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The Scientific Revolution by Steven Shapin

The Scientific Revolution

by Steven Shapin

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In The Scientific Revolution, Steven Shapin argues, “Although many seventeenth-century practitioners expressed their intention of brining about radical intellectual change, the people who are said to have made the revolution used no such term to refer to what they were doing” (pg. 2). Summarizing the historiography, he writes, “Historians have in recent years become dissatisfied with the traditional manner of treating ideas as if they floated freely in conceptual space” (pg. 4). Shapin works to demonstrate how science reflects the society in which it is created. In his organization, “the three chapters deal sequentially with what was known about the natural world, how that knowledge was secured, and what purposes the knowledge served. What, how, and why” (pg. 12). These questions guide Shapin’s synthetic approach.
Shapin writes, “Pre-Copernican cosmology was literally anthropocentric,” with humans and their teleological ideas of their movement at its center (pg. 24). Challenges to this influenced what Shapin terms a major idea underpinning science in the early modern period. He writes, “So central was the machine metaphor to important strands of new science that many exponents liked to refer to their practices as the mechanical philosophy” (pg. 30). Shapin argues, “If we want ultimately to understand the appeal of mechanical metaphors in the new scientific practices – and the consequent rejection of the opposition between nature and art – we shall ultimately have to understand the power relations of an early modern European society whose patterns of living, producing, and political ordering were undergoing massive changes as feudalism gave way to early capitalism” (pg. 33). Shapin concludes, “This confidence [in mathematical and mechanistic harmony] reached its highest early modern development in the 1687 Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the English title of which was The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The world-machine followed laws that were mathematical in form and that could be expressed in the language of mathematics. Mathematics and mechanism were to be merged in a new definition of proper natural philosophy” (pg. 61).
Shapin argues in his second section that, despite seventeenth century scientists’ claims, the new science was not new and intricately linked to ideas that preceded it. Shapin writes, “The Scientific Revolution was significantly, but only partially, a New Thing. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of wholesale rejection and replacement draws our attention to how practitioners tended to position themselves with respect to existing philosophical traditions and institutions” (pg. 68). Even new methodologies were tied to cultural values. Shapin writes, “Formal methodology is important, therefore, in the same way that the justification of a practice is important to its recognized identity and worth” (pg. 95).
In his final section, Shapin writes, “Seventeenth-century mechanical philosophers attempted to discipline, if not in all cases to eliminate, teleological accounts of the natural world. Yet as ordinary actors they accepted the propriety of a teleological framework for interpreting human cultural action, and with some exceptions so do modern historians and social scientists: the very identity of human action – as action rather than behavior – embodies some notion of its point, purpose, or intention” (pg. 119). He continues, “Recent historical work on Galileo, for example, has stressed significance of court patronage relationships not only for his livelihood but also for the thematics and presentation of his scientific work” (pg. 126). Shapin argues, “In speaking about the purposes of changing natural knowledge in the seventeenth century, it is obligatory to treat its uses in supporting and extending broadly religious aims” (pg. 136). Further, “Galileo arguably wanted more than cultural equality for the natural philosopher: he intermittently contrasted the ambiguity of scriptural texts with the interpretive clarity of the Book of Nature. This was a sense in which the expert natural philosopher might be understood as doing a better job of interpreting God’s word than the theologian” (pg. 137).
Shapin concludes, “This is the paradox: the more a body of knowledge is understood to be objective and disinterested, the more valuable it is as a tool in moral and political action. Conversely, the capacity of a body of knowledge to make valuable contributions to moral and political problems flows from an understanding that it was not produced and evaluated to further particular human interests” (pg. 164). He cautions, “One consequence of the presentation of science developed in the seventeenth century – to be sure, one of the least important – is that many of the categories we have available for talking about science are just those whose history and sociology we wish to understand” (pg. 164). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Oct 21, 2017 |
This book is a masterpiece of historical scholarship. Shapin synthesizes two decades of sophisticated historical research by himself and many other scholars that has challenged the canonical account of the scientific revolution rooted in a naive scientific realism. In Shapin's account, the scientific revolution was much less about great scientific discoveries than about significant changes in how we think about the natural world -- what would count as valid evidence, and what practices were developed to gather such evidence. Shapin shows that these changes were driven by more than a simple desire to better understand the natural world. Rather, these new ideas and practices answered powerful social and political needs for those who championed them.

Shapin presents these arguments, which have vexed the academic world, in a reasonable, even-handed manner that avoids the sociological reductionism that has sometimes marred this scholarship. Moreover, although the book is not captive to present day concerns, it does suggest that this history matters to us today if we are to understand our own attitudes toward science.

What is perhaps most remarkable, Shapin has achieved all this in a concise, highly readable and compelling narrative. If you read one only one book about the scientific revolution in your life, this should be the one. ( )
1 vote JFBallenger | Feb 16, 2008 |
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There is no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.
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Lang is men ervan uitgegaan dat in de vroegmoderne tijd een duidelijk aanwijsbare omwenteling plaatsvond, die een fundamentele en onherroepelijke verandering teweegbracht in de kennis die men tot dan toe had over de natuur. Die revolutie speelde zich af tussen het einde van de zestiende en het begin van de zeventiende eeuw, tussen Copernicus en Newton. Toen zou de moderne wereld zijn intrede hebben gedaan.
Op overtuigende wijze laat Shapin zien dat het zo helemaal niet is gegaan: in plaats van een revolutie was er eerder sprake van een uiteenlopende reeks van activiteiten die erop waren gericht de wereld te begrijpen, te verklaren en te beheersen. Met De wetenschappelijke revolutie, dat inmidels in veertien talen is vertaald, schreef Shapin een even fascinerend als toegankelijk boek, dat een fundamentele verdieping betekent van ons inzicht in de wetenschappelijke praktijken van die belangrijke zeventiende eeuw.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0226750213, Paperback)

In the last ten years, a new school of sociology has grown up that sees science as not only relativistic but as a purely human construct; that ties scientists' findings about "nature" to their standing in the cultural and political milieu of which they are a part. Steven Shapin adds to this revisionist literature with a fascinating, paradoxical book that at once questions our notions of the scientific revolution of the last century and deepens our understanding of it. Shapin examines four themes in the history of modern science: mechanism (the idea of nature as a machine); objectivism; methodology and impartiality; and altruism (the idea that science can better the lot of mankind). He does so in three deft, incisive sections: "What Was Known?"; "How Was It Known?"; and "What Was the Knowledge For?" This excellent study, written for the layman, explains how the scientists' world shaped their knowledge of the natural world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:08 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it." With this provocative and apparently paradoxical claim, Steven Shapin begins his bold vibrant exploration of the origins of the modern scientific worldview.

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