• David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper Perennial, 2015
Writing, today, on the Scientific Revolution, is one of the most difficult tasks facing the historian of science. Not only because one has to begin by digging through hundreds of thousands of pages of scholarly criticism, but because the existence and the contours of the phenomenon itself are questionable. Not so long ago, a popular book on the same subject famously begun by claiming: “There is no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.”[i]
Was science born, discovered or invented in a determinate period in history? Was the advent of science resulting from circumstances which led to points of inflexion, singularities, or a clean break with the past? Are there revolutionary events in the evolution of knowledge, at all? Then, there are the disciplinary questions and allegiances. Is writing about the Scientific Revolution a subject for the historian at all? Or is it, rather, a philosophical enterprise? Does it require a sort of historical and philosophical commitment? (and, if it does, of what kind?).
Despite all these questions, historians and philosophers tend to agree nowadays that we still need books on the Scientific Revolution. We need to understand how modern science was born, discovered or invented; when and how did it become such an important cultural factor in our lives; and how did it achieve such a power over human society. Was this the outcome of a series of conjectural developments and cultural “mutations”? Was the development and emergence of science the result of a continuous and perhaps necessary process in the development of human thought?
David Wootton offers clear – and highly polemical – answers to all these questions in a book meant to look “relativist to realists and realist to relativists.” Science, he claims, was invented in the seventeenth century. We are still living the consequences of this invention; since, in the past three hundred years
[…] scientific way of thinking has become so much part of our culture that it has now become difficult to think our way back into a world where people did not speak of facts, hypotheses and theories, where knowledge was not grounded in evidence, where nature did not have laws.
The process of “inventing science,” according to Wootton, took a little more than a century. It was a cumulative and “revolutionary” (i.e., discontinuous) outcome of five fundamental types of changes which happened in the European society from mid-sixteenth century to the first quarter of the seventeenth century. These were: 1) changes in the availability and attitude to evidence (a complex category in which Wootton includes the advent of the printing book and the emergence of a community of readers and writers with a different attitude towards authority, but also things such as geographical explorations, the emergence of experimentalism in medicine and physics etc.); 2) changes in instrumentation (including the „conceptual instruments” used by various communities); 3) changes in scientific theories; 4) changes of the language of science and 5) changes in the community of language users.
David Wootton describes and illustrates these changes; and claims that their cummulative effect was „the invention of science.” The first part of the book deals with the invention of a new language: a language of discovery emerging at the crossroads between textual criticism and empirical investigations. Geographical explorations, new ways of reading and writing, a new attitude towards authority, texts, novelties and “facts” have all a part to play in this invention of a new language. David Wootton claims not only that the vocabulary of “invention” and “discovery” is new and discontinuous with previous philosophical language, but that it indicates a dramatic and permanent change in the “game” of exploration and discovery so characteristic for the European culture.
The discovery of America in 1492 created a new enterprise that intellectuals could engage in: the discovery of new knowledge. This enterprise required that certain social and technical preconditions be met: the existence of reliable methods of communication, a common body of expert knowledge and an acknowledged group of experts able to adjudicate disputes. First cartographers, then mathematicians, then anatomists, and then astronomers began to play the game, which was inherently competitive and immediately gave rise to priority disputes and, more slowly, to eponymic naming. Inseparable from the idea of discovery were the ideas of progrss and intellectual property. In 1605 Bacon claimed to have identified the basic method for making discoveries and ensuring progress, and in 1610 Galileo’s Starry Messenger confirmed the idea that there was a new philosophy of nature which had an unprecedented capacity to make discoveries.
