It 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. Since it changed the character of men’s habitual mental operations even in the conduct of the nonmaterial sciences, while transforming the whole diagram of the physical universe and the very texture of human life itself, it looms so large as the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality that our customary periodization of European history has become an anachronism and an encumbrance.

So wrote British historian Herbert Butterfield in 1949, when he popularized the notion that a “scientific revolution” had occurred in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his view, this revolution was the single most important set of events to shape the modern world.

In the half century since Butterfield’s call to attend to the importance of the scientific revolution, specialized historians of science have dramatically reinterpreted its character in several aspects.

· We have come to realize that it was much more closely linked to features of medieval Christendom and to both the Renaissance and the Reformation than Butterfield imagined.

· We now see it less as the result of a few intellectuals “picking up the other end of the stick,” as Butterfield phrased it, than as the outcome of social processes and practices (such as printing) that crossed class boundaries and led to many competing ways of understanding the world.

· Finally, we find that it was as much shaped by dramatic changes in the material and nonmaterial environments of early modern Europeans – such as the rise of commercial capitalism and the humanistic emphases of the Renaissance – as it was a shaper of subsequent attitudes and events.

Yet once crucial insight of Butterfield’s seems as true today as it did 50 years ago: The set of events referred to as the scientific revolution not only refashioned how early modern Europeans understood and related to the natural world but subsequently had an enormous effect on the creation of our modern material and mental worlds.

The Christian Humanist Legacy

One of the most pervasive features of modernity is a threefold set of assumptions: 1) the natural world is rationally structured; 2) human beings can gain knowledge of that structure by applying their reason to information gathered through their senses; and 3) humans can and should use that knowledge to improve the circumstances of their lives. These use that knowledge to improve the circumstances of their lives. These use that knowledge to improve the circumstances of their lives. These assumptions came to dominate Western culture in connection with the theoretical and practical achievements of the scientific revolution, but key elements were appropriated from the Christian tradition.

According to the belief system of many religions, humans are understood to be incorporated within the natural order. But in Christian teachings, humanity stands outside that order and to some extent above it, by virtue of human likeness to the Divine and a special injunction from the Divine to subdue the earth and to “rule over . . . every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26-30).

Within medieval Christendom, intellectuals attach great importance to human rationality and its capacity to provide insights into the workings of the physical world, so as to illuminate the nature of the Divine. It was not until the Renaissance, however, that humanists shifted focus from the static life of contemplation to the dynamic life of action associated with ruling the earth. First in Northern Italy and then throughout Europe, scholars began to mirror the shift in social and economic leadership away from the military and landed aristocracy, whose ways of life were extremely stable, to a class of urban notables exemplified by the Medici’s and Albertis, whose growing fortunes derived from the dynamic domains of trade and commerce. The scholars re-emphasized the biblical injunction to subdue and rule, and they focused on knowledge that promised an element of human control over the natural world. . . .

Revolutionary Texts

It is common to date the beginning of the scientific revolution to 1543, when two pivotal texts appeared. The first of these was Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which shook up astronomy by proposing a Sun-centered universe to replace the long-held Earth-centered model advocated by Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus), the respected astronomer of second-century Alexandria. The second was Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), which challenged several established views of human anatomy that derived from Galen, a second-century Greek physician. For instance, Vesalius’ observations led him to suggest that, contrary to Galen’s view, blood could not pass from one side of the heart to the other through the septum – the wall between the left and right sides.

These two texts radically changed the ways by which astronomy and anatomy were done. But Copernicus and Vesalius may have scarcely considered themselves revolutionaries. In fact, each was acting as a good humanist scholar, responding to severe problems in his discipline by seeking help in the pure and uncorrupted texts of antiquity.

As Copernicus reflected on the growing disparities between observed solar and planetary positions and those calculated using Ptolemaic theory, he searched the ancient literature and discovered that some writers, including Cicero (the Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher), had assumed the Earth moved around the Sun rather than vice versa. Even more important from a technical standpoint, he found that the early Greek astronomer Hipparchus had measured the constant year in terms of successive passages of the Sun past a given star – what we would call the sidereal year. On the other hand, Ptolemy had measured the constant year as the interval between one vernal equinox (the first day of spring, when day and night are equally long) and the next – a period we call the solar year. Copernicus’ great work was, in effect, a reworking of Ptolemaic astronomy using Hipparchus’ assumption regarding the constant year; one major consequence of that reworking was the necessary of viewing Earth as revolving around the Sun.

