Was There a Scientific Revolution?
Abstract and Keywords
This article asks whether there was a Scientific Revolution (SR) at anytime between 1550 and1800. The label ‘Scientific Revolution’ to indicate a period in the development of natural knowledge in early modern Europe has carved a place in historiography. This article suggests that there was SR, if SR signifies a period of time; perhaps, if it is taken as a metaphor. It illustrates how the deployment of the metaphor to seventeenth-century natural knowledge might be accomplished. It also considers the physics of René Descartes, the influence of Cartesianism throughout the Republic of Letters, and the academies. The metaphor can be useful if it is taken in analogy to a major political revolution. The analogy points to a later onset, and a swifter career, for the SR than is usually prescribed, and shows that Isaac Newton was its counter rather than its culmination.
1.1 An Analytical Tool
Was there a Scientific Revolution (SR) at any time between 1550 and 1800? Yes, indeed, if SR signifies a period of time; perhaps, if it is taken as a metaphor. According to the findings presented here, the metaphor can be useful, that is, productive of insights, if it is taken in analogy to a major political revolution. The analogy suggests a later onset, and a swifter career, for the Scientific Revolution than is usually prescribed, and reveals Newton not as its culmination but as its counter. Whether as a period or as a metaphor, SR is an historian’s category, an analytical tool, and must be judged by its utility.
The label ‘Scientific Revolution’ to indicate a period in the development of natural knowledge in early modern Europe has secured a place in historiography as secure as ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Enlightenment’. Like them, its nature and duration vary in accordance with the concerns of historians who write about it. An early approach, developed under the powerful influence of Alexandre Koyré, took cosmology and the physics of motion as constitutive of science and accordingly began the revolution with Copernicus and ended it with Newton—a period of 150 years. Koyré’s approach, though still followed here and there, receded before the more generous programme of A. Rupert Hall, who admitted all respectable sciences and so lengthened the ‘revolution’ to three centuries.1 The most recent and most ambitious account of the SR yet attempted, by H. Floris Cohen, limits the subject matter to ‘modes of nature-knowledge’, that is, to transformations in method. With this specification (p. 8) Cohen managed to confine the SR to the seventeenth century and to little more than 800 pages.2 Recent surveys tend to prefer this tighter schedule.3
Like ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Enlightenment’, ‘SR’ is a metaphor as well as a shorthand for particular developments within an historical period. The metaphor has given rise to much debate between those who regard these developments primarily as an abrupt transformation and those who see mainly continuity of pace and content. The debaters also deliberate whether all or most advances in natural knowledge, or only those subject to mathematics, underwent revolutionary transformation. Much information of value came to light through efforts to demonstrate one or the other of these alternatives. One reason that the debate has been fruitful is that its participants left fuzzy the concept of revolution against which they measured the SR.
All the low-lying fruit may now have been gathered, however, since most historians have lost interest in deciding the appropriateness of the metaphor. And so a recent survey opens, apparently wittily, ‘There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution and this is a book about it’. The book does not give reasons for thinking there was none, as might be expected, but goes on to describe the same sort of material, in much the same way, as other surveys do.4 In effect, the author employs SR in two different senses: as the name of certain aspects of a historical period, which is the subject of his book, and as a metaphor, which he regards as empty.
The rejection of the metaphor does not imply that the period labelled the SR lacks the unity that would qualify it for a special name to set it off from periods on either side. A gradualist image, say of a bend in the road, may suit the case better, especially if the period called ‘revolutionary’ is too long to administer a short sharp shock. Approaching a bend, the driver sees nothing of the vista soon to appear; on entering it, he sees the new vista gradually unfold; and, looking back on emerging from it, he no longer can see where he was. The image has the advantage that different drivers can negotiate the bend at different speeds.
Floris Cohen’s masterwork, How Modern Science Came into the World, is of this type. Its subtitle, Four Civilizations, One Seventeenth-Century Breakthrough, telegraphs the story line: four times in history, civilizations have stood poised to break through to modern science but have succeeded only once. And then the process took a century, in six overlapping ‘transformations’. These concerned ‘realist–mathematical science’ (Kepler, Galileo); ‘kinetic–corpuscular philosophy’ (Beeckman, Descartes); experimental philosophy (Bacon, Gilbert, Harvey); geometrized corpuscular philosophy (Huygens, young Newton); ‘the Baconian brew’ (Boyle, Hooke); ‘the Newtonian synthesis’. Although revolution seems an inappropriate descriptor for the series of loosely linked standard episodes that drove seventeenth-century natural philosophers and their fellow travellers around the bend, Cohen perforce names his distinctive period ‘SR’. The wine is new, the bottle old, the label misleading.
Metaphors ordinarily are not branded as true or false but as striking, compelling, insightful, beautiful, useful, or their opposites. As analytical tools, their value lies in their utility. How should we judge the SR, regarded as a metaphor, on this criterion? An obvious way would be to seek strict analogies between the SR and an episode (p. 9) accepted as a bona fide revolution, say the upheaval in France beginning in 1789. If the analogies produce new knowledge or a new way to view acquired knowledge, we might declare the metaphor alive. If nothing new comes out, we should regard it merely as a label for certain developments within an historical period of uncertain extent.
None of the sixty-three authors whose opinions Floris Cohen canvassed in his chrestomathy on the SR seems to have considered the SR from this point of view.5 No more did Bernard Cohen, though now and again he glanced that way when filling his cornucopia of references to Scientific Revolution over the last four centuries. He observed that political revolutions are violent and suggested the conquest by belligerent Cartesians and, following them, Newtonians, of the institutes of science as comparable acts of violence in the SR. This observation, together with Cohen’s hint at a connection between political disturbances and natural knowledge in the mid-seventeenth century, pointed in a promising direction; but his primary interest did not allow him to handle the concept of Scientific Revolution as an analytical (or historian’s) tool.6 Built up from occurrences of the term in the writings of historical actors, historians, and modern working scientists, Cohen’s inventory does not support or describe an exploitable metaphoric interpretation of the SR.
