Roads to Revolution

Francis Bacon’s vision of science was one of breaking the bounds of traditional knowledge. The inscription reads, “Many will pass through and knowledge will be increased.” Image courtesy of the History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries.

The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries has long been seen as perhaps the pivotal event in the rise of modern science. In this period, for example, Nicolaus Copernicus proposed the earth went around the sun, Johannes Kepler derived his laws of planetary motion, Galileo Galilei described the law of falling bodies, William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood, Robert Boyle carried out his experiments with the air pump, and Isaac Newton developed classical mechanics and universal gravitation. These were not merely a matter of empirical discoveries: they entailed a conceptual shift in thinking about nature, gathering information, and constructing models. In short, something that resembled modern science emerged in Europe out of earlier traditions and methods of understanding nature that did not. 

This shift, combined with the knowledge that today’s science is the direct heir to this Western interpretation of nature, meant that the Scientific Revolution was understood as one of the most profound developments in the history of the modern world. Explaining it promised fundamental insights into the nature of science itself. And generations of historians of science devoted themselves to that task. But under historical scrutiny the Scientific Revolution as a concept proved problematic. Simplistic explanations that localized the birth of science in one person, one idea, or one place didn’t help. As historians of science better understood the role of social context and the non-inevitability of individual developments and of the Scientific Revolution itself, the very concept of the Scientific Revolution seemed tarnished.

While others may have succumbed to analytical fatigue as historians pile more and more nuance on our understanding of the period, H. Floris Cohen has remained the most stalwart supporter of the value and utility of the concept of the Scientific Revolution. His latest, massive analysis of the Scientific Revolution, How Modern Science Came into the World: Four Civilizations, One 17th-Century Breakthrough, is the fruit of 25 years of study. 

No one could be better equipped for the challenge of defending the Scientific Revolution. Cohen’s earlier book The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry was an in-depth historical survey of what had been written on the concept. As such, he is well versed both in the great variety of approaches to the Scientific Revolution as well as to their many shortcomings.

This background has made Cohen’s definitive account of the Scientific Revolution a sprawling narrative. He begins with the ancient Greek natural philosophical tradition, which for convenience he labels “Athens,” and a distinct tradition of applied mathematics (e.g., astronomy and optics), which he labels “Alexandria.” He charts their rise and fall and their transfer to another cultural context in Arabia after the rise of Islam, where they were further developed before stagnating, followed by their subsequent transfer to medieval Europe. He argues that in Europe this tradition faltered before being taken up again in a distinct Renaissance incarnation. One of the interesting elements of Cohen’s narrative is the fragility of traditions of natural knowledge, which can thrive after being transplanted—and can just as easily fall into disuse.

But starting around 1600 and continuing to mid-century, Cohen argues, this revived tradition transformed itself. Alexandria became “Alexandria-plus” in the hands of Kepler and Galileo, with mathematics now understood as able to describe how the real world moved. Athens developed into “Athens-plus” with the development of matter theories that were based on tiny moving “corpuscles” and primarily associated with René Descartes. And a Renaissance tradition of “coercive empiricism” developed into a broader fact-finding experimentalism. But by and large the distinctness of the ancient traditions remained, and by implication so did the prospect of their dissolution. The decisive resolution of the Scientific Revolution in the second half of the 17th century involved the melding of these traditions and ultimately the widely acknowledged brilliance of the Newtonian synthesis that established classical mechanics and universal gravitation.

The elements of this development and the factors that contributed to it are many, and the argument of the book is so complex that at times it reads like an outline, in spite of its 784 pages. Indeed, because Cohen hopes to analyze such a complex occurrence, his book cannot introduce the events to anyone unfamiliar with the territory. One must come to Cohen’s argument with a deep background in the Scientific Revolution just to keep up. In the end this very complexity spotlights the problematic nature of the Scientific Revolution: it is not containable on the scale of ordinary scholarship. But reading the fruit of a master historian’s 25-year effort to understand what was arguably the most profound transformation of human knowledge in history is well worth the effort.

James R. Voelkel is curator of rare books at CHF.