The discovery of discovery

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.

Bar chart showing the dramatic increases in print production from the 15th through the 18th century.
Image credit: Tentotwo via Wikipedia (click through for source)

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.

25 thoughts on “The discovery of discovery

  1. Great minds think alike! (I am reading the same book.)

    I tend to agree with your thesis above in that many people don’t realize what a foundation stone communication is in science. Without the communication aspects of science it would be a feeble thing indeed. (This requirement is showing cracks in its edifice with the publication problems with for pay journals, with proprietary research being hidden away and public research also being hidden away by economic interests.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It probably came up for you too as a bargain book. I know that’s what got me reading it. Although I don’t know if I’m going to finish it. I’m finding his obsession with the minutia of language usage a bit tedious.

      Scientific journals were a major innovation in the 17th century. And they’ve undoubtedly been a crucial player in the history of science ever since. But the internet has really upended their business model. There is value in vetting papers, but I’m not sure it’s enough. I’m increasingly wondering if they’ve had their day.


  2. I read somewhere that hunter-gatherer societies typically have a food tester. That implies that they are open to the opportunities – and risks – of discovering new foods. Maybe the preference for established tradition is peculiar to agricultural societies – maybe related to their hierarchical structure and the ways they justify it.


    1. I hadn’t heard that before about hunter-gatherer food testers. Interesting.

      Definitely, it’s possible it’s an agricultural phenomenon. I know hunter gather societies are egalitarian. Anatomically modern humans only seem to get hierarchical once we’re tied to the land. It might be that traditionalism is another thing that kicks in then. Farming is complicated, and getting it wrong could leave you in a lot of trouble, which probably makes for conservative societies.


  3. So the term “discovery” wasn’t used before the 16th century? Interesting. I suppose that without this term a person shouldn’t have as good a conceptual grasp of what’s needed. Of course people still had problems that required figuring out, and even if it was presumed that the ancients understood. I suppose that the “relearn” term doesn’t hold quite the same bite as actual “discovery”.

    One thing I can add to this is that the Crash Course people did a wonderful series on the history of science. Here’s the first 13 minute video.

    I believe there are 46 of them in total, so plan on getting a great deal of information about the history of science if you take it right up to present day issues. I’ve found that You tube would sometimes provide the wrong following video, so if anything seems amiss then type in the properly numbered episode. Fortunately this series is narrated by Hank Green, who I find extremely insightful.

    Beyond random interesting points of how we got here, I was struck by how often people with good ideas would be overlooked until someone with the right political backing (or whatever) could hammer it through. It gets to my point that we’re all self interested products of our circumstances who thus believe what’s convenient for us to believe. Thus if modern science does suffer without a respected group of professionals armed with accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology from which to better found this institution, paradigms should need shifting to make way for such an eventual achievement. Thus I try not to take it personally that others find my ideas difficult to grasp and assess.


    1. I’ve been through most of that Crash Course series, although it’s been awhile. I recall it being pretty good, albeit often cursory.

      For acceptance of scientific theories, historically the main things needed are the credentials of the author, rigor (mathematical or technical precision), and corroborating empirical data. Copernicus had the first two but not the third when he put forth his heliocentrism theory. As a result it languished for several decades until the invention of the telescope.

      Of course, even with all these, there’s no guarantee. Gregor Mendel had all of them but his theory didn’t take off in his lifetime. But without them, political influence won’t matter, at least not within scientific circles. (Obviously the public is less discerning.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mike,
        Your observations about the minimum criterial for scientific acceptance may be referred to as “epistemology”, of course, or one of the three branches of philosophy that I believe will need for us to develop a respected group of professionals with associated proclamations from which to better found the institution of science. My own associated principle is a bit more basic:

        There is only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. It takes what it thinks it knows (or evidence), and uses this to assess what it’s not so sure about (or a model). As a given model continues to remain consistent with with evidence, it tends to progressively becomes more believed.

        Today most of science does seem to follow this reasonably well, that is except when the process becomes too inconvenient. As you know, Sabine Hossenfelder demonstrates that modern physicists fail here by trying to substitute “beauty” for evidence.

        In that first video Hank implies that science does still have a long way to go, and ties this to method. Over at Rationally Speaking you may have noticed that Julia Galef was recently stupefied by the “Who cares?” reaction that psychologists have had after the famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment was displayed as a scripted farce.
        It’s as if the field has decided that its reproducibility “crisis”, needn’t be actively countered. As I’ve said, we’re all self interested products of our circumstances. If so then psychologists ought to understand this better than anyone given that it’s their job is to reduce human function into graspable ideas. To facilitate such an understanding, it seems to me that the paradigm which will need to fall, may be referred to as “morality”.

        By the way, Hank also did a series on Psychology that I recommend, as well as Philosophy.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Eric,
          My points about acceptance weren’t meant to be normative, just descriptive, although they’re not terrible as a normative standard. For me, it always comes down to prediction. If a model more accurately predicts future observations than the alternatives, then it should be retained.

          The difficulty comes in when you have multiple models that all more or less make the same (testable) predictions. Then we have to look at the most parsimonious one, although that standard is unavoidably subjective.