The following sketch, adopted from an earlier essay, illustrates how the deployment of the metaphor to seventeenth-century natural knowledge might be accomplished.7 The exercise brings some unexpected results.
1.2 The Metaphor
‘A sudden, radical, or complete change’, ‘the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed’. Thus the dictionary sets the bounds for our metaphor. Did the SR witness a sudden, radical, or complete change analogous to the overthrow of an established government? Here it is important to distinguish revolutionary ideas and revolutionary situations from revolutions. As for revolutionary ideas, no more need be said than that where they are encouraged and rewarded there is no end to them. Revolutionary situations also are commonplace. According to the great authority on political revolutions, R. R. Palmer, a revolutionary situation can develop when people lose confidence in existing law and authority, when they reject obligations as impositions, regard respect for superiors as humiliation, and condemn privilege as unfair and government as irrelevant. A people or nation thus afflicted has lost its sense of community and may be ripe for revolution. A revolution need not ensue, but the social and institutional base must undergo some significant change to avoid one.8
We must not take a revolutionary situation for a revolution. Thus when Galileo cried out while lecturing on Aristotle’s theories of motion, ‘Good Lord! I am so tired and ashamed of having to use so many words to refute such childish objections as (p. 10) Aristotle[’s]’,9 he expressed the rejection of authority, and the feeling of imposition and humiliation in having to respect it, typical of a revolutionary situation. And when he described himself as a singular eagle and the established philosophers of his time as flocks of starlings who ‘fill the skies with shrieks and cries wherever they settle, and befoul the earth beneath them’, he expressed the truculent bitterness of an oligarch forced to suffer equality in a democracy, not a call, let alone a programme, for revolution.10 Galileo was a Voltaire rather than a Robespierre—witty, cutting, brilliant, a master of language, an ambitious courtier, an incisive critic, but not a fierce destroyer of the old with a grand vision of the new.
A popular question with those who search for the origins of modern science is: ‘Why was there no Scientific Revolution in China, or in ancient Greece, or in the Abbassid Empire’? A more pertinent question is: ‘Why was there no Scientific Revolution in Europe in the late sixteenth century’? Many of the primary ingredients in the standard histories of science were by then available: Copernicus’ Revolutions and Vesalius’ Fabrica, which set the bases for a new astronomy and a new anatomy; the warlike bombast of Paracelsus and the new logic of Petrus Ramus; the mathematical ways of Archimedes and Plato; the secrets of Hermes; the natural magic of della Porta; and the technologies of Agricola and Biringuccio. These and other novelties—notably reports from the new world of exotic floras, faunas, and people—were disseminated quickly in standard editions by a printing industry then a hundred years old. And yet no revolution in natural knowledge resulted. The schools took cognizance of the new facts, patched their teachings where necessary, and became more dogmatic as experience, information, and expectations at odds with their principles accumulated.
One reason for the failure of the revolutionary situation of 1550 to become a revolution was the engagement of many of the best minds in Europe in doctrinal disputes and the wars of the Reformation. Thomas Sprat, the historian–apologist of the Royal Society of London, observed that for many years before he wrote in 1667, an ‘infinite number of Wits … [had] been chiefly taken up about … the Writings of the Antients: or the Controversies of Religion: or Affairs of State’. The engagement of all those wits in antiquities, controversies, and politics had the consequence, as Sprat put it, that ‘knowledge of nature has been very much retarded’.11 Whatever their preoccupations, the wits were not numerous; perhaps no more than a thousand mobilizable ones existed when the putative SR was in full swing. A main subject of our inquiry, on which the value of our metaphor may ride, must be the origin and recruitment of sufficient cadres to support and sustain a revolution.
The Peace of Augsburg of 1555 did not open a period of leisure for the engaged learned. It was but a pause. Where Rome could exercise power, the new machinery of the Counter Reformation, especially the decrees of the Council of Trent and the operations of the Society of Jesus, enforced a doctrinal conformity little conducive to innovation in natural philosophy. The retrospective appointment of Thomas Aquinas as doctor of the Roman Catholic Church created an unprecedented and unfortunate unity of philosophy and theology. As Descartes put the point in 1629, ‘theology … has been so subjected to Aristotle that it is almost impossible to set out another philosophy without its appearing at first contrary to faith’.12 The Tridentine (p. 11) interdisciplinary synthesis made it more difficult than ever to topple the teachings of the schools in Catholic countries—especially since the Jesuits ran the best schools. The situation came to a head with the trial and condemnation of Galileo in 1633. That made him a martyr of the ensuing revolution, but not its leader.
Again, a look at the political situation during the first half of the seventeenth century suggests why the pursuit of natural knowledge did not have high priority in Europe then. The Thirty Years War had devastated the German States and absorbed the energies of what would be the Dutch Republic. England went from Civil War to Puritan crackdown to, in 1660, the Stuart restoration. France ruined itself in the Thirty Years War, the subsequent Frondes, and its private war with Spain, which dragged on until 1659, the year when Louis XIV reached his majority and began to reign on his own. Not until the second half of the seventeenth century was an exhausted Europe able to devote what energy it had left to improving and disseminating natural knowledge. After a century of war and strife, an investment in the arts and sciences, especially in sciences removed from theology, and a measure of tolerance in their pursuit, seemed a promising way simultaneously to soothe and advance society.
Bishop Sprat stressed the importance of a place where people who might not agree on politics or religion could meet civilly and productively over a common interest in what the Royal Society’s charter called ‘natural knowledge’. The membership agreed not to take up contentious topics—religion specifically—likely to produce altercation and disintegration.13 In their book, Leviathan and the Air Pump, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer developed this theme from Sprat into a model of what they call the ‘experimental life’. In their interpretation, the circle around Robert Boyle, the Society’s most prolific aristocratic experimentalist, aimed to create matters of fact beyond dispute, and unassertive, eclectic theories about them that did not provoke unpleasant confrontations.14
Another connection between the coming of peace and the promotion of natural philosophy was the air pump, which became the most important scientific instrument of the later seventeenth century and the most powerful single piece of hardware in the revolutionary arsenal. Its inventor, Otto von Guericke—an engineer who served as mayor of Magdeburg—brought this fruit of his scarce leisure to the Imperial Diet convened in Regensburg in 1654 to plan the rebuilding of the Empire after the catastrophic Thirty Years War. He employed the machine to entertain his fellow delegates while they rested from their labours.
