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The Scientific Revolution (science.culture)
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Top Contributor: Batmanon October 20, 2017
In "The Scientific Revolution", Steven Shapin argues, “Although many seventeenth-century practitioners expressed their intention of brining about radical intellectual change, the people who are said to have made the revolution used no such term to refer to what they were doing” (pg. 2). Summarizing the historiography, he writes, “Historians have in recent years become dissatisfied with the traditional manner of treating ideas as if they floated freely in conceptual space” (pg. 4). Shapin works to demonstrate how science reflects the society in which it is created. In his organization, “the three chapters deal sequentially with what was known about the natural world, how that knowledge was secured, and what purposes the knowledge served. What, how, and why” (pg. 12). These questions guide Shapin’s synthetic approach.
Shapin writes, “Pre-Copernican cosmology was literally anthropocentric,” with humans and their teleological ideas of their movement at its center (pg. 24). Challenges to this influenced what Shapin terms a major idea underpinning science in the early modern period. He writes, “So central was the machine metaphor to important strands of new science that many exponents liked to refer to their practices as the mechanical philosophy” (pg. 30). Shapin argues, “If we want ultimately to understand the appeal of mechanical metaphors in the new scientific practices – and the consequent rejection of the opposition between nature and art – we shall ultimately have to understand the power relations of an early modern European society whose patterns of living, producing, and political ordering were undergoing massive changes as feudalism gave way to early capitalism” (pg. 33). Shapin concludes, “This confidence [in mathematical and mechanistic harmony] reached its highest early modern development in the 1687 'Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica' of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the English title of which was 'The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy'. The world-machine followed laws that were mathematical in form and that could be expressed in the language of mathematics. Mathematics and mechanism were to be merged in a new definition of proper natural philosophy” (pg. 61).
Shapin argues in his second section that, despite seventeenth century scientists’ claims, the new science was not new and intricately linked to ideas that preceded it. Shapin writes, “The Scientific Revolution was significantly, but only partially, a New Thing. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of wholesale rejection and replacement draws our attention to how practitioners tended to position themselves with respect to existing philosophical traditions and institutions” (pg. 68). Even new methodologies were tied to cultural values. Shapin writes, “Formal methodology is important, therefore, in the same way that the justification of a practice is important to its recognized identity and worth” (pg. 95).
In his final section, Shapin writes, “Seventeenth-century mechanical philosophers attempted to discipline, if not in all cases to eliminate, teleological accounts of the natural world. Yet as ordinary actors they accepted the propriety of a teleological framework for interpreting human cultural action, and with some exceptions so do modern historians and social scientists: the very identity of human action – as action rather than behavior – embodies some notion of its point, purpose, or intention” (pg. 119). He continues, “Recent historical work on Galileo, for example, has stressed significance of court patronage relationships not only for his livelihood but also for the thematics and presentation of his scientific work” (pg. 126). Shapin argues, “In speaking about the purposes of changing natural knowledge in the seventeenth century, it is obligatory to treat its uses in supporting and extending broadly religious aims” (pg. 136). Further, “Galileo arguably wanted more than cultural equality for the natural philosopher: he intermittently contrasted the ambiguity of scriptural texts with the interpretive clarity of the Book of Nature. This was a sense in which the expert natural philosopher might be understood as doing a better job of interpreting God’s word than the theologian” (pg. 137).
Shapin concludes, “This is the paradox: the more a body of knowledge is understood to be objective and disinterested, the more valuable it is as a tool in moral and political action. Conversely, the capacity of a body of knowledge to make valuable contributions to moral and political problems flows from an understanding that it was not produced and evaluated to further particular human interests” (pg. 164). He cautions, “One consequence of the presentation of science developed in the seventeenth century – to be sure, one of the least important – is that many of the categories we have available for talking about science are just those whose history and sociology we wish to understand” (pg. 164).
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on March 18, 2012
My use of the word "modest" is not meant to imply any limitation on quality, but simply to indicate that, in relatively few words, Steven Shapin has summarised the debate concerning the revolutionary nature of 17th century changes in the investigation of nature and the philosophical grounding thereof. Shapin makes clear his view that the changes hardly deserve the title "revolutionary" and he explains why in clear and not particularly demanding language. Nonetheless, this is a scholarly book. It happens that I have some limited background in the history and philosophy of science, but I would imagine that a reader without any of that background might find the book rather heavy going. But I enjoyed it very much.

