[Marxism] The Invention of Science

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 26 05:48:18 MDT 2016


LRB, Vol. 38 No. 18 · 22 September 2016

Such Matters as the Soul
Dmitri Levitin

The Invention of Science: a New History of the Scientific Revolution by 
David Wootton
Penguin, 784 pp, £12.99, September, ISBN 978 0 14 104083 7

On 11 February, David Reitze, executive director of the Laser 
Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) in the US, 
announced that his team of almost a thousand scientists had detected 
evidence of gravitational waves emanating from a pair of black holes 1.3 
billion light years from Earth. It was empirical confirmation of 
Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The observation required 
astonishing technical precision: the 4 km-long arms of each of the two 
branches of Ligo, three thousand miles apart in Louisiana and 
Washington, were altered by just one ten-thousandth of the width of a 
proton, proportionally equivalent to changing the distance to our 
nearest star by a hair’s width. The announcement was greeted with a 
sense of wonder at human ingenuity, even by those who neither understood 
the physics involved, nor why the result was so important.

How, historically, did we arrive at a situation in which science holds 
such sway over our imaginations, and such power, financial not least 
(Ligo’s total cost is around $620 million)? One answer, almost as old as 
the events that it describes and subscribed to by many historians, runs 
something like this. Before 1492, literate Europeans derived their 
knowledge of the universe from authoritative classical texts, on the 
basis of which they concluded that change was limited to the sublunary 
world (beyond this were the unchanging heavens), at the centre of which 
lay an Earth with no antipodes. The institutions in which this knowledge 
was propagated – primarily the universities – were centres of rigid 
Latinate pedantry. Then America was discovered and there was a wave of 
reverence for empirical, non-bookish knowledge, which culminated in the 
findings of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, all of whom worked outside 
the official world of learning (the institutions, meanwhile, remained 
tragically wedded to the old authorities). This Scientific Revolution 
slowly but surely ushered in an age of rationalism, sweeping away the 
superstition of the medieval world and the Renaissance humanists’ 
slavish reverence for ancient, textual authority.

A new version of this story is told in David Wootton’s ambitious, 
trenchantly polemical new book. But before talking about revolution, we 
should ask what was being revolutionised; before dismissing something as 
rigid and ossified, we might ask whether things really were as bad as 
all that. What did science look like before the Scientific Revolution? 
And was there something about the Western world that made it uniquely 
suitable as a crucible for the development of science?

There can be no doubt that the origins of something like science lie in 
the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, in particular their 
development of medical, mathematical and astronomical techniques and 
observations. The Babylonians’ astronomy and mathematics was 
sufficiently advanced that, by the first millennium BC, they may have 
been able to predict eclipses of the moon (which is not to say that 
their astronomy wasn’t for the most part developed in service of 
celestial divination). Babylonian astrology/astronomy (the two cannot be 
separated) was communicated to Hellenistic Greece in the third and 
second centuries BC, and that inheritance shaped the European 
astronomical enterprise for the next two thousand years. Even so, there 
is some foundation for the traditional story – as old as Aristotle – 
that speculation about nature was revolutionised by a group of Greeks 
from the sixth century BC onwards. Although modern historians have 
qualified Aristotle’s claims, it remains the consensus that a small 
group of thinkers, based around Miletus in Ionia, asked questions about 
the world in a way that was unknown to, and directly critical of, their 
predecessors. They were interested in questions about the world’s shape 
and composition, in particular whether it was made up of one substance 
or many. Most important, the answers they came up with, though to the 
modern mind they appear fanciful and unscientific, were naturalistic. 
Where Homer and Hesiod had accounted for phenomena such as earthquakes 
or lightning storms in terms of divine intervention, by the sixth 
century BC Thales could claim that the earth floated on water, and that 
earthquakes were caused by wave-tremors. What’s more, philosophers of 
this period knew and criticised one another’s ideas. Thales believed 
that the originating principle of all things was water, Anaximander that 
it was a boundless, primordial mass (apeiron), and Anaximenes that it 
was air. Unlike the composers of myths who preceded them, these 
philosophers were aware that their explanations were mutually exclusive, 
and that a process of debate was needed to establish the superiority of 
one over another.

