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1. From Pre-classical to Classical Pursuits

The theme

In the main, historians and philosophers of science have come to differentiate between the Scientific Revolution and scientific revolutions. The former term generally refers to the great movement of thought and action associated with the theoretical and practical pursuits of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1631) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727), which transformed astronomy and mechanics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. First, the Earth-centred system based on Ptolemy’s (c. 100-170) celestial geometry was replaced by the heliocentric system in which the Earth and the other then-known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) revolved around the Sun. Second, laws governing the motion of celestial as well terrestrial bodies were formulated based on the theory of universal gravitation.

The origins of the interpretation of these changes in astronomy and mechanics, made between Copernicus and Newton, as revolutionary are to be found in the eighteenth century.1 Offering an essentially intellectual treatment of it, Alexander Koyré is credited with having coined the concept of the Scientific Revolution in the 1930s.2 Since then much has been written about the periodisation, nature and cause(s) of the Scientific Revolution.3 Broadly, two seemingly incompatible approaches have been employed. The ‘internalist’ perspective, greatly indebted to Koyré, identified the Scientific Revolution as a societally-disembodied and supremely intellectual phenomenon. The alternate approach, greatly influenced by Marxist ideas, focused on social, political, economic, technical and other ‘external’ factors to clarify the emergence of the Scientific Revolution.

Since Copernicus’s seminal De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was published in 1543 and Newton’s no less influential synthesis Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica appeared in 1687, some have been perplexed that a phase in scientific history can be called ‘revolutionary’ when it lasted around 150 years. Others have dwelt on the fact that the protagonists in the transformation of astronomy and mechanics – deemed to be revolutionary – did not fully divest themselves of traditional ancient and medieval approaches and ideas. This connects with the issue of how to view later scientific breakthroughs associated, say, with Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) or Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Are the novelties of Lavoisier’s oxygen theory of combustion, Darwin’s theory of evolution or Einstein’s linking of space and time comparable in revolutionary terms with the Scientific Revolution? If they qualify as ‘scientific revolutions’, is the Scientific Revolution then first in time among equals?

Fig. 1 Image of heliocentric model from Nicolaus Copernicus'
De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (c. 1543).

Kuhn’s paradigms and normal science

A determined attempt to address the general question of how scientific revolutions emerge, and how they are identified, has been made by Thomas S. Kuhn in his highly influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which first appeared in 1962 and was enlarged in 1970, containing a ‘Postscript-1969’. Setting out to portray scientific development (as a succession of tradition-bound periods punctuated by non-cumulative breaks),4 Kuhn’s approach centres on the utilisation of three notions: paradigm, scientific community and normal science. He treats them as mutually connected categories.

For the reader, the grand problem is the truly protean notion of ‘paradigm’. After being told that the term he had used in at least 22 different ways, Kuhn admitted: ‘My original text leaves no more obscure or important question’.5 As a consequence, Kuhn preferred to equate a paradigm with 'a theory or set of theories' shared by a scientific community. The question of whether a scientific community’s common research activities, designated by Kuhn as ‘normal science’, determine a paradigm or whether it is sharing a paradigm that defines a scientific community was answered by him as follows: ‘Scientific communities can and should be isolated without prior recourse to paradigms; the latter can then be discovered by scrutinising the behaviour of a given community’s members’.6

To put it succinctly, Kuhn conceives of scientific revolutions as transitions to new paradigms. The motor of this process is not testing, verification or falsification of a paradigm but the scientific community’s gradual realisation of a current paradigm’s inadequacy. That is, while engaged in normal science, the scientific community finds the paradigm’s cognitive utility wanting when confronted with riddles or anomalies which it does not encompass. The response to such a crisis is the emergence of a new paradigm that brings about small as well as large revolutions whereby ‘some revolutions affect only the members of a professional subspecialty, and [...] for such groups even the discovery of a new and unexpected phenomenon may be revolutionary’.7

The intellectual impact of Kuhn’s historical scheme of scientific revolutions was wide-ranging and stimulated much debate during the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it began to wane afterwards. For one thing, on reflection, not only the notion of paradigm but also those of scientific community and normal science appeared to be vague. Take Kuhn’s notion of normal science and its association with three classes of problems: determination of fact, matching of facts with theory and articulation of theory. Useful as the concept of normal science is, there is more to it than these three categories, into one of which, Kuhn maintains, ‘the overwhelming majority of the problems undertaken by even the very best scientists usually fall’.8

Everything has a history and so does normal science. It evolved and materialised first in classical antiquity as peri physeos historia (inquiry concerning nature) with entwined elements of scientific methodology, such as observation, classification, systematisation and theorising. By the seventeenth century in Europe, these practices, extended by systematic experimentation and quantification, were bringing forth generalisations in the form of God-given laws of nature. Moreover, institutionally shored up by newly-founded scientific organisations and journals, these pursuits paved the way for science to operate as a collaborative body. That is, an integral aspect of these developments was the institutionalisation of scientific activities through scientific societies (academies) and journals in Italy, Germany, England and France. Focusing attention on these historical aspects of normal science, we recognise that essentially they still shape its fabric today.