          I haven’t listened to that RS episode. As I understand it, the Stanford experiment has always been controversial. I’ve seen it mentioned in a lot of business seminars and on TV, but when I’ve seen psychologists discuss it, they’ve always cautioned that it was shaky science, at best, even before the replication crisis. But most of psychology does appear to be taking the replication crisis seriously. (Some of the old guard aren’t, but at a cost to their credibility.)

          Liked by 1 person

      2. Mike,
        I do appreciate that you were speaking descriptively, as was I. That ending “morality” quip concerns more of a deep seated problem that I consider to infect both psychology and philosophy in general. I didn’t elaborate on this above, though I certainly could if anyone would like me to.

        In the podcast they frame this “experiment” as a staple of introductory courses, and that it’s one of the most popularly known experiments in the field. (I don’t specifically if recall if Hank Green went into this in his Crash Course psychology. Perhaps he did though a quick search didn’t bring up any evidence.) They mentioned that it’s been challenged in the field merely for it being unethical to put subjects through this sort of thing, not for being “fake science”. The irony is that because no one was allowed to try again, it also remained unchallenged.

        Anyway apparently it’s one of the many skeletons in the field’s closet. Today I’d hope for rousing support for an author who bothered to check the archives on it, and even if he was only able to write his book in French. This interview suggests that his efforts have been less than supported in the field. Of course this entire debacle falls right into my own lap. Yes, problems do seem to remain in the field.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re right that we should never take progress for granted. I think there are forces (perhaps most obviously within the environmental and anti-vax movements) that are already pushing to reverse at least certain types of scientific and technological progress.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. To me the entire history of the human race is one of progress, at least in fits and starts, so I see things such as the printing press or discovery of far-off lands inevitable. If Einstein had never lived, someone else would have figured out SR and GR.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Across all of humanity I think that’s true. It’s probably accurate to say that someone would have eventually invented or discovered those things, but I’m not sure anything is inevitable about which society or historical period they happened in.

      Printing was actually invented first in China, but it never seemed to become the enabling technology it did in Europe. (Some of it might have to do with the traditional Chinese writing system, which wasn’t conducive to economical movable type.)

      And the Chinese started to have their own age of discovery, but it was very short lived. Here the national competitions may have given European civilization an overall advantage.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. China had social-political issues that seemed to stagnate development (but never forget they invented gunpowder). As you indicate, their language was complex, which was an issue for learning and using as well as recording and publishing. The cultural often put style (or politics) ahead of substance (or reality), and the language is a good example of that.

        That ultimately cost them dearly, and it offers a cautionary tale about the danger of allowing style and politics to win out over substance and reality. A culture can end up going down a very bad path that way…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t know if it was so much style, as the luck of the draw. The west just happened to develop alphabets while they continued using a system with a symbol for every word. If hieroglyphs or cuneiform had stuck around as the writing system in the west, we might have been in the same boat.

          And the fact that they had one central government, instead of separate governments in competition with each other (as Europe did), made it easy for the emperors to flake out and end their brief exploration period. If they hadn’t, the Portuguese might have rounded the Cape of Good Hope and run into a Chinese dominated Indian Ocean, with who knows what consequences for world history.

          The thing about world history is that dominance never stays in one place. 1000 years ago the pinnacle of civilization was in the middle eastern Islamic kingdoms. The late 21st century might belong to the Chinese. You have to wonder if Africa or South America might not get their turn someday.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. My bet is that China will become by far the richest nation in the world, and perhaps even per capita! Why? Because unlike any other nation, its Social Credit System should give it a unified direction. Children should be taught to obey the government, and for their own benefit. Crime should become quite uncommon, with government criticism more rare still. The lesson should be that in order to reap substantial rewards, as well as avoid persecution, always smile, and always follow the rules. I suspect that we’ll be horrified by the level of control this government gains over its people. Furthermore we should be amazed by how prosperous Chinese people in general become under this system.


          2. I’m skeptical the Social Credit System will work as well as you think it will. It assumes the Chinese government has figured out what leads to prosperity, and that it won’t be subject to abuse from officials, or gaming from its citizens. I can’t see that history gives support for either. But only time will tell.

            Liked by 2 people

  6. “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.”

    Somebody has argued that ancient Greek couldn’t see the color “blue” because they didn’t describe the ocean that way. Or the Jaynes argument the Greeks were unconscious because they didn’t write about their inner life. I think generally the stronger forms of linguistic relativity have been discarded so I don’t know how much stock to put into that aspect of the argument.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know that this is as strong an assertion as in those cases. Those are more primal assertions that seem hard to justify by only looking at written accounts. The concept of discovery seems higher level, and more plausible as something that might not occur to people.

      For example, I don’t think anyone would argue that money or days of the week are primal concepts. They likely didn’t exist in any meaningful sense before we had language for them. The question is whether discovery is more like them, or more like perceiving blue.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Since preschool, I loved to explore all daily stuffs, especially those dumped by grownups at places. I was always delighted to find discarded crayons and chalks among them. 😊 Discovery is indeed, how a child learns naturally, and exploration is a sign of open mind.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point. It took Amerigo Vespucci to figure out that they were not Asia, and that didn’t happen until 1502, after the word “discovery” appears, which weakens Wootton’s thesis a bit. And as I pointed out in the Copernicus post, Copernicus still had to ground his model in ancient wisdom, even though he was writing several decades after the start of the Age of Discovery.

      Liked by 1 person

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