By Michael Sauter
During the early modern period, Europe suffered a series of blows to the worldview that it had inherited in from the middle ages. In 1492, as you know, an Italian named Christopher Columbus led a small fleet of ships across the Atlantic in search of India and encountered, unexpectedly, lands that the ancients had never seen and peoples that God seemed to have forgotten. In 1543, as I mentioned in a previous lecture on science, Nicolaus Copernicus published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which provided the first sustained discussion of a heliocentric model for the universe since ancient times. Confronted not only with peoples who should not have been where they, in fact, were and with a universe that suddenly seemed distant and cold, Europeans had to find new ways to explain the world they lived in. This became the fundamental impetus behind modern science.
In today’s discussion I will explore the institutional and intellectual contexts that gave form to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. In the last lecture on science, we looked at science’s renaissance origins. I noted then that it was to understand the institutional contexts in which science was practiced in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. During this period science was closely attached to courts and early-modern universities. As Europe entered the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, this institutional context changed dramatically, as scientific academies appeared that not only sponsored research but also published their findings for all to read. Science became a public matter, and the implications of the latest research became the stuff of general discussion. Thus, what you should note, here, is that there are important connections between the world of science and the print public sphere that I discussed in the lecture on the Enlightenment and Revolution.
Before I consider science’s new institutional contexts, however, I want to step back and look at some general trends that encouraged new ways of thinking about science especially after 1650. I will pay particular attention to England here, but I use it only as a model for what are greater European trends.
In England, science must be understood through the decline of Puritanism. The Puritan Revolution from 1640 to 1660 delegitimized the religious and moral instinct in English public life, leaving most people just plain tired of conflict. In this context, Charles II was the perfect king. Both a libertine and a skeptic, he believed in nothing too fervently and pursued nothing with too much vigor, which gave the English intellectual classes the freedom to find new sources of stability. So while Charles played, science became England’s most important source of intellectual and political stability. Toward the end of Charles’ reign, as he became more autocratic, new conceptions of political authority predominated.
England also benefited greatly from the increase in economic productivity through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was due, in part, to English successes overseas, but it was also rooted in the sale of monastic properties to the new English gentry class. The gentry brought new attitudes to property management that emphasized constant increases in production. This trend created a market dedicated to common goods rather than to luxuries, which were common on the Continent.
The appearance of a bourgeois market economy, especially in England, sparked a general interest in quantification. As you know, you cannot have science without numbers, and England’s rise as a naval power made numbers a matter of public discussion. An example is the debate in England during in 1695 and 96 about the extensive shipping losses that England suffered during the Nine Years’ War. In order to assess the damage a Board of Statistics was established that was responsible for reporting imports, exports, and losses to Parliament.
Numbers became part of the general public discussion in England and across Europe. William Petty, for example, a political economist and member of the Royal Society, published a series of works on economic statistics including his famous Essays in Political Arithmetick and Political Survey or Anatomy of Ireland (1672). Today, we would judge Petty harshly, since from our point of view his numbers were simply made up. In the seventeenth century, however, political arithmetic was a wholly new way of talking about the world. Other countries used numbers in new ways as well. In the Netherlands, Jan de Witt, who led the Dutch Republic during its conflict with England, floated public bonds that were based on actuarial tables, which tell you how long you can expect people to live. In France, Colbert harangued his intendants to be exact in all their reports to Paris, so that the government would know exactly how many people it had and how much in taxes it could expect. By the end of the seventeenth century, seemingly everything was reduced to number.
Now that I have considered the general problem of numbers in the seventeenth century, I will turn to reorganization of science in the same period. In this context, the appearance of the scientific academy moves to the fore. The idea of the “Academy” is not new in western history. In the fourth century BC, Plato set up his own Academy in Greece as a place for speculation on the natural world. The Academy idea took a while to return, however. The last Academy for philosophical speculation in Europe was shut down in sixth century, and there would be no other until Marcilio Ficino’s Platonic Academy appeared in Renaissance Florence. Nonetheless, Ficino’s academies sparked what some historians have called the Academy Spirit, as many academies appeared in Europe, though most were linguistic in nature--that is, dedicated to the cultivation of language.
The first European Academy dedicated to science was the Accademia dei Lincei, which was founded in 1603 outside of Rome. This Academy represented a new way of looking at scientific activity. Science was open-ended and new knowledge could only come through the collaborative investigation of the natural world. From this point forth, experimentation and communication were fundamental to western science. Other academies followed this vision. The Accademia del Cimento, which was founded in 1657 in Florence, was dedicated to experimentation and published the results of its work.