Neither the duration of the coming of normal science into its own nor the blurred line that separates the old from the new in Copernicus’s or Newton’s thought is the problem.9 It is the coming into existence of a methodologically-consolidated, institutionally-sustained mode of ‘inquiry concerning nature’, that distinguishes the investigations into natural phenomena made during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from those of previous centuries, and which lies at the heart of the Scientific Revolution.

What the Scientific Revolution arrived at was the eventual institution of science as the human activity for the systematic theoretical and practical investigation of nature. In a complex interactive process, intellectual curiosity and social needs were involved and intertwined; and it is not easy to disentangle the ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ impulses and motives which advanced the Scientific Revolution. Historically, perhaps, the most significant achievement of the Scientific Revolution was the establishment of science as an individual and socially-organised activity for the purpose of creating an endless chain of approximate, albeit self-correcting, knowledge of nature – a veritable extension of the human physical and physiological means to understand, interpret and change nature.10

Empirical knowledge

Relevant to the historical understanding of the Scientific Revolution is the need to distinguish between empirical and scientific knowledge of nature, and to be aware of their historical relations. Broadly considered, empirical knowledge of nature derives from human activity based on observation and experience. Whereas scientific knowledge derives, as indicated, from historically-evolved and interlocked characteristic procedures of investigating nature, including observation.

Observation is an activity not specific to humans. The human perceptual experience of nature, attained through observation, differs qualitatively from that of non-human animals in that it entails mental, verbal, manipulatory and societal dimensions which are hard to disentangle. According to the ‘food-sharing hypothesis’ propounded by the anthropologist Glyn Isaac, ‘the collective acquisition of food, postponement of consumption, transport and the communal consumption at a home base or central place’ constituted a major stage in human evolution, assisting ‘the development of language, social reciprocity and the intellect’.11

It is believed that early humans embarked on producing tools and weapons about 2.5 million years ago. These activities, in combination with meat-hunting and plant-gathering, the use of fire and ability to make and control it, stand at the very beginnings of empirical knowledge of nature. Take the making of stone tools: it involved finding out about the relative hardness and cleavability of stones by trial and error. The underlying dialectic between doing and learning has been pinpointed by the anthropologist Nicholas Toth, who spent many years experimenting with techniques for making stone tools, as follows: ‘Toolmaking requires a coordination of significant motor and cognitive skills’.12

This applies even more markedly to the manipulative prowess of the modern humans (Homo sapiens) who created Palaeolithic art, traceable in the Blombos cave in South Africa to about 75,000 years ago, and in the Chauvet cave in France to about 30,000 years ago. Comparable in age are the Sulawesi cave paintings in Indonesia, pointing to African origins of figurative art before Homo sapiens spread across the globe. Explanations and interpretations abound, examining, for example, whether mural pictures of animals with arrows in them should be looked upon as a form of hunting magic. Be that as it may, the position of the arrows in the heart region indicates the hunters’ familiarity with the (anatomical-physiological) locus where the animal could be mortally wounded. Representations of women with pronounced female sexual attributes (breasts, buttocks, pubic triangle) are evidence that prehistoric humans attached particular importance to fertility and sexual matters. Human interest in reproduction and sexual activity has a prehistoric past.

Fig. 2 Palaeolithic painting, Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave
(southern France), c. 32,000-30,000 BP.

It is accepted that the extinct Homo neanderthalensis – the evolutionary relations between him and the surviving Homo sapiens are still debated – was burying his dead about 100,000 years ago. As previously mentioned, the Neanderthal burials are regarded as the earliest expressions of human awareness of the natural phenomenon of death. With them originates not only the history of human perception of the relation and distinction between life and non-life, but also that of time.

