Our Pervasive Stories about Science
In 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.”