As Wootton acknowledges, there were precedents for the new game of discovery; some in the Antiquity, where an entire tradition was glorifying “the first discoverers” of things; and even more in the Renaissance, where novel techniques and instruments led to a whole range of new disciplines. And yet, Wootton argues, there was something entirely new in the game of discovery as practiced after Columbus; something leading to “a new type of intellectual culture: innovative, combative, competitive, but at the same time obsessed with accuracy.” This “new culture” is seen as producing, in time, its own specialized language of “facts” and “theories,” “experiments,” “hypotheses” and “laws of nature,” which, according to Wootton, is the perennial language of science. The general claim of the book, developed in Part III is that
[…] the language we use when thinking about scientific questions is almost entirely a construction of the seventeenth century. This language reflected the revolution that science was undergoing, but it also made that revolution possible.
This is the language in which “we speak about science” and, Wootton claims, this “has become so completely second nature to us” that we are, in fact, rarely aware of its specificity. The chapters in Part II and III of the book are discussing the key terms of this language: facts, experiments, hypotheses, evidence, laws of nature, (scientific) explanations. Each of the chapters focuses on particular episodes of the Scientific Revolution; and many are a real tour de force. Wootton navigates with ease from Galileo’s astronomical discoveries to Pascal’s Torricelian experiments; and from sixteenth century cosmographical theories to the “invention” of modern subjectivity in Montaigne’s essays. The historian might take issue with some of his reconstructions which are too often based on secondary sources; as well as with some of the (small) inaccuracies which can be found, here and there, in the text. A more serious challenge faces the philosopher; since the language so vividly described as the language of science is, in fact, rather the language of the twentieth century philosophy of science. Here, I think, lies the crux of the matter: Wootton’s book is an interesting and vivid polemical engagement with some of the ongoing discussions in (general) philosophy of science. And it is for the readers familiarized with such discussions that the book is really valuable and informative. This does not mean that other categories of readers will not benefit from reading it. Quite on the contrary: The invention of science is extremely well written, engaging and entertaining at many levels. I also happen to think it is wrong on many counts; most particularly on the assumption that science is still the same as it emerged more than three centuries ago, from the Scientific Revolution. But one can be wrong in a number of interesting ways; and this is precisely what happens in many parts of Wootton’s story.
The language of (philosophy of) science
Wootton’s book introduces a number of concepts which can be the subject of further discussion for the philosopher of science. Chief among them is the concept of “silent revolutions.” The concept is exemplified in chapter 3 by the reconstruction of one such silent revolution taking place in sixteenth century cosmography: the replacement of the traditional (Aristotelian theory) theory of an Earth composed of elements (a mixture of earth and water) with a theory which sees Earth as one of the planets. This, Wootton claims, was “the first great triumph of experience over philosophical deduction, and thus the beginning of a revolution.” But it was a silent revolution; one which did not comprise factions and competing paradigms. Instead, “facts” were accepted by the community, and they simply “killed” the old theory in a change rather reminiscent of Popper’s views of the growth of theories (through conjectures and refutations). I personally found Wootton concept of “silent revolutions” appealing. But I was not entirely convinced by his reconstruction. I would have liked to read more about other potential “silent revolutions” of the seventeenth century. Good candidates – sometimes even mentioned in the book – are the demise of alchemy and the advent of an experimental chymistry, the advent of a new optics, and perhaps the emergence of an experimental science in the second part of the seventeenth century. But neither of these likely candidates receives attention in the book. More discussed is what Wootton calls the “scaling revolution,” a set of changes relating with the invention of new instruments and technologies. This is, however, “revolutionary” at a different level than the silent revolution in cosmography; although, in the end, we are told, it is the instruments that discover, invent or create the “vocal facts” which eventually kill old theories. Thus, Wootton claims that it was the telescope which (silently) killed the Ptolemaic system; and not a group of winners who managed to impose an alternative (Copernican) theory of the Earth on the wake of the emergence of new phenomena in the sky (such as Tycho’s nova). Pace Kuhn, Wootton suggests we are too much fixated on controversies; and we do not pay enough attention to “silent killers”: instruments, technologies and facts.
