Open Book Publishers logo Open Access logo
  • button
  • button
  • button
GO TO...
book cover



This book is about interpreting the Scientific Revolution as a distinctive movement directed towards the exploration of the world of nature and coming into its own in Europe by the end of the seventeenth century. The famed English historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) is said to have advised that problems were more important than periods. If he held this opinion, he ignored that problems are embedded in time and place and do not arise autonomously. The inseparability of problem and period has been amply demonstrated in six collections of essays, examining the ‘national context’ not only of the Scientific Revolution but also of other great movements of thought and action, which Roy Porter and I initiated and co-edited.1

In general terms, one way of encompassing the world we live in is to say that it is made up of society and nature with human beings belonging to both.2 It is reasonable to connect the beginnings of human cognition of inanimate and animate nature (stones, animals, plants) with the ability to systematically make tools/arms within a framework of a hunting-and-gathering way of life, presently traceable to about 2.5 million years ago. It is also reasonable to perceive in the intentional Neanderthal burial, about 100,000 years ago, the earliest known expression of overlapping social and individual awareness of a natural phenomenon: death.

While the theme of the interaction between the social, human and natural has a long history, there is scant debate over the links between perceptions of nature and perceptions of society from antiquity to the present. This is crucial, however, not only for understanding the evolution of our knowledge of nature as well as our knowledge of society, but also for gauging the type of truth produced in the process. An inquiry into the relationship between science and society takes us to the heart of the issue highlighted by the late Ernest Gellner, noted social anthropologist and philosopher, when he stated that ‘The basic characteristics of our age can be defined simply: effective knowledge of nature does exist, but there is no effective knowledge of man and society’.3

This assertion, indeed Gellner’s essay as a whole, gives the impression of a despondent social scientist’s cri de coeur, made before he sadly passed away with the text yet to be published. By then, Gellner had undeniably come to believe that social knowledge compared badly with natural knowledge. He particularly reproved Marxism because it

claimed to possess knowledge of society, continuous with knowledge of nature, and of both kinds – both explanatory and moral-prescriptive. In fact, as in the old religious style, the path to salvation was a corollary of the revelation of the nature of things. Marxism satisfied the craving of Russia’s Westernizers for science and that of the Russian populist mystics for righteousness, by promising the latter in terms of, and as fruit of, the former.4

It is noteworthy that this critique contrasts with Gellner’s position five years before the demise of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, a development which he clearly had not envisaged:

I am inclined to consider the reports of the death of Marxist faith to be somewhat exaggerated, at least as far as the Soviet Union is concerned. Whether or not people positively believe in the Marxist scheme, no coherent, well-articulated rival pattern has emerged, West or East, and as people must need to think against some kind of grid, even (or perhaps especially) those who do not accept the Marxist theory of history tend to lean upon its ideas when they wish to say what they do positively believe.5

This was in line with what John Hicks noted a year after receiving the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics (in 1972). Venturing to develop a theory of history ‘nearer to the kind of thing that was attempted by Marx’, he declared:

What remains an open question is whether it can only be done on a limited scale, for special purposes, or whether it can be done in a larger way, so that the general course of history, at least in some important aspects can be fitted into place. Most of those who take the latter view would use the Marxian categories or some modified version of them; since there is so little in the way of an alternative version that is available, it is not surprising that they should. It does, nevertheless, remain extraordinary that one hundred years after Das Kapital, after a century during which there has been enormous developments in social science, so little else should have emerged. Surely, it is possible that Marx was right in his vision of logical processes at work in history, but that we, with much knowledge of fact and social logic which he did not possess, and with another century of experience at our disposal, should conceive of the nature of those processes in a distinctly different way.6

‘Learning from history’ is invoked by politicians at will, but avoided by historians. They could do worse than to heed Hicks’s observation regarding Marx’s approach to encompassing and deciphering human social evolution. It has not lost its force when it comes to analysing the roots of the contemporary troublesome state of world affairs, fuelled by globalisation.


There is no point here in recapitulating what is argued in the book. But, as I have found the strongly-disputed Marxist conception of a period of transition from feudalism to capitalism a useful framework within which to locate the forging of the Scientific Revolution, it may be worthwhile to dwell on it briefly.

According to the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm,

the point from which historians must start, however far from it they may end, is the fundamental and, for them, absolutely central distinction between establishable fact and fiction, between historical statements based on evidence and subject to evidence and those which are not.7

But what is established fact? Take the categories ‘feudalism’ and ‘capitalism’.8 There are historians who find them to be of little or no use. There are others who may, curiously, employ both variants in a text: feudalism/‘feudalism’ and capitalism/‘capitalism’. In other words, the categories have the semblance of both fact and fiction. More often than not, the assessment that feudalism and capitalism are not viable historical categories is politically and/or ideologically motivated. This of course is vehemently repudiated on the basis that true historical scholarship does not take sides.