The same spirit was apparent in France. In 1666, and under the influence of Colbert, the French crown established the Academie des Sciences. This Academy met in the king’s personal library twice per week, and its members had access to state-funded laboratories. Each meeting alternated in subject between physics and mathematics. Initially, under Colbert, the Academie enjoyed great freedom to do research. Under Colbert’s successor as head of the Academy Louvois, the Academie was bound more closely to the state’s interests, particularly its military concerns.
The most famous example of the academy spirit was the English Royal Society. The Royal Society was not as closely tied to the state as were some of the societies that I have mentioned, but it had a political mission. Founded in 1662, in the wake of the revolution, the society precluded the discussion of religious questions, because quantification and research were considered neutral and stabilizing. The idea was to create a language of discussion that was controlled and not subject to emotional outbursts of the Puritan sort. You have already seen one example of this desire for exact language in Hobbes’ Leviathan, which is chock full of definitions and axioms. Another example of the perceived need to control language appears in the work of Henry Oldenburg, who was the Royal Society’s secretary from 1663 to 1677. Oldenburg took it as his mission to write reports of the society’s meetings in the official journal Philosophical Transactions. The language he used was deliberately rigorous and exclusive. This scientific style helped to make science an independent field, but it also increased the prestige of English across the continent. By the end of the seventeenth century, it became necessary to know English in order to practice science.
As I have already noted, the academy spirit is general to Europe. I have not yet mentioned Germany, but its experience with science was broad and varied. In 1652, a group of physicians in Schweinfurt, which is in Bavaria, founded a society called the Collegium Naturae Curiosorum, which published its results throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in a periodical called Miscellanea Curiosa. (In fact, its successor institution continues to publish results of sponsored experiments.) In 1682, another German publication the Acta Eruditorum began appearing out of Leipzig, publishing scientific and philosophical treatises, as well as review essays of recent publications and reports. In 1700, the Elector of Brandenburg sponsored the foundation the Royal Academy of Sciences (Akademie der Wissenschaften), which was designed to for the production of practical knowledge about the world. This Academy was the brainchild of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whom you have already encountered. Leibniz is a good example of the general interest in science. Not only did he publish some of his works in the Acta Eruditorum but he was also a motivating force behind the foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in Imperial Russia in 1724. By the middle of the eighteenth century, science was a European phenomenon.
In concentrating on academies thus far, I have been trying to highlight the importance of two things: first, the rise of intellectual exchange and, second, the use of experiment. Without these two things seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science would have looked quite different, if it appeared at all. These points are essential for understanding the science of the period, but there is also something more. We need to understand a fundamental philosophical trend that these two factors set in motion, namely what has been called the desanctification of nature. What does this mean? In essence, the desanctification of nature removes God from the universe and makes Him a matter for conscience alone. Believe what you will about God, the universe is composed of blind forces, and God’s relationship to this universe is one of cause-and-effect. God created the universe and set it in motion. Hence, the universe, like human beings themselves, exists separately from God and can, therefore, be the object of study.
To the extent that there is such a thing as a modern consciousness, it is deeply rooted in the insights gained from the Scientific Revolution. This consciousness has two aspects: first, knowledge must be based on the observation of external phenomena; second, for the data gathered to be coherent, they must submit to mathematical analysis. If the numbers do not add up, something is wrong. The divorce between religious questions and what we call science—in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was called natural philosophy—is absolute. Any concern for the spirits is banished from scientific thought and only the phenomenal world can be the object of investigation. Thus, in this period nature came to be seen as a separate entity—separated from both human beings and God—for better and worse.
Now I will conclude with some general thoughts on the conditions for the rise of modern science. The first condition is that nature must be regarded as an object divorced from its ontological roots. (Ontology is the study of origins.) How the universe came into being is not a matter for science; how it works is the only legitimate question. Second, the only form of knowledge that has value is that which can be counted and ascribed to universal laws. These are the conditions under which Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding became possible. I have mentioned both these texts in another lecture as fundamental to the Enlightenment, and you have also read one of them, so it will be worthwhile for you to consider them in the context of this lecture. Both texts emphasize experience as the foundation of all knowledge. Both see the universe as fundamentally rational. Both assume a God to be a rational being. There is, therefore, a direct connection between seventeenth century science and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. We will conclude next time with a more detailed discussion of how science set the Enlightenment in motion.