Towards a Socio‑Historical Interpretation of the
Scientific Revolution *

Paul Piccone
SUNY at Buffalo

The scientific revolution of the l6th century is popularly thought of as having freed mankind from superstition and myth. This account, however, runs into difficulties when it is realized that superstition and myth are still with us and, furthermore, that institutionalized irrationality is a predominant feature of 20th century society. Anglo‑American philosophical literature, with minor exception, has ignored this state of affairs and has devoted its intellectual energy to the elaboration of the philosophy of science without paying the least attention to what continental philosophers call "the crisis of science and culture." The fact that our scientifically‑oriented culture is fundamentally irrational has not generated much thinking. European philosophy has taken a different route and, as Banfi has put it in his last writing prior to his death, "the motif of the 'crisis' is a characteristic moment of cultural consciousness of German thought during the period following the First World War." [1]

According to Banfi there have been three main interpretations of the crisis: a) theistic existentialism, b) atheistic existentialism, and c) right hegelianism. The first interpretation, inspired by the work of Kierkegaard, has developed the ‘theology of the crisis’ and in Barth and Tillich appears as the expression of the maturity of age when man finally experiences the vanity of his own professed autonomy and discovers the unabridgeable gap separating the human and the divine. The needed remedy, therefore, turns out to be the old medieval medicine of faith and grace—something that the scientific revolution had allegedly overcome.

The second interpretation stems from Nietzsche and, diametrically opposed to the first, sees the crisis as the breakdown of the spiritual determinations of life complemented by the assertion of man's inherent freedom. Parallel with the first, this interpretation finds its fullest elaboration in existentialism, this time atheistic, and ends up by emphasizing a new eschatology.

In contrast with the first two, the third interpretation sees the crisis as an expression of the positive and vibrating actuality of the dialectic in action which overcomes its own limitations by hurling irrationality against the very society whence it arises. More concretely, this interpretation finds its roots in the mysticism and irrationalism of fascism and nazism. [16/17]

What the three interpretations share is a "character of metaphysical evasion about the very historical reality that they mean to interpret independently of any historical commitment of man. Thus, the metaphysical justification sanctifies the crisis outside of any possible human solution." [2]

Against and opposed to these three accounts, there is the Husserlian interpretation which seeks to uncover the historical roots of the crisis, investigate its essential motives, and propose concrete solutions. In order to carry out his program Husserl undertakes a reconstruction of the history of knowledge from the dawn of Greek speculation when "man is first caught (ergreifen) by a passion of considering and knowing the world independently of every practical interest . . . aiming at nothing more than realizing himself as pure theory." [3] This comes about through a new kind of praxis, "a praxis which is able to lift humanity through universal scientific reason to the norms of truth of all forms, to transform it from the very root (Grund) into a new humanity capable of an absolute responsibility toward itself, following absolute theoretical judgment." [4]

The crisis comes about when Galilean science, originally developed to solve practical problems encountered in the Venetian arsenal, [5] mathematizes reality in terms of universally valid relations and redefines that very same reality by means of partial abstractions extruded from it. The results are disastrous. Introduced as a means intended to buttress the renovating spirit of the Renaissance, Galilean science occludes the concrete Lebenswelt (lifeworld) from which it arises and redefines 'what is' in terms of the static relationships that have been created to control it. As Husserl points out, [6] in the world of everyday life we find neither geometrical space nor mathematical time, and when science makes what Dewey calls "the commonest assumption of philosophies", i.e., "the assumption of the identity of objects of knowledge and . . . real objects" [7] science enters into a crisis. Objectified science, originally a means to better control nature, turns into its opposite and, in a diabolical dialectical reversal, in freezing nature in naturalistic formulae, becomes the most effective reifier of precisely that Lebenswelt that it was meant to change. When man is also defined, by behavioristic psychology, as just another thing among things, the original telos of the new rational humanity envisaged in the Renaissance is fully betrayed and the crisis of the European sciences comes into being.