Guericke was a Lutheran. Among the delegates at Regensburg was the Catholic Bishop of Würzburg. He took a great interest in Guericke’s spectacular demonstrations of the power of nothing, bought the pump, and presented it to the Jesuit College in Würzburg. There the professor of mathematics, Gaspar Schott, set about analyzing and improving the pump. His account of what he called the Magdeburg experiments, published with Guericke’s permission, carried news of the machine to England, where the Anglicans Boyle and Hooke made their version. This vignette, like Sprat’s apology for the Royal Society, directs our attention to the 1650s and 1660s as a period of dramatic change in the material circumstances in which natural knowledge was (p. 12) cultivated, and in the level of religious toleration in the Republic of Letters. Many wits turned from controversy and politics to safer subjects. As Henry Oldenburg, a comrade-in-arms of Sprat, summed up the new situation in his capacity of Secretary of the Royal Society of London, ‘mathematics and natural science [physica] are now developing and flourishing everywhere’.15
Four years after the restored Stuart King Charles II chartered the Royal Society of London, the recently mature and secure Louis XIV set up, as a sort of government bureau, the Académie Royale des Sciences. The establishments of the French and English kings followed by only a few years the Accademia del Cimento, created in 1657 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany and his brother to carry out experiments with a minimum of theorizing. The Florentine academicians were to proceed by trial and error, provando e riprovando, testing and retesting matters of fact.16 Unlike the royal academies of experiment in France and England, the Cimento did not survive very long, but its example nonetheless inspired many imitators in Italy and the German States. Before 1650 there were at most two or three short-lived academies of experiments, and these quite insignificant despite Galileo’s pride in belonging to the Lincei; in the second half of the seventeenth century, many were founded, some with royal or high ecclesiastical patronage.
Relative peace and effective organization do not make a revolution, however. Indeed, they seem rather opposed to a metaphor suggesting violent change. But then, the institutions that support the body of knowledge do not define it. We can have a violent alteration in ideas and practices that make use of organizations that were not set up to change anything violently. That is what happened in natural knowledge in the second half of the seventeenth century, when ideas opposed to established learning took root in experimental academies. A possible comparison is the revolution caused by the rapid invasion of the newly created universities of the thirteenth century by the then newly recovered libri naturales of Aristotle. Let us accept this comparison as the first fruit of our inquiry. It suggests that the same coincidence of novel philosophy and fresh institutions that put Aristotle’s system at the centre of European philosophy in the thirteenth century removed it to the periphery in the seventeenth century.
1.3 The Ingredients
The preceding analysis also suggests that our revolution in knowledge awaited the advent of political and social peace and reconstruction in Western Europe. By good luck, the ingredients that came together at this unusual juncture were just those normally required to make a good political revolution: a powerful programme to supplant established ways and teachings, the existence of vigorous well-educated cadres devoted to the programme, and the creation of new institutions and instrumentalities with which to preserve the gains of the cadres.
(p. 13) 1.3.1 The Programme
The revolutionary programme appeared in its definitive form in 1644, as the Principia philosophiae of René Descartes, which was soon translated into French, reduced to manuals for teachers and, insofar as it pertained to natural knowledge, reworked into physics texts and demonstrations that attracted wide audiences outside the schools. The distinctive Cartesian universe of stars and tourbillons, of comets, moons, and planets swimming in vortices, of particulate streams that cause magnetism, of levers and springs and bellows that make up animal bodies, had the security of the existence of Descartes’ doubting self and of a God unable to deceive him. All this is as intelligible now as it was then, though no doubt it is not as compelling to us as it was to the expectant disciples Descartes had begun to collect on the strength of his Discours de la méthode (1637), his directions for the correct manner of reasoning.
Three mutually reinforcing factors gave Cartesian natural philosophy its revolutionary power. For one, it did away in one stroke with the scholastic bric-a-brac of forms, essences, potentialities, acts, sympathies, antipathies, and qualitates occultae. Where Aristotle populated the world with irreducible natures, Descartes insisted on explaining all the phenomena that fall under our senses as consequences of matter and motion. To be sure, the transfer of motion in collisions may be no more intelligible than an occult quality.17 But even if we do not understand the metaphysics of collisions, we have intuitions about mobility, rest, size, and shape that enable us to reason further about the constitution and activity of the world—if we assume that it consists only of matter and motion. An Aristotelian, in contrast, could not deduce from his concepts of ‘dogginess’ and magnetism whether or not a dog is a magnet.
One of Descartes’ ambitions was to live long enough to put medicine on as firm a foundation as the physics of the solar system.18 He conceded that a great amount of experiment was necessary to determine which of the many ways he could conceive for the mechanical operation of the body God in fact had chosen. Once these ways were known, reason, exploiting the intelligibility of mechanical interactions, would swiftly find the means to promote health and longevity. This intelligibility came not only from everyone’s intuition of extension and motion, but also from Descartes’ mastery of mathematics. The geometrical ingredients of his vortical universe all lent themselves to mathematics.
Although few of Descartes’ mechanisms ever in fact felt the yoke of mathematics, the possibility he revealed of a mathematical physics was as radical and exciting as the premiss that everything is matter and motion. The school philosophy held in general that mathematics could not attain to truth, and hence had no significant use in natural philosophy. As exact description it had its utility, for example, in computing the positions of the sun, moon, and planets for navigational or calendrical or astrological purposes; but since the machinery for astronomical calculation was arbitrary and opportunistic, neither its successes nor its failures could confirm or refute physical principles. Nor was mathematics considered a useful tool of exploration in physics. ‘After a great deal of calculation … I do not see any fruit other than a (p. 14) chimerical proportion, which reveals nothing about the things that are real in nature’. Thus André Graindorge, co-founder of the Académie Royale de Physique of Caen, expressed the widespread view that mathematics could at best describe accurately the least interesting features of the physical world.19 In Descartes’ system, mathematics was neither opportunistic nor irrelevant. He derived the existence and nature of the world-moving tourbillons, and also their laws of motion, from first principles. Philosophers who were also mathematicians could develop Cartesian physics and bring to bear the great advances in mathematics achieved during the seventeenth century, not least by Descartes himself, confident that they reasoned from a true world picture.
