Such Matters as the Soul

Dmitri Levitin

  • The Invention of Science: a New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton
    Penguin, 784 pp, £12.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 14 104083 7

On 11 February, David Reitze, executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) in the US, announced that his team of almost a thousand scientists had detected evidence of gravitational waves emanating from a pair of black holes 1.3 billion light years from Earth. It was empirical confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The observation required astonishing technical precision: the 4 km-long arms of each of the two branches of Ligo, three thousand miles apart in Louisiana and Washington, were altered by just one ten-thousandth of the width of a proton, proportionally equivalent to changing the distance to our nearest star by a hair’s width. The announcement was greeted with a sense of wonder at human ingenuity, even by those who neither understood the physics involved, nor why the result was so important.

How, historically, did we arrive at a situation in which science holds such sway over our imaginations, and such power, financial not least (Ligo’s total cost is around $620 million)? One answer, almost as old as the events that it describes and subscribed to by many historians, runs something like this. Before 1492, literate Europeans derived their knowledge of the universe from authoritative classical texts, on the basis of which they concluded that change was limited to the sublunary world (beyond this were the unchanging heavens), at the centre of which lay an Earth with no antipodes. The institutions in which this knowledge was propagated – primarily the universities – were centres of rigid Latinate pedantry. Then America was discovered and there was a wave of reverence for empirical, non-bookish knowledge, which culminated in the findings of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, all of whom worked outside the official world of learning (the institutions, meanwhile, remained tragically wedded to the old authorities). This Scientific Revolution slowly but surely ushered in an age of rationalism, sweeping away the superstition of the medieval world and the Renaissance humanists’ slavish reverence for ancient, textual authority.

A new version of this story is told in David Wootton’s ambitious, trenchantly polemical new book. But before talking about revolution, we should ask what was being revolutionised; before dismissing something as rigid and ossified, we might ask whether things really were as bad as all that. What did science look like before the Scientific Revolution? And was there something about the Western world that made it uniquely suitable as a crucible for the development of science?

There can be no doubt that the origins of something like science lie in the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, in particular their development of medical, mathematical and astronomical techniques and observations. The Babylonians’ astronomy and mathematics was sufficiently advanced that, by the first millennium BC, they may have been able to predict eclipses of the moon (which is not to say that their astronomy wasn’t for the most part developed in service of celestial divination). Babylonian astrology/astronomy (the two cannot be separated) was communicated to Hellenistic Greece in the third and second centuries BC, and that inheritance shaped the European astronomical enterprise for the next two thousand years. Even so, there is some foundation for the traditional story – as old as Aristotle – that speculation about nature was revolutionised by a group of Greeks from the sixth century BC onwards. Although modern historians have qualified Aristotle’s claims, it remains the consensus that a small group of thinkers, based around Miletus in Ionia, asked questions about the world in a way that was unknown to, and directly critical of, their predecessors. They were interested in questions about the world’s shape and composition, in particular whether it was made up of one substance or many. Most important, the answers they came up with, though to the modern mind they appear fanciful and unscientific, were naturalistic. Where Homer and Hesiod had accounted for phenomena such as earthquakes or lightning storms in terms of divine intervention, by the sixth century BC Thales could claim that the earth floated on water, and that earthquakes were caused by wave-tremors. What’s more, philosophers of this period knew and criticised one another’s ideas. Thales believed that the originating principle of all things was water, Anaximander that it was a boundless, primordial mass (apeiron), and Anaximenes that it was air. Unlike the composers of myths who preceded them, these philosophers were aware that their explanations were mutually exclusive, and that a process of debate was needed to establish the superiority of one over another.

As far as we can tell, there was no instrumental reason for these intellectual endeavours: they were conducted for their own sake, or because a life of contemplation was considered a life well spent. Whatever the causes of the turn to naturalism, however, we know more about its consequences, which included the advancement of two methodological principles that are still central to modern science. The first was the application of mathematics to the understanding of natural phenomena, which was pioneered by the Pythagoreans and by Plato, and culminated in the astronomical model proposed by Eudoxus of Cnidus (408-355 BC), who suggested that the complex paths of the celestial bodies – including the planets’ apparent retrograde motion at one point in their cycle – could be explained by a complex model of concentric spheres, a model that survived, though much altered, until Kepler. The second key development was empirical research, sometimes undertaken in a very systematic manner. Most important here are the medical writings that we call the Hippocratic Corpus (now known not to have been by Hippocrates himself), most of which date from the late fifth or the fourth century BC. They were focused much more on practical issues than the writings of the philosophers, but shared with them a desire to assert the naturalness of such phenomena as disease – the treatise On the Sacred Disease, for example, disputes divine explanations for epilepsy. Later in the fourth century, Aristotle would combine philosophical and medical approaches, especially in his zoological books, which present the results of an astonishing effort of fact-gathering – more than five hundred different species of animal are discussed, including about 120 kinds of fish and sixty kinds of insect.

