, proclaimed that the senses of human beings following the Fall were utterly corrupt, and that reliable knowledge could not be trusted by such debased sources.

One way of resolving this problem has already been mentioned: one was to get ahead by going back, progress through restoration. Newton, for example saw his task as recovering the lost wisdom of the ancients, and he undertook painstaking philological studies to support this enterprise.

What kind of experience was to be sought? How was it reliably attained? And how was one to infer from experience to general principles about the natural order? As Shapin points out, “what counted in one practice as reliably constituted experience, and reliable inference, was commonly identified by another as insecure or unphilosophical.” Indisputable and universal conclusions require indisputable and universal premises. The testifying person might be lying or deluded; the instruments used might distort rather than merely observe the natural order of things; the events reported might be not ordinary but anomalous.

According to Shapin, many seventeenth-century practitioners developed a new and quite different approach to experience. Bacon, for example, argued that the condition for a proper natural philosophy was its foundation in a laboriously compiled factual register of natural history — a catalog, compilation, a collection of all the effects one observed in nature. Yet the emblematic feature of modern natural philosophical practice was that it relied for its empirical content not just on naturally available experience but also on experiments artificially and purposefully contrived to produce phenomenon that might not be observed in the normal course of nature.

This brings us to Shapin’s discussion of “controlling experience.” Bacon judged the ills of contemporary natural philosophy, and then proffered a set of rules for “careful and severe” examination. One rule was collection, thus justifying the programmatic “cabinets curiosities” then fashionable in gentlemanly circles throughout Europe. But perhaps most important rule, for Bacon and others, was proper method. Method was what made knowledge about the natural world possible. Despite the stress on direct sensory experience, Bacon argued that uninstructed senses were apt to deceive and that the senses needed to be methodically disciplined if they were to yield proper knowledge. Thus one can only arrive at proper knowledge through a disciplined or instructed mind. What is meant by “discipline” and “instructed”? It depended on the natural philosopher you asked. This is, according to Shapin, the fragmented knowledge-making legacies of the seventeenth century.

In the third and final chapter, “What Was the Knowledge For?” Shapin treats the cultural uses of natural knowledge. In an extended discussion of natural knowledge and state power, he considers Bacon’s views on the ways that natural philosophy could increase such power, which provides the context for his examination of the establishment of the Royal Society and the Académie des Sciences. He demonstrates the ways in which natural knowledge was used to reinforce religious belief and theology. He concludes by asserting that this contextualized understanding of early modern science “as the contingent, diverse, and at times deeply problematic product of interested, morally concerned, historically situated people” seems paradoxical, because it was the interests of such people that led to the modern separation between science and religion and between science and society.

In the end, what remains of the scientific revolution? According to Shapin, it was “a diverse array of cultural practices aimed at understanding, explaining, and controlling the natural world, each with different characteristics and each experiencing different modes of change.” Consequently, nothing remains here of the idea the Scientific Revolution. Shapin’s Scientific Revolution is not a critique of science. Rather, it is a critique of “pervasive stories we tend to be told about science.”

The “Scientific Revolution” as a Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-century Humanist Invention

Our discussion thus far has focused on the historiographic category of the scientific revolution as the invention of eighteenth-century thinkers. But some years ago David C. Lindberg had argued, in his “Conceptions of the Scientific Revolution from Bacon to Butterfield: A preliminary sketch,” D. C. Lindberg and R. S. Westman, Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (1990), that modern conceptions of the scientific revolution are actually an “outgrowth and continuation of historiographic traditions and European self-perceptions rooted in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian humanism.” In works of Petrarch (1304-1374), Boccaccio (1313-1375), and others, for example, we see what would become the “standard humanist account, the decline and fall of Rome introduced a thousand-year period of cultural darkness and stagnation,” during which the classics succumbed to religious dogmatism under the “rude vulgarity of the scholastics.”

Petrarch found solace in the works of the ancients, seeing the return to antiquity among his contemporaries as ushering in the beginning of the new, improved age, a “rebirth.” Indeed, a number of authors saw in their “new” work a return to the “old.” This included Nicholaus of Cusa (1401- 1464), Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), his associate Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597), Jean Bodin (1530-1596), Peter Ramus (1515-1572), and many more. “The forward movements of the Renaissance,” once wrote Frances A. Yates, “all derive their vigor, their emotional impulse, from looking-backwards.”

