The Beginnings of Western Science Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Research into the roots of modern Western science has flourished since World War II. Building upon the prewar work of Pierre Duhem, Charles Homer Haskins, and Lynn Thorndike, two generations of historians have compared, edited, translated, and interpreted texts. Their scholarship has been complemented by students of ancient and medieval philosophy, theology, pedagogy, and institutions. As a result, the understanding that specialists have of pre-sixteenth century science was altered greatly in the latter half of the twentieth century. Most of this scholarship, however, has been available only in scholarly journals and specialized monographs. The knowledge has not been synthesized, particularly not in a format accessible to the nonspecialist.

In this outstanding book, Lindberg, one of the most respected American historians of medieval science, provides that accessible synthesis in the first English-language history since World War II to integrate Greco-Roman (pre a.d. 500) and medieval (a.d. 500-1450) science into a single study. The Beginnings of Western Science is also the first postwar history to balance discussions of medieval mathematical and physical sciences with those of the biomedical sciences (previous surveys of science during the Middle Ages have emphasized the physical and mathematical sciences), and it is the first to blend analysis of scientific thought with concern for the larger intellectual and institutional context, especially the role of religion.

This multifaceted book will meet the needs of readers with varying goals. Those unfamiliar with the field, looking for an introduction founded in the latest scholarship, will benefit from a narrative presented with clarity, precision, and sensitivity. An experienced teacher, Lindberg frequently writes as if he were lecturing to a group of bright undergraduates who, he assumes, have little or no prior knowledge of the history of science, the history of philosophy, or medieval history, and do not have the time to immerse themselves in the ancient or medieval worlds. He recognizes that there is a great danger that such individuals will bring twentieth century values to bear in their interpretations of the thought or motivations of those who lived in those very different times. Time and again, carefully and cogently, Lindberg admonishes the reader not to judge the work of intellectuals who lived half a millennium or more ago by current standards of good or bad science.

Lindberg also warns that the usages of the word “science” in the twentieth century are very ambiguous. He identifies at least eight different meanings of the word, ranging from highly technical philosophical definitions to common everyday usage. Science has been defined in terms of patterns of behavior; bodies of theoretical knowledge; the form in which knowledge is presented, such as laws presented in mathematical formulae; a methodology (for example, experiments, or simply procedures characterized by rigor, precision, or objectivity); epistemological status; or content. “Science” has even become a term of approbation, used as a label to distinguish between activities that we esteem and those of which we do not approve, irrespective of the subject or content.

Faced with the imprecise nature of the word “science,” Lindberg chooses to use the terms “science” and “natural philosophy” fairly interchangeably. Science is more familiar; natural philosophy more closely captures his meaning. He...

(The entire section is 1415 words.)