The third thread in Cartesian natural philosophy (besides its rejection of scholastic forms and its privileging of quantifiable concepts) was its comprehensiveness. Here a comparison with the writings of Francis Bacon is useful. As a critic of scholastic philosophy, Bacon was more effective than Descartes; and, as a methodologist he offered a fuller and, as it turned out, a better long-range plan for achieving a new philosophy. But he did not get there himself, and made no use of Galileo’s physics, Gilbert’s magnetism, or Kepler’s optics and astronomy. And even if Bacon had known how to appreciate these fragments, he would not have been able to unseat the school philosophy. Quantified disjecta membra do not make a physics nor even, in the eyes of the seventeenth century, a start on one.
We know that there is no truth in the application of mathematics in the absence of physical principles known to be sound prior to quantification. But that is not the main reason that Bacon could not have made a sound physics from the pieces that Galileo, Gilbert, and Kepler supplied. The main reason is that philosophers abhor a vacuum even more than nature does. ‘I have no reason to believe that vacuum does not exist’, says Guarino Guarini, ‘except that I have not seen completely convincing proofs; and without them, I have seldom left my Aristotle’.20 That was to follow Aristotle’s advice. ‘It is wrong to remove the foundations of a science unless you can replace them with others more convincing’. Galileo made Simplicio, the hack peripatetic in the Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632), run to the same asylum. ‘Who would there be to settle our controversies if Aristotle were to be deposed? What other author should we follow in the schools, the academies, the universities?’ The Galilean characters in the Dialogue continued to scare Simplicio with the horror vacui philosophici until he cried out to his tormentors to name an author—any author—capable of replacing Aristotle. They could not do it.21
It was just this failure that Descartes seized on in his evaluation of Galileo’s Discourses on Two New Sciences (1638)—one of the key texts of the usual account of the Scientific Revolution:
I find that he philosophizes much better than is usual because he rejects the errors of the schools as far as he can and tries to examine physical matters with mathematical reasoning. I agree entirely with him in that, and believe that there is no other way of finding the truth. But it seems to me that he lacks a lot since he continually digresses and does not stop to explain anything thoroughly, which shows that he has not examined things in order; without investigating the first causes of nature he has only tried to give reasons for some effects and so he has (p. 15) built without foundations … Every thing he says about the velocity of bodies falling freely in void has no basis: for he first should have determined what weight is, and then he would have known that velocity is zero in a vacuum.22
This is of course nonsense, as is much else in Descartes’ physics, but you do not have to be right to make a revolution. You have to have a plausible and comprehensive programme.
1.3.2 The Cadres
Cartesianism quickly gained influential recruits throughout the Republic of Letters. At the top was Queen Christina of Sweden, whose interest proved as fatal as it was flattering. A lesser and safer princess was Elizabeth of Bohemia, a good mathematician and metaphysician in her own right, who helped disseminate Descartes’ ideas. In an instructive letter she described to him the conversion process of a doctor Weis, whose confidence in Aristotle and Galen had been shaken by reading Bacon. That had not made him abandon the ancients. But, Elizabeth reported, ‘your Méthode made him reject it altogether and [moreover] convinced him of the circulation of the blood, which destroys all the ancient principles of medicine’.23
There are at least three significant points about this short story. Firstly, unwilling to face the horror vacui philosophici, Weis could not abandon Aristotle without an adequate replacement. Secondly, Weis’ itinerarium ad veritatem, beginning with Bacon’s condemnations and compilations and ending in Cartesian truth, became a standard route, and was the path recommended by Descartes himself.24 Thirdly, Descartes’ concept of a living body as a machine perfectly accommodated the discovery of the circulation of the blood, although Descartes rejected Harvey’s identification of the heart with a pump.25 Up-to-date physicians, especially younger ones, found Cartesian philosophy a welcome weapon in their fight against Galenic physiology and professional conservatism.
These modernizing doctors made a strong and effective cadre. They pushed Descartes’ ideas into the medical schools beginning with Utrecht and Leiden in the 1640s and 1650s, whence Cartesianism spread throughout Europe.26 An early and persistent example is Naples, where physicians marched under Descartes’ banner against the educational and political establishment on and off throughout the seventeenth century.27 Despite its deserved reputation for conservatism, the medical profession played an important part in fomenting Scientific Revolution. So did lawyers. In France, Cartesian doctors made common cause with lawyers, with the noblesse de robe, from whom Descartes sprang. A group supported by Henri de Montmor, a lawyer in Paris, pushed the Cartesian philosophy to the doorstep of the Académie Royale des Sciences, albeit with a litigious spirit perhaps too lively for the Republic of Letters.28 Popular lecturers on the physics of tourbillons made a good living catering to doctors, lawyers, and ladies.29
The universities also furnished cadres for the revolution. The English—who tend to be oversusceptible to French philosophy until, on more mature judgement, they (p. 16) reject it altogether—provide an extreme example. Smitten with Descartes in the 1650s, Oxbridge dons extolled him as ‘incomparable’, ‘precious and incomparable’, ‘most excellent’, and ‘the miracle of men’.30 According to the Cambridge philosopher Henry More, Descartes was the ‘very secretary of nature’—far more penetrating than Galileo, indeed, than everyone and anyone: ‘all those who have attempted anything in natural philosophy hitherto are mere shrimps and fumblers in comparison’.31 Cartesian physics had made its way to Sweden by the time that More was rhapsodizing over it in England. Petrus Hoffwenius, having drunk directly from the Cartesian spring in Leiden, sprinkled the mechanical philosophy around the medical school at the University of Uppsala, beginning in the early 1660s.32
The professional people and professors who made up the Cartesian cadres went to work, as revolutionaries do, on colleagues without fixed allegiances who were dissatisfied by all else on offer. These potential fellow travellers adopted various forms of mechanical philosophy, paid lip-service at least to the rhetoric of mathematics, recommended and sometimes even practiced experiment, and brought forward useful things from the ancients. Their hero was Robert Boyle, and their motto ‘Amicus Plato, amicus Aristoteles, amicus Cartesius, sed magis amica veritas’.
