J.E. McGuire

  • The Genesis of the Copernican World by Hans Blumenberg, translated by Robert Wallace
    MIT, 772 pp, £35.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 262 02267 2

Nicolas Copernicus’s reform of astronomy delivered a formidable blow to our sense of self in nature. In its effects, Copernicanism probably affected human consciousness more deeply than Darwinism. Published in 1543, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres argued that our earthly globe is not the unique and motionless centre of the great cosmic sphere. Only a hundred years later educated Europe believed that the Sun is the central linkage around which the Earth and the other planets revolve, and that observed changes in the positions of the Sun, the Moon and the distant stars result from the Earth’s motion alone, and not from the motion of a huge starry sphere whirling around a fixed Earth. This reform shattered once and for all a comforting and enduring picture of our place in the cosmic scheme of things. In this scheme, first proposed by Aristotle in the fourth century BC, everything has a place in an ordered hierarchy. The heavenly spheres are immutably nested one within the other, and each carries one of the heavenly bodies (e.g. Sun, Moon and planets) in circular motion around the fixed Earth placed at the geometrical centre of the cosmic sphere. In the terrestrial region (the region below the Moon’s sphere) air and fire, if not prevented, move naturally upwards towards their natural places: in contrast, the elements of earth and water move directly downwards. According to Copernicus, however, the Earth hurtles through space, wheeling around its axis as, in company with the other planets, it encircles the Sun. This meant that the planets, the wandering stars, were now downgraded to the level of the mundane Earth; or, put differently, the Earth itself was now a wandering star. Either way, the distinction was broached between the perfection of the heavens and the imperfection of the terrestrial realm. In consequence, some perennial questions were raised anew: what is man’s place in the scheme of things? Does nature exist for the sake of man? Is there any intelligible order to be found in the cosmic scheme? And how is the Earth’s motion to be reconciled with Scripture, experience and tradition?

It is this dramatic shift that Hans Blumenberg seeks to explain. To this end he sets himself the task of tracing the origin, significance and consequences of Copernicus’s treatise. For Blumenberg the impact of Copernicus cannot be reduced to an episode in the history of astronomy. It is, rather, the beginning of a changing focus in human awareness, which starts to forge a new sense of destiny in a cosmos seemingly devoid of coherence.

Blumenberg poses two central questions. Why was a reception for Copernicus’s treatise possible historically in 1543, when the same Sun-centred astronomical reform (advocated by Aristarchus of Samos) had been decisively rejected in the third century BC? And how did the implications in Copernicus’s treatise for our view of God, the cosmos and man become acceptable culturally during the 16th and 17th centuries? In short, how did a view of the cosmos that was previously unimaginable, and certainly intolerable to received opinion, become a plausible candidate for human acceptance? In pursuing these questions, Blumenberg is not concerned simply to explain how an innovative idea actually comes about. His concern lies rather in mapping out the ‘latitude’ of possible changes consistent with a culture’s prerogatives and thereby with the possibilities that it excludes. In other words, for Blumenberg an account of an audience’s reception of an idea tells more about its viability than a prehistory of its genesis. This approach demands a firm grasp of a culture’s inner dynamic, of its global perspectives and of its deepest motivations.

You are not logged in