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The Beginnings of Western Science (1992)

by David C. Lindberg

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The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious and Institutional Context, 600 BC to AD 1450. By David C Lindberg.
If you wish to understand how teachings from antiquity vitally affected the middle ages then you could do no better than reading Lindbergs book. He claims that no previous knowledge of the history is necessary to grasp his arguments and this may be so, but his book is no mere introduction. I found it invaluable for a clearer understanding of how the rediscovery of Aristotle's teachings in particular, shaped the thoughts of the medieval scholars.

Lindberg recognises that the term Western Science in the title is misleading as what he is intent on exploring is natural philosophy; that is ancient and medieval attempts to investigate nature. His book therefore covers philosophy and religion as well as rigorously examining how ancient and medieval people viewed and understood their world.

Lindberg aims to discuss the question of continuity between ancient and medieval science and so he must therefore demonstrate the achievements of the classical world. He starts further back than this with an overview of prehistoric, Babylonian and Egyptian science before launching into the teachings of Plato and Aristotle of ancient Greece. Philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, motion, the workings of the cosmos are all examined in enough detail to enable Lindberg to draw out the essential differences between the teachings of Plato and his pupil Aristotle. He broadens out the picture with an overview of the Stoics and the Epicureans and their follows chapters on mathematics, astronomy, optics and weights, before a very good overview of Galen and the achievements of Hellenistic medicine.

The Roman invasion of the Greek world and the subsequent amalgamation of Greek learning is very well explained, Lindberg comments:

"Members of the Roman upper class had about the same level of interest in the fine points of Greek natural philosophy as the average American politician has in metaphysics and epistemology. At best their desire was as the Roman playwright Enius put it "To study philosophy but in moderation" The only surprise is that historians expected it to be otherwise"

The Romans popularised Greek ideas, but Greek teaching survived in satellite towns like Alexandria in Egypt. The teachings of Plato tended to get the upper hand and with the advent of Christianity his pagan world view was more easily adapted by the early Christians. Lindberg follows this with an excellent overview of Islamic science and its mingling with Greek learning and then explains how such learning survived through the dark ages until a new burst of scholarly activity started again in the Carolingian Empire.

Universities and other centres of learning became a feature of the twelfth century and Lindberg describes how classical texts were rediscovered, many of them having to be translated from the Arabic after surviving with commentary in the Islamic world. Aristotle became a huge influence and Lindberg skillfully tells how his teachings were adapted for use in the Christian world. This was because at the end of the day it was recognised by Christian scholars that this pagan knowledge was just too valuable to be ignored. Late medieval learning is then described especially in relation to how Aristotle's teachings were re-examined and expanded where necessary and there are further chapters on optics, cosmology, medicine, astronomy, astrology and alchemy.

Finally Lindberg steps back to consider the legacy of medieval learning and expounds on the two polar views, which can be summed up as the continuity debate. Was there a gradual increase in knowledge from the middle ages up to the time of the scientific breakthroughs in the 17th and 18th centuries or was their a discontinuity and a need for a re-evaluation of learning before the leaps forward could take place? Lindberg says he is in the discontinuity camp and sets out his reasons.

Throughout the book Lindberg emphasises that we should not look on the achievements of the classical and medieval worlds from a modern standpoint, We may think they got a lot wrong, but it worked for them and only by looking at the world through their eyes will we be able to understand and evaluate their achievements.

The book is well annotated and there is an extensive bibliography. It is a bit text bookish, but Lindberg writes engagingly and it filled in some gaps in my knowledge ( )
3 vote baswood | Feb 13, 2012 |
Textbook for Historical Dimensions of Liberal Studies - 302A ( )
  Borg-mx5 | Dec 15, 2010 |
The purpose of this book is to present the history of Western science from its beginnings in ancient Greece through the 14th century, but to do so by indicating the ways in which the science of each era depended upon the philosophic ideas of that time. This is an ambitious, integrative - and highly successful - approach that makes the history of science intelligible by relating it to the larger history of ideas.

Lindberg contrasts scientific with pre-scientific cultures. The essential difference is identified: the former accept the ideas of natural causation, and the latter do not. Science thus began with the discovery of causality by the early philosophers in ancient Greece. Lindberg perceptively writes:

"The world of the philosophers, in short, was an orderly, predictable world in which things behaved according to their natures. The Greek term used to denote this orderly world was 'kosmos,' from which we draw our own word 'cosmology.' The capricious world of divine intervention was being pushed aside, making room for order and regularity; *kosmos* was being substituted for chaos. A distinction between the natural and the supernatural was emerging; and there was wide agreement that causes (if they are to be dealt with philosophically) are to be sought only in the nature of things."

