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  • The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy: Toward a Heuristic Narrative for the Scientific Revolution

The “Scientific Revolution” is nowadays, as a category, much less attractive to historians than it once was. It seems to carry overtones of Whiggish triumphalism that are widely seen as out of keeping with a proper scholarly understanding of issues to do with the making of European natural knowledge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nonetheless, as our historiographic heritage, it continues to set agendas and direct us to particular problem areas. Given that situation, it is important to know whether we are dealing with nothing but an ideological construct.

An attachment to the “Scientific Revolution” need not be a matter of sentimental attachment to a comfortable historical framework. There are grounds for believing that the older, increasingly unfashionable “master narratives” of the Scientific Revolution still have a lot to offer, even though there are important ways in which they can no longer be accepted. In particular, visionaries such as E. A. Burtt and Alexandre Koyré saw things that really are there, and that therefore cannot simply be dismissed. 1 It is possible, I shall argue, to renovate the classic “Scientific Revolution” as a meaningful object in [End Page 173] the history of science, even if we might today prefer a different term to designate roughly the same referent.


Any “master narrative” is intended by its very nature to subordinate and order the more localized understandings of particular events or themes that are typically the focus of the specialized article literature. 2 But at the same time, that latter kind of scholarship always tends to evade the totalizing ambitions of a master narrative even while implicitly relying on one for its own claims to significance. Historical scholarship thus tends to proceed by a dialectical process wherein ambitious master narratives perennially appear, only to have their pretensions undermined by the objections of smaller-scale detailed research.

Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) is a book that in many ways can be seen as the crucial link between the intellectual and the sociocultural approaches to understanding the history of science. 3 Kuhn’s starting point was the conceptual analysis of past scientific thought, an attempt to “get inside” an alien way of thought. He acknowledged in this regard the importance of Koyré’s work in directing his own approach. 4 We know the result: in Structure, [End Page 174] Kuhn argued that conceptual frameworks—ways of thinking— should be understood in relation to the community that embodied and perpetuated them. Both methodological procedures and metaphysical commitments could be subsumed under the broad notion of a “paradigm” or “disciplinary matrix,” which was to be understood sociologically. 5

Kuhn’s general perspective draws our attention back to the sorts of considerations that made people such as Koyré focus on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the first place. Sociological and anthropological considerations have their appeal in precisely those places where they can help us come to grips with issues of how people thought, and how their conceptual frameworks changed. This in turn means that there is still a place for “master narratives” of the period; there is still room for large stories about its importance for understanding modern science.

Koyré’s and Burtt’s emphasis on “metaphysical frameworks” is no longer historiographically tenable: it disregards local contingency, appears to sideline situated human agency, and talks in zeitgeist-terms about what was “in the air.” However, their take on the matter was motivated by a commendable wish to grasp hold of something that seemed to be an authentic feature of the historical landscape. Their problem was very similar to the problems of talking about such large things as national “cultures.” A few years ago Dominick LaCapra criticized Robert Darnton’s account of the “Great Cat Massacre” on the grounds that it effectively posited some sort of “symbolic system” that hovered in the air, an air that everyone breathed. 6 LaCapra focused on a real difficulty: not the existence of an issue demanding some form of explanation, but the question of finding an adequate idiom in which to understand it. That is, Darnton was onto something...

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pp. 173-193
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