I’ve been thinking lately about the history of science, particularly the period between 1500 and 1700, what is usually referred to as “the scientific revolution.” I’m a bit leery of many accounts of this period, as they often assume that there’s some bright line separating science from what came before.
There’s a tendency to look at people like Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo as modern scientists transplanted into 16th and 17th century settings. What’s often forgotten is that many of these guys were also astrologers (a respected profession at the time), making a living providing astrological readings for noblemen. Indeed, a lot of the motivation for early astronomy was to more accurately predict the movements of planets for better astrology. These figures are best thought of as pioneers of early modernity, rather than modern scientists.
That’s not to say that the period didn’t see remarkable breakthroughs, both in terms of discoveries and methodological improvements. Which seems to beg for an explanation. What led to these sudden rapid improvements?
David Wootton, in his book The Invention of Science, spends a lot of time looking at changes in language, noting that concepts like “discovery” or “fact” didn’t exist prior to this period.
I found the discovery one particularly striking. Prior to about 1500, the concept of discovery doesn’t appear to exist. This fits somewhat with what I’ve read about ancient and medieval cultures. For most human societies, the new and innovative is suspect. What is trustworthy are ancient traditions. Certainly innovation and progress did happen, but it seemed to be in spite of overall societal attitudes toward it, which made it rare and even riskier than it already would have been.
It reminded me of a point that I believe Bart Ehrman made in one of his books, about why early non-Jewish Christians didn’t discard the Old Testament, with its obviously different theology and ethics and its focus on Israeli nationalism. The answer is that credibility in the ancient world came from ancient wisdom. Retaining its links to the ancient Hebrew traditions strengthened Christianity as a movement.
It’s also reminiscent of what I’ve read about Confucianism. Confucius could be seen as ground breaking in not attempting to ground his philosophy in any claims of divine revelation, but his lessons all came from studying history. As a philosophy, Confucianism seemed deeply involved in looking at what had worked in the past.
Prior to the 16th century, when Europeans sought to understand or invent something, there was a sense that they weren’t finding anything new, just retrieving lost knowledge. The idea was that the ancients had all the knowledge, likely from divine sources, and that all people in later ages could do was rediscover the knowledge that had been lost since then. Vestiges of this sense actually continued all through the scientific revolution period, with Newton convinced that he was only relearning things known by ancient Biblical authors and other ancient peoples.
So the preference for the old and tried appears to be a deep human impulse. Modern societies valuing innovation and discovery is somewhat of an aberration. What brought it into western thought? Wootton focuses on Columbus’ voyages and the subsequent realization that he had found a new world. Here was something no one could credibly argue the ancients had ever known about.
Wootton notes that the word “discovery” only starts to appear in written records in the years after Columbus’ voyage. The idea that something completely new could be found started to grow. And the economic rewards attached to being the first person to find new lands, trade routes, and riches created the idea of being the discoverer, with everything that came with it.
It’s interesting that Columbus’ voyage is what started this rather than the earlier Portuguese explorations of the Atlantic and Africa. But the Portuguese were exploring lands that conceivably the Phoenicians and Carthaginians had seen. And I’ve read that they weren’t keen on publishing the results of their voyages, often preferring to keep them as state secrets, limiting later knowledge of them. (To be fair to the Portuguese, they started their voyages before the invention of the printing press, so the idea of publishing them may not have even occurred until late in the period.)
It’s worth noting that the concept of discovery wasn’t completely new. The ancient Greeks obviously had some form of it. (Archimedes could hardly have had anything else in mind when he yelled “eureka”.) But the Romans didn’t appear to find the concept enticing and it faded after they took over. Which means that the concept and valuing of discovery is not something guaranteed to continue, a sobering realization.
Does this mean the scientific revolution might not have happened without the discovery of the new world? I personally doubt it. I think this skirts the main reason the scientific revolution happened, the invention of the printing press.
The European version of the printing press was invented in the middle of the 15th century. By 1500, I’ve read estimates that more copies of books were produced than manuscripts had been copied in the previous 1000 years. And the volume of the 15th century was paltry compared to what came in the 16th and subsequent centuries.
The result was an explosion of knowledge transfer. It suddenly became much easier to acquire knowledge, and then use that knowledge as a base for further investigation. Progress which might have previously taken centuries or millenia suddenly was taking decades. I think this, more than any one conceptual breakthrough, is what led to the period that now looks like a revolution to us.
If Columbus had not ushered in the concept of discovery, it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t have eventually come in anyway.
Unless, of course, I’m missing something.