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  • The Scientific Revolution Is Undead *
  • Mario Biagioli (bio)

The changing fortunes of the Scientific Revolution and its historiographic narratives have usually been connected to macroscopic dynamics external to the discipline of history of science. For instance, the warm reception in the fifties and sixties of Koyré-style intellectual history that privileged metaphysics over social context has been linked to Cold War era concerns with maintaining a safe separation between science and its socioeconomic dimensions. On the other hand, the emphasis on the role of artisanal practices (and of the economic interests behind them) originated from a historiography of the Scientific Revolution informed by left-wing politics or even straightforward Marxist commitments. Similarly, skepticism about grand, logophallocentric, or simply progressivist narratives about early modern science may be seen as an expression of more recent sociocultural climates. Arguably, postcolonial, multicultural, and gender-aware sensibilities may have informed the reevaluation of the role of women in early modern science, the critique of the Scientific Revolution as a myth of origin of Western modernity, and the shift in focus from theory to practice or from universal to local notions of knowledge.

I do not wish to criticize these macroscopic contextualizations of the Scientific Revolution as a historiographic category, but rather to complement them with a more internal and microscopic analysis of [End Page 141] our professional and institutional practices as historians of early modern science. Having witnessed an analytical shift from the theory to the practice of science, it may be time to apply the same perspective to the history of science itself. Accordingly, we may treat realist or nominalist stances about the Scientific Revolution not only as methodological and theoretical issues, but also as expressions of our mundane practices as an academic tribe. I propose to look not only at what we think about the “Scientific Revolution” but also at how we use it in constituting our disciplinary identity as historians of science in the context of increasingly professionalized academic environments, protocols of scholarly credit, and teaching responsibilities.

Tenure and the Mundane Demise of Grand Narratives

The style and broad scope of books like Alexandre Koyré’s From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe are rarely encountered in today’s scholarly works. One could argue that this is because of all the bad things we and our students have heard or thought about the role of grand narratives and about historiographies of science driven by metaphysical commitments. But, more simply, one could also say that, despite its brilliance, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe is a book that would not be likely to win tenure for its author in a modern university department. By today’s standards, its footnote apparatus is on the light side, its scope too broad, and its generalizations a bit too adventurous.

To continue this thought experiment, a picky modern reviewer would be likely to see Koyré’s “A Documentary History of the Problem of Fall” as a proper scholarly text, but might raise some doubts about, say, “Galileo and Plato.” Still revered as quasi-sacred, Koyré’s works are no longer presented as exemplars for young professional historians to imitate. The bureaucratic, academic standards that have evolved alongside the professionalization of our discipline have made Koyré look outdated, not so much because of the specific content of his interpretations, but because of his grand historiographic style—a style we now associate with textbooks and more popular works.

What has changed is our “form of life,” not just our interpretive dispositions. Similarly, given that most professional historians of science do not dwell obsessively on issues of narratology or methodology, the emergence of more-circumscribed studies as the modus operandi of our discipline may not be the necessary result of the theoretical reframing of knowledge as local, contingent, contested, and so forth. Local studies of early modern science are now the predominant genre of our field, and they are not produced just by those [End Page 142] who fell in love with Clifford Geertz or SSK in graduate school. More mundanely, history of science has developed its academic niche (often within empirically minded departments like history), and its scholarly style reflects the usual trend of professionalization and...