Among the large and diverse group of fellow travellers even Jesuits could be found—for example, Gaston Pardies, whose colourful characterization of his position deserves to be preserved: ‘Just as formerly God allowed the Hebrews to marry their captives after many purifications, to cleanse them of the traces of infidelity, so after having washed and purified the philosophy of M. Descartes, I could very well embrace his opinions.’ Even on the Cartesian side, purifications might be needed. As the perpetual secretary of the Paris Academy, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, put it, Descartes’ ‘new way of philosophizing [is] much more valuable than the philosophy itself, a good part of which is false, or very uncertain.’ ‘Il faut admirer toujours Descartes, et le suivre quelquefois’.33
The cadres and fellow travellers met strong resistance. The curators of the Dutch universities under attack by Cartesian doctors prohibited the teaching of any philosophy but Aristotle’s.34 The Paris Parlement reaffirmed an edict it had passed in 1624, prohibiting the teaching of any philosophy but Aristotle’s.35 The Archbishop of Paris shut down public lectures on Cartesian physics; the Holy Office in Rome condemned Descartes’ Principia philosophiae; the Jesuits proscribed Descartes’ writings again and again within their own order and initiated the proceedings that placed his works on the Index of Prohibited Books.36 The Papal and Spanish authorities occasionally jailed the Cartesian doctors and lawyers of Naples.37 Under pressure from theologians, the Swedish Rigsdag condemned Cartesian philosophy in 1664, just after the Roman Catholic Church had indexed it and largely for the same reason: its bearing on the doctrine of the Eucharist.38
Our revolutionary model requires that we follow these battles and report the changing fortunes of the two sides, expecting, as was the case, different sorts and levels of conflict in different theatres of war. The most dramatic and instructive confrontations occurred where the Roman Catholic Church was strongest, the least exciting and instructive where representative government had a grip. In England, the Scientific (p. 17) Revolution was as bloodless as the Glorious Revolution, which deposed the Catholic King James II almost without firing a shot. Our model directs our attention away from England. It is a mistake to found general lessons about the Scientific Revolution on the doings of Robert Boyle.
The smoke cleared around 1700. By then, or shortly after, even the Jesuits allowed the teaching of Cartesian physics, albeit as an hypothesis, and by 1720, according to an old expert on the intellectual development of Italy, the moderns could anticipate a full and imminent victory.39 On the other side of the aisle, the rector of the Calvinist Academy of Geneva urged Descartes’ approach on his students and faculty. It was ‘incomparable’, he said, ‘the best human reason has found’, no less than ‘royal’, a great compliment in a republic.40
About the same time, in 1699, the Paris Academy of Sciences reorganized under its Cartesian secretary Fontenelle. In his éloges of deceased members, Fontenelle developed a standard account of enlightenment beginning with the discovery of Descartes and ending with admission to the pantheon of science. The Oratorian priest Nicolas Malebranche was exemplary. At first, owing to his scholastic education, he could read Descartes’ natural philosophy only in homeopathic doses, as it gave him palpitations of the heart, ‘which obliged him sometimes to interrupt his reading’. With perseverance he learned to handle stronger doses, and so advanced from scholastic darkness to the light of mathematics and true physics and, in good time, to the comfort of a seat in the Paris Academy.41
1.3.3 Institutions and Instrumentalities
We come to the academies—the institutions in which the gains of the revolution were preserved and multiplied. The Royal Society of London and the Académie Royale des Sciences of Paris are to the movement what Queen Christina and Princess Elizabeth were to the cadres—the peaks of the groups that formed during the second half of the seventeenth century to perform and witness experiments, learn and impart natural knowledge, and exchange the news and rumours of the Republic of Letters. There were cadres around princes and prelates, librarians and lawyers, and, perhaps most significant of all, professors.
Representative examples from the main theatre of war, Italy, are the Accademia Fisico-Matematica founded in Rome by Giovanni Giusti Ciampini,42 the groups that gathered around Geminiano Montanari in Bologna and Padua,43 and the Accademia degli Inquieti set up in Bologna by Eustachio Manfredi.44 Ciampini, the impresario of the Rome academy, was a monsignore high up in the papal bureaucracy; his academy lasted twenty years, until his death in 1698. Montanari and Manfredi were professors of mathematics. Montanari’s academy at Bologna was a forerunner of Manfredi’s, which became the nucleus of the Bologna Academy of Sciences, one of the most important of the old academies. It still exists.
For a long time the leading member of Ciampini’s Accademia Fisico-Matematica Romana was Francesco Eschinardi, professor of mathematics at the Jesuit College in (p. 18) Rome. He developed Galileo’s mathematics, experimented usefully on optics, and abhorred Galileo’s and Descartes’ cosmologies.45 It may not be far-fetched to compare his conservative moderating role in the academy to the effective collaboration between representatives of the lower clergy and the third estate during the early days of the French Revolution.