Husserl's tentative solution consists of calling for a return to subjectivity: the grounding of the sciences on concrete subjective operations of concrete human subjects whose teleology will then once again become operative toward the attainment of a new rational humanity. What he calls for is the development of phenomenology as first philosophy (erste Philosophie) upon which to ground the positive sciences in as far as the latter can "exhibit only a relative unilateral rationality which has as a residue, in the other corresponding and necessary sides, a full irrationality." [8] When phenomenologically grounded, the sciences can replace the now implicit irrationality with the explicit rationality of human teleology. [17/18]

Without indulging in a detailed analysis of the extremely intricate Husserlian program, it is important to point out with Banfi that "the crisis of culture appears essentially as a philosophical crisis, as a crisis of speculative consciousness and only secondarily is it a crisis of humanity." [9] As such, the medicine is speculative in nature and, while "it engages the philosopher in a high theoretical responsibility, it absolves him of a practical historical responsibility thus sanctifying him in an apodictically blessed life outside of the struggle and the risks that every man has to face." [10] What Husserl ultimately suggests is but a theoretical answer to a practical problem—an answer which, although methodologically sound in many respects, fails to take into full account the historicity of the crisis, i.e., its determinate socio-historical nature. The crisis, which in Husserl's work exhibits a vague contingent character, is by no means indeterminate and, when studied in its concrete historical context or, as Lukàcs would put it, in relation to society as a whole, [11] it reveals a determinate and necessary structure.

If the cultural crisis is closely connected with the crisis of the European sciences as Husserl claims, it is necessary to explore the logical pattern of historical change, i.e., the interconnectedness (Zusammenhang) of events, in order to ascertain how the scientific revolution came about, what social consequences it had, how society adjusted to the new scientific attitude, how methodology came to reflect the crisis and, finally, what is the new social basis of science. What follows, therefore, is a cursory examination of the scientific revolution in terms of its concrete determinations so to indicate not only the possible sources of the crisis but possible remedies as well.

Any such account must begin with the Scholasticism which became settled as the official Western European orthodoxy at the end of the so-called "dark ages" when the sage Church‑Fathers, suspicious of the Augustinian eschatology that preached an imminent end of the world, found it to be institutionally and ideologically convenient to displace the other‑worldly neo‑Platonist cosmology with a Christianized version of Aristotelianism—a recent import by the Arab invaders of Spain and Sicily. The resulting Scholasticism, although officially straight‑jacketed by Church‑dogma, during what Gilson has called its "golden ages", successfully worked out many scientific and philosophical problems which laid the foundations for the subsequent "scientific revolution": witness the work of Averroes, Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and the impetus theorists of the University of Paris.

Scholasticism, however, was too successful not only as an intellectual edifice, but as a political system as well. Growing within a theocratic context built upon the shambles of the Roman Empire, it was officially bound with the other‑worldly Weltanschauung which Nietzsche labeled "the slave morality", and Hegel characterized as "the unhappy consciousness". In gradually permeating every facet of medieval reality, Scholasticism harmonized man and society to a degree unknown since that time. But in as far as social stability is conducive to economic integration, the fact that was mainly responsible for the "philosophies of desperation" of the Epicureans, the Stoics, and finally the Christians, was gradually eroded away until by the late 14th and 15th centuries it was altogether replaced by the relatively comfortable life of the townsman (as can be readily seen from Boccaccio's Decameron and the main literary works of the period.) [18/19]

The social context of brute power and of the worthlessness of human life typical of the Roman Empire disappeared as the City of Caesar became the City of God and subsequently, mainly because of God's failure to return on earth as promised, turned into the city of Babbitt. The late middle‑age townsman, although intellectually committed to Catholicism, found it difficult to abide by the other‑worldly life sanctioned by the Scriptures and as soon as it became politically feasible, precipitated the ideological re‑orientation of the Reformation.

The Reformation, an epiphenomenon of rising capitalism, meant the political disintegration of medieval society. As a result, the Church, committed to a belief in its own perfection and desirability, was led to analyze the political shifts in terms of social internal shortcomings— something very reminiscent of American society's reaction in the 1950's in the face of Russia's growth into a world power. Like the McCarthy committee, the sacred Inquisition came about as an attempt to combat the "enemy from within" that was allegedly responsible for the deterioration of the moral fiber. [12] Consequently, the uomo universale of the Renaissance, the artist that was later to become the scientist, was quickly censored in his attempts to produce a new cultural synthesis. This removed from the scene the most creative and revolutionary agency of the period.