Sixteenth-century Protestant authors were also apt to see a connection between the return to ancient sources and the reformation of Christianity. Criticism of the institutional Catholic Church and an emphasis on the original Christian gospels promoted by sola scriptura called for a quest for “true Christianity,” a return to a pristine religion. For example, Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples (1455-1536), John Calvin’s teacher and the man who paved the way for the Reformation in France, was a Christian humanist who advocated not only a reformation of religious life and the dissemination of the Bible in the vernacular, but also a return to the ancient teachings of Hermes Trismegistus and the Hermetic Traditon.

Thus when, in the course of the seventeenth century, the new science came in for appraisal, that appraisal was powerfully shaped by historical categories and terminology devised by Renaissance humanists. According to J. B. Bury (1861-1927) and R. F. Jones (1886-1965), seventeenth-century scholars repudiated antiquity for the “new philosophy,” advanced by the constant invocation of “the new” in their works, such as Kepler’s New Astronomy, Bacon’s New Organon, Galileo’s Two New Sciences and so on.

But Bury and Jones read these titles at face value. “Seventeenth-century attitudes toward antiquity,” writes Lindberg, “looked at as a whole rather than scoured for ‘proof texts,’ are more complex and nuanced, and far more positive in tone.”

In other words, Bury and Jones—and still many today—were deceived by appearances. Dan Edelstein has demonstrated that the seventeenth-century was not a quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns; no, it was the formation of an idea—or more accurately, a narrative—of progress that thinkers like Voltaire, Condorcet and others constructed, and that later scholars took up without question. Voltaire, for example, in his Essay on the Manners and the Spirit of Nations (1747-1751) and his Age of Louis XIV (1752) aimed to “write a history of the human spirit, of manner and customs, based on the premise of indefinite progress.” Although he never offered a connected account of the development of natural philosophy, “his many passing comments added up to an influential interpretation” that saw history as stages of progress.

This optimism of progress reached a crescendo in Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit hamain (1795), where he pronounced the triumph of Christianity as “the signal for the complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences.” Thus the progress we see in the seventeenth-century, according to Condorcet, was quite dramatic, revolutionary in fact. Key figures in his scheme are, of course, Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes.

What is remarkable about this scheme, says Lindberg, is its “unanimity of opinion.” “Everybody who addressed the question accepted a tripartite division of cultural history into ancient, medieval, and modern periods.” Antiquity was a glorious period of vast learning, only to be followed in the medieval period by total darkness, and now finally, in their own, modern period, the light of the ancients have returned, alongside the new lights of Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton.

This same schema of progress and periodization continued in historiographic developments of the nineteenth century. We see it, for example, in Auguste Comte (1798-1857), William Whewell (1794-1866) and others. According to Comte, all sciences pass inevitably through three stages: the theological, or fictitious, in which the human mind seeks essences and ultimate causes; the metaphysical stage, in which nature and abstract forces are substituted for divinity as the causes of phenomena; and finally the stage of “positive” science which the mind gives up the quest for absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena and applies itself to the study of their laws.

For Whewell science proceeds by progressive generalization, from bare facts to general truths. Old truths are never truly overturn but are modified by subsequent discoveries and become a permanent part of the body of knowledge. According to Lindberg, Whewell’s purpose was to “establish his philosophy of science on the basis of historical investigation.” As such Whewell ventured a detailed history of the sciences—from Greek natural philosophy to the achievements of his own era. But predictably in his account the accomplishments of antiquity were followed by the long, stagnate, Middle Ages, a time of darkness, subservience, and dogmatism.

Lindberg then follows with an account of how medieval science was rehabilitated by scholars such as Pierre Duhem (1861-1916), Charles Homer Haskins (1870-1937), and Lynn Thorndike (1882-1965), and, as a result, for the first time in over three hundred years, the traditional schema and periodization came under serious historical attack.

But this new group of scholars encountered stiff opposition from the outset. The counterattack, led by Burtt, Koyré, and Butterfield, reasserted the significance of the scientific revolution, and thus the schema and periodization of a previous generation of scholars.

Therefore what distinguishes Lindberg’s account of the historiographic history of the scientific revolution from others, including I. Bernard Cohen’s, is his interest in the conceptions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century science and natural philosophy. This conception of the progress of knowledge and a shared periodization of history is, according to Lindberg, a remnant of the humanist vision and not simply a creation of Enlightenment philosophes.

