Review of “The Invention of Science” by David Wootton

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

David Wootton is a professor of history at the University of York.  In The Invention of Science he proposes a new view of the definition, the significance, and the timing of the “Scientific Revolution.”  

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Most historians would point to Copernicus as the initiator of the revolution with his publication in 1543 of a heliocentric vision of the universe.   But Wootton argues that Copernicus was not really a scientist in that he did not attempt to gather new data – he relied on the observations of the ancients.  Nor was he as revolutionary as once thought.  He envisioned the earth and the planets as located in solid crystalline spheres that rotated around and within each other.  He was concerned with preserving Aristotle’s concept of celestial circular motion.  Indeed, one did not contradict Aristotle lightly; from the end of the eleventh century until the middle of the eighteenth Aristotle’s take on natural phenomena was taught in the universities across Europe; his influence was profound.

Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus

Adding to the ossification of knowledge was an unquestioning belief in the literal truth of the Bible.  Between the teachings of Aristotle and the Bible, most European thinkers concluded “there was no such thing as new knowledge.”

The epistemological issues Wootton discusses are fascinating.  He observes, for example, that the notion of “discovery” was a relatively modern concept.  When Columbus “discovered” the New World, this was a game-changer; before this, the assumption was that there were no “discoveries” to be made.  Pursuant to the texts accepted as authoritative, “the greatest achievements of civilization were believed to lie not in the present or the future but in the past, in ancient Greece and classical Rome.” 

Wootton also takes on the theory of scientific “revolutions” formulated and popularized by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn, writing at the peak of the intellectual infatuation with post-modernism, stated that science has undergone several distinct revolutions in the form of paradigm shifts, in which scientists did not so much discover new data, but rather began to view the same data in a different light. No, says Wootton. Kuhn’s analytical lenses were too narrowly constructed; he lost sight, Wootton argues persuasively, of the wider environment within which those shifts took place.

paradigm_shift

Wootton suggests that modern science was invented between 1572, when Tycho Brahe discovered a new star [which we now know was a distant super nova], and 1704, when Isaac Newton published his work on prisms.  What made the difference, according to Wootton, was the notion of “discovery”; a research program; precise measurements; a community of experts; the willingness to question long-established certainties in light of new evidence; and above all, the triumph of experience over philosophy.  Furthermore, the invention of the printing press accelerated the process by transforming access to information and becoming itself an agent of change.  To support his thesis, he presents a detailed history of how science worked before, during, and after this period.

Tycho Brahe's View of the Universe

Tycho Brahe’s View of the Universe

“Science” itself was until recently known as “natural philosophy,” and the word “scientist” was not used until the 19th Century!  Wootton analyzes language closely, because, as he stresses, “[a]ll history involves translation from the source language.”  But understanding the words originally used also can indicate how the words signified for a particular place and time.  In fact, one of Wootton’s key premises is that “a revolution in ideas requires a revolution in language.”

Thus, Wootton argues that the scientific revolution was not merely a collection of new discoveries, but rather a cultural transformation.  The printing press, in addition to its benefits mentioned above, was instrumental in the intellectual revolution because it fostered the dissemination and criticism (“peer review”) of new ideas.  New instruments (telescopes, microscopes, barometers, prisms) allowed the discovery of new facts.  Finally, the new science was given a distinctive identity by a new language that stressed facts, theories, hypotheses, and laws. 

Evaluation: Wootton has mastered a truly enormous corpus of scholarly work.   His bibliography runs to 68 pages.  His writing is lucid and interesting, even when he is discussing arcane issues of historiography, and in comparison to most other books on epistemology.  This book is well worth the effort.  

Rating:  4.5 /5 

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015

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4 Responses to Review of “The Invention of Science” by David Wootton

  1. Care says:

    Yowza. I recall as a kid thinking everything surely had already been discovered… Where do we get such notions? I probably won’t be reading this book but I do tend to like science history.

    • So much more to find out, especially in physics, which is a really jumping field now, with research into dark matter and dark energy, for example. It makes me wish I could live another 100 years to see what they find!

  2. Beth F says:

    I do intend to read this … probably a chapter at a time.

  3. litandlife says:

    I do love a scientific book that lay people can understand and it sounds like this one really would work for me.

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