The case of Vesalius’ revolution in anatomy was only slightly different. Galen’s work, De Anatomicus Administrationibus (On Anatomical Procedures), had emphasized the importance of direct observation of the structure of the human body rather than acceptance of any textual authority. But this text was unknown to the West until it was recovered and translated from the Greek by Vesalius’ teacher, Gunther von Andernach, in 1539. Vesalius then began to study it and to uncover Galen’s errors, many of which had occurred because Galen used apes for dissection when human cadavers were difficult to get. In his great work of 1543, Vesalius followed Galen’s text chapter by chapter, correcting errors while reemphasizing Galen’s original admonition to learn anatomy by direct observations of the body.

Galen on Anatomical Procedures: The Later Books (Cambridge Library Collection – Cambridge)
Galen On Anatomical Procedures: Translation of the Surviving Books with Introduction and Notes

The Institutional Milieu

Until relatively recently, students of the scientific revolution argued that one of its central features was the movement of science out of the religiously dominated universities, which were thought to have been intellectual backwaters, and into the new context of secular, government-sponsored organizations such as the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge (chartered in 1662) and the Parisian Academie des Sciences (established by [French politician Jean-Batiste] Colbert in 1666). Around the same time, the dissemination of scientific knowledge was transformed through establishment of the first scientific journals: the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (in 1665) and the Journal des Savants of the Parisian Academie (in 1666).

Although learned societies did emerge as centers of scientific activity and (especially on the Continent) received government support in return for their technical advice to the state, older institutions remained extremely important centers of intellectual vitality. Advances in anatomy and physiology, for example, continued to be made primarily at universities. It should be noted, though, that William Harvey’s experimental demonstration (in the early seventeenth century) that the heart serves as a pump that circulates blood through the body was presented in lectures to the Royal College of Physicians, an honorary society in London.

In both applied mathematics and experimental natural philosophy (the term used for much of experimental science), the network of Jesuit colleges played a particularly important role through the seventeenth century, contrary to the general and largely false impressions that the Catholic Church was implacably hostile to science. The Jesuit order was wealthy enough to purchase scientific instruments that were beyond the reach of most scientists and many universities. Moreover, beginning in the 1560s, it developed the first institutional support for positions in which distinguished scholars were relieved of their teaching duties and allowed to devote their efforts to research and publishing for periods of up to six years.

Another major focus of scientific activity throughout the sixteenth century and much of the seventeenth was the individual aristocratic court, which often supported intellectuals partly for their services and partly for fame and glory. Near the beginning of the seventeenth century, for example, the court of Emperor Rudolph at Prague employed Tyco Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Joost Burgi. Tycho’s precise measurements of planetary positions forced a reconsideration of the Copernican assumption that planets move in circular orbits. Using Tycho’s observations, Kepler formulated a new theory, according to which each planet moves in an elliptical orbit with the Sun at one focus. Burgi, a mathematician and maker of spectacular astronomical clocks, invented logarithms to ease Kepler’s calculations. And Burgi’s clocks stimulated Kepler to think of the universe in the likeness of a clock rather than a living being – a central concept for the creation of Kepler’s revolutionary theory.

Johannes Kepler: Discovering the Laws of Celestial Motion (Great Scientists)

One important group of scientist was supported by the Cavendish family in England, where philosopher Thomas Hobbes was the center of a group that included Lady Margaret Cavendish, one of the first women to publish on scientific subjects. Another group was supported by the Medici family in Florence, where Evangelista Torricelli, Giovanni Borelli, Francesco Redi, and several others did experimental work on heat and atmospheric pressure, using their new inventions such as the thermometer and barometer.