Perception of time and space: early impulses

‘Time is a word’, we read in an authoritative encyclopaedia of astronomy and astrophysics, ‘that eludes definition until it is given some practical application’.13 The quandary of envisaging time has been reflected in the dichotomy between linear and circular visions of time, depicted vividly by the palaeontologist J. S. Gould as ‘time’s arrow’ and ‘time’s cycle’ respectively. Gould holds that ‘time’s arrow’ – encapsulating the unidirectionality of events – ‘is the primary metaphor of biblical history’.14 Doubtless the lineage of time’s cycle is more ancient – it goes back to the hunter-gatherers’ observation of recurrent events, such as heavenly cycles, annual seasons or female menstruations.

As to the perception of time’s ‘twin’ – space – it assumes tangible form in terrestrial measurement, in the wake of the growth of permanent agricultural settlements. Heralding the Neolithic Age, agriculture based on the cultivation of soil and the manipulation of plants and animals arrived in parts of Western Asia about 10,000 years ago.15 It brought about a shift from hunting and gathering to production and storage of food hinged on irrigation and drainage – as in the river valleys of the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates. The establishment of sedentary life was accompanied by empirically-attained technical developments embodied in a host of arts and crafts, such as pottery, spinning and weaving, dyeing, metal working, house and boat building and others. All these developments contributed to the growth of specialised material production, including that of food. The distribution of products, as well as political, military and religious activities, came under institutional, palace or temple control, administered by officials variously described as ‘scribes’, ‘clerks’, ‘bureaucrats’ – the literate minority of society. Thus the basis was laid for the establishment of socially stratified and centrally governed polities, as encountered in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.16

Apart from Western Asia where the cultivation of wheat and barley began, other sites of origin for agriculture are recognised. China for rice and millet, for example, or Central America and the northern Andes for maize. Agriculture as a means of supplying the human demand for food turned out to be a worldwide activity. Even today the majority of the world population lives off the land. Because of its unprecedented impact on world history – comparable with the Industrial Revolution – the changeover to economies sustained by agriculture during Neolithic times deserves to be called the Agricultural Revolution.17

River valley civilisations and knowledge of the natural world

The Neolithic agricultural and craft activities, developed in contact with living and non-living things, broadened the empirical knowledge of diverse natural materials, as well as natural and artificial processes, enormously. The concurrent inventions related to the state, commercial and communication needs of the river valley civilisations ‒ such as measures and weights, numerical symbols and arithmetic, writing and the alphabet ‒ were historically of incalculable import.18

The advent of agriculture activated astronomical observations, and with them brought forth the measurement of time as realised in the construction of the calendar. Thus in Ancient Egypt, from about 3000 BC, the length of the year amounting to 365 days was accepted. The number corresponded to the interval between two observed, predictable events that recurred and coincided annually. That is, the agriculturally vital flooding of the Nile and the rising of the brightest star in the sky (known today as Sirius) after its period of invisibility, just before sunrise in July. The Egyptian year became the basis for calendar computation and reform. It was largely this achievement, together with the recognition of the influence of solar and stellar observations on the alignment of those truly towering works of engineering – the pyramids – that made the fame of pre-Hellenistic Egyptian astronomy.

The emphasis on the agricultural context of ancient astronomy should not obscure other factors at play. Certainly a mixture of religion, astrology and politics was a major stimulant for Babylonian solar, lunar and planetary observations. Take the observations of periodical appearance and disappearance of the planet Venus ‒ identified with the goddess Ishtar ‒ extending over two decades (c. 1582-1562 BC). They were copied and referred to for centuries. The observed phenomena were taken to furnish positive or negative omens affecting the future of the ruler (wars), the community (harvests) and the individual (fertility). Historically noteworthy is the intertwining of astronomy and astrology that went into the construction of the equal-sign zodiac. That is, the circle or belt of star clusters through which the sun was thought to move annually. On the one hand, its division into twelve ‘signs’ of thirty degrees, named after important star groups, amounted to the construction of a system of celestial coordinates – a significant event in the history of mathematical astronomy (c. early fifth century BC). On the other hand, the old ‘signs’ have retained their astrological connotation for predicting a person’s future to the present. Because of precession of the equinoxes, it is necessary to differentiate between slowly revolving constellations and ‘fixed’ zodiacal signs carrying the same names.19