I did not count the book and journal references in the bibliographic essay at the end of the book, but there are surely hundreds. Thus, the serious student has indications as to where he or she may begin study of the period, the people involved, the technical changes in investigation and the ideas under consideration.
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on June 22, 2010
I have studied science and the history of science for a long time. I taught experimental methodology at Emory University also. This book is a must-read for it's unique insights into the culture and mindset of the times when science arose and how it related to the politics of the era (revolutions, protestant reformation, and freedom etc.). I enjoyed how the author shows the relationship of religious ideas of the time to science -- they were reading the "other holy book" or "the book of nature" which was available for all to read.

An especially interesting aspect of this book for me was that at the end of it he shows that practical ideas or purposes were not the motive for the research that was done, and that much of the best practical applications of the research which was done around the 16-1700's did not come into play until much later -- hundreds of years later in many instances. The abstract pursuit of truth about the world, the reading of "the other holy book" was the thing. (I emphasize this aspect of science in my own book also)The Textbook of the Universe: The Genetic Ascent to God.

It also brings to light other important differences with other cultures -- such as why science never took off in asia before western ideas invaded over there. Oriental philosophy and thinking tends to be resolutely practical to the point that it could be considered a form of blindness for them. Their history of philosophy is filled with practical conundrums, not abstract theories of universal truths. They never had any individualistic freedom movements either. That difference is an extremely important insight into the western impetus to science. We did it naturally, and it was originally a fundamentally religious pursuit for us. The other main insight in this book is that our urges for freedom and individualism were bound up inextricably with our desire to read the "book of nature". This is the core of western thinking in general which gave rise to science. It defines us. I can think of no greater insight to the nature of western European thinking than this. Science, freedom, individualism, and our natural ideas of religion -- they go together.

I have read no other book that illustrates and elucidates this supremely important point and foundation of science better than this one little book. It is small, but it is a powerhouse. Other than that, it is a great read, hard to put down. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the scientific revolution.
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on May 14, 2013
Shapin's a monumental figure in the field, and his useful introduction is matched only by the thorough bibliography and list of further reading at the book's end. Very handy little book.
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on December 25, 2013
Illuminating with a lively style and engaging prose. It has inspired me to read much more on this subject, and I'm sure I'm not alone.
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on March 4, 2012
The more concrete parts of this book made for very interesting reading. I found fascinating the discussions of the philosophical and religious mentality of the scientists who forged the scientific revolution, and how that mentality was rooted in various aspects of history, and how the scientists' philosophical ideas interacted with their interpretations of science and scientific experiments.

Sometimes the author's philosophical discussions seemed a bit thin to take up as many pages as they do, though the book as a whole is not long. On some pages he is a little too occupied -- or perhaps not sufficiently interesting -- with regard to the debate over the extent to which one can speak of an "essence" of the scientific revolution, i.e., whether something neatly identifiable as "the scientific revolution" actually happened, or whether, on the contrary, that is a kind of myth, and in reality what is called "the scientific revolution" is too full of heterogeneous strands (including many cultural strands from the medieval past) to constitute an identity deserving of a simple label.

The discussion of "essentializing" vs. not doing so is certainly sometimes very interesting, but the author could have compressed what he evidently has to say about the various aspects of the question into, say, 75 fewer pages. The book in those excess pages, though well- and gracefully written, skirts too close, for my taste, to insubstantial academic abstraction (as opposed to juicy, packed, philosophy and history). The book's focus on historical evidence that undermines "essentialism" has some validity, and for the most part the author doesn't fall into the trap of many such discussions, which are often inspired to some extent by the academic intellectual movement called "deconstruction." The author however avoids that trap and never mentions deconstruction or its relation to the critique of essences. More important, the author avoids what is perhaps deconstruction's worst flaw -- in being skeptical of "essences," some deconstructionists go to an extreme, and give the impression that nothing is anything, or everything is nothing, or every thing is whatever anyone says it is or isn't, indifferently.