This meant the end of the scientific revolution—the suppression of the new kind of man who did not fear to question his own reality and mold it according to his will: the concrete man willing not only to question the old, but also able to bring about the new teleological humanity of Husserl. It was the spirit of the Renaissance which was ruthlessly suppressed by the Catholic counter‑revolution of the 17th century. Galileo, in fact, was not tried and condemned for being a scientist or for making new discoveries. Historically, Urban the VIIIth, the pope who led to Galileo's downfall, was one of his most ardent admirers who originally encouraged the Florentine scientist to write the Dialogue Concerning the Two Great World Systems. Galileo's misfortune was the result of the last attempt of the Renaissance to do concrete science—a science not restricted to the explanation of past phenomena and the prediction of new ones, but which was ontologically relevant and able to function as the foundation of a new culture. Galileo's mechanics, it is to be remembered, was developed to permit a realistic interpretation of the Copernican system. Similarly, all of his scientific undertakings were meant to supply answers to questions that had been raised by the new astronomy. In as far as this kind of science was a definite threat to the authority of the Church, it was ruthlessly suppressed and successfully stopped: after Galileo science compromised with religion and became restricted to matters of fact, the Cartesian res extensa, leaving untouched matters of faith—the thinking substance of the other half of Descartes' disastrous dualism, thus ending whatever serious threat science had appeared to pose to dogma, tradition, and myth. The case of Galileo, therefore, is at the same time the culmination of the scientific revolution, and its failure is the end of what appeared to be a genuine revolutionary development in western culture: the institutionalization of rationality.

What has been miscalled the scientific revolution historically originated with the Copernican heliocentric theory. During the middle ages, it is to be remembered, the Julian calendar was based on ptolomaic astronomy and although it was extraordinarily accurate for its time, it was not accurate [19/20] enough: it estimated the year's length to be 365 1/2 days such that each three years of 365 days there was one of 366. As it turned out, however, the seasonal year is 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter than the estimated length, and, with the passing of centuries, the originally quasi‑trivial error tended to accumulate into days and even weeks, [13] thus posing all kinds of problems not the least of which was the shifting of holidays. Although in the middle ages, as always, holidays were staggered very much in accordance with the economic requirements of the times, the rationale offered for their occurring when they did was not of a practical nature, (i.e., people just needed periodic rests) but rather transcendental in scope: such and such a Saint was born or burned on a given day. As a consequence, to keep proper track of the right dates was very important lest a holiday be observed on the wrong date! To remedy this situation, astronomers were constantly at work trying to develop more precise means so to arrive at a more accurate calendar. Copernicus studied in the University of Padua at the turn of the 16th century within an intellectual atmosphere deeply concerned with this problem. Although he never directly participated in the reforms that culminated with the inception of the modern Gregorian calendar shortly after his death (in 1515 he was officially invited to participate but, as he proudly indicates in his De Revolutionibus, he gracefully declined), he certainly inherited both the problems and the possible solutions from the pressing needs of the times. The new astronomy was a result, as it is usually the case, of the attempt to resolve the internal contradictions of the society as a whole.

By advancing his revolutionary hypothesis, Copernicus was attempting to simplify things since by the year 1500, astronomy offered a model of the universe so complex and confused with planets moving in all directions for no apparent reason, that it was rather difficult to believe that a rational God could have created such a miserable mess. If there ever was a concrete refutation of the cosmological argument for the existence of God, 15th century Ptolemaic astronomy certainly had the proper credential for the title! Copernicus' hypothesis was meant both to simplify things and to allow calculations to better correspond with observations. Although he did not succeed in eliminating the blasted epicicles (on the last count he needed forty‑eight of them compared to the 40 sufficient for the Ptolemaic model) [14] he did present a model which, unlike the earlier one, could, (and was after Kepler) interpreted as physically real thus making astronomy a concrete science. The split model of the middle‑ages (according to which astronomy, as Ptolemy himself stated in the Almagast, was not to be regarded as giving a physically real account of what went on) [15] was rejected and the uomo universale of the Renaissance could finally assemble, and did try to assemble, every feature of experience into a rational whole. However, this state of affairs, the potential scientific revolution, did not last very long.