The Athenian philosophers established schools, some of them long-lasting, but they never sustained anything like the research programme that went on at the Lyceum under Aristotle’s first successors, Theophrastus and Strato. The real institutional innovation took place in the Hellenistic world, at Alexandria, where the Museum (not a museum in the modern sense, but simultaneously a religious shrine, a library and a philosophical school), founded in around 280 BC, was the first example of advanced learning funded by patronage, a model later adopted by Roman emperors like Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, who endowed philosophical chairs in Athens and elsewhere.

Would these have turned into something like modern universities had the Roman Empire not fallen? Surely not. The Romans, for all that they took from the Greeks, and for all their technological innovation (water wheels, hydraulic saws, perhaps even ox-powered paddle-wheel boats), weren’t interested in abstract natural philosophy, mathematics or astronomy beyond their value as leisure activities.[1] This reminds us of the contingency of the Greek achievement, and the precarious status of ideas and modes of inquiry when they are not transmitted within long-term institutions. With the collapse of Rome and the decline in urban populations, the practice of science dwindled hand in hand with institutional support. This was not the fault, as has sometimes been claimed, of an intolerant and anti-intellectual Christianity. It’s true that monastic education wasn’t focused on scientific matters, but it could still, on rare occasions, achieve remarkable results, such as the flourishing of the mathematical arts in Irish monasteries between the sixth and ninth centuries. But the Greek tradition of scientific inquiry weakened significantly, especially because of the (somewhat puzzling) absence of systematic scientific activity in the Byzantine Empire, the natural inheritor of Hellenic thought.

It was left to Islam to reawaken the Greek tradition. It is a remarkable development: how did a tribal culture, with low levels of literacy and connected above all by shared adherence to a set of religious revelations, come within the space of a hundred years to establish, fund and organise a systematic programme of translation of medical, scientific and other works with almost no parallel in human history? The crucial moment was the overthrow of the Umayyad caliphate by the Abbasids in the eighth century, which led to the replacement of the Umayyad model of Arab tribalism by an imperial ideology with an attendant international bureaucracy. The educated elites of the caliphate’s conquered peoples – Persians and Berbers, but also Syriac-speaking Christians – came to its new capital, Baghdad (founded in 762). New technologies arrived too, most significantly the Chinese process for paper-making, which produced a much lighter, stronger and cheaper material than papyrus and parchment.

Over the course of the next three hundred years, almost the whole of Greek science was translated into Arabic. The aims of Islamic science were less abstract and more instrumental than the Greeks’ had been. Their greatest endeavours and advances were in mathematics (for use not least in accounting), astronomy (rarely separated from astrology) and medicine. Islamic astronomers such as al-Battani made many improvements to Ptolemy’s findings and methods. Later, they built observatories that functioned not unlike modern research institutes; the most famous of these were at Maragha, in present-day north-eastern Iran, which may even have housed visiting Chinese astronomers, and at Samarqand, which had an underground sextant with a forty-metre radius. Using observations made at Maragha in the 14th century, Ibn al-Shatir produced lunar and planetary models; mathematically identical counterparts of them would make their way into Copernicus’s De revolutionibus (1543). The Zij-i Sultani, the star catalogue produced by Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) was still in demand by members of the Royal Society more than two hundred years after its creation. Results in experimental optics were no less impressive: at the end of the tenth century, Abu Sa‘d al-‘Ala’ ibn Sahl, through experiments with curved mirrors and lenses, effectively discovered the modern law of refraction; three hundred years later, Kamal al-Din al-Farisi (1267-1319) used water-filled glass spheres to simulate the conditions necessary to produce a rainbow, showing that rainbows were formed by a combination of reflection and refraction (not just the former, as had been thought since Aristotle).