As far as we can tell, there was no instrumental reason for these 
intellectual endeavours: they were conducted for their own sake, or 
because a life of contemplation was considered a life well spent. 
Whatever the causes of the turn to naturalism, however, we know more 
about its consequences, which included the advancement of two 
methodological principles that are still central to modern science. The 
first was the application of mathematics to the understanding of natural 
phenomena, which was pioneered by the Pythagoreans and by Plato, and 
culminated in the astronomical model proposed by Eudoxus of Cnidus 
(408-355 BC), who suggested that the complex paths of the celestial 
bodies – including the planets’ apparent retrograde motion at one point 
in their cycle – could be explained by a complex model of concentric 
spheres, a model that survived, though much altered, until Kepler. The 
second key development was empirical research, sometimes undertaken in a 
very systematic manner. Most important here are the medical writings 
that we call the Hippocratic Corpus (now known not to have been by 
Hippocrates himself), most of which date from the late fifth or the 
fourth century BC. They were focused much more on practical issues than 
the writings of the philosophers, but shared with them a desire to 
assert the naturalness of such phenomena as disease – the treatise On 
the Sacred Disease, for example, disputes divine explanations for 
epilepsy. Later in the fourth century, Aristotle would combine 
philosophical and medical approaches, especially in his zoological 
books, which present the results of an astonishing effort of 
fact-gathering – more than five hundred different species of animal are 
discussed, including about 120 kinds of fish and sixty kinds of insect.

The Athenian philosophers established schools, some of them 
long-lasting, but they never sustained anything like the research 
programme that went on at the Lyceum under Aristotle’s first successors, 
Theophrastus and Strato. The real institutional innovation took place in 
the Hellenistic world, at Alexandria, where the Museum (not a museum in 
the modern sense, but simultaneously a religious shrine, a library and a 
philosophical school), founded in around 280 BC, was the first example 
of advanced learning funded by patronage, a model later adopted by Roman 
emperors like Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, who endowed 
philosophical chairs in Athens and elsewhere.

Would these have turned into something like modern universities had the 
Roman Empire not fallen? Surely not. The Romans, for all that they took 
from the Greeks, and for all their technological innovation (water 
wheels, hydraulic saws, perhaps even ox-powered paddle-wheel boats), 
weren’t interested in abstract natural philosophy, mathematics or 
astronomy beyond their value as leisure activities.​1 This reminds us of 
the contingency of the Greek achievement, and the precarious status of 
ideas and modes of inquiry when they are not transmitted within 
long-term institutions. With the collapse of Rome and the decline in 
urban populations, the practice of science dwindled hand in hand with 
institutional support. This was not the fault, as has sometimes been 
claimed, of an intolerant and anti-intellectual Christianity. It’s true 
that monastic education wasn’t focused on scientific matters, but it 
could still, on rare occasions, achieve remarkable results, such as the 
flourishing of the mathematical arts in Irish monasteries between the 
sixth and ninth centuries. But the Greek tradition of scientific inquiry 
weakened significantly, especially because of the (somewhat puzzling) 
absence of systematic scientific activity in the Byzantine Empire, the 
natural inheritor of Hellenic thought.

It was left to Islam to reawaken the Greek tradition. It is a remarkable 
development: how did a tribal culture, with low levels of literacy and 
connected above all by shared adherence to a set of religious 
revelations, come within the space of a hundred years to establish, fund 
and organise a systematic programme of translation of medical, 
scientific and other works with almost no parallel in human history? The 
crucial moment was the overthrow of the Umayyad caliphate by the 
Abbasids in the eighth century, which led to the replacement of the 
Umayyad model of Arab tribalism by an imperial ideology with an 
attendant international bureaucracy. The educated elites of the 
caliphate’s conquered peoples – Persians and Berbers, but also 
Syriac-speaking Christians – came to its new capital, Baghdad (founded 
in 762). New technologies arrived too, most significantly the Chinese 
process for paper-making, which produced a much lighter, stronger and 
cheaper material than papyrus and parchment.

