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How Modern Science Came into the World

How Modern Science Came into the World: Four Civilizations, One 17th-Century Breakthrough

H. Floris Cohen
Copyright Date: 2010
https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt45kddd
Pages: 832
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt45kddd
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  • Book Info
    How Modern Science Came into the World
    Book Description:

    Once upon a time 'The Scientific Revolution of the 17th century' was an innovative concept that inspired a stimulating narrative of how modern science came into the world. Half a century later, what we now know as 'the master narrative' serves rather as a strait-jacket - so often events and contexts just fail to fit in. No attempt has been made so far to replace the master narrative. H. Floris Cohen now comes up with precisely such a replacement. Key to his path-breaking analysis-cum-narrative is a vision of the Scientific Revolution as made up of six distinct yet narrowly interconnected, revolutionary transformations, each of some twenty-five to thirty years' duration. This vision enables him to explain how modern science could come about in Europe rather than in Greece, China, or the Islamic world. It also enables him to explain how half-way into the 17th century a vast crisis of legitimacy could arise and, in the end, be overcome. Building forth on his earlier The Scientific Revolution. A Historiographical Inquiry (1994), his new book takes the latest researches duly into account, while connecting these in highly innovative ways. It is meant throughout as a constructive effort to break up all-too-deeply frozen patterns of thinking about the history of science. Blurbs "In this provocative, comparative treatment of a classic moment in the history of science Floris Cohen brilliantly challenges current narratives." --Robert S. Westman, University of California, San Diego For the most part, historians spend their energy trying to explain military conquests, the succession of governments, religious or ideological movements, or social and economic change. What they miss (or avoid?), however, is surely more significant than any of these things for an understanding of world history. Historians have completely failed to explain why science, which largely characterizes modern world civilization, emerged in Western Europe in the Renaissance, after having failed to establish itself earlier and in other civilizations (most notably in Ancient Greece, China, Islam, and medieval Christendom). In this very important book, Floris Cohen finally and comprehensively provides an answer to this enduring historical mystery. In so doing, he also provides a definitive account of the so-called Scientific Revolution, and shows why it really was revolutionary."- "This supremely important book will become indispensable reading for anyone interested in how the modern world became the way it is. By comprehensively explaining the rise of science, and its why, where and when, Floris Cohen has solved, dazzlingly, one of the most pressing problems in world history." --John Henry, University of Edinburgh This title is available in the OAPEN Library - http://www.oapen.org.

    eISBN: 978-90-485-1273-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. PROLOGUE: SOLVING THE PROBLEM OF THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
    (pp. XV-XL)

    Around 1600 the pursuit of nature-knowledge was radically transformed. This happened in Europe over the course of a few decades, and our modern science is what grew out of the event. The transformation and its immediate aftermath have for quite some time been known as the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. In a book published in 1994,The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry, I subjected to critical scrutiny some sixty views on the event selected from the vast literature for their boldly creative, interpretive sweep. I now present my own view. It has taken shape in critical dialogue with...

  2. PART I NATURE-KNOWLEDGE IN TRADITIONAL SOCIETY

    • I GREEK FOUNDATIONS, CHINESE CONTRASTS
      (pp. 3-52)

      The ‘Old World’, not our familiar modern world, is what I shall address. The various modes of nature-knowledge that constitute our subject emerged and were transformed long before our modern world came into being. The modern world did not begin to take shape until the 19th century, induced in good part by a new kind of technology based in its turn upon nature-knowledge of a radically new kind – recognizably modern science.

      In the Old World things were done by tradition. Practices of the previous generation were passed on largely unchanged to the next. But for the effects of large-scale war...

    • II GREEK NATURE-KNOWLEDGE TRANSPLANTED: THE ISLAMIC WORLD
      (pp. 53-76)

      Three questions govern the account that follows of nature-knowledge in Islamic civilization. What happened to Athenian natural philosophy and Alexandrian mathematical science, and to the vast gap between them? To what, if any, extent did Islamic civilization conform to the pattern of upswing and downturn that characterized the Greek case? And to what extent was the body of nature-knowledge that was transplanted also transformed thereby?

