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About this book

This is a concise but wide-ranging account of all aspects of the Scientific Revolution from astronomy to zoology. The third edition has been thoroughly updated, and some sections revised and extended, to take into account the latest scholarship and research and new developments in historiography.

Table of Contents

1. The Scientific Revolution and the Historiography of Science

Abstract
The Scientific Revolution is the name given by historians of science to the period in European history when, arguably, the conceptual, methodological and institutional foundations of modern science were first established. The precise period in question varies from historian to historian, but the main focus is usually held to be the seventeenth century, with varying periods of scene-setting in the sixteenth and consolidation in the eighteenth. Similarly, the precise nature of the Revolution, its origins, causes, battlegrounds and results vary markedly from author to author. Such flexibility of interpretation clearly indicates that the Scientific Revolution is primarily a historian’s conceptual category. But the fact that the notion of the Scientific Revolution is a term of convenience for historians does not mean that it is merely a figment of their imaginations with no basis in historical reality.
John Henry

2. Renaissance and Revolution

Abstract
The distinguished Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield, after writing his own history of the origins of modern science, was moved to write that the Scientific Revolution marked ‘the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality’. Its historical significance was so great, he went on, that it outshone ‘everything since the rise of Christianity’ and reduced the Renaissance and the Reformation ‘to the rank of mere episodes’ [33: viii]. Given the overwhelming importance of science in modern Western culture, it is easy to see what he meant (although some decades on from Butterfield, when science no longer seems quite such an unequivocally ‘good thing’, we might be less enthusiastic about this than he obviously was). But it is also easy to see that when he went on to say that the Scientific Revolution made ‘our customary periodisation of European history … an anachronism and an encumbrance’, he certainly went too far. Historically speaking, Butterfield was clearly in danger of putting the cart before the horse.
John Henry

3. Methods of Science

Abstract
The development and establishment of what is usually taken to be the characteristic methodology of science has always been regarded as constitutive of the Scientific Revolution. The two main elements of this scientific method are the use of mathematics and measurement to give precise determinations of how the world and its parts work, and the use of observation, experience and, where necessary, artificially constructed experiments to gain understanding of nature. In fact, the mathematical sciences and the use of experience and experiment have their own histories before the Scientific Revolution, throughout the Middle Ages. The point is, however, that they were kept separate from university natural philosophy during this earlier period. The story that follows therefore is not primarily one of the invention of new techniques, or the discovery of new methods, it is a story of social and cultural changes which led to the rise in social and intellectual status of mathematical or craft practitioners, and allowed the amalgamation of what had previously been humbler sciences and arts with the elite natural philosophy which had been developed in the medieval universities.
John Henry

4. Magic and the Origins of Modern Science

Abstract
Further important sources of the empiricism of the Scientific Revolution were to be found in the magical tradition, and these influences can be seen at work in a number of areas. They deserve separate consideration here, however, because they have generated considerable historiographical debate [304; 54; 216; 221; 146]. A number of historians of science have refused to accept that something which they see as so irrational could have had any impact whatsoever upon the supremely rational pursuit of science. Their arguments seem to be based on mere prejudice, or a failure to understand the richness and complexity of the magical tradition.
John Henry

5. The Mechanical Philosophy

Abstract
Natural philosophy and the mathematical disciplines underwent considerable reforms during the Renaissance, but before the dominant scholastic Aristotelianism could be replaced, something more was required. Scholastic natural philosophy was a complete system, seemingly capable of dealing with most questions about the physical world. The Aristotelianism which formed the core of the system was dovetailed pretty neatly with Ptolemaic astronomy and with Galenic medicine. Furthermore, it was based upon a coherent and powerful metaphysics, and, thanks to the work of Thomas Aquinas and other church leaders since the thirteenth century, it was routinely seen as a ‘handmaiden’ to the ‘queen of the sciences’, theology. The essential unity of approach to the nature of the physical world, from the macrocosm to the microcosm, was seen as unshakeable testimony to the truth of the system. During the Renaissance that unity began to break up, but the general tendency among intellectuals was to patch up the old system and to stick with it. To be a natural philosopher, after all, was to be in possession of a key to answering all questions about the physical world.
John Henry

6. Religion and Science

Abstract
There is still a lingering tendency to see science and religion as thoroughly opposed and incompatible approaches to the understanding of fundamental truths about the world. There has been conflict between these two world-views, but that is far from the whole story [26]. Even the so-called ‘Galileo affair’, probably the most well-known example of scientific knowledge coming into conflict with religion, was by no means the inevitable outcome of two supposedly contradictory perspectives.
John Henry

7. Science and the Wider Culture

Abstract
Throughout this brief survey of the Scientific Revolution, we have noted the cultural and social context which is so often necessary to our understanding of developments in science. We have noted, for example, the importance of economic and political changes in the Renaissance, which led to increased demands for practical innovations and to a cultural relativism which helped to break the hold of tradition, and to an increase in the numbers and kinds of patrons willing to support new ways of thinking, whether it be humanist scholarship or more practically oriented arts like magic and mathematics [214; 213; 87; 88; 9; 18; 307; 332]. We have seen how natural history also benefited from these concerns and how a new interest in natural history led to the establishment of cabinets of curiosities, botanic gardens, menageries and museums [214; 52; 97; 98; 161: Ch. 4; 167; 171; 241; 242: Ch. 6; 256; 286; 323]. Patronage also led to the formation of would-be research institutions, independent of the old ways of the universities, with their concern for teaching and their promotion of a contemplative natural philosophy [128; 159: Ch. 2; 160; 161; 194; 202; 211; 23; 226; 242: Ch. 3; 291].
John Henry

8. Conclusion

Abstract
This short book has presented a simplified summary of a vast amount of scholarship. If we wish to simplify even further, and summarize the summary, we could say that in the Renaissance, thanks to the recovery of writings by a number of Ancient writers hitherto known only by reputation, the monolithic authority of Aristotle in natural philosophy began to collapse. The result was not merely an end to the authority of Aristotle, but also an end to the idea that truth can be found in the pronouncements of any authority figure. Seeking a replacement for Aristotelian doctrine, those who were interested in understanding the nature of the physical world turned to, or had their attention brought to, various alternative traditions, which had been excluded from university natural philosophy but were thriving in their own right. These included the mathematical sciences, alchemy and other aspects of natural magic, and at least some of the technical arts.
John Henry
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