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Becher was a polymath whose interests included human and veterinary medicine, mathematics, physics, chemistry, education, philology, technology, husbandry, political economy, social organisation, colonialism and natural philosophy. It is the sheer breadth of his inquiries that demands an interdisciplinary approach to the assessment of Becher’s place in the world of seventeenth-century learning.

As illustrated above, Becher had a pretty good understanding of the dominating role of mercantile activity in the society in which he lived and was involved. As an economist and chemist, Becher was superior to Leibniz, with whom he is occasionally juxtaposed;1 that said, Becher certainly was inferior in mathematics and physics to his great polymath contemporary, the fields in which Leibniz was originally and primarily active. Where a useful comparison may be attempted is in the ways Becher and Leibniz read the Bible and thought about God in the context of investigating natural phenomena.2

Stripped down to its essentials, Becher’s philosophy of nature may be summarised in the following way. God is the first Being, a Being who is not created but who creates everything. As such, He has created nature as the vehicle of orderly motion. The primary stuff or raw material of nature is earth, of which everything is ultimately composed and into which everything is eventually decomposed. In Becher’s opinion, God is a chemist who made nature, from the creation of the world to its end, a cycle of transformation of one kind of earth into another.

In Leibniz’s speculation, all-provident God ordained that the world He brought into being was to exist in harmony. Once created, it was to be the best of possible worlds, not needing His continuous intervention to keep it running like clockwork. This harmony was ultimately due to multiple primary entities (‘monads’) endowed with ‘soul’ that combined to form all matter.

Au fond, Becher and Leibniz were confronted with squaring the circle, as were Boyle, Descartes, Newton, Linnaeus and scores of other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century explorers of nature. They had to harmonise their findings and explanations of natural phenomena with the words of Scripture. To ignore this maxim was perilous in the light of Giordano Bruno’s burning at the stake (1600) and Galileo’s trial (1633). When Descartes learned of Galileo’s condemnation by the Inquisition, he suppressed his treatise on The World (1634).

Protestant Christianity could be no more tolerant than the Roman Holy Office. In effect, the Reformation had reinforced the Bible as the undisputable authority. The Spanish physician Michael Servetus, whose inklings of the lesser circulation of blood were contained in his unorthodox Restitutio Christianismi (denial of Christ’s divinity), was burnt in Geneva at Calvin’s behest (1553). Newton was very careful when it came to concealing his heretical Arianism. And the deeply religious Linnaeus, who believed in God, trusted in the Bible as the Word of God and saw himself as God’s interpreter of nature, was, for all that, not an orthodox Christian. So much so that, after Linnaeus’s death, his son had to defend him in the face of accusations of atheism.3

The burning of suspected or real heretics was the uncompromising reaction of a Christianity that had become the dominant intellectual and cultural force in Europe since it was instituted as the state religion of the imperium Romanum in the fourth century. Paradoxically, as the eminent historian of science Richard Westfall put it, the actual result of the many treatises demonstrating the existence of God from natural phenomena has been the separation of science from revealed theology. Westfall compared two incidents supporting his point about the assertion of science’s autonomy by the end of the seventeenth century:

Early in the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church, under the leadership in this respect of Cardinal Bellarmino, condemned Copernican astronomy because it conflicted with the overt meaning of certain passages of Scripture. Sixty-five years later Newton engaged in a correspondence with Thomas Burnet about Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth. Burnet had convinced himself that the Scriptural account of the creation was a fiction, composed by Moses for political purposes, which could not possibly be true in a philosophical sense. In the correspondence, Newton defended the truth of Genesis, arguing that it stated what science (chemistry in this case) would lead us to expect. Where Bellarmino had employed Scripture to judge a scientific opinion, both Burnet and Newton used science to judge the validity of Scripture. To speak merely of the autonomy of science does not seem enough; we need to speak rather of its authority, to which theology had now become subordinate. The positions of the two had been reversed. That change also has never been reversed anew.4

The Christian Westfall saw in the new relation between science and Christianity ‘one dimension of the new order that the Scientific Revolution ushered into being ... one more reason why I will not part with the concept’. He was convinced that the Scientific Revolution ‘is the key not only to the history of science but to modern history as well’. Indeed, Westfall argued that the separation of the Western world from the rest of the globe stemmed from the growing scientific foundation that European technology had acquired since the seventeenth century.

Westfall appears to have believed that no one had seriously addressed the question ‘of what it was about the new science that made it adaptable to technological use’. He identified three distinguishing features: its quantitative character, the employment of experimentation and the development of a more satisfactory account of nature.

In more general terms, the question was in fact addressed by Marx, ‘that most astute historian of nineteenth-century technology (and Manchester)’.5 He did so in a preparatory work (1857-1858), published for the first time under the title Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf) in 1939-1941. As is known or should be known, the chief aim of Marx’s theoretical endeavour was to discover the laws underlying the formation and development of capital and thus to provide the key to comprehending capitalism as a historically evolved system of social production. It is in this connection that Marx encountered the problem of the role of science and technology in the development of the productive forces under capitalism.6

In the Grundrisse Marx touches on the problem, among other matters, when he analyses categories such as labour process, fixed capital, machine, etc. Marx notes that

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of man-made industry … they are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand, a power of knowledge objectified. The development of fixed capital [appearing as a machine] reveals to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production.

