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University of Chicago Press
Scientific Revolution / Edition 2

Scientific Revolution / Edition 2

by Steven Shapin
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"There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it." With this provocative and apparently paradoxical claim, Steven Shapin begins his bold vibrant exploration of the origins of the modern scientific worldview.

"Shapin's account is informed, nuanced, and articulated with clarity. . . . This is not to attack or devalue science but to reveal its richness as the human endeavor that it most surely is. . . .Shapin's book is an impressive achievement."—David C. Lindberg, Science

"Shapin has used the crucial 17th century as a platform for presenting the power of science-studies approaches. At the same time, he has presented the period in fresh perspective."—Chronicle of Higher Education

"Timely and highly readable . . . A book which every scientist curious about our predecessors should read."—Trevor Pinch, New Scientist

"It's hard to believe that there could be a more accessible, informed or concise account of how it [the scientific revolution], and we have come to this. The Scientific Revolution should be a set text in all the disciplines. And in all the indisciplines, too."—Adam Phillips, London Review of Books

"Shapin's treatise on the currents that engendered modern science is a combination of history and philosophy of science for the interested and educated layperson."—Publishers Weekly

"Superlative, accessible, and engaging. . . . Absolute must-reading."—Robert S. Frey, Bridges

"This vibrant historical exploration of the origins of modern science argues that in the 1600s science emerged from a variety of beliefs, practices, and influences. . . . This history reminds us that diversity is part of any intellectual endeavor."—Choice

"Most readers will conclude that there was indeed something dramatic enough to be called the Scientific Revolution going on, and that this is an excellent book about it."—Anthony Gottlieb, The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226750217
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/28/1998
Series: science.culture Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 898,268
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Steven Shapin is the Franklin L. Ford Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. His books include Leviathan and the Air-Pump (with Simon Schaffer), A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, and The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation.

Read an Excerpt



The Scope of Knowledge and the Nature of Nature

Sometime between the end of 1610 and the middle of 1611 the Italian mathematician and natural philosopher Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) trained the newly invented telescope on the sun and observed dark spots, apparently on its surface. Galileo reported that the spots were irregularly shaped and varied from day to day in number and opacity (fig. 1). Moreover, they did not remain stationary but appeared to move regularly across the disk of the sun from west to east. He did not profess to know with any certainty what these spots were made of. They might be physical features of the solar surface; they might be something similar to earthly clouds; or they might be "vapors raised from the earth and attracted to the sun." But whereas other contemporary observers reckoned that the spots were small planets orbiting the sun at some considerable distance from it, Galileo was sure, based on calculations in mathematical optics, that they were "not at all distant from its surface, but are either contiguous to it or separated by an interval so small as to be quite imperceptible."

Not Galileo's observations of sunspots but his particular interpretation of those spots was widely taken as a serious challenge to the whole edifice of traditional natural philosophy as it had been handed down from Aristotle (384 — 322 B.C.) and modified by the Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Galileo's views on 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. Orthodox thinking, from antiquity to Galileo's time, had it that the physical nature and principles of heavenly bodies differed in character from those that obtained on earth. The earth, and the region between the earth and the moon, were subject to familiar processes of change and decay. All motion here was rectilinear and discontinuous. But the sun, the stars, and the planets obeyed quite different physical principles. In their domains there was no change and no imperfection. Heavenly bodies moved continuously and in circles, if they moved at all, uniform circular motion being the most perfect form possible. These are the reasons orthodox thinking located comets either in the earth's atmosphere or at least below the moon: these irregularly moving ephemeral bodies were just the sort of things that could not belong to the heavens. And though asserting the mutability of the heavens was not unknown in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Aristotelian circles, making such a claim still strongly retained its status as a challenge to orthodoxy.

Within that orthodox framework the sun could not conceivably have spots or blemishes. Galileo was well aware of the sort of a priori reasoning that inferred from the traditionally accepted belief that the sun was immaculately and immutably perfect to the conclusion that the spots could not be on the solar surface. He argued against an Aristotelian opponent that it was simply illegitimate to take the sun's perfection as an undoubted premise in physical argument. Instead, we must move from what Galileo took as the observationally well supported fact that the spots were on the sun's surface to the conclusion that there might be as much imperfection in the heavens as on the earth:

It proves nothing to say ... that it is unbelievable for dark spots to exist in the sun because the sun is a most lucid body. So long as men were in fact obliged to call the sun "most pure and most lucid," no shadows or impurities whatever had been perceived in it; but now it shows itself to us as partly impure and spotty, why should we not call it "spotted and not pure"? For names and attributes must be accommodated to the essence of things, and not the essence to the names, since things come first and names afterwards.