The great ‘renaissance’ in 12th-century Europe occurred in places where contact with Islamic learning was greatest, such as Toledo, reconquered in the late 11th century, and Salerno in Campania, and was based almost entirely on the translation of Arabic versions of Greek texts and Arabic commentaries on them. However, the best efforts of medieval Westerners went not into observational astronomy or zoology, but into refining Aristotelian metaphysics and natural philosophy. There were some important findings – the work of Nicole Oresme (c.1320-82) on kinematics, for example, was later used by Galileo – but for the most part, the criticisms of scholastic natural philosophy that became prevalent in the 16th and 17th centuries were not unjustified. Medieval Europe did, however, offer up one truly revolutionary innovation, which would shape the way science is done until the present day: the university.


Universities began as communities of private scholars and their students in the rapidly growing urban centres of the 12th century; they protected their privileges by adopting the model of the guild used by craftsmen. By the early 13th century, the universities in Bologna, Paris and Oxford were already thriving; around 750,000 students matriculated at European universities between 1350 and 1500, by which time sixty institutions had been established. The popular misunderstanding of medieval and early modern universities is that they were institutions dominated by religion, in which debate was strictly controlled and censored. In reality they were astonishingly secular and free: the faculty of arts, which was attended by the majority of students, taught solely secular subjects. Chief among them was natural philosophy, which, though it was regarded as a handmaiden to theology, consisted primarily of the theologically irrelevant subjects of Aristotle’s Libri naturales: the heavens, generation and corruption, the elements, meteors, animals, minerals and the soul. Theological topics were banned, and only the small minority of students who went on to the higher theology faculty (the other higher faculties, law and medicine, were also in great part secular) applied natural philosophical learning to religious ends.

Other advanced societies – not just ancient Greece and medieval Islam, but China too – had developed their own means of preserving knowledge and public records, but never universities. In the Islamic world, institutions that had functioned as centres of scientific pedagogy, such as the great observatories, tended to disappear on the death of their patron; elsewhere, scientific education was left to autodidacts, or conducted by individual tutors. While Arabic science remained ‘ahead’ of its Western counterpart until at least the 14th century, Western Europe achieved an institutionalisation of the classical scientific tradition that was unique, conferring social sanction on it, creating career opportunities for scholars and, most important, creating a space in which scientific curiosity – at least about the questions posed by the Greeks – could be pursued without hindrance.

This state of affairs continued during the European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. The Renaissance humanists were not, as historians still sometimes assume, obsessed only with rhetorical style and philological minutiae. Their rediscovery and reinterpretation of Greek texts in particular caused a great shock to scholastic Aristotelianism. Regiomontanus’s meticulous epitome of Ptolemy was the chief inspiration for Copernicus’s radical ideas; new readings of Pliny’s Natural History produced a model of science very different from Aristotle even at his most empirical; and engagement with the new Greek texts of Hippocrates and Galen transformed learned medicine.

Humanism was quickly incorporated into the university curriculum, and faced little opposition. The ‘new science’ could claim to be the inheritor of an esteemed ancient tradition – which in many ways it was. Outsiders like Francis Bacon, Tomasso Campanella and René Descartes liked to trumpet their novelty and to denigrate tradition. They used to be taken at their word by historians, but now we know better. The 16th century was a period of intensive urbanisation and, concomitantly, a large rise in university matriculations (in England, such levels of higher education and social mobility within the university system wouldn’t be seen again until the 20th century). Urbanisation also increased the demand for ‘non-learned’ practitioners such as apothecaries, who extolled the virtues of practical, ‘hands-on’ knowledge. But even they, in their frequent battles with learned physicians, evoked the classical medical tradition, drawing on humanist scholarship to present themselves as the true inheritors of Hippocrates and Galen.

The deepening institutionalisation of the classical tradition of scientific curiosity meant that the new experimental results that started appearing from the 16th century onwards could increasingly be accepted for scientific rather than social or political reasons. In the case of astronomy, Tycho Brahe’s discovery of diurnal parallax and Galileo’s telescopic discovery of the phases of Venus led to the abandonment both of the Aristotelian idea that the superlunary world is unchangeable and of the Ptolemaic system (although not quite yet to heliocentricism). We are now in the heart of the material covered by Wootton, and he charts with admirable lucidity the routes by which the new findings came to be accepted by a large proportion of the scientific community.