      Underlying the latter question is the claim that, for transformation to occur at all, transplantation is a fundamental precondition. That claim is paradoxically confirmed by the case of Byzantium, which I shall address first.

      Portions...

    • III GREEK NATURE-KNOWLEDGE TRANSPLANTED IN PART: MEDIEVAL EUROPE
      (pp. 77-98)

      On the move from his birthplace in Cremona, a wandering scholar by the name of Gerard settled down in recently reconquered Toledo in or about 1140 and translated from Arabic into Latin, first, theAlmagestand then, over four decades, seventy more works of Greek or ‘Islamic’ provenance. Until then, nature-knowledge in medieval Europe had been confined to texts stemming from the effort at simplified translation of selected portions of the Greek corpus that had been undertaken from Cicero to Boethius (p. 31). These texts survived in the few centers of learning that managed to hold their own in Western...

    • IV GREEK NATURE-KNOWLEDGE TRANSPLANTED, AND MORE: RENAISSANCE EUROPE
      (pp. 99-156)

      When in 1453 Byzantium fell to Sultan Mehmet II, vast numbers of manuscripts in Greek philosophy and mathematical science were mobilized. Ottoman scholars, focused as they were on the Golden Age of Islamic nature-knowledge, did not regard the presence of these texts as an opportunity. But Italian scholars did. In Florence and Rome a movement of renewal in arts and literature was already under way. I follow convention and refer to this movement as the ‘Renaissance’, and to the scholars who contributed to it as ‘humanists’. They perceived a major difference between their own outlook and what they contemptuously referred...

  3. PART II THREE REVOLUTIONARY TRANSFORMATIONS

    • V THE FIRST TRANSFORMATION: REALIST-MATHEMATICAL SCIENCE
      (pp. 159-220)

      The unpredictable event to set the first of three revolutionary transformations in motion was that around 1600 the Copernican hypothesis began to catch on.

      True, to a limited extent it had caught on during the previous half-century already. Between 1543 and 1600, numerous practitioners who did not take seriously the realist core Copernicus had intended for his hypothesis (p. 108), exploited it for computational purposes. Over the same period, a dozen men went so far as to adopt it as a real representation of the world. Some of the dozen were well-informed about astronomical issues inside a context of other,...

    • VI THE SECOND TRANSFORMATION: A KINETIC-CORPUSCULARIAN PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE
      (pp. 221-244)

      In 1618, in Breda (the Netherlands) a momentous encounter took place. Isaac Beeckman, then thirty years old, was a candle-maker, graduated theologian, and spare-time philosopher of nature. He lived in Middelburg but had come to Breda for courtship. René Descartes, twenty-two years old, was in garrison there as a soldier in the army of Prince Maurits. When the two met, they congratulated each other on their rare, shared capacity to “join physics with mathematics”, an activity they then pursued together for several months.¹²² They did not attach quite the same meaning to the expression, however. For the young Descartes it...

    • VII THE THIRD TRANSFORMATION: TO FIND FACTS THROUGH EXPERIMENT
      (pp. 245-270)

      The recovery and ongoing enrichment of the Greek corpus in both mathematical science and natural philosophy that took place in Renaissance Europe were accompanied by a specific coloring around its edges (p. 113). On a far larger scale than in either Islamic civilization or medieval Europe certain subjects were pursued in ways marked by the culture, leading to a specifically control-oriented mode of empiricism that reflected specifically European drives and values. During the late 15th and the 16th centuries, an urge for accurate, factual description and a search for ways and means to blend understanding with action in the sense...

    • VIII CONCURRENCE EXPLAINED
      (pp. 271-280)

      The core explanation, applicable to each of the three initial revolutionary transformations alike, is the realization of hitherto-unperceived potentiality. Realist-mathematical science rested as a hidden potentiality in the Alexandrian corpus; so did kinetic corpuscularianism in the Athenian corpus; so did fact-finding experimentalism in Europe’s coercive-empiricist mode of nature-knowledge.