This was identified as a new way of thinking about the natural world and about how one ought to secure reliable knowledge of that world. Galileo was setting himself against traditionally accepted belief about the fundamental structure of nature, and he was arguing that orthodox doctrine ought not to be taken for granted in physical reasoning but should be made subject to the findings of reliable observation and mathematically disciplined reasoning. So far as the possibilities of human knowledge were concerned, positions like Galileo's were profoundly optimistic. Like many others challenging ancient orthodoxy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Galileo was claiming that there existed not two sorts of natural knowledge, each appropriate to its proper physical domain, but only one universal knowledge. Moreover, by asserting the similarity of heavenly and terrestrial bodies, Galileo implied that studying the properties and motions of ordinary earthly bodies could afford understanding of what nature was like universally. It was not just that the imperfections and changeability of things on earth could be recruited as resources for understanding celestial phenomena; modern natural philosophers also claimed that earthly effects artificially produced by human beings could legitimately serve as tokens of how things were in nature. The motion of a cannonball could serve as a model for the motion of Venus.

Optimism about the possible scope of human knowledge was fueled by the new natural objects that were continually being brought to Europeans' attention. When Hamlet told Horatio that there were "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," he was expressing sentiments similar to those of early modern natural philosophers challenging ancient orthodoxy. Traditional inventories of things that existed in the world were deemed to be illegitimately impoverished. What grounds were there for crediting ancient limits on the stock of factual knowledge? Every day new phenomena presented themselves about which the ancient texts were silent. Travelers from the New Worlds to east and west brought back plants, animals, and minerals that had no counterparts in European experience, and tales of still more. Sir Walter Raleigh protested to stay-at-home skeptics that "there are stranger things to be seen in the world than are contained between London and Staines." From the early seventeenth century, observers using telescopes and microscopes claimed to reveal the limits of unassisted human senses and suggested that revelation of even more details and more marvels only awaited improved instruments. New and altered intellectual practices probed back in natural and human history and advanced claims to reliable knowledge about things no living person had witnessed. Newly observed entities that posed uncomfortable problems for existing philosophical systems were seized on by those eager to discomfit orthodox theorists. Who could confidently say what did and did not exist in the world when tomorrow might reveal as yet undreamed-of inhabitants in the domains of the very distant and the very small?

In 1620 the English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) published a text called Instauratio magna (The Great Instauration). The title itself promised a renovation of ancient authority, while the engraved title page was one of the most vivid iconographical statements of new optimism about the possibilities and the extent of scientific knowledge (fig. 2). A ship representing learning is shown sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules — the Straits of Gibraltar that customarily symbolized the limits of human knowledge. Below the engraving is a prophetic quotation from the biblical Book of Daniel — "Many shall pass to and fro, and science shall be increased" — and Bacon later explained that the modern world had seen the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy when "the opening of the world by navigation and commerce and the further discovery of knowledge should meet in one time and place." The traditional expression of the limits on knowledge, ne plus ultra — "no farther" — was defiantly replaced with the modern plus ultra — "farther yet." The renovation of natural knowledge followed the enlargement of the natural world yet to be known. Practitioners of a mind to do so could use newly discovered entities and phenomena to radically unsettle existing philosophical schemes.

The Challenge to a Human-Centered Universe

Much of Galileo's astronomical and physical research in the early seventeenth century was undertaken to lend credibility to a new physical model of the cosmos that had first been published in 1543 by the Polish prelate Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) (fig. 3). Until the middle of the sixteenth century no scholar in the Latin West had seriously and systematically questioned the system of Claudius Ptolemy (ca. A.D. 100–170) that placed an immobile earth at the center of the universe, with the planets, as well as the moon and the sun, orbiting in circles around the earth, each carried about on a physically real sphere (fig. 4). Farther out was the sphere that carried the fixed stars, and beyond that the sphere whose rotation caused the circular movement of the whole celestial system.

Ptolemy's geocentric system incorporated Greek views of the nature of matter. Each of the four "elements" — earth, water, air, and fire — had its "natural place," and when it was at that place it was at rest. To be sure, all bodies we actually encounter on earth are not elementally pure, but what appears earthy has earth as a predominant element, the air we breathe has elemental air as its primary constituent, and so on. Earth and water are heavy elements, and they can be at rest only when they are at the center of the cosmos. Air and fire have a tendency to rise, and their proper spheres are above the earth. But heavenly bodies, including sun, stars, and planets, were made of a fifth element — the "quintessence" or "ether" — that was an incorruptible sort of matter, subject to different physical principles. So while earth tends to fall until it reaches the center of the universe, and air and fire tend to rise, the heavens and heavenly bodies naturally tend to move in perfect circles, and the stuff of which they are made is itself perfect and immutable.

