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  • Two New Conceptions of the Scientific Revolution Compared
  • H. Floris Cohen (bio)

The idea that in 17th-century Europe so drastic an upheaval occurred in our understanding of the natural world as to constitute a veritable revolution was first conceptualized in a consistent manner in the 1930s. The concept of “The Scientific Revolution of the 17th century” then emerging showcased Galileo, Descartes, and Newton as the principal pioneers of a historical process called “the mathematization of nature,” in the course of which modern science was founded essentially as we still know it. The concept quickly caught on, and gave rise to what is usually termed “the master narrative” of the history of science in the early modern period. That narrative, with radical innovation in astronomy and physics at its core, has since the 1930s found itself taken up in numerous works, regarded as authoritative by most historians of science until about the late 1980s.

In my book The Scientific Revolution: A Historio-graphical Inquiry (University of Chicago Press, 1994) I analyzed some sixty interpretations of the events most often regarded as pertinent to the Revolution. By the time that book came out, a near consensus was establishing itself that the master narrative surveyed therein had in vital ways become obsolete, to the point of many historians of science flatly asserting that it is no longer possible to speak in any manner that is at all coherent of The Scientific Revolution. Three mutually connected issues are key to this negative view. One is an ongoing debate over continuity vs. break, with “medieval science” being invoked as the direct precursor to 17th-century innovation. Second, there is an increasing awareness that, in addition to theoretical and conceptual upheaval of a mostly mathematical nature, practice, notably experimental practice, should count, too. Finally, too many important things happened at the time in more empiricist domains like chemistry, alchemy, or medicine that just do not fit the “mathematization” storyline, but that are nowadays taken by most historians of science to require fine-grained investigation of local social, economic, and cultural contexts. Nonetheless, in about a dozen pertinent books appearing since, the master narrative, albeit declared obsolete in most, still makes its lingering presence felt as the principal guiding thread of those very books, for want of an effort to replace it with something better, or out of despair at the very possibility of anyone coming up with something better. Indeed, these books are almost without exception meant for the classroom in the first place, so their authors move from one topic to the next in ways rightly governed not by an effort at more or less thoroughgoing reconceptualization, but rather by didactic considerations.1

To this by now almost quarter-century-old habit of producing survey texts whose authors reluctantly employ the decried master narrative there are two exceptions. Stephen Gaukroger wrote one, I wrote the other. Both of us have aimed at restructuring the standard account in fundamental ways. In so doing, we have run up against many similar or even identical hurdles, and we have tried to overcome these in mostly different but at times identical ways. My purpose in this essay is to compare our respective efforts. I seek to avoid a polemical or even an at all evaluative approach. No reader would expect me to prefer (but for possible details) Stephen’s account over my own, How Modern Science Came Into the World: Four Civilizations, One 17th-Century Breakthrough (Amsterdam University Press, 2010). But it would be quite beside the point to insist here upon my personal preferences. I only want to assist the reader in making up his or her own mind by means of the following, hopefully fair-minded listing of some major and instructive respects in which Stephen and I concur and of some likewise major respects in which we differ, and why.

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An illustration from Edmund Fillingham King, A Biographical Sketch of Sir Isaac Newton (London, 1858).

To begin with, both Stephen’s book and mine cover far more than just the 17th century, even though we both take the conception of “the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century” very...