      It follows from this core explanation that none of these revolutionary transformations was bound to happen regardless. In each case the hidden possibility might conceivably have been realized before (in locally different fashion, to be sure) or later or not at all. But here already explanatory differences set in. Why the third...

    • IX PROSPECTS AROUND 1640
      (pp. 281-288)

      The pioneering stage of the Scientific Revolution may indeed be considered completed by the early 1640s. It is true that, conceptually, the major breakthroughs had already taken place decades earlier, and even if they had not yet come into print, word about them had begun to spread by the 1620s. Still, the two founding documents of the – as yet – greatest moment of all saw the light of day with considerable delay, in 1638 and 1644, respectively. Schema 4 lists the pioneers’ most innovative work in chronological order.

      By the mid-1640s, then, unprecedentedly drastic innovation in the pursuit of nature-knowledge had...

  4. PART III DYNAMICS OF THE REVOLUTION

    • X ACHIEVEMENTS AND LIMITATIONS OF REALIST-MATHEMATICAL SCIENCE
      (pp. 291-372)

      What future lay in store for mathematical science in its newly realist form? Kepler resigned himself to a very long wait before his own achievement would attain its well-deserved recognition. In the introduction to what he regarded as his crowning achievement, book V ofHarmonice mundi, he famously wrote:

      well, then, I throw the dice and write a book, no matter whether it be read by contemporaries or later generations – it may await its reader for a hundred years, as God himself waited six thousand years for a witness.¹⁵⁴

      Galileo, in facing the future of his own variety of realist-mathematical...

    • XI ACHIEVEMENTS AND LIMITATIONS OF KINETIC CORPUSCULARIANISM
      (pp. 373-402)

      What, from the perspective of René Descartes on completing hisPrincipia philosophiaeand seeing the treatise through the press in 1644, was still left to be done in nature-knowledge?

      In terms ofcontent, very little, really. The author of ‘Le monde’ andPrincipia philosophiaeshared to the full the dream of earlier founders of a school of philosophy, at one stroke to produce the definitive account of the world by positing a reasoned set of first principles and showing how the world’s phenomena could truly be made sense of in their light alone. Descartes was surely willing to allow that...

    • XII LEGITIMACY IN THE BALANCE
      (pp. 403-444)

      This perhaps a little too playful one-liner invites a more-sustained comparison between those two modes of pursuing nature-knowledge, realist-mathematical science and the natural philosophy of kinetic corpuscularianism. Prominent in the comparison is what principally divided the two, to wit, thestrangenessof the former in view of the latter, as manifest in three successive clashes between realist-mathematical science and natural philosophy of any kind. Prominent in the comparison is likewise what they held in common – thestrangenessof an all-out violation of common sense and thesacrilegethat, in view of many theological sensibilities at the time, was implied in...

    • XIII ACHIEVEMENTS AND LIMITATIONS OF FACT-FINDING EXPERIMENTALISM
      (pp. 445-508)

      In 1686 the ‘Royal Society, for the improvement of naturall knowledge by Experiment‘, received from one of its fellows, Isaac Newton, news that the manuscript of his ‘Principia’ was ready for the press. Alas, the society felt compelled to bow out of its commitment to have the book published at its own cost. Its funds had been depleted by the recent publication of a lavishly illustratedHistoria piscium(‘History of Fishes’) by the late fellow Francis Willoughby. In the end the society’s clerk to see thePrincipiathrough the press, Edmond Halley, got the printing costs reimbursed, not in pounds...

    • XIV NATURE-KNOWLEDGE DECOMPARTMENTALIZED
      (pp. 509-520)

      Indeed, high barriers separated the various modes of nature-knowledge from the Greeks onward (p. 18). So different were the intellectual and social worlds of practitioners of mathematical science, of natural philosophy, and of more empiricist approaches that interaction between them was virtually ruled out, even in the rare case where one man was engaged in two modes at a time, as with Ibn Sina or Castro or Descartes. Consequently, the surveys just completed of achievement and limitation between c. 1640 and c. 1700 in all three modes of nature-knowledge in their newly transformed states reveal pronounced differences among them. Even...