The cosmos thus spun about the earth, the place where human beings lived, and in just that sense pre-Copernican cosmology was literally anthropocentric. Yet that quite special place did not necessarily connote special virtue. Although human beings, and their earthly environment, were understood to be the unique creations of the Judeo-Christian God, compared with the heavens and a heavenly afterlife the earth and earthly existence were regarded as miserable and corrupt, and the actual center of the cosmos was hell. In the late sixteenth century the French essayist and skeptic Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) — still accepting the Ptolemaic system — described the place where humans dwelled as "the filth and mire of the world, the worst, lowest, most lifeless part of the universe, the bottom story of the house." And even as late as 1640 an English supporter of Copernicanism recognized that a powerful current argument against heliocentrism proceeded from "the vileness of our earth, because it consists of a more sordid and base matter than any other part of the world; and therefore must be situated in the centre, and at the greatest distance from those purer incorruptible bodies, the heavens." Moreover, after Adam's and Eve's original sin and expulsion from Eden, human senses had been defiled, and the possibilities of human knowledge were understood to be severely limited. On the one hand, traditional thinking considered that the world in which humans spent their mortal lives — the world that was at the center of the universe — was uniquely changeable and imperfect; on the other hand, the scope and quality of the knowledge humans might attain were restricted.

The late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century natural philosophers who espoused and developed Copernicus's views attacked this anthropocentrism in fundamental ways. The earth was no longer at the center of the universe. Lifted into the heavens, it became merely one of the planets orbiting the sun, and in that quite literal physical sense, anthropocentrism was rejected. The human experience of inhabiting a static platform, diurnally circled by sun and stars that were subject to their own annual motions, was denied. If common sense testified to the earth's stability, this new astronomy spoke of its double motion, daily about its axis and annually about the now static sun. Common experience was here identified as but "appearance." If common sense expected that such motions, were they real, would cause people to hold onto their hats in the resulting wind or fall off the earth, then so much the worse for common sense. And if stones thrown straight upward tended to fall back to earth at the point they started from, then a new, noncommonsensical physics would be needed to show why this should happen on a moving earth. The earth's position in the universe was no longer unique. Some Copernicans even reckoned that this loss of uniqueness extended to the possibility that there were other inhabited globes and other types of humans, and in 1638 the English mathematician John Wilkins (1614–72) published a tract "to Prove that 'tis Probable there may be another habitable World" in the moon.

And if common human perception saw the earth canopied by a hemisphere of star-laden heavens, modern astronomers' accounts enormously extended the scale of the cosmos. When Galileo turned his telescope to the stars he saw vastly larger numbers than were observable with the naked eye. To the three previously known stars in Orion's belt Galileo now added about eighty more (fig. 5). Some nebulous stars now were resolved into little Milky Ways. Galileo also noticed that, compared with the moon and the planets, stars did not appear to be much enlarged by the telescope. It was thus possible, though Galileo himself was reticent on the point, that the stars might be immensely far away. Such a view supported the Copernican system by accounting for the absence of parallax that might otherwise be expected from a moving earth. Galileo's dramatic discovery of moons around Jupiter was used to give further credibility to the Copernican system, since the earth-moon relationship was no longer unique.

Traditional astronomy tended to posit a finite universe, each heavenly sphere revolving about the static earth and the whole of the heavens rotating once in twenty-four hours. In this system the stars could not be infinitely far away, for if they were, the sphere that carried them would have to move infinitely fast, and that was reckoned to be physically absurd. By contrast, Copernicus considered that the stars were fixed in space, and though he himself had insisted only that they were very far away, there was no longer any physical reason why the stars could not be infinitely removed. Some later advocates of the Copernican system did in fact stipulate that the sphere of the stars was "fixed infinitely up." So although the idea of an infinite universe had been broached in antiquity and though even several Copernicans bridled at it, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the first periods in European culture when cosmic infinity seriously challenged the more comfortable dimensions of common experience. Human beings might occupy just a speck of dust in a universe of unimaginable size. And though many expert astronomers saw no reason for anxiety in the notion of an infinite cosmos (some even celebrating its sublimity), the same was not necessarily true for members of the educated laity. Unease in the face of infinity, of shaken systems of traditional cosmological knowledge, and of the decentering of the earth was widely expressed, nowhere more eloquently than it was in 1611 by the English cleric and poet John Donne:

And New Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sun is lost, and th' earth, and no man's wit Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the Planets and the Firmament They seek so many new; then see that this Is crumbled out again to his Atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation.

And in France the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–62) famously identified the morally disorienting effects of the idea of infinite space: "Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraye."

The new philosophy assaulted common sense at a mundane as well as a cosmic level. Consider the general treatment of motion in Aristotelian and "modern" physics. For Aristotle, and for those medieval and early modern philosophers who followed him, the elements of earth, water, air, and fire each had its "natural motion," the way it was "in its nature" to move. As we have seen, for the element of earth the natural motion was to descend in a straight line toward the center of the earth, and this it will do unless the earthy body encounters either an obstacle that blocks its path or a push that acts on it in another direction. Natural motion tends toward natural place. Aristotle was, of course, well aware that all sorts of nonrectilinear motions occurred. These were called "violent motions," motions against the nature of a body, to be accounted for by the action of external forces, such as might be imposed on a stone by a person's throwing it upward or parallel to the ground. But we cannot learn about natural motions by considering those motions artifically forced on a body.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Photo Credits
1. What Was Known?
2. How Was It Known?
3. What Was the Knowledge For?
Bibliographic Essay

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