Problems immediately arose with the new view of the heavens: the scholastics, by the beginning of the 16th century had brought about such a masterful cultural synthesis that every facet of reality was inextricably bound with every other in a self‑defining net of interrelations such that to altogether replace one element of the whole invariably meant to question the status of several others as well. So, although able to give a more promising model of the heavenly bodies, Copernicus raised at the same time scores [20/21] of problems whose solution required not only a radically new physics not yet available in his times, but also a very complex mathematical machinery. Even though Giordano Bruno readily met many of the objections in his dialogue La Cena delle Ceneri as early as 1573, [16] they still seemed insurmountable to the peripatetic minds of the period and were constantly brought against Galileo half a century later; if the earth does spin with such great velocity as the Copernicans claimed, why didn't the objects at its surface fly away into space? (Gravitation, it is to be remembered, is a Newtonian innovation that fails to appear in Galileo's transformational equations). Similarly, if the earth did in fact move, why did not objects fall at an angle as they would seem to according to the hypothesis?

Considerations of this nature, in addition to the fact that the hypothesis, ran counter to certain passages in the Scriptures, led Copernicus' zealous friend Osiander to write an introduction to De Revolutionibus to the effect that the new system was to be taken as an abstract calculus of no existential import, that it was meant solely to expedite calculations upon which to base more successful predictions. This was quite understandable: without the new physics of Galileo the Copernican hypothesis was empirically inferior to the orthodox theory. If the earth were considered the center of the universe, then it made sense to account for the free‑fall of bodies in terms of natural motion; but with the earth as a second‑rate satellite spinning around the Sun, this explanation was no longer acceptable and talk about "gravitation" rated no better than Moliere's "sleeping powers of opium". In fact, when Galileo read about Kepler's preliminary formulations of the concept of gravitation he readily rejected the whole thing as a "fanciullezza"—child‑play. This raises interesting questions for, as we shall see, not only the new astronomy, but the new physics as well, were accepted at a time when they were clearly empirically inferior to the traditional theories.

Notwithstanding the empiricist propaganda regarding the superiority of the new physics due to its better correspondence with facts and observations, the debunking of Aristotelian physics and Ptolemaic astronomy came about in an altogether different manner than empiricist accounts lead one to believe. Furthermore, had the empiricist criteria been accepted at the time, the new science could not even have gotten started. Both Galilean (and for that matter, Newtonian) physics and the impetus theory of the late Scholastics are experimentally equivalent in all the relevant points in terms in which they could be compared; both accounts yielded accurate predictions within the same margin of error. [17] Similarly, Copernican astronomy was not any more based on scientific observations (hence, more empirical) than was the old Ptolemaic system; and even today, three centuries after the conclusive debunking of such a system as scientifically false, Ptolemaic astronomy is still successfully employed in local navigation: astronomers of the old and of the new school could have been in perfect agreement concerning what they observed, and yet vigorously argue about what was going on. In fact, Copernicus and Kepler arrived at their conclusion not through their own better observations, but through Ptolemy's and Tycho Brahe's which were admittedly better and more accurate than their own. In this respect, "correspondence", "verifiability", and all the rest of the positivistic machinery that [21/22] is meant to guarantee the objectivity of science would have been entirely useless.

Worse yet, the new physics would have met two very formidable objections: 1) not being able in any empirically verifiable way to show itself to be superior to the old theory, Galilean physics would have been shelved until it could show its worth; and 2) the new physics, in postulating non‑observable entities such as one‑body systems moving in frictionless pure space, was definitely not empirical. After all, who has ever seen a frictionless body? The Aristotelian theory simply asserted what everyone knew: an object moving on a plane, if not interfered with, will slow down gradually and eventually come to a full stop. To accept Galilean physics meant at the time of its inception to be prima faciae sucked into a metaphysical scheme of suspicious non‑existing entities functioning meaningfully only in a metaphysician's cranium!

