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.
But 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 ; John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science ; Rienk Vermij’s De wetenschappelike revolutie ; James R. Jacob’s The Scientific Revolution: Aspirations and Achievements, 1500-1700 ; Michel Blay’s La naissance de la science classique au XVII e siècle ; Paolo Rossi’s The Birth of Modern Science ; Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1700 ; Wilbur Applebaum’s Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton  and his The Scientific Revolution and the Foundations of Modern Science ; Marcus Hellyer’s The Scientific Revolution: The Essential Readings ; Margaret J. Osler’s Reconfiguring the World: Nature, God, and Human Understanding from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Europe ; and finally Lawrence M. Principe’s The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction ).
In 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.
In 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.”