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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Currently reading - Stephen Gaukroger on the rise of science

I'm currently reading Stephen Gaukroger's huge and detailed book on the rise of modern science, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210-1685 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). As its title implies, this covers European intellectual history from the rise of neo-Aristotelian natural philosophy in the thirteenth century through to developments involving Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, and others in the late seventeenth century (the century we most associate with the Scientific Revolution in Europe).

I started on this because I'd been told that it would demonstrate how Christianity assisted the rise of science in Europe, or something along those lines. I must say that I am nearly finished it, and it has demonstrated no such thing so far. The rise of a recognisably modern form of science seems to be the result of many historically contingent factors, as far as I can make out, not least the individual geniuses of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and others who were involved in the ferment of ideas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Obviously, all these men appeared in cultures that gave them the intellectual and other resources for their work, and they all (even Thomas Hobbes) professed some kind of religious belief, but when you trace through the detail of what motivated them, how they influenced each other, and so on, not much of that has to do with Christianity. What most comes across is their fascination with experiments, thought experiments, and each other's ideas, and in many cases their joy-cum-obsession with the new tools that had become available to them in the form of scientific instruments, precision crafted experimental apparatus, and increasingly powerful kinds of mathematics.

Gaukroger sees his central question as being why a large-scale, successfully legitimating consolidation of science took place in the seventeenth century (and thereafter) - when science tends to be fragmented and stop-start, with long periods of stagnation, whenever it has appeared in a promising form in other times, places, and cultures (pp. 20-22). He answers that the natural philosophy of the Scientific Revolution was attractive to many thinkers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries precisely because it appeared to have promise for the renewal of natural theology (p. 23).

That may be so, although nothing said so far gives it a lot of support. Still, it is notorious that such thinkers as Paley did attempt to employ science to support theological positions. That, however, is very different from saying that there was something about Christianity that made it inherently pro-science in the first place.

Indeed, Gaukroger does not seem to maintain any such thesis. He notes that there was a considerable tradition within ancient and medieval Christianity of opposition to natural philosophy (and hence anything resembling science), seeing it as distracting or even idolatrous (57-59, 151).

Nothing in the book seems to give late medieval scholasticism much credit for the rise of science (it appears that whatever science it produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was not fruitful, and stagnated much like in other cultures that showed promising beginnings in scientific thought, such as China and medieval Islam). Indeed, even Aristotle's form of natural philosophy was initially resisted by the thirteenth-century Church, although the synthesis produced by Aquinas was later given the Church's endorsement.

Renaissance natural theology was largely an attempt to reconcile Aristotelianism with theology, which may well have been intellectually fruitful in some ways, but the Church was harsh to anyone who drew conclusions that strayed beyond orthodoxy. If anything, Christianity seems to have acted more as a hindrance than otherwise to free inquiry into the natural world (though, of course, even resistance can sometimes be inspiring).

I think this book will disappoint anyone who goes to it looking for support for the thesis that Christianity nourished the Scientific Revolution in any sense much stronger than the fact that the "revolution" took place in Christian countries. Nor do I really see any evidence for the more plausible claim that, for historically contingent reasons, Christianity (however that should be unpacked) welcomed and assisted the Scientific Revolution once it got going. If Gaukroger has produced the evidence for that thesis (one that I'm not necessarily opposed to) it looks like it might be in his next book, which was published in 2010. It looks as if I need to read that, too.

Be all that as it may, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture is an extraordinarily scholarly and exhaustive account of what was going on during a crucial period in intellectual history. I'm glad I had my attention drawn to it.


MH said...

Just out of curiosity - is Max Weber mentioned? Gaukroger's project sounds a lot like what Weber was up to in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Hal said...

I'm now listening to the Great Courses lecture series on the history of science 1700-1900. What comes across clearly in those lectures, especially those dealing with the 1700s, is the caution that the scientists had to exercise in stating the implications of their findings. Time and again, a scientific conclusion would run afoul of the scripture-based understanding of the time. This grip gradually loosened during the course of the 19th century, but, as we know from present-day controversies, the grip has not been lost.

Russell Blackford said...

There is some discussion of Weber, though mainly of a particular Weberian theory about what triggered the rise of science (a theory that Gaukroger rejects).

But sure, Weber is one of the great founders, if not the great founder, of the sociological study of intellectual and cultural history, particularly the rise of modernity. Historians of science like Gaukroger will inevitably be influenced by him to greater or lesser extents.