The Beginnings of Western Science

by David C. Lindberg
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1415

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.

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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 also distinguishes between the craft and theoretical aspects of science and limits himself to the latter. Hence, in the modern sense of the term “science,” Lindberg’s book is a survey of scientific theory. In ancient and medieval context, however, he is analyzing investigations of, and thoughts about, nature. He does not care whether the methodology used by the investigators and the definition of nature meet twentieth century standards for scientific research.

The first third of the book deals with the ancient world. Lindberg appraises Greco-Roman cosmology, philosophy, the mathematical sciences, and medicine. He provides insight into the educational systems, temples, and other institutional contexts within which scientific knowledge was created, disseminated, or sometimes opposed. The central figure in this discussion is Aristotle, whose thought dominated his successors in the ancient world and, after his rediscovery in the eleventh century, the medieval world. What distinguishes Lindberg’s discussion is his emphasis on appreciating the power of Aristotle’s insights and understanding Aristotle in context. Lindberg rejects the thesis that Aristotle was a dominant force in European thought simply through the authority of the Roman Catholic church. Instead, he argues that Aristotle’s ideas were admired and followed because they successfully explained the way the world worked, at least the world as seen through the eyes of Europeans before 1600 c.e. If Aristotle was frequently “wrong” according to modern interpretations of nature, it was not because of stupidity or backwardness. His methodology was in concert with his worldview and the questions he asked of nature.

The second third of the book covers the first thirteen centuries of the Common Era. After discussing the transition in the West from the ancient to the medieval world, Lindberg dedicates a chapter to the rise and fall of science in the Islamic world. He approaches Islamic science as the end product of the diffusion and assimilation of Greek science in parts of North Africa and Asia. In turn, Islamic science served as a means of transmission of Greek science back to Western Europe. The narrative then takes up the revival of learning in the West, especially during the twelfth century. Throughout this middle section of the book, Lindberg stresses the complex relationship between religion, whether Christian or Islam, and science. In both cultures, science had to serve as a handmaiden to theology. Scientific study usually was justified in terms of religious utility. Conflict with theology was to be avoided, especially conflict in which science was viewed as attempting to limit the power of God. This conception of science as handmaiden to theology goes back at least to Saint Augustine in the fourth century.

In the concluding third of the book, Lindberg surveys late medieval science. He provides separate chapters on astronomy, the physical sciences, and medicine and natural history. With the aid of figures and some wonderful contemporary illustrations (there are other fine illustrations scattered through the book), Lindberg summarizes the state of scientific knowledge in Europe at the birth of the Renaissance.

The historiography of early Western science has not been devoid of controversy. Lindberg integrates those debates over interpretation into his narrative. He summarizes the major historiographic issues that have confronted specialists in the field and the responses of those specialists. Although he has his own opinions, which he explicitly delineates, Lindberg is fair, judicious, and balanced in these historiographic discussions. He is especially good at portraying the factions and issues of the continuity debate. Throughout the twentieth century, historians have argued whether the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—a shorthand reference to the thoughts and publications of Nicolas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, to name a few—represented a break from, and even a repudiation of, medieval learning and traditions, or was built upon and can be viewed as a continuation of the teachings of the medieval scientists.

Lindberg manages to agree, in part, with both sides. He accepts the argument that there was discontinuity at the largest metaphysical and methodological level. Viewed from that perspective, the scientific revolution was all about change. It was nothing less than a rejection of the Aristotelian metaphysics that had dominated medieval thought. From the perspective of the history of individual disciplines such as optics, astronomy, physiology, and natural history, however, there was considerable continuity between the medieval and modern periods. Practices, objectives, and principles remained the same. In short, Lindberg warns the reader that historical study offers few simple, pat answers. Approach a historical question from a different angle and you will arrive at a different, equally valid answer.

For those readers wishing to go more deeply into the subject on their own, Lindberg’s endnotes provide a critical commentary on the bibliography of the field. The bibliography itself runs thirty-five pages. There is nothing equivalent to it for publications in English.

This is not the last word on any particular aspect of early European science. For most of the topics, time periods, or disciplines, there are many other publications, each providing extensive detail and analysis not given by Lindberg. For those looking for an accurate, stimulating, insightful introduction, however, this is the book to which they should turn.

Sources for Further Study

Choice. XXX, December, 1992, p. 642.

Library Journal. CXVII, July, 1992, p. 117.

Nature. CCCLX, December 24, 1992, p. 713.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, September 20, 1992, p. 49.

Science News. CXLI, June 27, 1992, p. 418.

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