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06 November 2015

Book Review | The Invention of Science by David Wootton

The Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750 by David Wootton | December 2015 | Harper | Hardcover $35.00

This is a sweeping summary, very well sourced and noted, of the basic idea + repercussions of the Scientific Revolution.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Note the first: I received an e-ARC from the publisher through Edelweiss.

Note the second: Uh, this review is unreasonably long. I got a bit carried away. You have been warned.

In the beginning

The book begins with a quick overview of the Scientific Revolution and its numerous effects on the modern world. It goes on to describe the historical and philosophical arguments for the very idea of a Scientific Revolution, including some rejections or redefinitions of the idea from modern scholars. The author makes the point that, unlike the American or French Revolutions, "which were called revolutions as they happened," the Scientific Revolution is a comparatively recent idea, described by post-atom-bomb scientists/historians who saw in their own time an echo or reflection of the major advancements or upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (-ish) in Europe.

The redefinition of "science" over the years was quite interesting. Once upon a time, things like theology and philosophy were considered sciences. Science was essentially any theoretical system, generally accompanied by some practical skill -- its associated art. Astronomy was a science; astrology was the equally valid art based on it. Politics and law were the "arts" that developed when the concepts of the "science" of moral philosophy were applied in practical scenarios; medicine was the "art" associated with the "science" of natural philosophy (here used to refer to observations of the natural world rather than ruminations on the nature of existence... you can see how this can all get rather confusing for the modern interpreter).  Furthermore, there was a hierarchy of these sciences, with theology naturally being the most valued and dominant. Which brings me to one of the most interesting passages in the book:

A basic description of the Scientific Revolution is to say that it represented a successful rebellion by the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers, and of both against the authority of the theologians.

I had a little chuckle to myself about the early arguments against the term "scientist" for one who practices the natural sciences. It is, as the author puts it, "an illegitimate hybrid of Latin and Greek" which most of the earliest scientists generally rejected. The English language is now so full of these anachronisms that nobody notices or cares about them anymore.

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I think that some of the concepts and occurrences discussed in this book have helped me understand why so many people, even in this day and age, have a difficult time accepting the idea of authoritative science (and the big "issues" that go along with that -- evolution by means of natural selection, for example). If the greatest philosophers and scholars of the ages have continually argued over what science even is, much less the specific value of certain scientific advancements, how can your Average Joe hope to understand or be expected to accept unfamiliar, sometimes complicated or nuanced concepts? Especially given the sorry state of science education in many of our most disadvantaged public schools?

A part of the book briefly touches on philosophical relativism as it applies to the very idea of science, which gave me terrible flashbacks to a Philosophy of Science class that I attempted (and dropped) as an undergrad. It's a pretty significant part of the focus of modern historians, but I just could not get into it. Relativism sort of short-circuits my brain. Maybe someone with a more open mind can make sense of this.

One particular philosophical viewpoint (the "strong programme") is that our ideas of how the universe works are necessarily limited by our language; if we have no way to describe something, we cannot fully understand it. Further, basically every description or idea is a mere language game, no more inherently valid than any other. But Wootton makes his case thus:

A revolution of ideas requires a revolution in language. It is thus simple to test the claim that there was a Scientific Revolution in the 17th century by looking for the revolution in language that must have accompanied it. The revolution in language is indeed the best evidence that there really was a revolution in science.

In other words, the expansion of language necessarily follows the expansion of understanding; just because we have no words for something doesn't mean we can't observe it, think about it, or eventually figure out how to name it. Furthermore, the author postulates that all "language games" are not equal, and that this view of evidence-based science as a philosophy that is just as limited as any other ignores its very insistence on impartiality and application across (or outside of, or in spite of) cultures.

As you can see, a great deal of this book is dedicated to the exploration of philosophical approaches to understanding the history of science rather than only on a just-the-facts timeline of events.

Likewise, a great deal of the author's energy was spent on the etymology of the words we now use to express scientific and science-adjacent ideas, like evidence and discovery. This might sound a bit boring, as though the narrative is simply made up of OEM citations or something, but in reality the way that the author traces the usage of science-y language is rather fascinating.

from the book itself; caption by author

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The final part of the book (well, prior to the Conclusion, where the author takes 3 extra chapters to reiterate several previous points) addresses the consequences of the Scientific Revolution for the modern world, particularly in relation to the Industrial Revolution. Machines -- both the "simple machines of mathematicians" (the pulley, the lever, and so on) and the later mechanical inventions that were made possible by a fundamental shift in our understanding of the way nature works -- are the real focus of this section. The Industrial Revolution, and thus all of our modern Western culture, would not have been possible if not for the invention of the methodical, evidence-based approach the natural world that we now think of as science.

The rise of one particular machine, the printing press, happened nearly simultaneously with the Scientific Revolution. This is no coincidence. Just as the spark of curiosity set fire to humanity's old ideas of the world, it produced a machine that could spread that fire further and faster than ever before.

This was the most fascinating section of the book to me, not just because of the discussion of the practical consequences of the invention of science, but because of the discussion of the theological consequences (the two being inherently tied together). The teleological argument from design (the "watchmaker argument") is discussed at some length here because a machine-focused science naturally lead the assumption that anything "mechanic," whether it be a human body or the motions of the stars, was assumed to necessarily have had a creator or guiding force. Of course, the Scientific Revolution also bolstered arguments to the contrary: that non-observable forces (much less a force with a personality, like the God of Christianity) could have not place in a universe made up of observable, quantifiable pieces. If a piece was being manipulated or made, it was due to a bigger or more complicated piece of the machinery of the world, not a divine influence.

Where once questions of the existence of gods and their nature were mere thought exercises of philosophers who assumed the existence of an eternal, unchanging universe, the Scientific Revolution opened the floor to arguments based on new (or heavily modified) scientific rationalizations. This "disenchantment of the world" (a lovely phrase!) included a decline in the belief in magic, haunting spirits, witchcraft, and so on. The founding of serious scientific societies and schools, with their sanctioned missions to defeat ignorance or uncover the secrets of the natural world, can be seen as both a cause and a reflection of this profound belief shift.

A side note: I thought it was very fitting that the author should spend some time on the work of his namesake, William Wotton, who in 1705 wrote the first analysis of the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution. Talk about a family legacy!

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Here's another little side note: I was a tiny bit disappointed that this book did not discuss in any depth any non-European scientific advances. Of course the concept of THE Scientific Revolution is a European one. But, for example, only passing mention was ever made of the famously advanced Arab medicine, a comparatively evidence-based practice that gave us important ideas and techniques still in use in the modern world. Anyway, I imagine that there are other books out there that include more information on the worldwide history of science, and now that my interest is piqued I'll be looking for them!

Also, fair warning that this book is pretty dang dense, as befits a well-researched and well-argued collection of thoughts on a somewhat contentious topic. Besides the actual content, it includes a ton of notes and a very impressive list of sources. It's certainly "readable" in my opinion, but this isn't something I'd personally like to curl up with for a bit of light leisure reading. I read it bit by bit during my lunch breaks at work, and it was perfect for keeping boredom at bay during those quick little snippets of time.

The Invention of Science will be released in early December here in the US (it's already out in the UK). I think it would make a great Christmas gift for any science-y type person in your life, so preorder it now to be sure that you'll have it in time for the holidays.

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Read more about this book:

Publication information: Wootton, David. The Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750. New York: Harper, 2015. EPUB.

Source: Provided by the publisher via Edelweiss.

Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

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