(This paragraph is perhaps a bit of a digression from the review: Surely the thing is to see that there are indeed "essences" -- whether of historical periods, of things, or of beings -- even if "essences" are not perfectly pure or perfectly non-self-contradictory -- and sometimes they are merely infinitesimally above 50 percent purity -- and even if the character of any given essence will always be at least somewhat in dispute since human beings cannot stand omnisciently outside history or declare with apodictic certainty what the living, impure, "essence" of any given reality is. In fact, though I put the word "essence" inside quotation marks, consistency would require me to put the quotation marks themselves in quotation marks. In other words, while it's true that to a certain extent to speak of an "essence" to a given reality must be a bit of an exaggeration, not a perfectly literal truth, nevertheless, good exaggerations have a chance to approximate gradually more closely to the literal truth. If a thing has something like an essence, even though not a perfectly pure one, we can still speak accurately of an essence, as long as we don't do so over-literally or with hubris and godlike epistemological confidence. Humble human epistemological confidence has huge enough potentials. Human limitations are not good reason to abandon the ideal of objectivity altogether, as deconstructionists and anti-essentialists sometimes seemed to do when they sought at every possible turn to confute and contradict any and every coherent rational account of anything. Far from it. Recognizing the imperfect purity of "essences," and their imperfect accessibility to finite knowers, can adumbrate a living, vital, even profoundly spiritual reason or Compassion-Logos as the basis for a renewed ideal of critical objectivity. Reason can become an organ by which one can approach asymptotically toward spiritual and physical objectivity. Reason can even become a means of knowing the spiritual world and meeting living, complex, spiritual beings and realities within and beyond nature. But this paragraph is only a digression, and the author of the book doesn't consider "spiritual" questions or go clumsily and idiosyncratically into the philosophical weeds like this. He sticks pretty much to ordinary historical facts and their interpretation.)

This was a graceful and often fascinating book, particularly in the more concrete first part. But after that, it becomes sometimes abstract in a way that seemed to verge on the trivially academic -- if not trivial in substance, then in spreading that substance too thinly over too many pages. But perhaps those parts of the book would be fascinating to others, including specialists in the question of whether or to what extent to essentialize the scientific revolution.
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on November 28, 2010
Despite what Amazon indicates above, I am not reviewing a Kindle Edition, but rather the paperback edition.

I guess I should have been prepared for the limited scope of this work when I saw that it is composed in only three chapters and a concluding bibliographic essay. But having just finished it, I feel disappointed.

So much more could have been done with the concept. I originally rated this with two stars, but realized later that I was rating what I hoped the book would be, rather than what it was. So I'll add a few modifying comments before expressing my disappointment. Shapin does a good job of setting the social and intellectual stage for the growth and development of natural philosophy out of the Scholastic philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas. He also introduces an interesting comparison between natural philosophy and natural history and builds on it throughout the book. And he uses quotations extensively even though he provides no citation tools for tracking the quotes down. For all we know he could have been making them up.

The author's apparent purpose is to link three ideas: What was natural philosophy, how was it done and what was it done for (hence the three chapter format)? Rather than a full-blown history of the mythical scientific revolution, he synthesizes modern revisionist history to tell us primarily what the scientific revolution was not. Given this understanding, the author admirably achieves his goal.

The scope of this book is far more limited than I was anticipating or desiring. His discussion of 17th century players is very limited. Again, he warned me in the Introduction, but maybe his warning should have been stronger. In retrospect I see that he deals extensively with only Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, and Newton. He introduces many others, such as Hooke, and Hobbes but only in supportive and passing sorts of ways.