Regarding the Babylonian observations, what matters in retrospect is not their accuracy – seemingly overplayed – but that ‘there was a social mechanism for making and recording astronomical observations and for storing and preserving the records’.20 The ‘astronomical diaries’, as the resulting records are called, contain astronomical as well as meteorological, hydrological and other entries. The oldest are datable to the seventh century BC but, in view of the age of the observations of the planet Venus, the practice of recording must be even older.21 Comparable are Chinese records of celestial phenomena beginning in the fifth century BC. Among several affinities between Babylonian and Chinese astronomy is that observation of celestial phenomena fell under state control. In China this control found expression in the setting up of the Astronomical Bureau, as part and parcel of the completion of the unification of the realm under the Han dynasty (202 BC-AD 220). The following comment elucidates the situation neatly:

Celestial portents were not merely natural phenomena, but expressions of the will of Heaven communicated to the ruler as admonition. According to the Chinese theory of monarchy, the supreme ruler was the Son of Heaven, and through him the celestial will was to be transmitted as the basis of social order. Though the Chinese Heaven is neither a creator nor a god in the theological sense – later, seen more philosophically, it was the cosmos or natural order itself – it provided criteria for moral and political conduct and thus occupied a crucial position in Chinese political ideology. To supervise the heavenly ritual was the ruler’s privilege as well as his duty, for it was an essential service which only he could perform on behalf of its subjects.22

In the light of what has been said, the vital role of empirical knowledge of the natural world, bound up with observation and experience, for early human existence and its advance is manifest. What has to be cleared up is that there is more to the human perception of nature than observations of natural phenomena per se. Historically, the names of stars and constellations furnish a striking example. It may be assumed that not a few go back to prehistoric times, when hunters watching the sky with the naked eye ‘recognised’ figures described as a lion, bear, etc. These names reflected the hunters’ preoccupation and familiarity with the world of animals. To them, as indeed to the peoples of the river civilisations, the natural world appeared to be ‘alive’. Natural and artificial processes appeared to be ‘living’ and ideas about ‘livingness’ were derived from experiences with, and observations of, human as well as animal bodily functions. It is not difficult to see that the beginning or origin of everything was linked to human/cattle procreation through sexual union. Akkadian texts refer to male and female stones and metals. The production of metals by the smith was imagined as something related to child birth. From this animate/biological angle to metal extraction, the alchemical idea of a ‘marriage of metals’ ensued, crystallising eventually into the basic chemical concept of ‘combination’.23

In Mesopotamia there was a socio-political side to the observation of the celestial world which, as we know in retrospect, was to contribute to the demarcation of pursuits of natural knowledge from other human activities. It concerned the prehistory of the idea of a law of nature, a prehistory that comes to light, as it were, in the process of drawing an analogy between the earthly state and the cosmic state. For example, in a late Babylonian ‘creation’ poem the sun-god Marduk is pictured as the giver of law to stars. According to Joseph Needham, the prodigious student of the comparative history of science, the genesis of the ‘conception of a celestial lawgiver “legislating” for non-human natural phenomena’ may be viewed against the background of the unification and centralisation of southern Babylonia by Hammurabi (fl. 1700 BC).24

Concept of nature: phusis

Before the idea of laws of nature could materialise, the notion of ‘nature’ had to take shape. Termed phusis in Greek, the word (like its Latin counterpart natura) is etymologically connected with the idea of genesis or birth.25 Phusis is traceable, it has long been acknowledged, to speculations in the sixth and fifth centuries BC regarding natural phenomena by so-called Presocratic natural philosophers, who hailed from Ionian cities in Asia Minor. To all intents and purposes, their approach to natural phenomena was free of myths and interventions by personal gods. This is not to say that these ‘earth-bound’ Greek inquirers into nature, as well as others (including medical writers) who followed them up to Galen (fl. AD 180), were without religious beliefs.

The relative geographical proximity of the Ionian cities to Egypt and Babylon has prompted recurring debates regarding the impact of the ancient Near Eastern civilisations upon the Greek world. Going back to the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the knowledgeable classicist Geoffrey Lloyd confirms that both transmissions and independent developments (writing, numerical notation) took place. Lloyd validates noticeable differences between pre-Greek geometry and astronomy. The Near East possessed knowledge of geometrical truths (e.g. the properties of the ‘Pythagorean’ right-angled triangle) but not the notion of the proof of geometrical truths, something which did develop in Greece. Whilst Babylonian astronomical practice employed arithmetical procedures with respect to planetary movement, the Greeks turned to geometrical models. As for medicine, Lloyd points out that it ‘was one of the chief battlefields on which the attempt to distinguish between the “rational” and the “magical” was fought’. This struggle found expression in the Hippocratic collection of Greek medical texts – the oldest of which belonged to the beginning of fifth century BC – in which magical practices and beliefs come specifically under attack.26