This is again an appealing suggestion, and Wootton devotes an entire chapter of the book to revisit the early modern and contemporary discussions on the emergence “scientific facts”. But, despites the claim that
The story of the fact is a story in which the lowest and most unreliable form of knowledge was magically transformed into the highest and more reliable,
much of what follows in chapter 7 is common knowledge. Again, new is merely the packaging of well-known material in a way that becomes immediately relevant to current debates in history and philosophy of science. Notably missing, however, from chapters 7 and 8 are any references to natural history and the contribution of natural historians to the new vocabulary of “facts” which eventually became institutionalized by the Royal Society. This absence is even more conspicuous given the centrality of Wootton claim that there is no substantial difference between “strange facts” and “plain facts”. Against Daston,[ii] Wootton claims that strange facts are no more than “aspirant plain facts,” and that “it was with the intention of turning strange facts into plain facts” that many seventeenth century investigations begin (one of the cases discussed in chapter 7 is the famous “weapon-salve”, i.e., the magic recipe of a balm one applies to the sword that has created the wound, instead of the wound itself). According to Wootton, the investigator of nature is simply interested in taking “the strangest fact” and making it “as plain as possible” (and this, he claims, is, incidentally, how replication begins). This general attitude also changes the ways scientists relate to the question of explanation. In Wootton’s words, Newton and his contemporaries “left the world of explanation and entered a new world, the world of theory.” And, in doing this, they left the discipline of philosophy (for which explanation is crucial), learning from mathematicians to rely on proofs and predictions. What has been abandoned in the process, according to Wootton, was the philosophical search for truth.
In adopting the term ‘theory’ the scientists were thus freeing themselves from the philosophers’ preoccupation with truth in so far as it implied knowledge of causes and of what Aristotelian philosophers called substances, or forms. [….] the founding of modern science was accompanied by an escape from the old notion of true knowledge (scientia) and its replacement by the concept of “theory.” The adoption of the word marks the break between the classical traditions of philosophy and mathematics, which were concerned with deduction and with true knowledge of substances and modern science, which is concerned with viable theories.
This reconstruction faces a number of historical and philosophical problems. First, as Wootton himself recognizes, it follows from it that many of the early moderns up to Newton were not “true scientists.” Not even Galileo “was […] more than a reluctant scientist.” The world of the early moderns was still a world of philosophers; and it is not entirely clear how many of them “turned mathematicians” and with what success. Second, and more problematic, one faces the paradoxical situation in which the new language of science seems to originate in works by authors which are the least “modern” of all. Such a side-character who, nevertheless, is said to be most up-to-date in using the new language is Walter Charleton. Physician, philosopher, experimentalist and avid reader, Charleton has been sometimes called an “intellectual barometer” of the seventeenth century; and historians are still ill at ease to explain his eclectic preferences and his ease in combining alchemy and mechanical philosophy, Epicureanism with vitalism and Van Helmont with Descartes. This is the character which figure in Wootton’s book, somewhat unexpectedly, as the great innovator of (scientific) language. Wootton claims that Charleton’s “idiolect, tamed by Boyle and Sprat, […] has become the language of science.” But Wootton fails, in my opinion, to explain why this is happening. What made Charleton such an innovator? And what made him persuasive? Why was his “idiolect” adopted by the Royal Society?
Science and the advancement of learning
Similar “why” questions emerge in connection with other episodes reconstructed in David Wootton’s book. Some are more punctual and regard the role of particular actors or the circulation of particular ideas. Others are more general and relate to Wootton’s general (Popperian) philosophy of science or with his decidedly presentist views on writing history. But such questions enliven the reading and keep the reader’s attention focused. They will, I am sure, raise further debates within the community of early modern historians of science and will add more questions to the current issues in philosophy of science. They might even raise in the non-specialized reader the desire to investigate further the complex and still mysterious phenomenon of the Scientific Revolution.
[i] Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 1996.
[ii] Lorraine Daston, “Strange Facts, Plain Facts, and the Texture of Scientific Experience in the Enlightenment,” in Proof and Persuation: Essays on Authority, Objectivity, and Evidence (Brepols, 1996).