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The Copernican Question

Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order

Robert Westman

Publication Year: 2011

In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus publicly defended his hypothesis that the earth is a planet and the sun a body resting near the center of a finite universe. But why did Copernicus make this bold proposal? And why did it matter? The Copernican Question reframes this pivotal moment in the history of science, centering the story on a conflict over the credibility of astrology that erupted in Italy just as Copernicus arrived in 1496. Copernicus engendered enormous resistance when he sought to protect astrology by reconstituting its astronomical foundations. Robert S. Westman shows that efforts to answer the astrological skeptics became a crucial unifying theme of the early modern scientific movement. His interpretation of this "long sixteenth century," from the 1490s to the 1610s, offers a new framework for understanding the great transformations in natural philosophy in the century that followed.

Published by: University of California Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-xii


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pp. xiii-xvi

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xvii-xx

...Under what conditions do people change or give up beliefs to which they are most deeply committed? This general concern lay behind my original interest in the topic of this book: why and how Copernicus changed his own thinking about the organization of the heavens and what made his discovery persuasive to others after its...

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pp. 1-22

...Is the Earth motionless at the center of a finite, star-studded sphere, or is it a planet moving in an annual circuit around the center? Medieval scholastic natural philosophers debated all sorts of imaginative questions of this kind: whether there are, or could be, more worlds; if there were several worlds, whether the earth of one could be moved naturally to the center of another...

Part I: Copernicus’s Space of Possibilities

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1. The Literature of the Heavens and the Science of the Stars

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pp. 25-61

...In the fifteenth century, a vast and complex literature described, explained, and invoked the motions of the heavens and their influences on the Earth. From the 1470s onward, the learning of the heavens, much of it inherited from the ancient and medieval worlds, began to acquire a new sort of accessibility as it was reproduced in the medium of print. This...

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2. Constructing the Future

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pp. 62-75

...Copernicus’s arrival in Bologna to continue his studies in 1496 coincided with these emergent conditions. Violence and insecurity were almost continuous from the French invasion of Italy in 1494 to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The military historian J. R. Hale wrote of the sixteenth century...

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3. Copernicus and the Crisis of the Bologna Prognosticators,1496–1500

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pp. 76-106

...Copernicus was involved in a culture of astrological prognosticators during his student years in Bologna. Although not a single word about astrology has survived in his writings, a great deal can be said about the specific circumstances that framed his involvement with that subject as a local practice. Indeed...

Part II: Confessional and Interconfessional Spacesof Prophecy and Prognostication

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4. Between Wittenberg and Rome

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pp. 109-140

...Copernicus first formulated his new arrangement of the heavens amid the intellectual skepticism and political insecurity of the late fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century prognosticatory culture of the northern Italian university towns. When his mature hypotheses of celestial order finally appeared between 1540 and 1543, however, it was at a time of historic upheaval no less conflicted about the legitimacy of knowledge...

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5. The Wittenberg Interpretation of Copernicus’s Theory

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pp. 141-170

...How easy it was to grasp is another matter. The remarks of the learned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius were not atypical. Commenting on Copernicus’s discussion of the precession theory, he wrote: “He speaks confusingly, and he explicates and describes with extreme difficulty, so that soon it appears to me to be written so that everything is in conflict with everything...

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6. Varieties of Astrological Credibility

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pp. 171-193

...In the middle decades of the sixteenth century, the surging tide of prognosticatory activity exacerbated tensions among different claimants to foreknowledge. Although early modern popes and cardinals were notorious consumers of astrological advice, leading theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, were united in the belief that their god alone had secure...

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7. Foreknowledge, Skepticism, and Celestial Order in Rome

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pp. 194-220

...the most propitious moment to lay the cornerstone of the wing of the Vatican palace named after his family; but there is no evidence that his astrologers advised him beforehand about the arrival of a technical work on planetary theory. Paul was deeply preoccupied with other matters. Voices urging spiritual and institutional renewal and reform had been growing louder for more than a century...

Part III: Accommodating Unanticipated, Singular Novelties

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8. Planetary Order, Astronomical Reform,and the Extraordinary Course of Nature

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pp. 223-258

...Attention to the science of astronomy, already so well sustained in the Wittenberg cultural sphere, received an unexpected boost with the dramatic and unheralded arrival of two apparitions in the skies of the 1570s. One of these was a brilliant entity—represented variously as a meteor, a comet, or a new star—that appeared in 1572 and...

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9. The Second-Generation Copernicans

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pp. 259-280

...A generation can be thought of as defining for a group of practitioners a space of temporally bound experiences and conceptual possibilities. The generation informed by the Wittenberg consensus, born largely in the 1540s, was the cohort that, by the 1570s—and most dramatically in the 1580s— began actively to engage the full text of...