The inception of the new science was not due to better correspondence with facts nor to super‑reliance on experimental work: Galileo, in fact, thought so little of the latter that, as he himself confesses, he only used experiments to help convince his Aristotelian opponents: the sources of his convictions lay elsewhere. Viviani to the contrary notwithstanding, Galileo never dropped any balls from the tower of Pisa and, if he had like the Dutch scientist Stevinus who actually undertook such a task about the same period, he would have found the results totally inconclusive. [18] What accounts for the successful introduction of the Galilean Physics in the face of formidable odds is the fact that it was a paradigm of the concrete experiences of the concrete man—what Banfi calls the copernican man— [19] operating within the new and blossoming bourgeois social order.

Unlike the medieval split‑mind, the new man sought to encompass the whole of experience within a self‑consistent, all inclusive, and rational theory of reality. The book of nature was thought to be written, as Galileo put it, [20] in mathematical characters. But the same book is also the book of God, as Campanella clearly and passionately puts it in his Apologia pro Galileo. [21] Bruno's macrocosm was an extension of the microcosm, and for him the threefold structure of the monad is the structure of reality. When Bruno argues in his Monadology that the three aspects of the monad (the point, the atom, and the souls) converge into an inseparable unity which constitutes the compositional elements of reality, [22] he presents the paradigm of the concrete man of the Renaissance in a new context which is seen at once as physical, geometrical, and metaphysical—a context that Galileo could simultaneously mathematize, consider to be real, and interpret metaphysically. This was the true revolution; the rejection of the split world of the Scholastics. [22/23]

After all, Bruno was not burned because of his belief in the Copernican system, Campanella was not tortured because of his scientific enthusiasm, and Galileo was not tried because of his new physics. The first died for his belief in the infinity of the universe and his subsequent denial of a transcendent divinity, the second was broken on the rack for his rejection of the dogma of the trinity, the virginity of Mary, and the divinity of Christ; and the third was persecuted for having held, in his famous letter to Castelli (and later in the longer tract to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany), [23] that the meaning of religious dogma was to be interpreted in the light of rational considerations, i.e., the evidence of science, and not the converse. With these three crimes the Church successfully put down what might have developed into a genuine scientific revolution. Afterwards science once again became an abstract enterprise of alienated men crucified between the truths of reason obtaining in the extended domain of bodies, and the truths of faith valid within the self-contained domain of mind. So sharply curtailed science could no longer threaten superstition and myth, and the intellectual atmosphere was once again made safe for religion and irrationality.

The success of the counter‑revolution in science can readily be ascertained by briefly examining the kind of science that was developed in the latter part of the 17th century, and the correlated emphasis on "scientific method" as the agent responsible for not only bringing about the scientific revolution, but also for guaranteeing the objectivity of science. In fact, even recently it has been claimed that the scientific revolution was due to the discovery of the proper scientific method; the falsity of this claim becomes obvious as soon as we notice, following Randall, [24] that Galileo's method of composition and resolution, with the possible exception of his use of mathematics, is Zabarella's method which the Aristotelians in Padua had been using all along, before and after Galileo taught in that University at the turn of the 17th century. [25] What was original in Galileo was not the method, but his approach to the subject‑matter as a rational whole abstractable by mathematical analysis and susceptible to formalization. [26]

Unlike Aristotle who in the Physics had claimed that ". . . in the science of nature, as in other branches of study, our first task will be to try to determine what relates to first principles", Galileo did not uncritically seek any such principles which, as Bacon reproaches the Aristotelian in the Novum Organum [27] were based on too limited experimentation. He was quite willing to reconsider the whole in case of prolonged failure. [28] Since one of his main motivations was to develop a new dynamics so to allow the Copernican system to be realistically interpreted, his conclusions usually clashed with the accepted views; in fact, his main writings appeared in the vulgate rather than in the customary Latin so that he could reach laymen whose minds had not yet been corrupted by the poison of orthodoxy thus inhibiting them [23/24] from fully recognizing the rationality of his arguments. Interestingly enough, Newton's Principia returned to the traditional mode of exposition: in Latin and in the Euclidean axiomatic form with postulates and theorems. But then, by Newton's time classical physics was well on the way to becoming a new orthodoxy.