The “Scientific Revolution” as Narratology (Part 2)

In 1948 English historian Herbert Butterfield presented a series of lectures for the History of Science Committee at the University of Cambridge. There he argued that historians have overlooked an episode of profound intellectual transformation—one apparently comparable in magnitude to the rise of Christianity and that was deeply implicated in the very formation of the “modern mentality.” This episode was of course the Scientific Revolution. But as we have seen from previous posts, the idea of the “scientific revolution,” or, more precisely, “revolutions in science,” had its origins in eighteenth century thought.

Butterfield’s Cambridge lectures, published as The Origins of Modern Science: 1300-1800 (1949), were limned from a tradition of other twentieth-century historians and philosophers—scholars such as Pierre Duhem, Ernst Cassirer, E.A. Burtt, and, most importantly, Alexandre Koyré, who  regarded history as a special resource for illuminating the evolution and progress of science. In fact, it was Koyré who, in 1943, appraised the conceptual changes at the core of the “scientific revolution,” as “the most profound revolution achieved of suffered by the human mind.” It was so profound that human culture “for centuries did not grasp its bearing or meaning; which, even now, is often misvalued and misunderstood.”

Osler - Rethinking the Scientific RevolutionThese traditional narratives by early twentieth-century scholars have customarily focused on a list of canonical figures. These figures usually include Nicholas Copernicus, Tyco Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton. Margaret J. Osler’s (ed.) Rethinking the Scientific Revolution (2000) problematizes this canonical list. Questioning the canon leads, according to Osler, to inquire why and how it was formed in the first place. Rethinking the Scientific Revolution is in memory to Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Richard S. Westfall, best known for their studies on Isaac Newton and the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century.

Osler’s introduction frames and outlines the discussion in this illuminating work. She argues that one must seek balance, recognizing that intellectual change occurred while at the same time recognizing that change is not necessarily linear or self-evident progress toward our modern way of thinking. Historians, then, need to “recognize the role that their own assumptions play in their constructions of the past. There is no escaping them, but consciously acknowledging them staves off the temptations of claiming objectivity and progress.”

This new approach, Osler argues, is at odds with traditional accounts of the scientific revolution. From nineteenth-century positivist Ernst Mach, historians have told a story that stresses radical discontinuity of the scientific revolution from what came before. This is the story Westfall reiterates. This assumption also embodies an “essentialism” about science, according to which science it defined as unchanging and unambiguously identifiable in every historical era. This essentialism creeps into the interpretation of the scientific revolution itself: having defined the nature of the scientific revolution, historians, such as what H. Floris Cohen has done in his The Scientific Revolution, searched this event and explanations of it. Cohen, who undertook the daunting task of examining the entire historiography of the scientific revolution, as we have seen, nevertheless remained committed to both the reality of the revolution and to its historiographical utility.

Following the work of Quentin Skinner, Osler argues that taking agency seriously means using actors’ categories to account for the development of ideas. She means, in other words, to appropriate ideas of historical actors, to work within their particular social, ideological, and intellectual contexts. Osler argues that “future research must address the interests and concerns of subsequent generations, which created the perception that a scientific revolution occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and then bequeathed it to us.”

Since historians of science have interpreted Newton’s work as the climax of the narrative they call the scientific revolution, this radical shift in understanding of the meaning of his work forces us to reconsider may of the received opinions about the nature of the scientific revolution.

The first essay by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, presented at the Annual Meeting of the History of Science Society in 1993, opens the discussion by stating her intention “to undermine one of our most followed explanatory frameworks, that of the scientific revolution.” Following I.B. Cohen’s work, Dobbs argues that the narrative of the scientific revolution was constructed in the eighteenth century, when natural philosophers selectively took up Newton’s physics and mathematics while ignoring his alchemical and theological views. Newton, according to Dobbs, is key: “as science accumulated more and more social prestige in the later eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the image of Newton as principal cultural hero of the new science was handed on and further polished by succeeding generations of scientists and historians.” Indeed, Newton is “the hidden end toward which the whole narrative [i.e. the scientific revolution] is inexorably drawn.” Newton is not only the First Mover in historians’ account, he is also the Final Cause of the scientific revolution.

