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Rethinking the Scientific Revolution. (Book reviews: summaries and comments).

OSLER, Margaret J., ed. Rethinking the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xii + 340 pp. Cloth, $t50.915; paper, $24.95---The fifteen independently written essays in this volume are held together by a recent dispute among some historians of science about the historiographic meaning and validity of the concept of the "Scientific Revolution" as referring to what happened in Western intellectual culture in the century and a half between Copernicus and Newton. Is that concept a distortion of what actually occurred (and thus should be abandoned) since as traditionally understood, it reads the past primarily in terms of what science has become today? Or is it fundamentally correct, and important, to maintain that the Scientific Revolution was a unique, one-time event which was a "sudden, radical, and complete" transformation of the Western world from a religious culture to one based on a mechanistic and reductionistic model of reality?

The book opens with a pair of essays designed to argue for each side of this dispute. In a paper entitled "Newton as Final Cause and First Mover" [reprinted from Isis, 85 (1994)], B. J. T. Dobbs rejects the recent traditional notion of the Scientific Revolution which is focused on extraordinary individuals as scientific heroes who are understood to do science as it is done today, which limits itself only to the canonical disciplines (usually astronomy, physics, and mathematics), and which omits discussion of the religious, social, and political context in which these heroes lived. She argues that a key responsibility of the historian is to try as best as one can to capture the past as it was in its full context, and not to distort history to fit contemporary preferences.

On the other hand, a new essay by Richard S. Westfall, "The Scientific Revolution Reasserted," argues that "the question is whether the enterprise of science as it was carried out after 1687 was radically different from that before 1543. Clearly I think that it was and that the transformation was a once and for all event that has never been reversed" (p. 44). For him that is what the concept "Scientific Revolution" asserts, and to bury that concept is to risk a great loss to our understanding of the origins of modern science.

All of the remaining essays in this volume are detailed historical studies along the lines recommended by Dobbs. As a result, the reader can find here much new information and many interpretations about the roles in the birth of modern science played by lesser known individuals (for example, Hilderich von Varel, Kenelm Digby, Athanasius Kircher, Henry More), and by disciplines and topics usually seen now, but not then, as extra-scientific (for example, biblical interpretation, theology, trinitarianism, hermeticism, magic, alchemy, divine providence). This is especially true of the seven papers focused on Newton. They show that he did not separate his new physics, as we now do, from an involved set of notions concerning his work in alchemy and biblical scholarship and from his personal religious convictions.

At the end of the volume the initial dichotomy of views about the Scientific Revolution remains, of course, unresolved. Could it be that ultimately we are faced here with an unnecessary choice? If at some point in the future very adequate studies of the relevant noncanonical individuals and disciplines have been completed, and if these studies are also interrelated with the traditional images of the Scientific Revolution, such that a rich and fully contextualized tapestry of the period gradually has emerged (as Dobbs recommends), then we may well come to see that what happened was indeed truly revolutionary (as Westfall insists).--Richard J. Blackwell, Saint Louis University.
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Author:Blackwell, Richard J.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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