Lindberg has an impressive ability to explain complex scientific and philosophic ideas very clearly and yet very concisely, without becoming cryptic or superficial. This is particularly evident in the part of the book dealing with Greek science. In a span of just over one hundred pages, he describes the enormous scientific accomplishment of the Greeks and shows how it depended upon basic ideas in metaphysics and epistemology.

For example: Is human nature reducible to matter in motion, or is there a place for goals and purposes? The different answers offered by the atomists and Aristotle led to very different scientific theories.

Is knowledge ultimately based on innate ideas or on sense perception? The opposite answers offered by Plato and Aristotle led to scientific disagreements on such issues as the basic properties of matter and the role of mathematics in describing nature.

What is the relationship between theory and observation? Disputes on this issue led, for example, to rival schools of medicine: the "rationalists" engaged in theoretical speculation regarding the basic physiological causes of disease, whereas the "empiricists" rejected this as a waste of time and insisted that doctors consider only visible symptoms and base their prescriptions on trial-and-error.

What is the meaning of the metaphysical distinction between matter and form? Differences of opinion on this issue led natural philosophers of the late Middle Ages to disagree on the nature of chemical mixtures.

In each of these instances, Lindberg gives simple and clear explanations of the philosophy, the science - and the link between the two.

After telling the inspiring story of the Greeks, from Plato and Aristotle through Ptolemy and Galen, the author devotes the remaining two-thirds of his book to the decline of science in the Roman Empire, its virtual disappearance during the Dark Ages and its gradual re-emergence in the late Middle Ages after the recovery of Greek knowledge. Although the scientific accomplishments during this entire post-Greek period were comparatively modest, it is an interesting story nevertheless.

In dealing with the Dark Ages, for instance, the story is not about the discoveries, but about the safekeeping, of science. One learns how, by the efforts of a small group of men, a large portion of Greek knowledge was precariously preserved throughout an age of hostility toward science and the natural world. And finally, under the influence of Aristotle and a renewed respect for reason, one sees the efforts in the late Middle Ages to build on, and even correct, the science of the Greeks.

Unfortunately, to enjoy this book's merits, the reader must endure its irritating flaws, which result from the author's knee jerk, 20th-century skepticism. This premise leads him to adopt the modern attitude of "tolerance," i.e., the refusal to condemn anything and the attempt to maintain a morally neutral tone throughout most of the book. The worst consequence of this is Lindberg's tendency to whitewash Christianity for its role in destroying science for nearly a millenium. He understates the incompatibility between Christianity and science, he gives little emphasis to the Church's attacks on natural philosophy and its burning of books - and he even praises the Church for encouraging literacy so that monks could read the Bible! As a result, the part of the book on the Dark Ages is unphilosophical and is of value only as a source of historical fact.

But these deficiencies are more than offset by Lindberg's remarkable feat of lucidly summarizing the first two thousand years of Western science and, in general, offering valuable insights into the way this science depended upon underlying philosophic ideas.

This work provides an unequalled overview of the achievements of the heroic men who began the quest for a scientific understanding of the world in which we live. ( )
3 vote Toolroomtrustee | Nov 6, 2009 |
Excellent book, digging deeper and more balanced than other histories of science, includes the religious and philosophical influences. ( )
  Steve777 | Dec 27, 2008 |
This was one of the more readable and enjoyable textbooks I've ever been assigned. I had the opportunity to sell it, but decided I'd keep it for future reference. Nice broad scope. ( )
  Nickelini | Jun 19, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226482316, Paperback)

This landmark book represents the first attempt in two decades to survey the science of the ancient world, the first attempt in four decades to write a comprehensive history of medieval science, and the first attempt ever to present a full, unified account of both ancient and medieval science in a single volume. In The Beginnings of Western Science, David C. Lindberg provides a rich chronicle of the development of scientific ideas, practices, and institutions from the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers to the late-medieval scholastics.

Lindberg surveys all the most important themes in the history of ancient and medieval science, including developments in cosmology, astronomy, mechanics, optics, alchemy, natural history, and medicine. He synthesizes a wealth of information in superbly organized, clearly written chapters designed to serve students, scholars, and nonspecialists alike. In addition, Lindberg offers an illuminating account of the transmission of Greek science to medieval Islam and subsequently to medieval Europe. And throughout the book he pays close attention to the cultural and institutional contexts within which scientific knowledge was created and disseminated and to the ways in which the content and practice of science were influenced by interaction with philosophy and religion. Carefully selected maps, drawings, and photographs complement the text.

Lindberg's story rests on a large body of important scholarship produced by historians of science, philosophy, and religion over the past few decades. However, Lindberg does not hesitate to offer new interpretations and to hazard fresh judgments aimed at resolving long-standing historical disputes. Addressed to the general educated reader as well as to students, his book will also appeal to any scholar whose interests touch on the history of the scientific enterprise.


(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:50:20 -0400)

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