Montanari was a second-generation Galilean and sometime collaborator of the Accademia del Cimento. He began teaching mathematics and astronomy at Bologna in the early 1660s, and was soon offering instruction, in his own academy, in the sort of experiments that he had seen the Florentine academicians perform. As the capital of the Papal States, Bologna faced a censorship as strict as Rome’s; yet astronomy, mathematics, and physical experiments flourished there provided they were not exploited noisily in favour of novelty. At Padua, Montanari had a freer hand. He started a regular programme of observations, which resulted in the discovery of several comets and the variability of stars, and he gave a course of what he called ‘physical–mathematical experiments’, which he interpreted in the manner of Descartes. The participants in this course became the nucleus of an academy.46
Montanari’s successor at Bologna, Manfredi, taught the same sort of things and in much the same way, but his situation in the Papal States bred in him a caution, even timidity, so great that his aptly named Accademia degli Inquieti had no need of external censorship.47 In contrast, the short-lived Accademia degli Aletofili of Verona, established by Montanari’s prize student Francesco Bianchini and some doctors dissatisfied with the usual teaching in the medical schools, asserted a vigorous corpuscularian research programme. It languished not because of its advocacy of the mechanical and experimental philosophy, but because Bianchini moved to Rome, where he became a leading light in Ciampini’s academy.48
These indications lack the whiff of gun smoke. A few examples of the guerrilla warfare around the academies may therefore be in order. A priest was recommended to the Accademia del Cimento as sufficiently open-minded that ‘he sometimes rejects Aristotle, in favour of some modern opinion … although he will hear nothing about the mobility of the Earth; [still] I would guess that he could be persuaded quickly not to rail at that ingenious system so much, since he seems a man of honour [Galantuomo]’. This suggests recruitment on the basis of a proven record of eclecticism and gentlemanly behaviour, rather than on the basis of subscription to a particular world system. On the other hand, a ‘rotten and mouldy [marcio e muffo] peripatetic’, who wanted to appear ‘a free and modern philosopher’,49 is black-balled; a revolutionary cadre must guard against infiltration. Or, to take a subtler means of co-optation, the censor who passed Montanari’s major work in physico-mathematics, which describes experiments on capillary rise from a corpuscular point of view, judged that it disposed of many ‘fallacies and discrepancies of the various philosophical schools … That obliges me to confess [he was a priest!] that sometimes experiment satisfies minds searching for truth better than speculation’. Decoded, this signifies that Aristotle is not to be preferred to modern explanations founded on or illustrated by experiments, and suggests that the censor had enlightened himself by reading books as a consultant to the Index of Prohibited Books.50
(p. 19) Against this process of recruitment and cooptation, sterner censors and other guardians of the past could try to mobilize the church’s formidable machinery of repression, which was not limited to the Index and the Inquisition. At Bologna in 1661 the medical faculty decided to require an oath of their students not to stray from Aristotle, Galen, and Hippocrates. In a later crackdown, a professor of medicine led an attack on the home of the modernizing doctor and naturalist Marcello Malpighi, a member and correspondent of the Royal Society of London, broke his instruments, and vandalized his library. It was not an isolated incident. But as princes like the Grand Duke of Tuscany appointed men more open to modern ideas to chairs of medicine, the counter-revolution of the Galenists was turned; in 1714 thirteen cardinals and fifty prelates celebrated the gift to a teaching hospital in Rome of the large up-to-date library of the pope’s modernizing physician, Giovanni Maria Lancisi.51
Around 1700, leading Italian academicians, supposing that the wider the academic movement the faster it would move, designed pan-peninsular institutions. Ciampini contemplated setting up affiliates beyond Rome in the manner developed by the literary Accademia degli Arcadi founded in 1690. Plans were floated to form a league of academies to realize Bacon’s programme. Ludovico Antonio Muratori, an historian with an interest in experimental physics, promoted a pan-peninsular academy to advance science and to ensure that Italians obtained due credit for their inventions.52 Pursuing these tactics, the academic movement had almost completed the process of the Scientific Revolution in Italy by the time of the death of Clement XI in 1721.
Like Italy, the German States had groups that cultivated experimental philosophy with one foot inside and the other outside a university. On the inside the doctoral thesis could serve as the vehicle for the student and professor to develop ideas or arguments around a set of experiments also viewed and perhaps performed by people from outside. An example was the group around Johann Andreas Schmidt, who taught physics at the University of Helmstedt and accumulated a set of experimental apparatus that Leibniz, who viewed it in action, thought exemplary. Schmidt taught an eclectic natural philosophy that built on mathematics and mechanics, and above all, on experiment. ‘Follow the watchword of the Royal Society [he told his students], and swear in no one’s words’. Schmidt praised four or five people for their exemplary practice of this method. They included Descartes and Johann Christoph Sturm, author of an eclectic Physica electiva (1697–1722). Read and reread Sturm’s eclectic dissertations, Schmidt bid his audience. Neminem sequere, et omnes—‘follow no one and everyone’.53
Sturm had imbibed Cartesianism from the master’s first disciples in Leiden in the 1650s. He developed a course of lectures at the University of Altdorf and set up a Collegium experimentale there, in emulation of the Accademia del Cimento. It was perhaps the first such course and academy in Germany.54 Through Sturm and Schmidt the methods and instruments of the Dutch universities and Italian academies made their way to Germany, and also through Leibniz, who attended meetings of the Accademia Fisico-Matematica Romana during his visit to Italy in 1690. Leibniz’s proposals for an academy of sciences in Berlin mix together the (p. 20) courses of experiments offered by Sturm and Schmidt, the wider programmes of the Italian academies, and the royal sponsorship of the scientific institutions of London and Paris. His German academy was to incorporate the best practices of all the others, and of the Society of Jesus too, and so perfect a prime instrument for the advancement of science and society.55
1.4 A Fruitful Concept?
The attempt to fit the metaphor of revolution to the development of natural knowledge during the seventeenth century produced the following results:
• From the 1660s we can speak of a continuous reinforcing institutionalized pursuit of experimental philosophy within a progressive programme. The timing had to do with relative peace, which abetted the transformation of a revolutionary situation into a revolution.
• The characteristic marks of this revolution are corpuscular philosophies and academies of experiment; its favourite weapon was the air pump; its slogans, ‘libertas philosophandi’, ‘provando e riprovando’, and ‘nullius in verba’.
• The academies and groups that met to do and witness experiments tended to emphasize the features of the new science deemed useful to the newly stabilized states. These features—applied mathematics and practical experiments—were also the cardinal characteristics of the new science.
