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  • Stephen Gaukroger

It was from Floris Cohen’s magnificent book on the historiography of the Scientific Revolution that I first learned of Ben-David’s The Scientist’s Role in Society, where, buried in a mass of other information, was a gem: a clear and precise statement of the thesis that the development of science in the West was not a successful realization of something common to all scientific cultures, and at which they had all aimed, but an anomaly. Rather than trying to understand why other scientific cultures hadn’t achieved what was achieved in the West in the Scientific Revolution, scholars should ask why the development of science in the West took a path quite different from every other earlier culture. The model in the other cases was a boom/bust one, in which interest in scientific questions is very much related to solving particular questions, and when these are dealt with, there is a decline of interest in science as such. By contrast, the development of Western science from the late 16th century onward manifests a cumulative growth: Why?

It is not surprising that, having realized the importance of the Ben-David thesis, Floris and I both set out to problematize the emergence of modern science, and both of us realized that this was a project that required a particularly large-scale perspective. I believe that both of us started thinking seriously about these questions in the mid-1990s, and it was ten years before the first volume of my own project, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture was ready, and fifteen years before Floris’s volume, How Modern Science Came Into the World, appeared. Working with a large-scale historical perspective means honing the questions one needs to ask, and the resources one needs to draw on. This is what takes up much of the time and, despite our common starting point, it is not surprising that this long and difficult process, one that requires constant revision, did not have a single outcome, and that the way we honed the questions, and the resources that we drew upon, turned out to be significantly different.

This is perhaps most evident in the treatment of medieval natural philosophy. By contrast with Floris’s account, in mine there is no single underlying story to be told. In the case of developments from the 13th century onward, there are two competing views: one holds that nothing occurred that was of any significance to the future development of science; the other sees the Scientific Revolution as in essential respects a continuation of medieval work in areas such as kinematics. Floris writes that I am definitely of the latter view, but I am not. In fact I think medieval theories in mechanics, for example, were a dead end, and I would not even put Copernicus at the source of modern natural philosophy because his heliocentrism remained completely unworkable: as I argue in Emergence, he was unable to make any sense of geocentrism in terms of the physical theory he was working with, and indeed the two were in conflict. Why then, does Floris take me to support a continuist account? Presumably because I argue that when 13th-century theologians began to think through theological questions in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics, they brought about a cultural shift from a contemplative view of nature to one in which our sole source of knowledge of the natural world lay in the use of our senses. This meant that those disciplines that we now think of as scientific were not only pushed to the forefront of understanding, but they also became the sole means of acquiring knowledge of the natural world (which included the treatment of the soul).

The key for me is not to uncover the underlying story, because I don’t believe there is one, but to bring together two different sets of issues—the emergence of a scientific culture (13th century) and the development of a viable physical theory (17th century)—and explore how they interact. This exploration led me to develop an account of the persona of the natural philosopher, something that has no place in the kind of linear account...


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pp. 27-28
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