Perhaps less spectacular from today’s perspective, but even more important on a methodological level, were Evangelista Torricelli’s mercury experiments of 1643. When a glass tube filled with mercury is inverted and placed in a basin of mercury, the mercury in the tube sinks, coming to rest at a height of about thirty inches, with the space above it a vacuum. This result was highly contentious – the possibility of a vacuum had been much disputed since the Greeks – and Wootton again demonstrates how experimental evidence could create scientific consensus, first in France and then in Italy and England. Many introductions to the Scientific Revolution have focused too much on developments in England, but Wootton’s account is refreshingly international, showing that scientific communities were driven first and foremost by discoveries communicated to them in letters and by the printing press, rather than by local sociological factors, such as political debates or religious identities. (Wootton might have done more to emphasise too that Latin remained the universal learned language well into the 18th century.)

‘New observations were fatal to old theories,’ Wootton writes. His focus on the scientific-empirical reasons for the acceptance of scientific conclusions is a welcome check on the preoccupation with the social context of early modern science at the expense of any descriptions of the content of scientific practice. But Wootton is so keen to sweep aside sociological explanations that he feels compelled to insist on the most radical thesis possible about the power of individual discoveries and the novelty of the Scientific Revolution. Greek and Islamic science are summarily dismissed as unmodern. In the West, from the 11th to the mid-18th centuries, the only thing taught at the universities was Aristotelian philosophy: everyone ‘assumed that all that needed to be known was to be found in Aristotle.’ The nefarious alliance of Aristotelianism with Christianity, with its ‘liturgical repetition’, produced a mainstream intellectual culture in which novelty was impossible. Only the discoveries of uninstitutionalised outsiders – first Columbus, and then the heroic scientists who opposed Aristotelian and Christian orthodoxy – made progress possible; at the same time, that progress was ‘inevitable’, because the discovery of empirical facts in itself determines their acceptance.

But was mainstream, institutional culture really so backward? There are good reasons for believing that the universities’ role as a vehicle for preserving curiosity remained central in the 17th century. After all, the first members of the Royal Society had, before its formation, met in Oxford, and many of its key members, including Christopher Wren and Thomas Willis, were professors of astronomy or natural philosophy there. Change happened not because a few radical outsiders toppled a conservative mainstream, but because the mainstream was able to accommodate change within traditional frameworks. Take the example of Galileo’s findings on mechanics, motion and the heaviness of air in the Discorsi (1638). Through meticulous archival research in Italy, the young American historian Renée Raphael has demonstrated that Jesuit university teachers (but also readers of English, Irish and French origins) incorporated Galileo’s experimental results and theoretical conclusions into their work, not because the ‘new’ was supplanting the ‘old’, but because new claims and methods were ‘folded into traditional styles of scholarship by means of traditional, bookish methods’.


Seventeenth-century science, for all its novelty, was structurally similar to its Greek, Arabic and medieval predecessors. Indeed, the concept of ‘science’ didn’t yet exist. Scholars undertook a mixture of natural philosophy, mathematics and medicine, and such matters as the soul – traditionally the province not of theology but of natural philosophy – remained a staple of ‘scientific’ thought through to the 18th century. Wootton prefers to employ an anachronistic distinction between the epithets of ‘mathematician’ and ‘scientist’ (applied to those he likes) and ‘natural philosopher’ (reserved for those he doesn’t); but presumably the Kepler who ‘presented himself not as a great philosopher but as someone prepared to grub around for facts’ is not the same Kepler who wrote to a friend in 1619 beseeching him (in my translation) ‘not to condemn me wholly to the treadmill of mathematical calculations, but to indulge me the time for philosophical speculation, my sole pleasure’.

Wootton’s desire to make mathematics the only source of innovation – he states that ‘the Scientific Revolution is not many revolutions but one, for the simple reason that the inspiration for all the different revolutions that make it up came from the mathematicians’ – obscures innovations in other spheres of thought. Strikingly, medicine is discussed only in a chapter titled ‘The Mathematisation of the World’, for the sole reason that Vesalius and his successors used anatomical diagrams partly inspired by the development of perspective painting. This goes against a generation of work by scholars such as Nancy Siraisi, which has demonstrated that 16th-century medicine – much of it anchored in traditional institutions like the universities, and traditional practices like the humanist commentary – played a key role in increasing the centrality of direct experience and observation, and the construction of a scientific community. To say that such communities had ‘never established anything resembling normal science’ seems implausible when it was above all William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood (barely mentioned by Wootton), a devoted Aristotelian trained at the Universities of Cambridge and Padua, who inspired the generation of Oxford natural philosophers and physicians who went on to form the core of the early Royal Society.[2] And while it may well be the case that ‘in the 18th century, modern chemistry established itself not as a continuation of but as a refutation of alchemy,’ it was alchemical experimentation that supplied the main empirical evidence for the move, much celebrated by Wootton, from Aristotelian matter theory to the microparticulate theories of the 17th century (alchemists were understandably keen to believe that substances could be broken down into small constituent parts, and then rearranged in a new manner).