The author disarticulates the scientific revolution, but in my opinion fails to rearticulate it in the end. I feel like I'm back in my first year of medical school, standing over the remains of a cadaver in gross anatomy. We've taken it apart to try to learn about its parts, but what is missing is any discussion of why it holistically has such an impact on modern science and society. I expected more. His final paragraph says: "Science remains whatever it is....I doubt very much whether science needs to be defended through perpetuating fables and myths cobbled together to pour value over it." But what is it? How did it develop? How did it become the overarching paradigm of western culture? The author answers none of these important questions. He leaves the impression that all science has going for it are "fables and myths." Debunking is important where bunk is rife. But science is not bunk, and I feel that the author stopped too soon. He fails to make the transition into any unified sense of what science is, and how it really developed.

He did not continue is history to the point of establishing modern science. He makes reference to Newton's Principia as bringing "natural philosophy to perfection" (p. 157) but leaves the chapter in a long discussion of the theism of his favorite players. His focus was on the "early modern" period. I'm now left wondering how science got from where he left it (dead and dismembered on the table) to the science I practice. I found myself turning the final page asking: "Is that it?" There remains a huge gap between where he ends, and where science as we know it today begins.

I guess I should have been looking for a book titled "The Origins of Modern Science" or something like that, because what I thought I was getting is not what I got. In fact, I have a book by that title on my shelf by Herbert Butterfield which Shapin classifies as "traditional scholarship." But I went with Shapin because Butterfield was published in 1957 and I wanted more contemporary scholarship. Looks like I'll now go back and read Butterfield after all, so I can "acquaint myself with the identity of the Scientific Revolution, and with its major actors, themes, problems, achievements, and conceptual resources" (Shapin, p. 168). Funny! That is why I bought Shapin in the first place.

I wish that Shapin had cited his major quotations in a more user-friendly way. He includes a bibliographic essay at the end where he references scholarship by topic, but not sources by page or citation. It makes tracking his quotations so painful. I found myself constantly flipping back and forth trying to find where a particular quote might have come from. But it was so difficult that I finally gave up. I wish that he had given good citations in a more standardized format. This work is clearly not for students seeking connection to the literature. Scholarly journals may be esoteric, but at least their sources are easily traceable. Such is not the case here.

If you are looking for a thorough introduction to the origins of modern science, then this book is not what you want. Read Butterfield or one of the other "traditional sources" he mentions in the bibliogrphic essay. Don't get me wrong, I marked the hell out of my copy (though I do wish that he had written more about William Harvey). I guess my mistake was in using this source as an introduction to the founding and growth of modern science. That is not what this book is about. It is a focused essay on "The Individual Natural Philosophies of Several 17th Century Gentlemen." But I guess a title like that wouldn't sell many books.
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on January 12, 2018
Excellent product, As described and delivered on time
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on September 18, 2010
Shapin's treatment of the Scientific Revolution addresses the change in intellectual outlook and thought than in the cascading series of discoveries that cross-pollinated and germanated into the modern, secular, humanist world-view that has defined the West since the 16th century. In this regard, his book warrants five stars. Beginning with an examination of Europe in the later Renaissance (mid-16th century), Shapin shows just how radical and revolutionary the ideas furthered by Gallileo, Descartes, Bacon and Boyle, Pascal and Newton were. This was the strongest part of the book.

The process of discovery, the intellectual obstacles these scientists faced and the impact of their work made was rather drily explained, as Shapin is more concenred with the broader attitude that these men represented than the singular impact of their ideas on science and the foundation they laid for the disciplines of astronomy, mathematics, engineering, physics, and the coming machine age. Yet even with this, I would have rated the book four stars. I was most powerfully agrieved, though, by his utter lack of discussion of mathematics. I am at a loss of how one can discuss this intellectual movement without mention of Leibnitz and Newton's quantification and mathematical proofs on which most of the era's scientific discoveries rest. For that, I had to deduct a star.

It is a good introduction to the time period, I'd even go so far to say the first thrid of the book is outstanding. Clearly, however, I have issues and reservations with Shapin's treatment of some of the tremendous minds of the time.
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on June 10, 2007
Perhaps the best, concise review by an established scholar. Worth it for the first chapter alone, which reviews the intellectual background and the philosophy of the revolution.
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