On following Marx’s later thinking on this subject in Capital (1867), his major published work, we find that by then he regarded science as an intellectual power (geistige Potenz) of the process of production rather than as a direct force of production. Marx frequently refers in Capital to Produktivkraft der Arbeit in the sense of productivity and writes that it is ‘determined by various circumstances, among others, by the average skill of the workmen, the state of science and the degree of its practical application, the social organization of production, the extent and capabilities of the means of production and by physical conditions’.

No doubt what happened was that Marx, on mature reflection, concluded that a more subtle relationship between science and production existed than the point-to-point one he had previously established. It has been my view for a long time that practitioners as well as theoreticians concerned with this issue could benefit from Marx’s later approach. That is, to recognise that the relationship between science and production is a mediated one, depending on factors such as military needs, economic expectations, technological feasibility, political interests and others. Looked at it in this way, scientific knowledge represents a potential rather than a direct force of production.

This assigns to mediation a centrally important epistemological function; it helps us understand the part played by the interaction of a plurality of factors in transitional phases of history. It is in this context that it pays to return to Westfall’s reaffirmation of the concept of the Scientific Revolution, one with which I agree in principle but do not find adequate.

Take Westfall’s observation that the Scientific Revolution brought into being a new order and, moreover, that it provides a guide not only to the history of science but to modern history. For one thing, it is not clear what he means by ‘new order’ – is it political, social, economic, intellectual, conceptual, methodological, epistemic, etc.? True, Westfall points to the subordination of theology to science as one of its hallmarks, in addition to the closer relation of science and technology. But his lack of interest in placing the Scientific Revolution within the wider, plural history of the period he discusses (1543-1687) is evident.

Westfall’s comparative indifference contrasts with the view of the editor of a volume on Galileo, who emphasises that the development of science is affected by external conditions in which it is pursued:

What cannot be in doubt is that between, say somewhat arbitrarily, the dates of 1543 and 1687, many things had radically changed and the world was, and was further becoming, a widely different kind of place. Science, as any other human endeavour, does not exist in a vacuum. It is not an isolated, independent system of thought and practice. What happens in other realms affects how science is practiced, perceived, and received.7

Alas, this perspective is not reflected in the actual contributions to the valuable, if traditional, collection – apart from the attention it pays to Church and Scripture.

As stated at the beginning of this book, my theme is the Scientific Revolution as a distinctive movement of thought and action that came into its own in certain European countries by the seventeenth century. At that point, the Greek ‘inquiry concerning nature’ had acquired the form that has since been universally adopted.

Some ways of knowing, like observation and experience, go back to the times when ape-like creatures began to employ them purposefully and, in the process, became recognisably human. Others – classification, systematisation and theorising – were developed in classical antiquity. Systematic experimentation and quantification represent procedures of investigating and comprehending nature that began to materialise in Europe during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

By and large, historians have come to identify this phase as the transition from the late medieval to the early modern period in Europe. Some, influenced by Marxism, view it as the opening stage of transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe, with merchant capital gaining control of commerce and manufacture.

It is in this intellectual context that John Desmond Bernal wrote of the rise of capitalism and the birth of modern science, in about the middle of the fifteenth century, as related processes, arguing in his seminal The Social Function of Science (1939):

Though capitalism was essential to the early development of science, giving it, for the first time, a practical value, the human importance of science transcends in every way that of capitalism, and, indeed, the full development of science is incompatible with the continuance of capitalism.8

The reading of this work in 1940 was pivotal in arousing my interest in the history and philosophy of science in general, and in the Marxist materialist conception of history in particular. It led to my earliest publication – on the eve of my taking the first degree – in Nature (1944).9 Some seven decades later, I still find this approach to history enlightening although not dogmatically prescriptive.

1 H. Breger, ‘Becher, Leibniz und die Rationalität’, in G. Frühsorge and G. F. Strasser (eds.), Johann Joachim Becher (1635-1682) (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1993), pp. 69-84. See also Pamela Smith’s valuable juxtaposition of Becher and Leibniz in her The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

2 H. Rudolph, ‘Kirchengeschichtliche Beobachtungen zu J. J. Becher’, Becher, pp. 173-96; M. Stewart, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2005).

3 For religious views of Linnaeus, see contributions by Sten Lindroth and Tore Frängsmyr in T. Frängsmyr (ed.), Linnaeus: The Man and his Work (Berkeley, Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 1983). K. Hagberg’s Carl Linnaeus, transl. Alan Blair (London: Cape, 1952) still provides useful information on the religious as well as economic and political dimensions of the Swedish naturalist’s activities. For a more recent treatment, see L. Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

4 R. S. Westfall, ‘The Scientific Revolution Reasserted’, in M. J. Osler (ed.), Rethinking the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 50. For the following quotations, see pp. 50-1.

5 This observation was made by a much respected non-Marxist historian of science. See J. V. Pickstone’s thoughtful synthesis of the state-of-the-art scholarship in the history of science, technology and medicine, Ways of Knowing: A New History of Science, Technology and Medicine (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 24.

6 What follows draws on my ‘The Scientific-Technical Revolution: An Historical Event in the Twentieth Century?’, in R. Porter and M. Teich (eds.), Revolution in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 317-30.

7 ‘Introduction’, in P. Machamer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Galileo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 3.

8 J. D. Bernal, The Social Function of Science, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 1942), pp. 408-09. See my ‘J. D. Bernal: The Historian and the Scientific Technical Revolution’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 33 (2008), 135-39.

9 N. Teich, ‘Influence of Newton’s Work on Scientific Thought’, Nature, 153 (1944), 42-5.