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The Rise of Modern Science in the West: 400 Years from Petrarch to Joseph Black

Posted November 9th, 2016 at 08:22 PM by civfanatic
Updated November 9th, 2016 at 08:33 PM by civfanatic

In his 1796 "Lectures on Chemistry," the British chemist-professor Joseph Black stated: "It is the desire of knowledge, of improvement, of obtaining new facts in any Subject which they take into consideration which distinguishes a Newton or a Boerhaave from the rest of their contemporaries. They deservedly have acquired the appellation of Philosophers... In short, I call every man a Philosopher who invents anything new or improves any business in which he is employed - Even the Farmer who considers the nature of the different soils or makes improvements on the ploughs he uses, I must call a Philosopher, though you may call him a Rustic one. Nor am I inclined to give much credit to those men who shut up in their closets in study and retirement have obtained the appellation of Learned Philosophers, they in general puzzle more than they illustrate, they are wrapt in a veil of Systems and Theories and seldom make improvements or discoveries of Use to Mankind." (emphasis mine) Black’s criticism of these individuals was made in the particular context of the contemporary time period (the late 18th century), but similar criticisms had been made in Europe for centuries before Black’s own time. Indeed, it may be possible to state that the view represented by Black is the cumulative result of over 400 years of sociocultural evolution and change, and its accompanying effects on the progress of natural philosophy.

Four centuries before Joseph Black’s time, the Italian scholar-poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) had called the time period in which he was living the “Renaissance”, or a period of intellectual “rebirth”; conversely, the centuries prior to this time were looked down upon as the “Dark Ages”, when ignorance reigned supreme. Petrarch was one of the earliest humanists of late medieval Europe, and it would be the philosophy and social views of humanists like Petrarch that would decisively shape the Renaissance period. The humanists believed in a new form of education where the improvement of man and society was to be the ultimate goal. To this end, they greatly criticized the existing education system of Europe, which was dominated by the Aristotelian “schoolmen,” or scholastics. Higher education under Aristotelian scholastics consisted of learning how to defend accepted dogmas of natural philosophy, via “question-and-answer” (quaestiones) formats where students were expected to give “correct” responses to a variety of propositions. The humanists viewed such a rote education format as useless, irrelevant, and a cause for needless debate. In their view, education should be more practical and focused on making students more “complete” and self-actualized human beings.

A couple centuries later in England, the philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon would propound very similar ideas. In line with earlier humanists, Francis Bacon had nothing but disdain for the Aristotelian schoolmen who were in vogue in educational institutions throughout Europe, considering their learning to be “degenerate.” However, whereas early humanists had tended to emphasize the importance of rhetoric, oratory, and literacy skills in cultivating a “proper” individual, Bacon believed that natural philosophy was also of immense importance to the individual as well as to the state. In Bacon’s view, the state should take active steps in promoting natural philosophy by rewarding small-scale, lower-class innovators – the “rustic” carpenters, artisans, and so forth. Furthermore, despite his statist leanings, Bacon asserted that natural philosophy should not be monopolized by the state, but that the state should instead serve as a “storehouse for knowledge”, where useful scientific knowledge was made public and easily accessible for the same lower-class innovators and others. This Baconian vision, which may have been quite advanced for Bacon’s own time (late 16th and early 17th centuries), was finally fulfilled by the 19th century when British culture had been transformed into one that valued – and publicized – science and its myriad potential uses.

It needs to be emphasized, however, that Francis Bacon, in spite of his fierce attacks on Aristotelians of his day, was not necessarily opposed to Aristotelian methodology and its basis in empiricism. Indeed, from Bacon’s perspective the contemporary scholastics were themselves probably the worst Aristotelians around, for they had ceased to rely on empirical observation for constructing and validating theories, and instead placed blind faith and dogmatic devotion in the old teachings of Aristotle. It is quite likely that even Aristotle himself would have disapproved of the goings-on in late medieval European universities. As far as Bacon was concerned, a proper natural philosopher was to be distinguished by the rigor of his methodology, not by his claimed intellectual pedigree. The new Baconian methodology, which in many ways is the forerunner of the modern Scientific Method, was based on inductive reasoning, i.e. “obtaining new facts in any Subject” and then constructing a theory based on those facts. This refashioning of old Aristotelian empiricism, with its emphasis on obtaining knowledge through observation, combined with the belief in the mathematical order of the universe championed by the likes of Copernicus and Kepler (a contemporary of Bacon), is what ultimately enabled the Newtonian revolution and the triumph of science in the West.

By the late 18th century, the contemporary time frame of Joseph Black, Newtonian science had triumphed not only in Britain but also throughout much of continental Europe. Thus, it was possible for a German physics professor at Jena to introduce the course with an overview of Plato and Aristotle, and then skip all the way to the works of Bacon and Newton, as if the Middle Ages and early Renaissance did not exist. In a world rapidly entering modernity and the beginnings of industrialization (and with it, unprecedented increases in living standards and social conditions), the views of the old Aristotelian scholastics must have seemed ancient, hopelessly outdated, and ridiculously irrelevant – to the point where even mentioning them in a brief overview of the history of science was deemed unnecessary. They could all be safely subsumed, in the minds of the newly-Enlightened natural philosophers of the late 18th century, in the historiographical void of the “Dark Ages” first described by Petrarch centuries ago.

Fundamentally, the drive to utilize natural philosophy for social and economic improvement in the 18th and 19th centuries was one that had deep roots in history. If the Newtonian revolution was the root of the race to apply scientific knowledge, then it had an earlier “root” in the form of Francis Bacon’s scientific methodology and his emphasis on utilizing natural philosophy for the common benefit of society and state (“industry and empire”). In the eyes of someone like Joseph Black, a person who truly deserved the appellation of a “Philosopher” was one who shared that humanistic, Baconian desire to acquire scientific knowledge and use it for improvement, and in the pursuit of this knowledge applied empirical methods of fact-gathering. As far as Black was concerned, even the “rustic” farmers and artisans who made efforts to acquire and apply scientific knowledge to improve something were more worthy of being called “Philosophers” than the “Learned” men shut up in their closets who do not contribute anything to Mankind’s improvement. Black’s criticism of these “Learned men” reminds one of the earliest humanist criticisms of the Aristotelian schoolmen, while his view of the lower classes (farmers) and their potential to improve society in their own small way reminds one of Bacon’s analogy of a colony of worker bees (the lower-class innovators) working for the benefit of the larger society and state. While Bacon’s statement was in the field of sociopolitical theory, Black was living in a time period when it really was possible for a farmer, carpenter, or artisan to acquire and apply scientific knowledge to improve their own lives.

To make a few concluding remarks, Joseph Black’s statement seems to indicate that he was living in a fundamentally different type of society than what had existed in previous times. For much of history, what we would now consider “science” and scientific knowledge was the domain of relatively small groups, particularly the rich and powerful. Now, for the first time, this scientific knowledge was not only increasing in volume exponentially, but also expanding vertically through all sections of society. The natural consequence of such processes would be the emergence of a more decentralized, knowledge-based society where knowledge is increasingly seen as public property. While the potential for social and political upheaval were definitely there, Western societies as a whole made the collective decision to go ahead on the reasoning that the anticipated benefits would be far greater than any perceived negative consequences. Some 327 years after Isaac Newton first published his Principia Mathematica, we in modern society continue to benefit from these collective decisions made in the past.
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