What is significant is that no other ancient civilisation evolved a notion of nature equivalent to phusis. Multifaceted and disputed as the concept of phusis was, it stood effectively for objective, intelligible reality and was thus susceptible to rational inquiry.27 This was connected to a belief in the orderliness of the cosmos – a word of Greek origin. Etymologically bound up with the notion of military orderliness, cosmos was used to signify ‘order’/‘ordered whole’ and eventually stood for the world or universe as an ordered entity. The rational inquiry into the origin and make-up of cosmos, inaugurated by the Ionian thinkers, paved the way for knowledge in fields such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy and physics that had to wait 1500 years before it began to be superseded. The concrete attainments of Greek natural philosophers were highlighted by the influential classicist Moses Finley as follows:

The Hippocratic practice of auscultation of the heart, Euclid’s Elements, Archimedes’ discovery of specific gravity, the treatise on conic section by his younger contemporary Apollonius of Perge, Eratosthenes’ estimate of the diameter of the earth to within a few hundred miles of the correct figure, Hipparchus’ calculation of the precession of the equinoxes, Hero’s steam-operated toys…28

No less noteworthy than these achievements is the modus operandi that produced them. Underlying them was the unprecedented conviction that the natural as well as the social – perceived as ordered – were comprehensible without recourse to the supernatural. While the originality of this position – an enduring legacy of Greek antiquity diagnosed by some as the ‘Greek miracle’ – has not been questioned, its origin has been the subject of debate. During the last four decades or so research has gone some way to demystifying, as it were, the phenomenon by looking into its societal context. Here it is pertinent to recall Finley’s uncompromising statement regarding slavery:

This was a universal institution among the Greeks, one that touched upon every aspect of their lives without exception. It rested on very fundamental premises, of human inequality, of the limits authority and debasement, of rights and rightlessness.29

What concerns us here is the relevance of ancient Greek slave-owning society to the understanding of ancient Greek ‘inquiry concerning nature’.

Slavery and ‘inquiry concerning nature’ in ancient Greece

Tradition has it that it was the Ionian city Chios where slaves were first bought from the barbarians around 550 BC. This was also the period of the beginning of early Greek natural philosophy, personified by the Milesians Thales (585), Anaximander (555) and Anaximenes (535). The question of the connection between their naturalistic speculations about the ordered cosmos, as well as those of later Ionian thinkers, and the rise of slavery in ancient Greece has remained problematical. They employed notions drawn from legal, social, military and political spheres, such as justice, equality (isonomia), war, strife, rule, contract and others. As pointed out by Lloyd, these concepts are used ‘by one Presocratic after another to convey different conceptions of how the world as we know it, made up of a variety of different things, is never the less an ordered whole’.30

But what we know about the ideas of Presocratics is fragmentary and largely second-hand. Hence their uncertain connotation with regards to the historically developing system of slavery in Greek city-states – within a democracy practised solely by male citizens.

Here, as in other matters, Aristotle proves to be illuminating. If we turn to Politics, one of his late writings, he addresses the nature of slavery. On this subject, he generalises that the ruler/master/slave relationship permeates ‘every composite thing where a plurality of parts, whether continuous of discrete, is combined to make a single common whole’. Aristotle gives examples of the (inanimate) case of a musical scale ruled by its keynote or the (animate) case of the body governed by the soul ‘with the sway of a master’.31

Aristotle’s position on the relation of soul and body as well as on the cognate, but more general issue of the relation of form and matter – as opposites – is germane to the exploration of the role of dichotomies in the evolution of scientific methodology. While rejecting the separateness of soul and body, form and matter, Aristotle envisaged their union to be founded on the subordination of body to soul and matter to form.

Aristotle’s fundamental notions are hierarchically predicated, as in form, the causes of things or the scale of being. It is insufficiently appreciated how much Aristotle’s commitment to hierarchy and order owes to his acceptance of the naturalness of social and human inequality, manifestly incarnated in the opposition of freedom and enslavement. At the time of the Peloponnesian war (431-404 BC), it is estimated that there were between 60,000 and 80,000 slaves in Athens – the total population (men, women and children, free or enslaved) was about 250,000 to 275,000.32 Such social reality palpably underlies Aristotle’s conviction that authority and subordination of all sorts and kinds conditioned the ordered existence and functioning of both polis and phusis. Polis, the inegalitarian Greek city-state, was the subject matter investigated in Politics.