But this is not the Newton of history. Dobbs summarizes the central problem in a long passage, worth quoting at length:

But to my mind the issue of the proper interpretation of our scientific heroes has been the most pressing problem of all, a problem that was at least in part generated by the concept of the Scientific Revolution. I think the problem arises somewhat in this fashion: we choose for praise the thinkers that seem to us to have contributed to modernity, but we unconsciously assumed that their thought patterns were fundamentally just like ours. Then we look at them a little more closely and discover to our astonishment that our intellectual ancestors are not like us at all: they do not see the full implications of their own work; they refuse to believe things that are now so obviously true; they have metaphysical and religious commitments that they should have known were unnecessary for a study of nature; [and] horror of horrors, they take seriously such misbegotten ideas as astrology, alchemy, magic, the music of the spheres, divine providence, in salvation history.

Newton, alleged epitome of austere, scientific, mathematical rationality, pursued alchemy, apocalyptic theology, hermetism, and other occult practices. The problem, then, according to Dobbs, is a historiographic one. Newton’s “system was very quickly co-opted by the very -isms he fought [i.e. mechanism, materialism, deism, atheism], and adjusted to suit them. He came down to us co-opted, an Enlightenment figure without parallel who could not possibly have been concerned with alchemy or with establishing the existence and activity of a providential God.” In the end, Newton was not one of history’s all-time winners; rather, he is one of history’s great losers, “a loser in a titanic battle between the forces of religion and the forces of irreligion.”

In short, Dobbs calls historians of science to understand the presuppositions and assumptions of their historical actors rather than searching for anticipations of modern ideas in their thought.

Richard S. Westfall, on the other hand, wants to defend the traditional historiography. He argues that the historian’s task is not mere antiquarianism, “We are called to help the present understand itself by understanding how it came to be. We strive to find a meaningful order in the multifarious events of the past and thus, explicitly or implicitly, we pass judgment on the relative importance of events.”

In defending the historiography for which he was one of the most distinguished spokesmen, Westfall responds with reasserting the scientific revolution as “our central organizing idea,” because without it “our discipline will lose its coherence and, what is more, the cause of historical understanding take a significant set backward.” Thus Westfall, Osler argues in her introduction, is “fundamentally forward-looking, based on the assumption that what is interesting in the past are those developments that led to our present understanding of the world.” The crucial difference between Westfall and Dobbs, then, is that Westfall assumes that thinkers in the past are similar to us and that what is important for the historian is that aspect of the thinkers works that has survived until the present or that had led to our present way of looking at things.

Peter Barker agrees that Dobbs’ work “not only shifted the boundaries of Newton scholarship, she changed its center.” In his essay Barker wants to reexamine the “role of religion in the Lutheran response to Copernicus.” According to Barker the doctrine of the Real Presence, stipulated in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, article 10, that “Christ’s body and blood is truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine of the sacrament,” encouraged Lutherans to study any and all aspects of nature, for to do so was coming to know more about God. “For Luther and his followers, the Real Presence was distributed throughout all objects.”  These Lutherans became known as the “Wittenberg Astronomers,” and including Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Joachim Rheticus (1514-1574), Andreas Osiander (1498-1552), Erasmus Reinhold (1511-1553), and Hilderich von Varel (1533-1599). In short, according to Barker, Lutherans expressed an early and strong interest in Copernicus’ work, even arranging for it publication. By the end of the sixteenth century, if you were a Protestant studying almost anywhere in German-speaking Europe, you would have been taught the Copernican system. By the time of Kepler’s education at Tübingen in the 1580s, for example, distinct positions on Copernicus’ work had emerged in northern Europe.

Another compelling essay in Rethinking the Scientific Revolution comes from Jan W. Wojcik’s “pursuing knowledge: Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.” Wojcik is concerned with the different views of Boyle and Newton regarding the power and scope of human reason. “I think that the most important difference between these two natural philosophers is that they had dramatically different conceptions of God’s intentions concerning human understanding…to what can be known in both natural philosophy and theology, and how that knowledge can best be attained, exactly who can attain this knowledge, and when it might be learned.” Boyle, for example, was content to assent to mysteries, and that God never intended any human beings to a complete understanding of either nature or theological truths during this lifetime. Newton, on the other hand, insisted that God had revealed Christian doctrine with the intent that it be understood in a plain and natural sense, and that God in fact intended at least some individuals to achieve a complete understanding during this lifetime. Despite their differences, Wojcik argues, “it is clear that for both men theological concerns was an absolute priority.”

