Randall Collins on the Scientific Revolution

Source: The Sociology of Philosophies (Belknap/Harvard,1998), pp. 556ff.

This excerpt posted: January 21, 2008

What is commonly called the scientific revolution was actually three overlapping restructurings of the intellectual field. The math and science revolutions consisted of transformation into rapidly moving research fronts, in effect the discovery of discovery-making techniques. …It was only toward the end of [a four-to-six generation process]…in the mid-1600's generation of [Rene] Descartes, Mersenne, and [Robert] Boyle--that the intellectual world became decisively convinced that a new basis of knowledge making existed. It was this revolution that set off what we can call the philosophical revolution, the putting of philosophy to new uses, which gave Descartes the reputation as a founder of modern philosophy.

…philosophy remained philosophy, which is to say it continued to be structured by irreconcilable rivalries and did not acquire a rapidly moving research front distinguishing it from previous philosophy. But the philosophical networks [i.e., social networks of philosophers] are crucial in the math and science revolutions nevertheless. Not only did the philosophical revolution put its seal of approval on the previous revolutions [in mathematics and science]… But also from the outset all three networks were intertwined; without their interconnection, the accelerated discovery that made up the mathematics and science revolution could not have come about.

The mathematical revolution built up first. …The more abstract realms of mathematics were created as mathematicians made discoveries about general procedures. …The takeoff of math occurred when it became an intellectual game as well as a matter of practical application. Contact with the network of philosophers turned the activity of low-status reckoning masters into the high-prestige competition of the intellectuals who made the claims to matters of greatest importance.

Innovative mathematicians emerged in the philosophical networks. [Prominent mathematician] Regiomontanus came from the network around Cusanus [the philosopher Nicolas of Cusa] and was patronized by the Humanist leader Bessarion. …We see [in Cusanus] a general intellectual concern raising mathematics into its orbit. [Nicholas] Copernicus came from these same networks in central Europe. …

[Regarding Copernicus and [Iohannes] Kepler] what is worth stressing is that astronomy in this period was most significant as a vehicle for innovations in mathematics. Copernicus is as much a part of the initial wave of the mathematical revolution as he is of the scientific revolution per se; by the time of Kepler, the discovery-making revolution was expanding from one realm to the other.…And astronomy attracted ambitious and innovative intellectuals because it was a focus of concern for a dominant field such as theology, just now in the midst of controversies because of the crisis in church politics.

Mathematics was becoming a matter of public prestige [by the 1540's].…Cardano was a medical professor at the major Italian universities who wrote widely on philosophy and theology as well as science and mathematics. The great upsurge in the innovativeness of mathematics came just at the time when it was shifting from a humble commercial activity to an attention-getting contest among high-status intellectuals.…By the turn of the century Galileo [Galilei]… was in the core intellectual networks only a few links from leading philosophers such as Suarez.

With Descartes, the leading edge of creativity in mathematics and philosophy merged.…In mathematics Descartes was not the progenitor of the revolution, but he was its first culmination. The symbolic notation had first been developed in commercial arithmetic books; Descartes raised its level of generality and made it the standard for pure mathematics as well. Descartes trumpeted the news that mathematics has an infallible discovery-making method. Not surprisingly, the network around him pushed rapidly into still further advances in mathematics. Along with this spread the belief that science would follow the same path.

…There were several parallel strands of activity building up. In addition to astronomy, there were innovations in medical physiology.…A third front comprises work in chemistry, including the "occult philosophy" of Agrippa von Nettesheim…and the alchemical and medical theories of Paracelus in the 1530s.… There was an explicit willingness to innovate and to challenge received theories of the Greeks. But although Paracelus and other alchemists did some experimental work, there was nothing that could be called a sustained development of discoveries nor heightened consensus.

… The four chains [astronomy, medical, chemical, and mathematical] all use different methods: the mixture of math and observation in astronomy; dissection and eventually some experiment in physiology; alchemical purifications in chemistry; the focus on simplifying calculations which leads to the takeoff of mathematical discovery making, eventually spilling over into giving mathematical descriptions of mechanical experiments in physics. Is there a common impulse in these developments during the 1500's? The most important social feature is that each chain gets its start when particular fields of investigation become entwined with the core intellectual networks. We have seen this already with the mathematicians.…In astronomy I have suggested that its intellectual energy comes from its ability to attract the interest of theologians; dangerous as it might be, the energy of controversy at the centers of attention introduces innovative dynamics into specialized fields.

…Soon after 1600 most of the chains, with the exception of the chemists, came together. Astronomers, mathematicians, and physicists first formed a self-conscious front.…Somewhat apart from this math-physical science complex had been the lineage of medical physiologists. The link was forged by Harvey, whose experimental method was probably influenced by contact with Galileo at Padua.…When Harvey returned to England as royal physician, science acquired another center of public fame. …Scientific links between England and the Continental group were now multiplying…. The creative energy now focused at the English court was now flowing into attention to science. The opportunistic politician [Francis] Bacon was promoting it with all his literary skill; his protégé [Thomas] Hobbes-the friend of Harvey and [poet] Ben Johnson-was traveling to meet Galileo and eventually with the Mersenne circle and Descartes.

With this we are in the mid-1600s, and into the self-conscious social organization of modern science. The discovery-making network had taken over the mainstream of the intellectual community, the center where most of the attention was focused. …Now, for a period, the networks were virtually fused. At this moment the world became aware of the scientific revolution.