After Newton, science once again embarked on the dogmatic path and in the 18th century the physicist was once again assuming first principles and concentrating on details just as the Scholastics of earlier centuries had done. The attitude expressed by Parrin, one of Newton's editors, is typical of the period: truth has been attained, what remains to be done is minor conceptual and experimental house cleaning demanded by bothersome critics such as Leibniz and Berkeley who troubled themselves to inquire into the metaphysical foundations of the new science and dared to express their doubts. Galileo's bold spirit was castigated as speculation, and Newton's highly misleading motto, hypothesi non fingo, a battlecry meant soley to scare away Scholastic critics, became the dogma of science. In this context it is not surprising that for over two centuries there was no major qualitative breakthrough in physics: the counter‑revolutionaries had taken over.

In order to fully understand how this state of affairs came about and why it is proper to characterize it as counter‑revolutionary, it is worthwhile to examine briefly the two scientific methods, the Cartesian and the Baconian which, in that order, subsequently became paradigms of "correct" scientific modes of inquiry. Method, a secondary element in the scientific enterprise, reflects its essential character and throws light on the social function of the whole. Galileo, it is to be remembered, retained aufgehoben the Aristotelian‑Averroist compositive‑resolutive method which, with him, comes to exhibit new revolutionary possibilities when mathematized and objectively applied. Historically, however, in the second half of the 17th century, Descartes was the most influential scientist of Europe. And this is not difficult to understand: after all, Descartes was one of the most traditionally‑oriented thinkers of the period whose work, in the last analysis, turns out to be one of the last defenses of Scholasticism.

Diametrically opposed to Bacon, who was all for diversified experimentation meant to torture nature into yielding her secrets, Descartes and his followers were thoroughgoing rationalists who had very little use for such pedestrian things as laboratory work—even if only as pedagogic tools to convince opponents. Like the Aristotelians, Descartes could not even begin to imagine a contingent science and, since he could not deny the fallibility of all natural entities, in order to retain the certainty that he considered necessary for sound thinking, he had to find recourse to an updated Scholastic metaphysics. What resulted was a centrifugal system emanating from the indubitability of the cogito and expanding according to the main criterion that "all things clearly and distinctly perceived as true are true."

Like the Baconian method, the Cartesian proved itself quite sterile in science for almost the same reasons: although Descartes was himself a first-rate mathematician, no such inference can be made from his qualitative physics which, very much in the fashion of the Scholastics, contains no mathematics at all. His method was truly deductive and continuous with Scholasticism: the concept of the aether, inertia, the theory of the vortices, and most other typical Cartesian innovations are not qualitatively different from the concept of substance, the theory of interposed spheres, and the idea of a prime mover. What is most important, however, is that he saved the Christian soul from the mechanistic onslaught even if he had to rename it "res cogitans". Accordingly, it is easy to see why in the height of the counter‑revolution his physics was so readily accepted in most of continental Europe—particularly in the Catholic sectors.

But the Cartesian method—a typical baroque monstrosity—was a sophisticated failure and, after the appearance of Newton's Principia it was almost universally rejected in favor of the equally absurd Baconian model which, although paying lip‑service to creativity in the closing pages of the New Atlantis, found no use for it in scientific practice. And this is quite easy to understand: the concrete man of the Renaissance has once again split into so many separate functions: the Lamps, the Miners, the Compilers, etc. [29] As such, the revolutionary spirit of the Renaissance is disintegrated into specific specialized functions which, by focusing on the trees, occlude the forest and degrade science once again to a sophisticated Scholasticism.

