The Scientific Revolution

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Steven Shapin stresses the continuity of seventeenth century science with its medieval past. The new ideas in science, he says, were situated in a wide cultural context and were closely related to religious, political, and economic changes. He is interested not only in this context, but also in what people actually did when they practiced science, and in just who these people were.

Shapin has written THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION in three chapters: “What Was Known,” “How Was It Known,” and “What Was the Knowledge For?” Chapter one focuses on the achievements of Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo in establishing the heliocentric universe, the popularization of the mechanical philosophy by Robert Boyle and Rene Descartes (an excellent discussion), and the creation by Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton of a mathematical framework for natural philosophy. (Natural philosophy pondered the causal structure of the natural world, whereas natural history scrutinized what sorts of things exist in this world.)

Shapin’s second chapter argues that the seventeenth century’s supposed emphasis on experience and observation over authority was not as clear-cut as hackneyed versions of the scientific revolution have always insisted. He is also skeptical about the value for science of the methodological theory stressing objectivity.

The third chapter of Shapin’s well-written and provocative overview turns to the social and political uses of science. Although Shapin rejects any view of science as the pure pursuit of objective truth by disinterested human beings, he praises science as “certainly the most reliable body of natural knowledge we have got.”

The forty-four page bibliographic essay is superb.