• In England, the revolution was quiet—the intellectual parallel to the bloodless Glorious Revolution. The main battlefields were Italy and the Northern States, including Sweden, which have been neglected in our historiography owing to a confusion of product and process. England led the way in discovery largely because it did not suffer the guerrilla fighting of the politically divided peninsula and the religiously divided continent. In Germany, as in Italy and for some of the same reasons, the spotlight falls on small experimental academies associated with universities.
• The Scientific Revolution is not just, or primarily, a story of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. Eclectics, érudits, doctors, waverers, trimmers, compromisers, and fellow travellers played an important part in the revolutionary process.
• The model directs attention to the histories of medicine and education, printing and communication, the recruitment and activities of cadres, and to general history. It suggests that comparisons of the pursuits of natural knowledge under various religious, political, and social regimes can still yield something of interest, and it integrates internal and external factors and approaches.
Our model has a place even for Newton. He is the Napoleon of the piece, the Prince of Physics, the Emperor of Science. Like Napoleon, he consolidated the gains of a revolution fought by others and extended it beyond their wildest dreams. But to extend it (p. 21) Newton had to deny the strict mechanical programme on which it was founded, just as Napoleon rejected the republic that had given him his start. Newton exhibited additional imperial characteristics, such as denying Leibniz a share in the invention of the calculus and, in his capacity of Master of the Mint, prosecuting to execution clippers of the coin of England.
There is one final revolutionary conclusion from our play with the metaphor of the SR: it was less significant to its participants than we usually reckon. That is because as it progressed its opponents came to face a much graver danger than the substitution of a world of pushes and pulls for the rich diversity of the scholastic universe. In the later seventeenth century, serious savants began to question the inspired authorship of the Bible, made the Old Testament the work of several anonymous hands, reduced its stories to imaginative literature, and contemplated the existence of men before Adam. Here were the makings of a revolution! It caused confrontation everywhere, even in England. Its outcome was glorious, but not its process.
These conclusions, hints, and suggestions are not unique to the revolutionary model. Nor, of course, is this model the only productive one for exploring the development of early modern science. An evolutionary type would be better for bringing out connections on the level of ideas. A renaissance type would link natural knowledge more closely to other rebirths, notably in literature and art (the Renaissance) and religion (the Reformations). Further afield there is the model of pathocenosis. Yes, pathocenosis—the collection of diseased states that characterizes a biotype.56 A pathocenosis strives for equilibrium, which may be prevented or ruptured by changes in the environment or in the disease agents. The dynamic equilibrium between diseases and their hosts nicely represents the intellectual state of learned people in Europe around 1550. In the schools, most of them caught an Aristotelian rash, which one or other Christian doctrine exacerbated. At first this infection protected them from competing afflictions, such as atomism, hermeticism, and Pythagoreanism. But then the equilibrium broke, and many new intellectual diseases, singly and in combination (the eclectics!), ravaged the body of knowledge. The model directs attention to the ways in which the learned lost their immunity, and to when and how equilibrium was regained.
No doubt these few suggestions do not exhaust available useful models. The essential point is to take a model seriously if at all, follow it through, and discard it when, as now, it is squeezed dry.
(1) . Alexandre Koyré, La révolution astronomique. Copernic, Kepler, Borelli (Paris: Hermann, 1961), and ‘A Documentary History of the Problem of Fall from Kepler to Newton’, in American Philosophical Society, Transactions, 45 (1955), 329–95; A. R. Hall, The Scientific Revolution 1500–1800 (London: Longmans Green, 1954).
(2) . H. Floris Cohen, How Modern Science Came into the World (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010).
(3) . E.g., Peter Dear, Discipline and Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995).
(4) . Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), which runs from Galileo to Newton.
(5) . H. F. Cohen, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
(6) . I. Bernard Cohen, Revolution in Science (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 12–13, 41–4, 77.
(7) . J. L. Heilbron, Coming to Terms with the Scientific Revolution (Uppsala University: Office for History of Science, 2006), reprinted with small changes and deletions in European Review, 15 (2007), 473–89.
(8) . R. R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800 (2 vols., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959–64), I, 21. An alternative set of criteria, in J. A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), xxiii, requires a financial crisis, divisions among the elite, and potential to mobilize a sizeable population already aggrieved. A Scientific Revolution modelled on these criteria would emphasize resources and instruments, fights over school curricula, and the belief that traditional learning was worthless.
(9) . Adapted from Galileo Galilei, On Motion and Mechanics (c. 1590), ed. J. E. Drabkin and Stillman Drake (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960), 58.
(10) . Aristotle, Politics, 1303b5–8, in Richard McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941), 1237; Galileo Galilei, The Assayer, in Stillman Drake and C.D. O’Malley, The Controversy on the Comets of 1618 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960), 151–336, on 189.
(11) . Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society (1667), ed. J. I. Cope and H. W. Jones (St Louis: Washington University Press, 1958), 23, 25, resp.
(12) . Descartes to Marin Mersenne, 18 December 1629, in René Descartes, Tutte le lettere 1619–1650. Testo francese, latino e olondese, ed. Giulia Belgioioso (Bologna: Bonpiani, 2005), 100.
(13) . Sprat (ref. 11), 32–3, 55–6, 82.
(14) . Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), chap. 7.
(15) . Oldenburg to Marcello Malpighi, 15 March 1670/1, in Henry Oldenburg, Correspondence, VIII, ed. A. R. Hall and M. B. Hall (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970), 517.
(16) . W. E. K. Middleton, The Experimenters: A Study of the Accademia del Cimento (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), 52–3.
(17) . René Dugas, La mécanique au XVIIe siècle (Neuchâtel: Griffon, 1954), 287–98.
(18) . Or, to be fair, ‘to deduce rules of medicine more certain than those we have at present’; René Descartes, Discours de la méthode & Essais (1637), in Oeuvres, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (reprint, Paris: Vrin, 1982), VI, 78.