In retrospect, the main accomplishments of the Baconian scientists, with their stress on the maximization of experimentation with a minimum amount of theoretical speculation, turn out to be the extravagances of the British Royal Society. For a century and a half the learned noblemen of the Society accumulated and catalogued in voluminous archives all sorts of reports in the hope that through some mysterious process they would somehow shape into scientific knowledge. Needless to say, they only provided abundant food for the local rats whose scientific knowledge was not significantly increased as a result of such learned gnawing. The reason for these failures are quite evident: facts are theory‑laden entities manufactured by scientists seeking specific answers. Even Bacon emphasized that nature reveals her secrets only if man asks the right questions. It is therefore hardly to be expected that without the Rueckfrage, the reconsideration of the whole that was methodologically prevented by the scientific division of labor, the final product could significantly progress beyond the initial effort. It was therefore assumed that almost all the answers were at hand, so no radically stimulating questions were asked: after all, the concrete man of the earlier period, the person able to ask such questions, had long since been replaced by the technician.

After Galileo's trial the concrete man was fragmented into so many domains of "scientific" inquiry, thus reifying the creative subjectivity within the abstractions of the accepted categorical structures. In such a context no qualitative change is possible so it is not surprising to discover that, since the beginning of the 17th century, Western man has only perpetuated the essential reality of that period without either qualitatively altering or critically examining the conditions of his being. As a consequence, he finds himself presently threatened by self‑annihilation, he still lives with scarcity in an economy of abundance, and his life is hounded by as much myth and superstition as any other period in his short stay on earth.

But the failure of the would‑be scientific revolution was not a failure of nerve on the part of the universal man of the Renaissance; rather, it must be examined in terms of the socio‑economic forces of the period. While the bourgeoisie was still an upstart within a predominantly feudal Weltanschauung, it sought the science of the concrete man as an intellectual tool for the overthrow of the old order: thus the Venetian bourgeoisie financed the University of Padua—the intellectual capital of Europe—and its technological requirements created both a demand and a stimulus for a new science able to deal effectively with problems that were increasingly baffling the old Aristotelian science. It is no mere accident that Copernicus, Harvey, [25/26] and Galileo, along with the leading thinkers of the period, were products of the University of Padua.

The successes of the new science and the establishment of the new bourgeois order, however, were the downfall of the concrete man whose revolutionary spirit had helped overthrow the feudal order and was now threatening the new and more sophisticated irrationalities of the bourgeois establishment. Again, it is no accident that in 1592 Bruno was extradited from Venice to Rome with the full approval of the Venetian authorities. When it became obvious that the scientific spirit was committed to the universal values of what Husserl calls the new humanity rather than to the limited class‑interests of the new ruling order, the scientific would‑be revoluion was stopped cold in its tracks and the concrete man was reduced to the alienated splinter of present‑day society where he is but a neutral spectator powerlessly facing the objective capitalist world‑order which appears to him as unchanging and unquestionable.

The scientific compromise whereby the conquest of the objective domain was paralleled by the forfeiture of the subjective one, was, therefore, the loss of human subjectivity, the reification of rationality, and the introduction of a new kind of superstition and myth much more pervasive and incorrigible than any other before it. The malaise of this century, its nihilism and loss of meaning, are thus directly traceable to the failure of the scientific revolution and the annihilation of the concrete man, the uomo universale of the Renaissance. As such, Husserl's study of the crisis of the European science blends with Marx's analysis of capitalist development, and science can thus be seen as another appendage of the ideological superstructure.

This account does not entail an anti‑scientific attitude, rather it presupposes a firm commitment to rationality as something more fundamental than science. As such it is a rejection of the scientific attitude that has displaced the all‑encompassing scientific attitude of the Renaissance man. What needs to be studied further is not primarily the "scientific revolution" but the religious "counter‑revolution" that ensued, and the relation of science and the 17th century society that, in making science an institution continuous with its essential character, vitiated the originally revolutionary motives of the Renaissance scientists.


* Read in Disputatio, University of Buffalo Graduate Philosophy Association Lecture Series, October 16, 1967.

1 Antonio Banfi, "Husserl e la Crisi della Civiltá Europea" in Aut‑Aut, Jan.‑March 1958, p. 2.

2 Ibid., p. 3.

3 Edmund Husserl, Die Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale Phänomenologie: Eine Einleitung in die Phänomenologische Philosophie, ed. by Walter Biemel, (Den Haag, 1962), p. 331.