Over the course of the next three hundred years, almost the whole of 
Greek science was translated into Arabic. The aims of Islamic science 
were less abstract and more instrumental than the Greeks’ had been. 
Their greatest endeavours and advances were in mathematics (for use not 
least in accounting), astronomy (rarely separated from astrology) and 
medicine. Islamic astronomers such as al-Battani made many improvements 
to Ptolemy’s findings and methods. Later, they built observatories that 
functioned not unlike modern research institutes; the most famous of 
these were at Maragha, in present-day north-eastern Iran, which may even 
have housed visiting Chinese astronomers, and at Samarqand, which had an 
underground sextant with a forty-metre radius. Using observations made 
at Maragha in the 14th century, Ibn al-Shatir produced lunar and 
planetary models; mathematically identical counterparts of them would 
make their way into Copernicus’s De revolutionibus (1543). The Zij-i 
Sultani, the star catalogue produced by Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) was still 
in demand by members of the Royal Society more than two hundred years 
after its creation. Results in experimental optics were no less 
impressive: at the end of the tenth century, Abu Sa‘d al-‘Ala’ ibn Sahl, 
through experiments with curved mirrors and lenses, effectively 
discovered the modern law of refraction; three hundred years later, 
Kamal al-Din al-Farisi (1267-1319) used water-filled glass spheres to 
simulate the conditions necessary to produce a rainbow, showing that 
rainbows were formed by a combination of reflection and refraction (not 
just the former, as had been thought since Aristotle).

The great ‘renaissance’ in 12th-century Europe occurred in places where 
contact with Islamic learning was greatest, such as Toledo, reconquered 
in the late 11th century, and Salerno in Campania, and was based almost 
entirely on the translation of Arabic versions of Greek texts and Arabic 
commentaries on them. However, the best efforts of medieval Westerners 
went not into observational astronomy or zoology, but into refining 
Aristotelian metaphysics and natural philosophy. There were some 
important findings – the work of Nicole Oresme (c.1320-82) on 
kinematics, for example, was later used by Galileo – but for the most 
part, the criticisms of scholastic natural philosophy that became 
prevalent in the 16th and 17th centuries were not unjustified. Medieval 
Europe did, however, offer up one truly revolutionary innovation, which 
would shape the way science is done until the present day: the university.

*

Universities began as communities of private scholars and their students 
in the rapidly growing urban centres of the 12th century; they protected 
their privileges by adopting the model of the guild used by craftsmen. 
By the early 13th century, the universities in Bologna, Paris and Oxford 
were already thriving; around 750,000 students matriculated at European 
universities between 1350 and 1500, by which time sixty institutions had 
been established. The popular misunderstanding of medieval and early 
modern universities is that they were institutions dominated by 
religion, in which debate was strictly controlled and censored. In 
reality they were astonishingly secular and free: the faculty of arts, 
which was attended by the majority of students, taught solely secular 
subjects. Chief among them was natural philosophy, which, though it was 
regarded as a handmaiden to theology, consisted primarily of the 
theologically irrelevant subjects of Aristotle’s Libri naturales: the 
heavens, generation and corruption, the elements, meteors, animals, 
minerals and the soul. Theological topics were banned, and only the 
small minority of students who went on to the higher theology faculty 
(the other higher faculties, law and medicine, were also in great part 
secular) applied natural philosophical learning to religious ends.