    • XV THE FOURTH TRANSFORMATION: CORPUSCULAR MOTION GEOMETRIZED
      (pp. 521-548)

      If it were possible to mark what was distinctively novel about the Scientific Revolution in just one word, that word would be ‘motion’. Never at the center of any piece of mathematical analysis in abstract, Alexandrian fashion, rather neglected in the atomist natural philosophy of corpuscles moving through the void, categorized as just one among four subclasses of change in the Aristotelian philosophy of nature, motion acquired a radically novel emphasis as a fundamental unit of analysis and/or explanation by the early 17th century. By then, specific movements began to be invoked with a view to accounting for specific phenomena,...

    • XVI THE FIFTH TRANSFORMATION: THE BACONIAN BREW
      (pp. 549-564)

      Other than with the attempted infusion ofmathematical-experimental science with corpuscles in motion, which was almost exclusively an effort of just two individuals, the effort undertaken at about the same time to infusefact-findingexperimental science with them took place against a recognizably national background. Fact-finding experimental science was practiced in Britain as well as on the Continent (the Society of Jesus, the Paris Académie, a variety of individual practitioners). In partial contrast, the ‘Baconian Brew’ mixed in the 1660s out of Bacon-inspired experimentation, particles in motion, and a broadly ‘spiritual’ dose of active principles was an exclusively British affair....

    • XVII LEGITIMACY OF A NEW KIND
      (pp. 565-598)

      The Newtonian synthesis, the crowning achievement of the Scientific Revolution, was the product of one further revolutionary transformation, which started in August 1684. Just like Newton himself in 1669, we are almost but not yet quite ready for it. One element that drove the revolutionary movement forward from the time of the pioneers to the early 18th century is still missing from the account: the resolution of the crisis of legitimacy that over the late 1640s and the 1650s came perilously close to laying waste to the work of the pioneers (ch. 12). The achievement attained in the wake of...

    • XVIII NATURE-KNOWLEDGE BY 1684: THE ACHIEVEMENT SO FAR
      (pp. 599-636)

      In August 1684 Halley’s visit to Newton provoked the creative outburst that led in just two and a half years to the highest achievement of the Scientific Revolution, thePrincipia. The resources on which Newton could and did draw for the revolutionary transformation that he accomplished in that short period derived from all previous revolutionary transformations so far examined. I shall now recapitulate their attainments and the ways in which these had come about; in the next chapter, we find out how Newton drew many of the lines together. What, by 1684, did the big picture of modern-science-in-the-making look like?...

    • XIX THE SIXTH TRANSFORMATION: THE NEWTONIAN SYNTHESIS
      (pp. 637-718)

      Halley had made his first acquaintance with Isaac Newton two years earlier, in 1682. The Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, known outside Cambridge as the author of a few remarkable papers on light and color and as a secretive mathematical prodigy, might perhaps be of help in disentangling the riddle, so Halley now looked him up to ask him “what he thought the Curve would be that would be described by the Planets supposing the force of attraction towards the Sun to be reciprocal to the square of their distance from it.”³⁴⁹ To which query Newton answered right away that it...

  5. EPILOGUE: A DUAL LEGACY
    (pp. 719-742)

    Soon after his visit to the Academy of Lagado (p. 481), Captain Lemuel Gulliver availed himself of the opportunity granted him on the isle of Glubbdubdrib to converse with the dead. In 1726, one year before Newton’s demise, he reported as follows:

    I then desired the Governor to call up Descartes and Gassendi, with whom I prevailed to explain their systems to Aristotle. This great philosopher freely acknowledged his own mistakes in natural philosophy, because he proceeded in many things upon conjecture, as all men must do; and he found, that Gassendi, who had made the doctrine of Epicurus as...