4 Ibid., p. 329.

5 Antonio Banfi, Vita di Galileo Galilei, (Milano, 1962) p. 18.

6 Husserl, Die Krisis . . . , op. cit.

7 John Dewey, Experience and Nature, (New York, 1958), p. 19.

8 Edmund Husserl, Formale und Transzendentale Logik (Halle, 1929), p. 13.

9 Banfi, "Husserl e la Crisi della Civiltá Europea" op. cit. p. 13.

10 Ibid., p. 14.

11 George Lukàcs, Histoire et Conscience de Classe (Paris, 1960), p. 72.

12 Cf. Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo, (Chicago, 1955), pp. VIII‑IX.

13 Cf. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy and the Development of Western Thought (New York, 1958), p. 11.

14 Cf. Edward N. Rosen, Three Copernican Treatises (New York, 1939).

15 Cf. Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers (New York, 1959) p. 74f.

16 Cf. Giordano Bruno, La Cena delle Ceneri, in Dialoghi Italiani: Dialoghi Metafisici e Dialoghi Morali, Ed. by Giovanni Gentile (Firenze, 1958), pp. 91 ff.

17 Cf. Paul K. Feyerabend, "Explanation, Reduction and Empiricism," in Herbert Feigl and Grover Maxwell, editors, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. III. (Minneapolis, Minn., 1962).

18 Something similar to what is ordinarily described as the two‑balls experiment was carried out by Stevinus and de Groot and reported in an appendix to Stevinus' work, De Beghinselen der Weeghconst (The Elements of Statics) published in 1586. For an account of this, cf. R. J. Forbes and E. J. Dijksterhuis, A History of Science and Technology vol. I, "Ancient Times to the 17th Century," (Baltimore, 1963), p. 168.

19 Cf. Antonio Banfi, L'Uomo Copernicano (Milano, 1950), pp. 321 ff.

20 Cf. Galileo's little known poem “Contro gli Aristotelici” edited and published by Antonio Favaro in the Atti del Reale Istituto Veneto di Science, Lettere ed Arti, Serie VII, vol. II (1891‑2), p. 7. I am indebted to Professor William F. Edwards for having pointed this out to me.

21 Tommaso Campanella, Apologia Pro Galilaeo, in Opere di Giordano Bruno e di Tommaso Campanella, edited by A. Guzzo and R. Amerio (Milano‑Napoli, 1956), p. 1260.

22 Giordano Bruno, De Monade Numero et Figura, Secretioris Nepte Physicae, Mathematicae et Metaphysicae Elementa, in Opera Latine Conscripta edited by F. Fiorentino, vol. I, part II, (Neapoli, 1854), p. 394 ff.

23 Galileo Galilei, Lettere Copernicane, edited by B. Widmar (Napoli, 1962).

24 John H. Randall, "The Development of Scientific Method in the School of Padua," in Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 1, 1940, pp. 177‑206.

25 Cf. Niel Gilbert, Renaissance Concept of Method, (New York, 1960).

26 Cf. I. B. Cohen, The Birth of a New Physics, (New York, 1960), p. 103 f.

27 Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, in Edwin Burtt editor, The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill, (New York, 1939), paragraph lxiv, p. 44.

28 A good example of this can be seen from Galileo's early efforts to formulate a law of falling bodies by differentiating through space rather than through time—the only possible way at that time. Through complete reconsiderations Galileo was able to succeed where all of his contemporaries had failed. For a good analysis of this event, cf. N. R. Hanson, Patterns of Discovery, (Cambridge, 1961), pp. 37‑49. Cf. also A. R. Hall, The Scientific Revolution, 1500‑1800. (Boston, 1954), pp. 79‑92.

29 Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis, (New York, 1909), p. 189 ff.

SOURCE: Piccone, Paul. “Towards a Socio‑Historical Interpretation of the Scientific Revolution,” Telos, vol. 1, no. 1, Spring 1968, pp. 16-26.

Note: Footnotes have been converted into endnotes for ease of reference. Some typographical errors in the original have been corrected.

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