- The Discovery and Consolidation of a Scientific Culture in the West in the Modern Era
UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY INTELLECTUAL HISTORIAN Stephen Gaukroger is engaged in an ambitious, multivolume historical project on the emergence and consolidation of a scientific culture in the West in the modern era. Two volumes have already appeared: The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1210 – 1685 (Oxford University Press, 2005) and The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1680–1760 (Oxford University Press, 2010). Professor Gaukroger begins our forum with a summary of his project thus far. Three prominent historians of science then provide their comments, after which Gaukroger offers a rejoinder.
One of the most distinctive features of Western culture since the 17th century is the gradual assimilation of all cognitive values to scientific ones. A particular image of the role and aims of scientific understanding is tied up in a very fundamental way with the self-image of Western modernity. One striking illustration of this is the way that the West’s sense of what its superiority consisted of shifted seamlessly in the early decades of the 19th century from religion to science. From that time on, but particularly in the second half of the 20th century, this self-understanding has been exported as an essential ingredient in the process of modernization.
Science has come to serve as a model for all forms of purposive behavior, providing cognitive norms for everything from morality to philosophical dispute, from political organization to religion. How has this happened? Above all, how have these norms been forged in the debates over the purpose and standing of science? In a series of five volumes, two of which have appeared to date—The Emergence of a Scientific Culture, Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1210–1685 (2005) and The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1680–1760 (2010)—I explore these questions by tracing the emergence and consolidation of a scientific culture in the West.
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A crucial distinction underlies this work: that between the emergence of theoretical and experimental developments that initiate scientific programs and the cultural consolidation of these programs. In the West, from the early modern era onward, we find both very successful innovations and a culture that nurtures the scientific enterprise in a distinctive way. There are two reasons why it is important to keep these two ingredients separate. The first relates to the standing of other scientific cultures, both those that predate the early modern era—classical Greece and the Hellenistic Greek diaspora, and 13th- and 14th-century Paris and Oxford—and those outside in West—Arab-Islamic culture in the 9th, 10h, and 11th centuries, and China from the 12th to the 14th century. Scientific developments in all these cases share a distinctive feature. They each exhibit a pattern of slow, irregular, intermittent growth, alternating with substantial periods of stagnation, in which interest shifted to political, economic, technological, moral, or other questions. Science was just one of a number of activities in the culture, and attention devoted to it changed in the same way that attention devoted to the other features changed, so that there was competition for intellectual resources within an overall balance of interests within the culture. What happened in the West in the 17th century was quite different: what is peculiar and exceptional—and what requires explanation—is the nature of scientific development in the West, not that in the other cases. The “Scientific Revolution” of the early modern West broke with the boom/bust pattern of all other scientific cultures, and what emerged was a largely uninterrupted and cumulative growth that constitutes the general rule for scientific development in the West since that time. The traditional balance of interests was replaced by a dominance of scientific concerns. Science itself has experienced a rate of growth that is pathological by the standards of earlier cultures, but this has been legitimated by its cognitive standing.
Second, many attempts to explore the success...