Other advanced societies – not just ancient Greece and medieval Islam, 
but China too – had developed their own means of preserving knowledge 
and public records, but never universities. In the Islamic world, 
institutions that had functioned as centres of scientific pedagogy, such 
as the great observatories, tended to disappear on the death of their 
patron; elsewhere, scientific education was left to autodidacts, or 
conducted by individual tutors. While Arabic science remained ‘ahead’ of 
its Western counterpart until at least the 14th century, Western Europe 
achieved an institutionalisation of the classical scientific tradition 
that was unique, conferring social sanction on it, creating career 
opportunities for scholars and, most important, creating a space in 
which scientific curiosity – at least about the questions posed by the 
Greeks – could be pursued without hindrance.

This state of affairs continued during the European Renaissance of the 
15th and 16th centuries. The Renaissance humanists were not, as 
historians still sometimes assume, obsessed only with rhetorical style 
and philological minutiae. Their rediscovery and reinterpretation of 
Greek texts in particular caused a great shock to scholastic 
Aristotelianism. Regiomontanus’s meticulous epitome of Ptolemy was the 
chief inspiration for Copernicus’s radical ideas; new readings of 
Pliny’s Natural History produced a model of science very different from 
Aristotle even at his most empirical; and engagement with the new Greek 
texts of Hippocrates and Galen transformed learned medicine.

Humanism was quickly incorporated into the university curriculum, and 
faced little opposition. The ‘new science’ could claim to be the 
inheritor of an esteemed ancient tradition – which in many ways it was. 
Outsiders like Francis Bacon, Tomasso Campanella and René Descartes 
liked to trumpet their novelty and to denigrate tradition. They used to 
be taken at their word by historians, but now we know better. The 16th 
century was a period of intensive urbanisation and, concomitantly, a 
large rise in university matriculations (in England, such levels of 
higher education and social mobility within the university system 
wouldn’t be seen again until the 20th century). Urbanisation also 
increased the demand for ‘non-learned’ practitioners such as 
apothecaries, who extolled the virtues of practical, ‘hands-on’ 
knowledge. But even they, in their frequent battles with learned 
physicians, evoked the classical medical tradition, drawing on humanist 
scholarship to present themselves as the true inheritors of Hippocrates 
and Galen.

The deepening institutionalisation of the classical tradition of 
scientific curiosity meant that the new experimental results that 
started appearing from the 16th century onwards could increasingly be 
accepted for scientific rather than social or political reasons. In the 
case of astronomy, Tycho Brahe’s discovery of diurnal parallax and 
Galileo’s telescopic discovery of the phases of Venus led to the 
abandonment both of the Aristotelian idea that the superlunary world is 
unchangeable and of the Ptolemaic system (although not quite yet to 
heliocentricism). We are now in the heart of the material covered by 
Wootton, and he charts with admirable lucidity the routes by which the 
new findings came to be accepted by a large proportion of the scientific 
community.

Perhaps less spectacular from today’s perspective, but even more 
important on a methodological level, were Evangelista Torricelli’s 
mercury experiments of 1643. When a glass tube filled with mercury is 
inverted and placed in a basin of mercury, the mercury in the tube 
sinks, coming to rest at a height of about thirty inches, with the space 
above it a vacuum. This result was highly contentious – the possibility 
of a vacuum had been much disputed since the Greeks – and Wootton again 
demonstrates how experimental evidence could create scientific 
consensus, first in France and then in Italy and England. Many 
introductions to the Scientific Revolution have focused too much on 
developments in England, but Wootton’s account is refreshingly 
international, showing that scientific communities were driven first and 
foremost by discoveries communicated to them in letters and by the 
printing press, rather than by local sociological factors, such as 
political debates or religious identities. (Wootton might have done more 
to emphasise too that Latin remained the universal learned language well 
into the 18th century.)

