Kearney, Hugh. Science and Change, 1500-l700. (New York:
Reviewed by Roger W. Rodgers (Hist 5040 - Spring l999).
In Science and Change, 1500-1700, Hugh Kearney argues that the Scientific Revolution was itself a part of a period of vast social and intellectual change. The rise of mathematics and the experimental method occurred in a world that saw little distinction between religion and science. Throughout this brief volume, Kearney shows how the individuals' personal religious beliefs related to their scientific work. It was a period, he says, of confusion, suspicions, and irrationalism. Three patterns or traditions Greek thought characterized the work of these scientists: organic, magical, and mechanistic.Kearney advises early that he opposes the "Whig interpretation of history," a designation taken from British constitutional historians who saw English liberty "slowly broadening down from precedent to precedent." This interpretation explained events in simple terms of a clash between Whigs who loved liberty and Tories who did not. The chief modern exponents of the Whig interpretation methodology are the Marxists who view the past in terms of the present and divide history into simple moral categories. The history of science, Kearney contends, should not be a self-contained activity focused solely on scientific tradition. The scientists themselves were affected by non-scientific and non-rational factors. These factors should be connected to the scientists.
The organic tradition is characterized by Kearney as that which "explained the natural world in terms of analogies drawn from what we now call biology." Aristotle was the dominant influence in this tradition, and it constituted an entire philosophical system, extending into metaphysics, ethics and logic. It provided intellectual coherence to the universe, with earth at the center, an absolute up and down, and a complete difference between the lunar and sub-lunar worlds. Though Aristotle was not a Christian, by 1500 Aristotelean terms (such as substance, accident, matter and form) were used to explain Christian teachings. God's universe and science and theology were framed in logical terms.
For Kearney, William Harvey best represents the scientific work of the organic tradition. In An Anatomical Treatise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, l628, Harvey showed how blood circulates in the body, and his publication is often considered the most important single volume in the history of physiology. He described how the heart, by repeated contractions, produces a continuous stream of blood circulating throughout the body. Aristotle regarded the heart as the source of blood in the body, and with this as a starting point, Harvey reasoned that blood actually passed through it. (He did not see the importance of the lungs.)The magical tradition was neo-Platonic and reached its peak at the end of the sixteenth century. Its proponents believed that the microcosm of the earth reflected the macrocosm of greater reality. This group emphasized the beauty, surprise and mystery of nature, but also began to understand the importance of interpreting nature in its mathematical essence. The knowledge of the secrets of nature brought with it a certain power, and in Kearney's view, it was a drive for the power inherent in astrology that motivated the examination of the heavens.
Copernicus and Kepler were the magical tradition's foremost thinkers. Copernicus's genius in identifying the characteristics of our heliocentric solar system combined both the vision of a poet and the mathematics of science. The questions these men pursued reveal their roots in tradition. Kepler sought not only to describe the paths of the planets, but also to explain why there were only six planets. In other words, says Kearney, Kepler sought "an insight into God's mind." Kepler's own words relate the glory of his vision: "I feel carried away and possessed by an unutterable rapture over the divine spectacle of the heavenly harmony."
For the mechanical tradition, the analogy was the machine. This tradition saw regularity, permanence, and predictability in nature, and here mathematics became a foundational tool of analysis. Key to understanding this tradition is the works of Galileo and Descartes, and instrumental in Galileo's thinking was the influence of Archimedes. Kearney may be a bit harsh with his assessment of Galileo whose "chief claim to fame [in astronomy] was to see the implications of an optical instrument which had been invented by someone else." Descartes' concept of God was based on power rather than love or goodness. In the history of science, says Kearney, Descartes' significance lies in his construction of a complete scientific system that confronted (and contradicted) the universe of Aristotle. It was a victory for the mathematical models of nature.
Kearney also includes in his grouping of mechanists, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who in Leviathan (l651) "extended mechanism beyond the world of nature into ethics and psychology." The state was not an organism natural to man, but an artifice, a machine dominated by the sovereign. Galileo's doctrine that movement, not rest, was natural, led Hobbes to posit that movement was the central feature also of human life. This displayed itself in man's unceasing selfish desires for more and more pieces of the material world. Most of Hobbes's contemporaries could not accept his pessimism about human nature. Isaac Newton belongs to the mechanist tradition; but he also brought together the magical and mechanist traditions, believing in a Diety who "combined engineering skill with artistic solicitude." Kearney notes, however, that among other scientists, Newton's place in history is regarded as foundational to the mechanistic tradition.
Throughout, Kearney is keen to emphasize the social and theological aspects of scientific development. In a discussion on social background, he argues that the importance of Puritanism is greatly over-rated. The term "Puritanism" itself is so elastic it can cover a broad range of social states and beliefs. In seventeenth century England the kinds of qualities required by a successful merchant were a gambling mentality or a link with government patronage. Puritanism was a disadvantage in either venue. "Their religion did not provide the impetus for economic rationalism that Weber would have us believe."
Kearney's work is a systematic and orderly enterprise. He allows that in a short history, generalizations will inevitably offend those arguing for more contrast. It is an excellent work, however, for establishing the background and traditions of the major figures.