Rooted in observation and experience – the age-old means of gaining knowledge of the world – the idea of opposites (not unlike that of similarity and difference) supplied a vantage point for theoretical and practical classification and systematisation. Aristotle recognised in these procedures attributes of scientific methodology – in effect, its history begins with him.

The propensity for resorting to the value-laden opposites of inferiority and superiority in scientific inquiry, and its place against the background of the Greek system of slavery, is highlighted by Lloyd as follows:

The Greeks did not deploy opposites to legitimate a single particular type of political regime. But over and over again their uses of opposites mirror an essential feature of the social structures of Greek society, namely the fundamental division between rulers and ruled. A perceived hierarchical distinction within pairs of opposites that we might have expected to have been totally value-free is a feature that is made to do explanatory work in a variety of scientific contexts … In Aristotle’s view … male is held to be ‘naturally’ superior to female, the latter said to be a ‘natural’ deformity. Again the members of the pairs right and left, above and below, front and back, are strongly differentiated as to value. Right, above and front are the principles (archē), first of the three dimensions (breadth, length and depth respectively), and then also of the three modes of change in living beings, mainly locomotion, growth and sensation. Moreover, this doctrine provides him with the basis of his explanation of a range of real or assumed anatomical facts (the relative positions of the windpipe and the oesophagus, those of the two kidneys, the function of the diaphragm and the positions of the vena cava and the aorta) and even further afield it is the principle he invokes in his admittedly tentative discussion of the difficult problem of why the heavens revolve in one direction rather than in the other.

The point can be extended to what we might have assumed to be the purely neutral mathematical pair, odd and even. They provide the basis for the Greek classification of integers and are thus fundamental to Greek arithmetic.33

Lloyd also raises the question of the sociopolitical background of a pervasive element in Greek natural philosophy, mathematics and medicine. That is, the preoccupation of searchers with foundations, certainties and proofs of truthful knowledge in various domains of inquiry. The most telling example of this tendency is provided by the axiomatic-deductive manner of demonstrating geometrical truth that Euclid displays in his Elements. Lloyd points out that the astronomer and cosmologist Ptolemy and the physician Galen, canonical figures of Hellenistic science, subscribed to the idea that proof more geometrico establishes certainty of knowledge. Lloyd suggests that this may have something to do with the way in which participants in hard-hitting debates and confrontations in the political assemblies and law courts of the city-states argued their case. The winning depended crucially on marshalled evidence and proof.

This approach leads Lloyd to throw open to discussion the vexed issue of the place of experimentation in Greek science. It is particularly striking, he writes,

that on many of the occasions when deliberate and explicit testing procedures are invoked, the aim was not so much to devise an experimental set-up that could be seen to be neutral between antecedently equally balanced alternatives, but rather to provide further supporting argument in favour of a particular theory. It is remarkable that even in what are some of the best prepared and most systematic experiments carried out in Greek antiquity, the quantitative investigations of the amount of refraction between various pairs of media (air to water, air to glass, and water to glass) reported in Ptolemy’s Optics, the results have clearly been adjusted to suit his general theory, since they all fitted exactly.34


1 I. B. Cohen, ‘The Eighteenth-Century Origins of the Concept of Scientific Revolution’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 37 (1976), 257-88. See also idem, The Revolution in Science (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1985). But Robert Boyle (1627-1691) employed the term ‘revolution’ to describe the transformation in intellectual life he experienced in the middle of the century. See M. C. Jacob, ‘The Truth of Newton’s Science and the Truth of Science’s History: Heroic Science at its Eighteenth-Century Formulation’, in M. J. Osler (ed.), Rethinking the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). For an instructive account of how writers from Bacon to Voltaire discussed the origins of modern science, see A. C. Crombie, ‘Historians and the Scientific Revolution’, Physis: Rivista Internazionale di Storia della Scienza, 11 (1969), 167-80.