In this connection, Penelope J. Corfield’s ‘new look at the shape of history, as viewed in the context of long-term-time’ comes to our attention. Her interest in this question was triggered by the Marxist historians E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill (her uncle). Though she clearly disagrees with their world-view, she hardly engages with their work. Criticising the old ‘inevitable Marxist stages’, she finds that gradually

over time, historical concepts become overstretched and, as that happens, lose meaning. And ‘capitalism’/’communism’ as stages in history, along with ‘modernity’, and all their hybrid variants, have now lost their clarity as ways of shaping history. To reiterate, therefore, the processes that these words attempt to capture certainly need examination – but the analysis cannot be done well if the historical labels acquire afterlives of their own which bear decreasingly adequate reference to the phenomena under discussion.9

Corfield’s model of making sense of the past is that ‘the shape of history has three dimensions and one direction’. The three dimensions, she argues, are ‘persistence/microchange/radical discontinuity’.10 While her long-view approach is to be welcomed, her formula gives the impression of being too general to be of concrete value in casting light on, say, the Scientific Revolution.


The Scientific Revolution in National Context (1992) illustrated that no nation produced it single-handed. So in what sense was the Scientific Revolution a distinctive movement? In the sense that in Europe it had brought into being ‘normal science’ as the mode of pursuing natural knowledge – universally adopted in time and still adhered to at present. Thus ‘when an Indian scientist changes places with an Italian or an Argentinian with an Austrian, no conceptual problems are posed. Nobel Prizes symbolise the unity of science to-day’.11

In Europe diverse social, economic, political and ideological conditions brought together the historically-evolved ways of knowing nature and produced the Scientific Revolution. These conditions included procedures, such as classification, systematisation, theorising, experimentation, quantification – apart from observation and experience, practised from the dawn of human history. Still, the social context of this transformation of the study of nature into normal science – institutionalised over time and in certain places – may be understood in terms of the passage from feudalism to capitalism. It was a long-drawn-out process of which the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, along with the Scientific Revolution, form ‘historically demarcated sequences’.12 By the eighteenth century, normal science had arrived in latecoming countries, such as Sweden and Bohemia.

Outside Europe the assimilation of normal science had taken place under different historical circumstances. Indeed, we may witness that it still takes place today as part of a fierce global interchange. Existing Stone Age human groups come into contact with latest scientific technology – ancestrally descended from the Scientific Revolution – and eventually they acquire the skills to use electric saws, mobiles, etc., without having passed through the historical learning process experienced by European and non-European peoples under the impact of early capitalist expansion.

The adaptation to tangible contemporary scientific-technical advances by ‘primitives’ testifies to lasting legacy of the fundamental transformation of the mode of pursuing natural knowledge, both theoretical and practical, between the middle of the sixteenth and the close of the seventeenth centuries. The much maligned Scientific Revolution remains a useful beast of historical burden.13

1 Published by Cambridge University Press, the volumes formed part of a sequence of twelve collections of essays which included The Enlightenment in National Context (1981), Revolution in History (1986), Romanticism in National Context (1988), The Renaissance in National Context (1992), The Scientific Revolution in National Context (1992), The Reformation in National Context (with Bob Scribner, 1994), and The Industrial Revolution in National Context: Europe and the USA (1996).

2 What follows, draws on the ‘Introduction’, in M. Teich, R. Porter and B. Gustafsson (eds.), Nature and Society in Historical Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

3 E. Gellner, ‘Knowledge of Nature and Society’, cited in ibid., p. 9.

4 Ibid., p. 13.

5 E. Gellner, ‘Along the Historical Highway’, The Times Literary Supplement, 16 March 1984.

6 J. Hicks, A Theory of Economic History (repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 2-3.

7 E. Hobsbawm, On History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), p. viii.

8 ‘Once you accept that feudalism existed, and capitalism does, there’s a big academic debate about what caused the collapse of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. Shakespeare managed to get to the essence of it without having knowledge of the terms’. Paul Mason (economics editor of Channel 4 News), ‘What Shakespeare Taught Me about Marxism and the Modern World’, The Guardian, 3 November, 2013.

9 P. J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. ix, 182-83.

10 Ibid., p. 248.

11 Introduction in Porter and Teich (eds.), The Scientific Revolution in National Context, p. 1.

12 D. S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 1.

13 Introduction in Porter and Teich (eds.), Scientific Revolution, p. 2.