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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).

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Gaukroger's The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility

I've been reading Stephen Gaukroger, The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1680-1760 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). This is the second volume of a series by Gaukroger in which he examines the origins and history of modern science from a philosophical perspective. So far we have only the two volumes, but I'd guess that there will be at least another two. This volume follows on from the first, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture, which I was discussing the other day.

I'm glad to be reading these books. I started them to see what they have to say about the interaction between early science and Christian theology. That is a recurring theme, but it does not dominate the discussion by any means, and much of the fascination is simply in getting a consolidated and detailed account of how science developed, hypothesis by hypothesis, contributor by contributor, step by step, in the early centuries, and how it interacted with much else, such as the broader literary and intellectual culture of Europe.

I still don't see any real evidence that science was somehow nurtured by Christian theology. About the most that could be said is that, back in, say, 1600, orthodox theology might have looked like a very formidable barrier for science to overcome. After all, there had been considerable resistance to natural philosophy within Christian thought, and, as Gaukroger says, "Christianity ... had traditionally laid claim to universal competence in all matters of understanding the world and our place in it, most notably in its Augustinean version" (p. 54), but as he immediately adds (same page) this claim was decisively weakened during the seventeenth century. Despite the terrible execution of Giordano Bruno in 1600, for a mix of sins in the eyes of the Church, and the persecution of Galileo not long after, Christianity did not do that much to block the rise of science in the second half of the century.

Given Christianity's longstanding claims to universal epistemic competence, it is no wonder that it came into conflict with Aristotelian natural philosophy and later with early modern science, personified by Galileo. These stood to draw their own conclusions and to challenge theology's authority.

Thus, Gaukroger is doubtless correct when he makes much of the issue of the relationship between the epistemic authority of Christianity and that of natural philosophy (or science). He says, I think justly, that the issue of the relationship between "the kind of understanding of the world that natural philosophy provides, and that provided by Christian revelation and natural theology" was a pressing one in Christian Europe from the beginning of the thirteenth century, when Aristotelian texts and doctrines were introduced into the intellectual culture (p. 11).

Given the intellectual hegemony of Christianity, it can be argued that the ability of science to consolidate itself depended on its relationship with Christian thought. On this hinged the ability of science to establish itself in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries "as a permanent and integral feature of Western intellectual life" (p. 11).

During this period, as Gaukroger tells us (pp. 12-13), it was widely understood as a requirement for natural philosophy that its theories be compatible with shared assumptions in Europe about morality, our place in the world, and religious thinking in general. Or, in other words, science might have been greeted with a destructive hostility if it had rocked the boat too much. In the upshot it did not do so - to some extent, it avoided heresy by carefully defining its field of inquiry as the natural world (while drawing a sharp boundary with the supernatural world), and to some extent it produced theories that ultimately appealed to the actions of God, as we find in the work of Newton.

All this, however, is not so much Christianity nurturing science as simply not proving to be such a formidable barrier as first appeared. To some extent, it was a matter of science accommodating itself to Christianity. To some extent, it may even be certain theologians welcoming the findings of science as a resource for theology. But to some extent it may simply be that Christianity had lost much of its intellectual hegemony for totally different reasons - partly, perhaps, because of the disastrous Thirty Years War, and the turning away by many thinkers from insistence on a comprehensive orthodoxy. And partly because of extensive contact with other cultures in the New World and the Far East, which also tended to undermine absolutism and certainty.

Despite Gaukroger's extensive scholarship, there's still a story to research and tell here - a story about how Christianity increasingly lost its intellectual authority through the seventeenth century and beyond, and why it was, perhaps, increasingly less in a position to hinder the rise of science.

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