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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