Moving into their more esoteric studies, Lawrence M. Principe discusses “the alchemy of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton: alternate approaches and divergent deployments.” His title already suggests that Newton and Boyle—much like everything else—approached alchemy from different angles. According to Principe, those seeking the secrets of alchemy approach the subject through three kinds of sources: (1) the written record left by past adepti; (2) direct communication with living sources; and (3) laboratory investigation. Newton’s alchemical manuscripts, for example, consists of material not his own. “By far the great part of Newton’s alchemical output is in the form of transcriptions, translations, extracts, collations, and compendia of various alchemical authorities. By contrast, most of Boyle’s alchemical tracts are in fact gifts from their authors or copies made by others, rather than copies made specifically by Boyle.

Principe also examines what specific benefits these two students of alchemy expected to reap from such activity. In the case of Boyle, for example, the rewards were increased natural philosophical knowledge, medicinal preparations, and defense of orthodox Christianity. Boyle also expected to obtain the alchemical summum bonum, the secret of the preparation of the Philosopher’s Stone. Newton, on the other hand, expressed doubt in the real existence of the Philosopher’s Stone. Rather, for Newton the study of alchemy was a search for the existence and means of divine activity in the world. Thus an area of relative commonality between Boyle and Newton’s alchemical investigations lies in the service they believed alchemy could render to religion. Indeed, both men “sought alchemy as a corrective to an overly mechanized and potentially atheistic worldview.” Principe shows the ways in which alchemical ideas were important to Boyle and Newton, who are frequently considered to be mechanical philosophers.

By elucidating the similarities between Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) and Isaac Newton, Paula Findlen raises the question why Newton was incorporated into the canon and Kircher was not. “Both were deeply religious men, committed to the study of nature as a sure path toward the revelation of divine wisdom, who began their academic careers as professors of mathematics. Both valued the learning of the ancients, searching ever further into pagan and Christian past in hope of illumination.” And no where is their commonality most clearly evident, says Findlen, than in their alchemical investigations. Thus “it is only the judgment of later generations that forged our distinction between genius and crackpot.”

In an essay by James G. Force, “the nature of Newton’s holy alliance between science and religion: from the scientific revolution to Newton (and back again),” he argues that we must cease to consider Newton as a cause for the final product of the scientific revolution, agreeing with Dobbs in large part in her astute moderation of the extreme generalities of the grand theorists of the scientific revolution. Newton was not some “protodeist who did not realize the paradoxical nature of his own thought”; rather, he is “a far more complex thinker for whom the Lord God of supreme dominion constitutes the key to understanding the nature of his particular ‘holy alliance’ between science and religion.”

J.E. McGuire, known for co-authoring the oft-cited “Newton and the ‘Pipes of Pan'” (1966), a fascinating and important study of Newton’s belief in the ancient wisdom of Neoplatonic and Pythagorean traditions, underscores in his essay, “the fate of the date: the theology of Newton’s Principia revisited,” the connection between Newton’s alchemy, theology, and natural philosophy. According to McGuire, “God is the ground of all being,” the “spiritual tonos,” the “structuring structure” of Newton’s cosmos, and therefore the Principia acts as a “conduit through which that structure is disclosed.”

While twentieth-century scientists and historians may value Newton’s contributions to mathematics and physics, religious fundamentalists, as Richard Popkins demonstrates in his “Newton and Spinoza and the Bible scholarship of the day,” are more impressed by his approach to biblical scholarship. But Newton, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and Richard Simon (1638-1712) all took seriously the problems that had arisen in the collection, editing, and transmission of Scripture, and that Newton was not committed to claiming the inerrancy of the biblical texts.

Margaret C. Jacob concludes the collection by arguing that the “revolution in science” was constructed in the eighteenth century when natural philosophers selectively took up Newton’s physics and mathematics while ignoring his alchemical and theological views.