2 A. Koyré, Études galiléennes (Paris: Hermann, 1939-1940), pp. 6-7.

3 For latter-day discussions of ‘the state-of-the-art’, see I. Hacking (ed.), Scientific Revolutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981); A. Rupert Hall, The Revolution in Science, 1500-1750 (London and New York: Longman, 1983), R. Porter, ‘The Scientific Revolution: A Spoke in The Wheel?’, in R. Porter and M. Teich (eds.), Revolution in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 290-316; D. C. Lindberg and R. S. Westman (eds.), Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); R. Porter and M. Teich (eds.), The Scientific Revolution in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); J. V. Field and Frank A. J. L. James (eds. and intr.), Renaissance and Revolution: Humanists, Scholars, Craftsmen and Natural Philosophers in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); A. Cunningham and P. Williams, ‘De-centring the ‘Big Picture’: The Origins of Modern Science and The Modern Origins of Science’, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 26/4 (1993), 407-32; H. F. Cohen, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994); J. Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997, 3rd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); S. Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998); M. Teich, ‘Revolution, wissenschaftliche’, in H. J. Sandkühler (ed.), Enzyklopädie Philosophie, Vol. 2: O-Z (Hamburg: Meiner, 1999), pp. 1394-97; M. J. Osler (ed.), Rethinking the Scientific Revolution; J. P. Dear, Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and its Ambitions, 1520-1700 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001); P. J. Bowler and I. Rhys Morus, Making Modern Science A Historical Survey (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 23-53. P. Fara, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); David Knight’s Voyaging in Strange Seas: The Great Revolution in Science (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2014) appeared just before this book went to press.

4 T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd revised ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 208.

5 Ibid., p. 181.

6 Ibid., p. 176.

7 Ibid., p. 49.

8 Ibid., p. 34.

9 K. Bayertz, ‘Über Begriff und Problem der wissenschaftlichen Revolution’, in his (ed.), Wissenschaftsgeschichte und wissenschaftliche Revolution (Hürth-Efferen: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1981), pp. 11-28. Take William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood (1618-1628). It was a product of both Aristotelian thinking (in which the idea of the circle plays a major role) and non-Aristotelian quantitative reasoning. See W. Pagel, William Harvey’s Biological Ideas: Selected Aspects and Historical Background (Basel and New York: Karger, 1967), pp. 73f., J. J. Bylebyl, ‘Nutrition, Quantification and Circulation’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 51 (1977), 369-85; A. Cunningham, ‘William Harvey and the Discovery of the Circulation of the Blood’, in R. Porter (ed. and intr.), Man Masters Nature: 25 Centuries of Science (London: BBC Books, 1987), pp. 65-76.

10 J. D. Bernal, The Extension of Man: A History of Physics Before 1900 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1972), pp. 16f.

11 G. L. Isaac, ‘Aspects of Human Evolution’, in D. S. Bendall (ed.), Evolution from Molecules to Men (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 532-35.

12 Quoted by R. E. Leakey, The Origin of Humankind (London: Basic Books, 1994), p. 38.

13 W. J. H. Andrewes, ‘Time and Clocks’, in S. P. Maran (ed.), The Astronomy and Astrophysics Encyclopaedia (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1991), p. 929. It is argued that ‘on the cosmic (though not human) scale, size is visible in a way that age is not’. See B. Dainton, ‘Past, What Past?’, The Times Literary Supplement, 8 January 2010.

14 S. J. Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), p. 11.

15 S. Jones, R. Martin and D. Pilbeam (eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 378.

16 In a study of Ancient Mesopotamia, Susan Pollock shares the view of critics of the ‘overarching notion of the temple economy’. See S. Pollock, Ancient Mesopotamia The Eden that Never Was (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 119. But even she writes in the concluding chapter: ‘Temples, which have been identified as far back as the Ubaid period, are one of the most obvious testimonials to the central place of religion within Mesopotamian societies. Yet they were also economic and political institutions; any attempt to apply to them our contemporary notions of the separation of religion, politics, and economy forces us to recognise that our concepts are products of a particular history and culture rather than eternal verities’. Ibid., p. 221.

17 See J. Vandermeer, ‘The Agroecosystem: The Modern Vision Crisis, The Alternative Evolving’, in R. Singh, C. B. Krimbas, D. B. Paul and J. Beatty (eds.), Thinking about Evolution, Historical, Philosophical and Political Perspectives, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 480. Regarding the juxtaposition of the (disputed) Neolithic Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, see C. M. Cipolla, ‘Introduction’, in his (ed.), The Fontana Economic History of Europe: The Industrial Revolution (London and Glasgow: Collins/Fontana Books, 1973), pp. 7-8. See also, by the same author, The Economic History of World Population (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), Ch. 1.

18 The case for making writing, developed in Mesopotamia (about 3000 BC), an integral part of the history of weights and measures has been restated by J. Ritter. ‘One outcome of this interplay’, he writes, ‘was of striking importance at the conceptual level – the development of an abstract use of numbers, independent of any metrological system, and the creation of a positional system of base sixty’. See J. Ritter, ‘Metrology, Writing and Mathematics in Mesopotamia’, Acta historiae rerum naturalium necnon technicarum. Prague Studies in the History of Science and Technology, N. S. (1999), 215-41 (p. 239).

