Scientific Revolution Essay

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The scientific revolution was the time when a new way of studying the natural, physical world became widely accepted by a small ”community of scholars.” But the specific status of that ”new way” is hotly disputed and the precise historical steps involved in that development are extremely complex.

Standard histories are those by Dampier (1966) and Cohen (2001). Cohen stresses the stages involved from initial creative insight to dissemination (orally or in letters, later on in print) and then widespread acceptance. In the seventeenth century there was a significant qualitative transformation in the approach to the study of natural philosophy and that major change is now often called the ”scientific revolution,” but it is clear that small-scale ”revolutions” took place before and have happened since. It was at that time that the transition from undifferentiated ”astronomy/ astrology” and ”alchemy/chemistry” first really got under way. Moreover, great advances were made in mathematics. Different natural philosophies changed at different rates and in different ways. For example, empirical and theoretical progress in astronomy and physics was different from progress in other physical sciences like chemistry (Goodman & Russell 1991: 387-414). However, it was between circa 1500 and 1800 that the distinction between true science and proto-science or pseudo-science (Shermer 2001:  22-65) became somewhat clearer. Many thinkers have seen the essence of the intellectual revolution as a leap beyond the tradition inherited from Aristotelianism and rationalism.

But the notion that simple inductive empiricism, often identified with Francis Bacon’s New ”Organon” (Novum organum) of 1620, is the basis of the scientific method has been rejected. The idea of the importance of nuances of general theoretical assumptions concerning ontology and epistemology has been widely shared ever since the early 1960s. Indeed, the social sciences now also regularly use Kuhn’s (1970) general theory of an oscillation between ”normal science” and ”paradigmatic revolutions.” The seventeenth-century paradigmatic revolution associated with Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, and von Helmont laid the foundation for what was considered to be true science for the next four centuries. Newton’s laws of gravitational attraction, motion, and force (i.e., inverse square law) in the Principia Mathematica (1687) led to British Newtonianism, which was widely exported throughout Europe, but Cartesianism in France was a rival for many years (Russell 1991).

In the eighteenth century botany and zoology became more systematic with the use of binomial nomenclature, although Linnaeus’s theories of nature and of society were deeply flawed (Koerner 1999). Einstein’s theory of relativity did not reject Newtonian mechanics, but did make it clear that Newton’s assumptions about space and time were too limited and that a true explanation of gravity required postulating ”space-time.” Similarly, discoveries in mathematics and statistics, particularly the invention of non-Euclidean geometry, revolutionized science in the twentieth century in somewhat the same way they had in earlier times (Newman 1956).

The same can be said for Boolean and Fregean mathematical and symbolic logic (Bartley in Dodg-son 1986: 3-42). Comte (1957) wrote that scientific thinking moves only gradually, but inevitably, from the study of distant objects, such as stars, to that which is closest to human life – society itself. The term Wissenschaft encompasses not only physical and natural sciences, but also social sciences and other disciplines such as history and jurisprudence.


  1. Aristotle (1941) Organon. In: McKeon, R.(ed.), The Basic Works of Aristotle. Random House, New York, pp. 1-212.
  2. Cohen, I. B. (2001) Revolution in Science. Belknap/ Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  3. Comte, A. (1957) A General View of Positivism, trans. J. H. Bridges. Robert Speller & Sons, New York.
  4. Dampier, W. C. (1966) [1929] A History of Science, 4th edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  5. Dodgson, C. L. (1986) [1896] Lewis Carroll’s Symbolic Logic, ed. W. W. Bartley, III. Clarkson N. Potter, New York.
  6. Koerner,    (1999)  Linnaeus:  Nature  and Nation. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  7. Kuhn, T. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edn. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  8. Newman, J. R. (ed.) (1956) The World of Mathematics, 4 vols. Simon & Schuster, New York.
  9. Russell, C. A. (1991) The reception of Newtonianism in Europe. In: Goodman, D. & Russell, C. A. (eds.), The Rise of Scientific Europe: 1500-1800. Hodder & Stoughton, London, pp. 253-78.
  10. Shermer, M. (2001) The Borderlands of Science. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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