The Mechanical Philosophy

In terms of the cultural impact of the scientific revolution, one major feature was the growing pervasiveness of the so-called corpuscular or mechanical philosophy. In fact, this philosophy was formulated in several different versions, all of which shared the assumption that physical phenomena must be explained in terms of the impact of one body or particle upon another. In [German philosopher and mathematician] Gottfried Leibniz’s words, “A body is never moved naturally except by another body which touches it and pushes it; after that, it continues until it is prevented by another body which touches it. Any other kind of operation on bodies is either miraculous or imaginary.”

The mechanical philosophy in its various versions derived from two major sources. One was the atomic philosophy that ancient philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius had developed extensively. The other was the familiarity of scholars with engineered objects that increasingly dominate Europe’s urban landscape.

Rene Descartes and Robert Boyle stand out as the leading proponents of the mechanical philosophy’s “rationalist” and “empirical” versions, respectfully. Descartes’ interest grew out of a special concern with the rational structure of the world and with a mathematician’s fascination with the certainty of mathematical proof. Indeed, he had absorbed the ancient skeptic’s distrust of sensory experience and sought to develop scientific knowledge through the faculty of reason, as uncontaminated by empirical elements as possible. In a series of works – including the Discourse on Method (1637), Principles of Philosophy (1644), The Passions of the Soul (1649) and On Man (published posthumously in 1664) – Descartes sought to derive practically all phenomena from basic assumptions about the properties of matter. In so doing, he concluded that everything in nature is mechanical. While Descartes continued to believe in an immaterial human soul, other rationalist mechanical philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes, advocated a complete mechanical materialism in which even human thought was mechanically explained.

ew experiments physico-mechanicall, touching the spring of the air, and its effects (made in a new pneumatical engine): written by way of letter to … eldest son to the Earl of Corke (1660)

Unlike Descartes, who was confident that the world was rationally explicable and that his mind was capable of explaining it, Boyle was convinced that God’s choices in creating the universe were ultimately unconstrained and therefore inexplicable. In Boyle’s view, experiential and experimental interrogation of nature was an important means to understand how God chose to structure the universe; however, one could not anticipate in advance how He chose to make things work. Initially, Boyle’s empiricist emphasis led him into alchemical studies, but his experiments with air convinced him to take a corpuscular (or mechanical) view of matter. In 1660, his New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and Its Effects appeared, describing the results of many experiments carried out with his newly invented air pump. Two years later, he announced his famous experimental result, known as Boyle’s law: At a given temperature, the volume of gas is inversely proportional to its pressure.

Competing Approaches to Knowledge

Coexistence of the rationalist and empiricist versions of mechanical philosophy illustrates that the scientific revolution involved competing approaches to scientific knowledge. In addition, a number of alternative philosophies vied for attention and influence. One of these eventually had a greater impact on modern scientific practice than the mechanical philosophy did.

First, there was a revived and revitalized Aristotelian tradition that emphasized observational and contemplative means of understanding nature. This tradition was especially important among Catholic scholars and particularly fruitful in medicine and natural history, but it was bitterly attacked by those who favored more aggressive experimental and applied approaches . . . .

Second, there was the Hermetic/Neoplatonic tradition that emphasized the “occult” or hidden connections among phenomena and posited a life force in all of nature. This tradition, through it manifestations in alchemy and “natural magic,” was important in the early growth of empirical approaches in the search for natural knowledge. By the end of the seventeenth century, it was on the wane, but such major figures as Isaac Newton continued to take it seriously.

Finally, there was an approach to natural knowledge that sought descriptive mathematical laws of nature an abandoned the traditional search for causal accounts of phenomena. This position is most often associated with Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, for it played a major role in their most spectacular successes . . . .

This approach can be found in Galileo’s Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations concerning Two New Sciences (1638), in which he showed that when a body at rest near Earth’s surface is made to fall freely, the distance fallen is proportional to the square of the time of fall. Here he openly acknowledged his inability to explain the cause. Similarly, in a paper published in 1672, Newton demonstrated that white light is composed of light of all colors of the spectrum, each color being bent to a different extent when it strikes a prism’s surface; but he admitted that he did not know why. And his masterpiece, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) (1687), Newton articulated the law of universal gravitation – that every particle of matter in the universe attracted every other particle with a force that was proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the distance separating the particles. Here again, Newton admitted being unable to discover why this was so, and he refused to speculate about the cause.