19 B. L. van der Waerden, ‘Basic Ideas and Methods of Babylonian and Greek Astronomy’, in A. C. Crombie (ed.), Scientific Change, Symposium on the History of Science, University of Oxford 9-15 July 1961 (London: Heinemann, 1963), p. 42f; Precession of the equinoxes was recognised by Hipparchus (second century BC); see J. North, Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 14, 114.

20 J. Evans, The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 16 (italics – JE).

21 Ibid.

22 K. Yabuuti, ‘Chinese Astronomy: Development and Limiting Factors’, in S. Nakayama and N. Sivin (eds.), Chinese Science Explorations of an Ancient Tradition (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1973), p. 93. For an original account of the history of Chinese astronomy, see J. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), Vol. 3, pp. 169ff. For critical remarks, see N. Sivin, ‘An Introductory Bibliography of Traditional Chinese Science. Books and Articles in Western Languages’, in Nakayama and Sivin (eds.), Chinese Science, pp. 298-99.

23 R. J. Forbes, ‘Metals and Early Science’, Centaurus, 3 (1953-1954), 30.

24 J. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), Vol. 2, p. 533. The conjecture has been heavily criticised. But Descartes, Leibniz, Newton and others returned to the idea that a heavenly legislator (God) enacted the laws of nature underlying the motion of matter. See W. Krohn, ‘Zur Geschichte des Gesetzesbegriffs in Naturphilosophie und Naturwissenschaft’, in M. Hahn und H.-J. Sandkühler (eds.), Gesellschaftliche Bewegung und Naturprozess (Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1981), pp. 61-70 (p. 68). It has been noted that Descartes, who more or less established the conception of nature as governed by laws to be discovered by those who investigated it, never talked about laws of nature with regard to refraction or optics in general. See F. J. Dijksterhuis, ‘Constructive Thinking: A Case for Dioptrics’, in L. Roberts, S. Shaffer and P. Dear (eds.), The Mindful Hand Inquiry and Invention from the Late Renaissance to Early Industrialization (Amsterdam: Koninkliijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, 2007), pp. 63-4. The discovery that the ratio of the sine of the angle of incidence to the sine of the angle of refraction is constant for any material, the ‘law of sines’, is ascribed to Descartes (1638).

25 See entry ‘Nature’, in W. F. Bynum, E. J. Brown and R. Porter (eds.), Dictionary of the History of Science (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1981), p. 289.

26 G. E. R. Lloyd ‘The Debt of Greek Philosophy and Science to the Ancient Near East’, in his, Methods and Problems in Greek Science: Selected Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 278-98.

27 G. E. R. Lloyd, ‘Greek Antiquity: The Invention of Nature’, in G. Torrance (ed.), The Concept of Nature: The Herbert Spencer Lectures (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 22. Reprinted as ‘The Invention of Nature’, in Lloyd, Method and Problems, p. 432. Aristotle (384-24) in Physics seems to be the first to have formulated it clearly: ‘Nature is a principle of motion and change… We must therefore see that we understand what motion is; for if it were unknown, nature too would be unknown’. See M. Oster (ed.), Science in Europe 1500-1800: A Primary Sources Reader (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), p. 8.

28 M. I. Finley, The Ancient Greeks (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), p. 123. The floruit dates (BC) of the named persons are as follows: Euclid (300), Archimedes (250), Apollonius (210), Eratosthenes (250), Hipparchus (135). Hippocrates (425) almost certainly did not author any of the sixty treatises or so ascribed to him. Hero was active in the first century AD (60).

29 Ibid., p. 148.

30 ‘Greek Cosmologies’, in Lloyd, Methods and Problems, p. 150.

31 Aristotle, Politics, I, ii, 9-11 (Loeb Classical Library, Vol. 21, transl. H. Rackham) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: Heinemann, 1977), pp. 19-21.

32 Finley, Ancient Greeks, pp. 72, 55.

33 ‘Greek and Chinese Dichotomies Revisited’, in G. E. R. Lloyd, Adversaries and Authorities Investigations into Ancient and Greek Chinese Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 134-35.

34 Cf. G. E. R. Lloyd, ‘Democracy, Philosophy and Science in Ancient Greece’, in J. Dunn (ed.), Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 BC to AD 1993 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 41-56 (p. 45).