At this juncture it is worth mentioning the tireless, and more recent, work of Stephen D. Snobelen, whose main scholarly area of interest is Isaac Newton’s theological and prophetic writings. In several places, beginning with “Isaac Newton, heretic: the strategies of a Nicodemite,” The British Journal for the History of Science 32 (December 1999): 381-419; “‘God of Gods, and Lord of Lords’: the theology of Isaac Newton’s General Scholium to the Principia,” Osiris 16 (2001): 169-208; “‘A time and times and the dividing of time’: Isaac Newton, the Apocalypse and 2060 A.D.,”The Canadian Journal of History 38 (December 2003): 537-551; “To discourse of God: Isaac Newton’s heterodox theology and his natural philosophy,” in Science and dissent in England, 1688-1945, ed. Paul B. Wood (2004), pp. 39-65; “Lust, pride and ambition: Isaac Newton and the devil,” in Newton and Newtonianism: new studies, ed. James E. Force and Sarah Hutton (2004), pp. 155-181; “Isaac Newton, Socinianism and ‘the one supreme God’,” in Socinianism and cultural exchange: the European dimension of Antitrinitarian and Arminian Networks, 1650-1720, ed. Martin Mulsow and Jan Rohls (2005), pp. 241-293; “‘The true frame of Nature’: Isaac Newton, heresy and the reformation of natural philosophy,” in Heterodoxy in early modern science and religion, ed. John Brooke and Ian Maclean (2005), pp. 223-262; “‘Not in the language of Astronomers’: Isaac Newton, Scripture and the hermeneutics of accommodation,” in Interpreting Nature and Scripture in the Abrahamic Religions: History of a Dialogue, ed. Jitse M. van der Meer and Scott H. Mandelbrote. Vol. 1 (2008), pp. 491-530; “Isaac Newton, heresy laws and the persecution of religious dissent,” Enlightenment and Dissent 25 (2009): 204–59; “The Theology of Isaac Newton’s Principia mathematica: a preliminary survey,” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 52 (2010): 377–412; “The myth of the clockwork universe: Newton, Newtonianism, the the Enlightenment,” in The persistence of the sacred in modern thought, ed. Chris L. Firestone and Nathan Jacobs (2012), pp. 149-84; and “Newton the believer,” in The Isaac Newton Guidebook, ed. Denis R Alexander (2012), pp. 35-44, Snoblelen reveals Newton as a true Renaissance man, who spent decades delving in the secrets of alchemy and even longer studying the Bible, theology and church history. Leaving behind four million words on theology, “Newton was one of the greatest lay theologians of his age.” In his essays, Snobelen’s explores Newton’s theology, prophetic views and the interaction between his science and his religion.

Reading Newton in light of his own preoccupations rather than those of twentieth-century historians forces us, as Dobbs concluded in her essay, to reconsider many of the received opinions about the nature of the “scientific revolution.”

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.”

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.

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

Of all the prominent historians responding to Gaukroger’s essay in Historically Speaking (April, 2013), H. Floris Cohen’s is the most interesting.

Cohen, a professor of comparative history of science and chairman of the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, adheres to the idea, first made popular by the influential Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield, that the scientific revolution of the early modern period “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom.”

According to Cohen, historians of science hold a  “secret treasure,” a key to understanding the rise of the west in world history. Without this “secret treasure” general historians, sociologists, economists, and virtually all other students of human thought and activity, can never make sense of the rise of western Europe to world-wide cultural domination.

Cohen- The Scientific RevolutionBut before writing his own over-arching interpretation of the scientific revolution, Cohen decided that it was necessary to consider what has already been said about it. Cohen’s The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry, first published in 1994, is his attempt at accounting the historiographical history of the scientific revolution from the late eighteenth century to the 1990s.

According to Cohen, the scientific revolution is by no means a term of convenience for historians. No, for Cohen the scientific revolution was a real historical event. Indeed, he laments the fact that the way a number of historians of science have treated the subject now threatens to undermine it: “it is at least conceivable,” Cohen writes, “that the concept of the Scientific Revolution may evaporate entirely.” If this were to happen it would be, Cohen believes, “a major intellectual disaster,” and part of his aim in writing the book was to restore the concept to its previous “robust health.”

In dealing with the historiographical thesis that the history of science is best understood as a continuity with no revolutionary breaks, for example, Cohen refers to Butterfield’s notion of “relative discontinuity.” It is possible to accept the continuous development of science through the ages while still acknowledging that there are periods of crucial transition.