‘New observations were fatal to old theories,’ Wootton writes. His focus 
on the scientific-empirical reasons for the acceptance of scientific 
conclusions is a welcome check on the preoccupation with the social 
context of early modern science at the expense of any descriptions of 
the content of scientific practice. But Wootton is so keen to sweep 
aside sociological explanations that he feels compelled to insist on the 
most radical thesis possible about the power of individual discoveries 
and the novelty of the Scientific Revolution. Greek and Islamic science 
are summarily dismissed as unmodern. In the West, from the 11th to the 
mid-18th centuries, the only thing taught at the universities was 
Aristotelian philosophy: everyone ‘assumed that all that needed to be 
known was to be found in Aristotle.’ The nefarious alliance of 
Aristotelianism with Christianity, with its ‘liturgical repetition’, 
produced a mainstream intellectual culture in which novelty was 
impossible. Only the discoveries of uninstitutionalised outsiders – 
first Columbus, and then the heroic scientists who opposed Aristotelian 
and Christian orthodoxy – made progress possible; at the same time, that 
progress was ‘inevitable’, because the discovery of empirical facts in 
itself determines their acceptance.

But was mainstream, institutional culture really so backward? There are 
good reasons for believing that the universities’ role as a vehicle for 
preserving curiosity remained central in the 17th century. After all, 
the first members of the Royal Society had, before its formation, met in 
Oxford, and many of its key members, including Christopher Wren and 
Thomas Willis, were professors of astronomy or natural philosophy there. 
Change happened not because a few radical outsiders toppled a 
conservative mainstream, but because the mainstream was able to 
accommodate change within traditional frameworks. Take the example of 
Galileo’s findings on mechanics, motion and the heaviness of air in the 
Discorsi (1638). Through meticulous archival research in Italy, the 
young American historian Renée Raphael has demonstrated that Jesuit 
university teachers (but also readers of English, Irish and French 
origins) incorporated Galileo’s experimental results and theoretical 
conclusions into their work, not because the ‘new’ was supplanting the 
‘old’, but because new claims and methods were ‘folded into traditional 
styles of scholarship by means of traditional, bookish methods’.

*

Seventeenth-century science, for all its novelty, was structurally 
similar to its Greek, Arabic and medieval predecessors. Indeed, the 
concept of ‘science’ didn’t yet exist. Scholars undertook a mixture of 
natural philosophy, mathematics and medicine, and such matters as the 
soul – traditionally the province not of theology but of natural 
philosophy – remained a staple of ‘scientific’ thought through to the 
18th century. Wootton prefers to employ an anachronistic distinction 
between the epithets of ‘mathematician’ and ‘scientist’ (applied to 
those he likes) and ‘natural philosopher’ (reserved for those he 
doesn’t); but presumably the Kepler who ‘presented himself not as a 
great philosopher but as someone prepared to grub around for facts’ is 
not the same Kepler who wrote to a friend in 1619 beseeching him (in my 
translation) ‘not to condemn me wholly to the treadmill of mathematical 
calculations, but to indulge me the time for philosophical speculation, 
my sole pleasure’.

Wootton’s desire to make mathematics the only source of innovation – he 
states that ‘the Scientific Revolution is not many revolutions but one, 
for the simple reason that the inspiration for all the different 
revolutions that make it up came from the mathematicians’ – obscures 
innovations in other spheres of thought. Strikingly, medicine is 
discussed only in a chapter titled ‘The Mathematisation of the World’, 
for the sole reason that Vesalius and his successors used anatomical 
diagrams partly inspired by the development of perspective painting. 
This goes against a generation of work by scholars such as Nancy 
Siraisi, which has demonstrated that 16th-century medicine – much of it 
anchored in traditional institutions like the universities, and 
traditional practices like the humanist commentary – played a key role 
in increasing the centrality of direct experience and observation, and 
the construction of a scientific community. To say that such communities 
had ‘never established anything resembling normal science’ seems 
implausible when it was above all William Harvey, discoverer of the 
circulation of the blood (barely mentioned by Wootton), a devoted 
Aristotelian trained at the Universities of Cambridge and Padua, who 
inspired the generation of Oxford natural philosophers and physicians 
who went on to form the core of the early Royal Society.​2 And while it 
may well be the case that ‘in the 18th century, modern chemistry 
established itself not as a continuation of but as a refutation of 
alchemy,’ it was alchemical experimentation that supplied the main 
empirical evidence for the move, much celebrated by Wootton, from 
Aristotelian matter theory to the microparticulate theories of the 17th 
century (alchemists were understandably keen to believe that substances 
could be broken down into small constituent parts, and then rearranged 
in a new manner).