Wootton does nothing to challenge the conventional wisdom that modernity emerged when the textual, humanistic, authority-based culture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was replaced by the empirical, rationalist, post-Cartesian culture of science and freedom of thought. This story was first told by the propagandists of the French Enlightenment, and it has been so successful because it offers something to everyone across the political spectrum. On the right it is accepted by proponents of liberal modernity as well as its (often religious) critics; on the left by triumphalists (Marxists, secularists) as well as pessimists (the Frankfurt School’s critique of the ‘enlightenment project’).

But scientists never adhered to a simple divide between ‘ancients and moderns’ (that debate was a short-lived and trivial affair in 1680s France and 1690s England): they continued to ground their experimental and mathematical practice in textual traditions. And they did so not because they didn’t believe in progress, but because, like Galileo’s Jesuit readers (and Galileo himself), it didn’t occur to them that what they were doing might be outside the framework of the ancient traditions they had studied in such detail in the universities. To take just a few English examples: Bacon did not primarily take Columbus ‘as his model’, as Wootton puts it, but claimed to be following in the footsteps of the pre-Socratics, especially Democritus, the image of whom as a proto-experimentalist he derived from Renaissance medical texts; Robert Boyle obsessively situated his own discoveries within the context of ancient chemistry; Henry Power wrote long philological letters to other scientists on the history of Greek and Near Eastern astronomy; Edmond Halley learned Arabic just so that he could reconstruct the lost eighth book of Apollonius’s Conics; and Isaac Newton’s belief that his discoveries were part of a long historical tradition was not a ‘private eccentricity’, but was based on deep reading in contemporary philological literature.

Indeed, the case can be made that the humanities, not the natural sciences, were the prime mover in the emergence of ‘modernity’. Science had virtually no impact on religious dogma until much later: even the most heated debates between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ – over the age of the world and the compatibility of Genesis with natural philosophical theories – were as much about new methods of biblical interpretation as they were about physics and geology. Rather, it was late humanism, inspired by philologists such as Joseph Scaliger, which posed the most difficulties for educated Christians: the revelation that the Bible was a text written by humans, with many versions and many textual problems; that early Christianity was essentially a Jewish sect; that Christian dogma had been born out of Greek philosophy; that human chronology seemed to extend well beyond the biblical; or even that celestial phenomena were not to be treated as portents. Once again, these arguments were developed not by radical outsiders – we know, for example, that Spinoza’s historical-theological ideas were not taken seriously by many – but within the institutionalised mainstream. Clerics eagerly seized on such ideas as deadly weapons in inter-confessional warfare. It was ultimately from the world of Latinate, humanistic scholarship – in which knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and other Near Eastern languages was everything – and not from Descartes’s dismissal of humanism, that the ideas of what we may or may not choose to call the ‘enlightenment’ emerged.

It is here – and not in the phoney war between science and religion (among the religious, only biblical fundamentalists are really troubled by science) or the stale battles between realists and constructivists in the philosophy of science (who really questions the predictive power of modern science?) – that the most powerful implications of the history of early modern science for the present may lie. If we are looking for the origins of modernity in the intellectual world of the 17th century, we will find it in the humanities as much as in the sciences. Perhaps that, and not the more usual moralising, is the proper basis for a defence of the humanities today.

[1] There is an excellent overview of such developments in La Technologie gréco-romaine, edited by Philippe Fleury, Catherine Jacquemard and Sophie Madeleine (Caen, 2015).

[2] Wootton has previously dismissed all pre-19th century medicine as pseudo-knowledge because it failed in its central aim of curing people. Steven Shapin reviewed Wootton’s Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates in the LRB of 30 November 2006.