Cohen has put a career’s worth of thought into this framework for interpreting the scientific revolution. A Chinese translation of The Scientific Revolution appeared in 2012 with an appended postscript, surveying fourteen books on the scientific revolution that have appeared since (Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution [1996]; John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science [1997]; Rienk Vermij’s De wetenschappelike revolutie [1999]; James R. Jacob’s The Scientific Revolution: Aspirations and Achievements, 1500-1700 [1999]; Michel Blay’s La naissance de la science classique au  XVII e  siècle [1999]; Paolo Rossi’s The Birth of Modern Science [2000]; Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1700 [2001]; Wilbur Applebaum’s Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton [2000] and his The Scientific Revolution and the Foundations of Modern Science [2005]; Marcus Hellyer’s The Scientific Revolution: The Essential Readings [2003]; Margaret J. Osler’s Reconfiguring the World: Nature, God, and Human Understanding from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Europe [2010]; and finally Lawrence M. Principe’s The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction [2011]).

Cohen - How Modern Science Came Into the WorldIn this postscript Cohen also explains how he first gained new insights that helped him “reconceptualize” the scientific revolution, leading him to his most recent work, How Modern Science Came Into the World (2010). In this work Cohen utilizes his skills as a comparative historian to identify six transformations that, taken together, answers the perennial questions: How did modern science begin? Why did it begin in Europe? How was its development in the seventeenth century able to be sustained? According to Cohen, the transformations began with separate advents of “realist-mathematical” science and “kinetic-corpuscularian” natural philosophy, culminating in the Newtonian synthesis.

What Cohen attempts to account for is not simply the unique circumstances that brought about the scientific revolution, but why an event sufficiently like the scientific revolution did not happen in other cultures that seem to him to have been likely candidates: Han and then Sung China, Medieval Islam, high Medieval Europe, and Renaissance Europe.

Cohen’s general thesis is that the potential for the scientific revolution existed in Greek antiquity but was not realized until the seventeenth century when two traditions came together with a third to produce what we call modern science. Two traditions in classical antiquity existed side by side but did not interact. The first tradition reflects the speculative natural philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicurean skepticism. The second was based in “mixed and pure mathematics,” such as mechanics, astronomy, and conic sections. This tradition consisted of the mathematical studies of nature that developed slightly later within the Hellenistic realm: Euclid’s geometry, Archimedes’ statics, Hipparchus’s and Ptolemy’s astronomy. Cohen knits these complex traditions into two board categories: “Athens” and the latter “Alexandria,” after their place of origin and cultural locus.

Cohen weaves a story of these two traditions, recounting the failures of Athens, Alexandria, early medieval China, early medieval Islam, and medieval and Renaissance Europe to realize the potential scientific revolution latent in these intellectual traditions. Each cultural transplantation produced an initial flourishing of intellectual activity and innovation that was slowly replaced by a reversion to traditional authorities. This he labels the “boom-bust” pattern, first coined in Joseph Ben-David’s The Scientist’s Role in Society: A Comparative Study (1971).

But in a series of cultural transformations occurring in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Europe, a way was finally paved for the proper scientific revolution. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, Cohen contends, is the result of the successful merging of the two traditions. It also required the rise of a new, peculiarly European, “fact-finding experimentalism” whose origins lie in exploration, mining, and commerce. As it was more “interventionist,” and “oriented toward control and domination,” Cohen terms this intellectual trend “coercive empiricism.” Together these produced the type of mathematical-empirical “nature knowledge” that we recognize today as modern science.

This truncated description of Cohen’s work cannot do justice to his subtle comparative analysis and complexly layered inquiry dispersed throughout his work. His massive text—much like Gaukroger’s—must be read slowly, patiently and sympathetically, to fully appreciate the narrative he constructs. Be that as it may, I briefly turn to some difficulties with Cohen’s narrative, his comments to Gaukroger’s essay, and Gaukroger’s reply in turn.

Gaukroger’s work certainly handles more detail than even Cohen does, including more on contextual issues in intellectual history. They also display an unremitting brilliance of conceptual analysis, unfolding a profound explanatory narrative about the shifting tenor and ultimate fate of holistic natural philosophy and the modes of emergence of more narrow mathematicised, experimental or natural historical fields of natural inquiry. But unlike Cohen, Gaukroger does not undertake the examination of seventeenth century natural philosophy and sciences in structured comparison to the regimes of natural knowledge of classical Athens, Hellenistic Alexandria, early medieval China, early medieval Islam, and medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Huff - The Rise of Early Modern ScienceIn that sense Cohen’s work is better compared to Toby Huff’s The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West (1993) or his more recent Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective (2011). Both of Huff’s books are informed by neo-Weberian comparative macro-history and sociology. Cohen, in contrast, eschews such explicit conceptual framing from, or direct application of social science, especially from any species of micro-sociology of science dynamics, despite the rich heuristic services they can provide. However, Cohen makes excellent use of a controlled, historically sensitive application of Weber’s comparative sociology of religion (rather than the more narrow thesis on the rise of capitalism and the spirit of Protestantism). He does this in dealing with differences in the goals of nature-knowledge traditions and the values informing them in Islamic, Chinese and European civilization. In this regard Cohen’s work derives from the style and methods of the sort of large scale European social history in which he was trained and which he rightly admires—a history that deals with comparative revolutions, the broad history of European capitalism or the formation of states and the state system.