(19) . Graindorge (a physician) to Pierre Daniel Huet, 11 November 1665, in D. S. Lux, Patronage and Royal Science in Seventeenth-Century France: The Académie de physique in Caen (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 48. Cf. the opinion of Lucantonio Porzio, in Maurizio Torrini, Dopo Galileo: Una polemica scientifica (1684–1711) (Florence: Olschki, 1979), 176–9.
(20) . Thus Guarini speaks in Geminiano Montanari, ‘Discorso del vacuo recitato nell’Accademia della Traccia (1675)’, in M. L. Altieri Biagi and Bruno Basile, eds., Scienziati del seicento (Milan: Ricciardi, 1980), 512–36, on 519–20.
(21) . Quoted from J. L. Heilbron, Galileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 269, 274. Campanella made a similar appeal; Galileo, 196.
(25) . Descartes (1982), 46–54.
(26) . Pierre Mouy, Le développement de la physique cartésienne (Paris: Vrin, 1934), 73–85; E. G. Ruestow, Physics at 17th and 18th Century Leiden (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1973), 38, 45, 62–4.
(27) . M. H. Fisch, ‘The Academy of Investigators’, in E. A. Underwood, ed., Science, Medicine and History (2 vols, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), I, 521–63.
(30) . Joseph Glanville, as quoted by Mordechai Feingold, ‘The Mathematical Sciences and New Philosophies’, in Nicholas Tyacke, ed., Seventeenth-Century Oxford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 359–448, on 408.
(31) . More, as quoted by Alan Gabbey, ‘Philosophia cartesiana triumphata: Henry More (1646–1671)’, in T. H. Lennon et al., eds., Problems of Cartesianism (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1982), 171–250, 181, 187n.
(32) . Tore Frängsmyr, Svensk idéhistoria. Bildning och vetenskap under tusen år (2 vols., Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 2000), I, 150–2.
(33) . Quoted in J. L. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries: A Study in Early Modern Physics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979; New York: Dover, 1999), 37 (text of 1672), and 41 (texts of 1687 and 1739), resp.
(36) . J. R. Armogathe and Vincent Carraud, ‘La première condamnation des Oeuvres de Descartes d’après des documents inédits aux Archives du Saint Office’, Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, 2 (2001), 103–27, on 104–10.
(37) . J. L. Heilbron, ‘Censorship of Astronomy in Italy after Galileo’, in Ernan McMullin, ed., The Church and Galileo (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2005), 279–332, on 294–6.
(39) . Gabriel Maugain, Etude sur l’évolution intellectuelle d‘Italie de 1657 à 1750 environ (Paris: Hachette, 1909), 77–9; Heilbron (ref. 33), 36, 108–14; J. L. Heilbron, The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 212–16.
(40) . Jean Alphonse Turrettini, 1704, as quoted by Jean Starobinski, ‘L’essor de la science genevoise’, in Jacques Trembley, ed., Les savants genevois dans l’Europe intellectuelle du XVIIe au milieu du XIXe siècle (Geneva: Journal de Genève, 1988), 7–22, on 7.
(42) . W. E. K. Middleton, ‘Science in Rome, 1675–1700, and the Accademia fisicomatematica of Giovanni Giustino Ciampini’, British Journal for the History of Science, 8 (1975), 138–54.
(43) . Salvatore Rotta, ‘Scienza e “pubblica felicità” in G. Montanari’, Miscellenea seicento, 2 (1971), 64–210.
(44) . Marta Cavazza, Settecento inquieto. Alle origini dell’Istituto delle scienze di Bologna (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1990), chaps. 1 and 3.
(45) . Francesco Eschinardi, Raguagli … sopra alcuni pensieri sperimentali proposti nell’Accademia fisicomatematica di Roma (Rome: Tinassi, 1680), 3–6, 24–5.
(46) . Rotta (n. 43), 67–8, 72, 98–9, 131–3; Cavazza (n. 44), 44–6, 135. Montanari said that he began as a ‘passionate Cartesian’ and ended as an eclectic corpuscularian; Geminiano Montanari, Le forze d’Eolo. Dialogo fisicomatematico (Parma: Poletti, 1694), 112.
(48) . Silvano Benedetti, ‘L’Accademia degli Aletofili di Verona’, in Accademie e cultura. Aspetti storici tra sei- e settecento (Florence: Olschki, 1979), 223–6; Salvatore Rotta, ‘L’Accademia fisicomatematica ciampiniana: Un’iniziativa di Cristina?’ in W. Di Palma, ed., Cristina di Svezia. Scienza ed alchimia nella Roma barocca (Bari: Dedolo, 1990), 99–186, on 151–4; Francesco Bianchini, ‘Dissertazione … recitata nella radunanza dell’Accademia degli Aletofili ’, in A. Colgerà, Nuova raccolta di opuscoli scientifici e filologici, 41 (1785), 3–37, on 4–5, 21.
(50) . P. Giovanfrancesco Bonomi, in Geminiano Montanari, Pensieri fisico-matematici (Bologna: Manolesi, 1667), ‘Imprimatur’.
(52) . L. A. Muratori, Opere, ed. Giorgio Falco and Fiorenzo Forti (2 vols., Milan: Ricciardi, 1964), I, 166–210. Cf. Rotta (n. 43), 68–9, 139–40, on a ‘league of philosophers’ proposed by Montanari. Neither initiative succeeded.
(53) . J. A. Schmidt, Physica positiva (Bratislava: Brachvogelius, 1721), 13–15; Leibniz to Schmidt, 15 April 1696, in G. W. Leibniz, Epistolae ad D. Ioannem Andream Schmidium (Nürnberg: Monath, 1788), 18.
(55) . Notger Hammerstein, ‘Accademie, società scientifiche in Leibniz’, in Laetitia Boehm and Ezio Raimondi, eds., Università, accademie e società scientifiche in Italia e Germania dal cinquecento al seicento (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1981), 395–419, on 406–8.
(56) . The physician and historian Mirko Grmek introduced the concept of pathocenosis in ‘Préliminaires d’une étude historique des maladies’, Annales: Economies, sociétés, civilizations, 24 (1969), 1437–83.