Wootton does nothing to challenge the conventional wisdom that modernity 
emerged when the textual, humanistic, authority-based culture of the 
Middle Ages and the Renaissance was replaced by the empirical, 
rationalist, post-Cartesian culture of science and freedom of thought. 
This story was first told by the propagandists of the French 
Enlightenment, and it has been so successful because it offers something 
to everyone across the political spectrum. On the right it is accepted 
by proponents of liberal modernity as well as its (often religious) 
critics; on the left by triumphalists (Marxists, secularists) as well as 
pessimists (the Frankfurt School’s critique of the ‘enlightenment project’).

But scientists never adhered to a simple divide between ‘ancients and 
moderns’ (that debate was a short-lived and trivial affair in 1680s 
France and 1690s England): they continued to ground their experimental 
and mathematical practice in textual traditions. And they did so not 
because they didn’t believe in progress, but because, like Galileo’s 
Jesuit readers (and Galileo himself), it didn’t occur to them that what 
they were doing might be outside the framework of the ancient traditions 
they had studied in such detail in the universities. To take just a few 
English examples: Bacon did not primarily take Columbus ‘as his model’, 
as Wootton puts it, but claimed to be following in the footsteps of the 
pre-Socratics, especially Democritus, the image of whom as a 
proto-experimentalist he derived from Renaissance medical texts; Robert 
Boyle obsessively situated his own discoveries within the context of 
ancient chemistry; Henry Power wrote long philological letters to other 
scientists on the history of Greek and Near Eastern astronomy; Edmond 
Halley learned Arabic just so that he could reconstruct the lost eighth 
book of Apollonius’s Conics; and Isaac Newton’s belief that his 
discoveries were part of a long historical tradition was not a ‘private 
eccentricity’, but was based on deep reading in contemporary 
philological literature.

Indeed, the case can be made that the humanities, not the natural 
sciences, were the prime mover in the emergence of ‘modernity’. Science 
had virtually no impact on religious dogma until much later: even the 
most heated debates between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ – over the age of 
the world and the compatibility of Genesis with natural philosophical 
theories – were as much about new methods of biblical interpretation as 
they were about physics and geology. Rather, it was late humanism, 
inspired by philologists such as Joseph Scaliger, which posed the most 
difficulties for educated Christians: the revelation that the Bible was 
a text written by humans, with many versions and many textual problems; 
that early Christianity was essentially a Jewish sect; that Christian 
dogma had been born out of Greek philosophy; that human chronology 
seemed to extend well beyond the biblical; or even that celestial 
phenomena were not to be treated as portents. Once again, these 
arguments were developed not by radical outsiders – we know, for 
example, that Spinoza’s historical-theological ideas were not taken 
seriously by many – but within the institutionalised mainstream. Clerics 
eagerly seized on such ideas as deadly weapons in inter-confessional 
warfare. It was ultimately from the world of Latinate, humanistic 
scholarship – in which knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and other Near 
Eastern languages was everything – and not from Descartes’s dismissal of 
humanism, that the ideas of what we may or may not choose to call the 
‘enlightenment’ emerged.

It is here – and not in the phoney war between science and religion 
(among the religious, only biblical fundamentalists are really troubled 
by science) or the stale battles between realists and constructivists in 
the philosophy of science (who really questions the predictive power of 
modern science?) – that the most powerful implications of the history of 
early modern science for the present may lie. If we are looking for the 
origins of modernity in the intellectual world of the 17th century, we 
will find it in the humanities as much as in the sciences. Perhaps that, 
and not the more usual moralising, is the proper basis for a defence of 
the humanities today.



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