But Cohen demonstrates that he is a supremely equipped historian of science. Bringing these two disciplines together, Cohen stands apart from his competitors in his effort to both broadly and thickly narrate the course of the scientific revolution. Hence, in the end, he is more concerned than either Gaukroger or Huff with a tight, definitive explanation of the process of change in European structures of nature–knowledge between 1550 and 1750.

But perhaps this is also his greatest apparent pitfall. Some critics have argued that Cohen’s narrative is teleological—the suspicion that the original Athens and Alexandria somehow contained in potential the essence of later modern science, awaiting only suitable socio-cognitive conditions in which to be actualized through unfolding of a foreordained process.

The assumption that modern science lay in potential within Greek thought, waiting for the proper conditions to unfurl, Gaukorger argues in his reply, “simply does not make for good historiography.” The reduction of the complex—and extremely contingent—way in which the concept of universal gravitation was formed in the late seventeenth century to a “derivation” from Kepler and Galileo is one particular example of its futility. A more general example is Cohen’s analyses of other cultures’ failure to produce or maintain a “realist-mathematical science.”

Although Cohen underscores the contingency that ultimately resulted in Newton’s synthesis, he is not advancing a historicist argument. “He does not seek to understand what scholars in the ancient world, medieval China, medieval Islam, or medieval Europe were trying to do when they investigated the natural world using the tools they had developed. Instead, he treats science as perennial project aimed at articulating a mathematical-physical theory of the natural world.” Consequently, Cohen’s book is structured around a genealogical narrative that identifies the key characteristics of modern science and searches back in time to find their immature antecedents.

Each of his cultures—Athens, Alexandria, medieval China, medieval Islam, and medieval Europe—perhaps tried but ultimately failed to cultivate the seeds of science. Thus it is legitimate to ask: To what extent were these different cultures interested in the same intellectual activity that ultimately developed in the seventeenth century? “Can we assume,” Gaukroger asks, “that when an ancient Greek observed the stars, a Muslim scholar mapped the constellations, a Chinese scholar recorded sun spots, and a medieval European scholar witnessed a comet they were all engaged in a similar project to understand that natural world?” “To what extent,” he goes on, “were scholars in the seventeenth century merely reviving or extending the intellectual traditions they inherited?” In other words, how and why did the sets of questions, the resources used to answer those questions, and the criteria by which the answers were assessed change in each period and culture?

Cohen ultimately concludes that what served to legitimate the new modes of investigating nature rested not an actual, practical accomplishments, but in a leap of faith in the power of a newly emerging science, which became embodied in what he terms “the Baconian ideology.” By “faith” Cohen means a “confidence in what practitioners of the new science could do to improve human destiny” and—and this is where he is in agreement with Gaukroger—”as a Christian conviction that in doing so they were fulfilling a divine calling.”

Gaukroger concludes that he is not a “continuist.” The key for him is not to uncover some underlying story but to bring together two different sets of issues— the emergence of a scientific culture in the development of a viable physical theory— and explore how they interact. This exploration led him to develop an account of the “persona of the natural philosopher,” something that has no place in the kind of linear account that Cohen offers. In his account changes in the self-image of the natural philosopher in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are crucial. Indeed, Guakroger argues that his reading is more discontinuous than that offered by Cohen. He rejects Cohen’s account because it “implies a kind of teleology that strikes one as question begging: as if everyone, from antiquity onward, were ultimately aiming at the same thing.”

Gaukroger agrees that there is a need for big history but “you can’t do it without having done a significant amount of detailed micro-history; both need to be combined in a work.” Ultimately, however, “if you don’t think explicitly about big history, you are condemned to making all kinds of assumptions that may be unfruitful, counterproductive, or just plain ignorant.”