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Modern Library Science)

Newton expended great efforts in trying to devise a mechanical explanation for gravity. In the “Queries” to various editions of his Opticks (first published in 1704), he sought to give causal accounts for numerous optical, chemical, and physical phenomena. But Newton was careful to distinguish between what he considered as having been demonstrated – such as the law of gravity and the composition of white light – and what he considered as merely conjectural until it could, perhaps, be demonstrated.

A Cultural Transformation

One major consequence of the scientific revolution was the transformation of almost all premodern, commonsense notions about the character of the natural world. For example:

  • Before the scientific revolution, people believed that Earth was at the center or bottom of the universe, at the maximum distance from God, Who resided in the empyrean above the stars. Afterward, they understood they lived on one planet among others circling the Sun, which was one star among an uncountable number.
  • Before the scientific revolution, all living things were thought to have souls that allowed them to be self-moving. Afterward, the bodies of living things were considered by many scientists as complicated mechanical devices that moved only in response to external stimuli.
  • Before the scientific revolution, people naturally thought that the speed of an object was proportional to the force acting on it. Afterward, they understood that it was the acceleration of an object that was proportional to the force.

A second consequence of the scientific revolution was a dramatic transformation in the material conditions of the lives of nearly every person in the Western world. When Butterfield wrote about it in 1949, scholars generally held the opinion that scientific knowledge did not lead to significant changes in medical care, agriculture, and industrial productivity until well into the nineteenth century. But this view has been radically revised . . . . It now seems clear that scientific attitudes, practices, and knowledge greatly stimulated agricultural and commercial growth as early as the seventeenth century. They certainly fueled the Industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century, and that revolution provided the foundation for the unprecedented wealth of modern Western Europe and North America.

Finally, the scientific revolution was immensely important in transforming Western views of the character of society and the human individual. Methods of observation, analysis, and quantification developed in connection with natural knowledge were almost immediately an consciously transferred to the domains of society and individual human behavior. Thus in 1644, Hobbes produced a major transformation in political philosophy, claiming that he was doing for “civil philosophy” nothing but what Galileo had done for natural philosophy and Harvey had done for the science of man’s body. Drawing heavily on rational mechanical philosophy, Hobbes initiated a tradition of liberal, individualistic, secular, and sociopolitical theory that has dominated Anglo-American ideology ever since.

A few decades later, John Locke began to apply the conceptual apparatus developed in connection with experimental mechanical philosophy to issues in what we now call psychology and moral philosophy as well. William Petty and his British and French followers drew form mechanical and mathematical concepts in creating “political arithmetic” – the foundation of modern economics – and grounded it in the assumption that each of us acts in such a way as to maximize our rationally calculated self-interest. And [seventeenth-century English political theorist] James Harrington responded to Hobbes’ political theory by initiating social analyses that began to identify political authority with economic power.

Natural Law, Religion, and Rights: An Exploration of the Relationship Between Natural Law and Natural Rights, With Special Emphasis on the Teachings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

While these ideas, for better or worse, continue to underpin much of the Western view of self and society, our twentieth century . . . brought extraordinary revisions to established scientific concepts about nature, challenging the foundations of mechanical philosophies. From the work of such scientists as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Louis de Broglie, and Erwin Schrodinger emerged radical views: that energy does not flow like a continuous wave but takes the form of discrete units (quanta), that waves can behave like particles, and that particles can have the properties of waves. From Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, came the realization that matter and energy are interconvertible, and his General Theory of Relativity explained the phenomenon of gravity as a manifestation of the curvature of space. These concepts run contrary to the notions consolidated at the time of the scientific revolution, but acceptance of the new theories is grounded in the argument that they provide the best known explanations for experimental observations. Thus, the formula of establishing theory based on careful experimentation, which was so central to the scientific revolution, continues to guide scientific research in the modern world.


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