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10. A Proliferation of Readings

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pp. 281-306

...up issues that Copernicus himself had tersely bounded off (such as the universe’s infinitude), merely used as a piece of his main argument (the Capellan arrangement of Venus and Mercury), altogether neglected to develop (heliocentric and geocentric transformations), or treated ambiguously (the ontology of the spheres). Planetary order, left out of consideration by the Wittenbergers...

Part IV: Securing the Divine Plan

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11. The Emergence of Kepler’s Copernican Representation

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pp. 309-335

...At the end of the 1580s, Copernicus’s theory was one alternative amid a proliferating field of representations of celestial order. Copernicus’s proponents were distributed among different networks— and also largely separated by them. Yet the Wittenberg interpretation had made certain parts of Copernicus’s work both familiar and credible. References to Copernican...

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12. Kepler’s Early Audiences, 1596–1600

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pp. 336-350

...origins in classical literary theory (Horace), architecture (Vitruvius), music (Boethius), and art (Alberti), but Kepler tried the new tack of wedding it to a theological physics and a metaphysics of geometrical archetypes. His arguing of a rich and assertive Neopythagorean Platonism against Liebler’s Melanchthonian natural philosophy and his pushing of a Platonic reading...

Part V: Conflicted Modernizers at the Turn of the Century

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13. The Third-Generation Copernicans

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pp. 353-381

...The Kepler- Galileo relationship has a pronounced historiographical profile: two great figures, both members of the same age cohort, both followers of Copernicus, highly visible within and eventually across their own social networks, each productive of a remarkable trail of new claims and discoveries that wedded mathematics and natural philosophy—who yet scarcely communicated...

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14. The Naturalist Turn and Celestial Order

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pp. 382-402

...trigon or triplicity thereby contained three signs with the same elemental and gendered nature. For example, Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius together formed the triangle of aggressive, masculine fire signs, while Taurus, Capricorn and Virgo constituted a grouping of receptive, feminine earth signs. Every twenty years, the two most distant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, entered conjunction within one of the signs of one of the four...

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15. How Kepler’sNew Star Traveled to England

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pp. 403-416

...unruly, and, at times, indigestible book for modern readers (for whom no translation exists), it had broad appeal for different contemporary groups. As with the 1572 event, Kepler described a novelty that required no special technical skill to observe. Even the technical claim from parallax that it was a stella was far less controversial than in 1572. Lorenzini, the hapless...

Part VI: The Modernizers, Recurrent Novelties,and Celestial Order

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16. The Struggle for Order

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pp. 419-433

...For celestial modernizers of the early seventeenth century, the problematic that had been emerging since the 1570s began to show signs of consensus: recurrent events (planets), the subject of the science of the stars, and nonrecurrent events (comets and new stars) somehow seemed to belong together in the realm of ordinary rather than extraordinary phenomena. Galileo’s...

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17. Modernizing Theoretical Knowledge

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pp. 434-454

...The Copernican question is a subset of a larger problem: How did modernizers win credibility for new theoretical knowledge? The issue has already received considerable attention in earlier chapters. This chapter critically examines some recent, alternative proposals, with special focus on Galileo. There are two central issues. One concerns the nature and centrality of patronage as a...

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18. How Galileo’s Recurrent Novelties Traveled

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pp. 455-484

...empiricist style in reporting observations and avoiding aggressive, systematic theorizing. An important function of this reading has been to dissociate Galileo from the Copernican convictions that he so clearly expressed in the 1597 letters to Mazzoni and Kepler. According to Drake, Galileo “lost faith in [Copernicanism] from 1605 until 1610.” Galileo’s silence...

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Conclusion: The Great Controversy

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pp. 485-514

...At the end of the seventeenth century, the European social order was still a world of privilege, faith, and tradition. The distribution of land, positions, wealth, and status favored churches, monarchies, princes, aristocrats, and pockets of rich merchants and bankers. Universities fitted comfortably into this order; they were hierarchically structured, exclusively male foundations supported by princely and ecclesiastical benefactors. The university, the monarchical...


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pp. 515-604


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pp. 605-649


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pp. 650-672

E-ISBN-13: 9780520948167
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520254817

Page Count: 704
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Astronomy, Renaissance -- Europe -- History -- 16th century.
  • Science -- Philosophy -- Europe -- History -- 16th century.
  • Copernicus, Nicolaus, 1473-1543.
  • Galilei, Galileo, 1564-1642.
  • Kepler, Johannes, 1571-1630.
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