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Paul Halsall
Modern Western Civilization

Class 6: Origins of the Scientific Revolution

I. Introduction

We are now starting on the great intellectual revolutions that lead to the modern world - The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

We are going to look at the pre-modern ways of thinking that were the starting point for so many later developments.

This is looking at what we call intellectual history or the history of thought.

Chronological Framework

The chronology here overlaps. What is often see as the start of the Scientific Revolution, Copernicus in 1543, occurs at the same time as pre-modern religious wars are breaking out.

It is also important to realise that people who are very advanced in one area of thought may be very archaic in other areas.

II. Pre-Modern Ways of Thinking

These include medieval traditions, and seeds of what was to come. Pre-modern ways of thought co-existed with what we call modern for long periods.

Ways of Thinking

A. Scientific Thought

1. Aristotelian

a. Aristotle, 384-322 BC

Science was only a part of what he did. He is also important as a founder of political science, literary criticism, biology, pure philosophy.

b. Notable Theories of Aristotle with regard to the Scientific Revolution

c. Aristotle and the Church

Aristotle's ideas fitted in with some religious theories. Also due to great influence of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) he was given great regard in the Church.

2. The Ptolemaic System

a. Ptolemy, 90-168AD (Claudius Ptolemaeus).

B. Magical Thought

In practice science was not clearly distinct from magic. One of main motives for intellectuals throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was to look back at the admired thinkers of the past (EMPHASISE) so along with logic and the art of the past, the rather large amount of magical and symbolic thought of the past was retrieved.

1. Alchemy

This involved trying to convert iron to gold or to find some elixir of life. It was based on Greek science.

Chemistry was in fact a subject that did not advance for a long time, possibly because of an obsession with alchemy, but notion of mutability of matter was there.

2. Astrology

This thought that events in the heavens effect events on Earth and was pre-Aristotelian, but Aristotle's idea of contiguous motion gave a scientific rationale to it. The idea of a Chain of Being is important here. It was fitted into a Christian world view by saying that the stars affected the lower nature of people, while the higher parts still had free will.

3. Witchcraft

The Witch craze in 16th and 17th century Europe. Old women killed in the hundreds, especially in Scotland. The people at the time really believed that these women had magic powers.

For very many people demons were in the air all around them.


Note the entirely different world views of people in the late Middles Ages and 16th century - both for intellectual and popular thought. Also note that these ideas persisted for a long time, alongside more modern ones, for instance look at modern newspaper astrologers.

It was hard to break out of this view of the world. Great intellects had built it up and it took enormous breadth of knowledge imagination and even hubris to change it.

The changing of the Scientific world view, was the single most characteristic change that led to the modern world.

C. Philosophy

1. Philosophy Introduction - A Speculative Study

1. The Egg metaphor.

Image of and Egg

Philosophy tries to tie these together - as we shall see the change in views about the nature of existence effects people's views on what is right in politics.

2. Medieval Philosophy

The dominant philosophy of the Middle Ages had been scholasticism. It was a rigorous and logical way of looking at the world, but had become to many arid and pointless.

There was a period of torpor after Scholastism. Intellectuals became involved in the Reformation.

3.. Renaissance Platonism

The Renaissance produced no new great synthesis in philosophy such as scholasticsim, but there was a very important revival of Platonism (NB Some students are studying Plato in other core clusters).
This was often seen as a sort of religion. It was far from a modern world view.

4. Maths

BUT Plato, and another ancient thinker Pythagoras did emphasize maths. Plato thought maths was the surest knowledge we have. He also emphasised simplicity, and LIKE ARISTOTLE the concept of Order. This was, as we shall see, going to influence all scientific thinkers.

5. Doldrums

It is important to note that as we approach the Modern period, philosophy as a subject was in the doldrums. Beginning with Descartes (1591-1650) philosophy was to be reborn.

D. Religious Thought

A. Religion Introduction

We now turn to religion. Religion united the intellectual elite and the people. From your reading you should have seen that the ways of thinking were not scientific for many. There was a pre-occupation was with God and especially SAlVATION (getting to heaven).

The thinkers we shall be examining as creators of the modern world lived in this background.

B. The Reformation (First half of 16th Century)

II. Origins of the Scientific Revolution

A. Introduction

The Scientific Revolution was the prelude to the wider movement we call the Enlightenment. This revolution can be said to take place from Copernicus to Newton.

B. Why is it a "Revolution"?

It was very slow, taking almost 150 years, but it completely altered old ways of thinking. It was also one of the most exiting adventures of the human mind.

C. The Causes of Scientific Revolution

1. Trade and Expansion of Trade

Navigational problems of sea voyages generated scientific research. Overseas specimens aroused peoples interest in different worlds.

2. Medieval Universities

3. The Renaissance

4. Humanism

The belief that there are no limits to human accomplishment (Pico de Mirandola). This, rather than more medieval ideas, was the precursor of modern ways of thinking.

5. Reformation

The Reformation divided Europe. Science could go on in other countries when Catholic Hierarchy opposed it.