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The early modern period of European history marked a substantial development of thought in many areas, such as politics, sociology, and natural sciences. The works of many early modern scientists, such as Newton and Galileo, are now at the foundation of all the contemporary scientific knowledge, whereas other theories, such as Herschel’s theory of sunspots as atmospheric openings, were discarded in light of further evidence. Still, the development of scientific thought in the early modern period is evident in every European country, and early modern science itself is a particular subject that has several distinctive characteristics.
Perhaps, one of the most distinctive features of early modern scientific development was the substitution of purely theoretical discussions with experiments aimed at obtaining proper evidence. For instance, Shapin writes, “Seventeenth-century England witnessed the rise and institutionalization of a program devoted to systematic experimentation, accompanied by literature explicitly describing and defending practical aspects of that program” (373). Indeed, whereas the earlier stages of scientific thought were filled rather with “mere belief” (Shapin 375) than with proven knowledge, the early modern period promoted the idea that knowledge has to be supported by facts.
For example, Hooke describes his observations of “physiological microbodies”, conducted with the use of a microscope, in 1667, in a detailed account with illustrations of the instruments and tools used for observations. Even though his experiment involved studying basic objects, like needles, each study is thoroughly documented for reliability and specificity: “But if viewed with a very good Microscope, we may find that the top of a Needle (though as to the sense very sharp, appears a broad, blunt, and very irregular end; not resembling a cone, as imagin’d, but only a piece of a tapering body, wit a great part of the top removed, or deficient” (Hooke 1-2).
One of the factors that contributed to the rise of experimental science was the popularization of scientific studies in universities. Shapin explains that in the early modern period, experimentation in institutional settings was a way of bounding and disciplining the scientists, while at the same time it offered a chance to prove the validity and reliability of their theories (373-374). The rise in the number of universities all across Europe, as well as in the number of scientific programs available, facilitated the development of experimental thought, since, as Feingold and Navarro-Brotons argue, the universities provided all kinds of support for the scientists, including employment, research facilities, and expensive instruments (1). The universities also became the bodies that promoted interest in new scientific discoveries: “Although the universities were sometimes slow to assimilate new scientific knowledge, when they did so it helped not only to remove the suspicion that the new science was intellectually subversive but also to make science a respectable and even prestigious activity” (Feingold and Navarro-Brotons 1).
A lot of the scientific theories and discoveries made in the early modern period, particularly those related to the understanding of our place in the universe, were also revolutionary and in some way defied, or openly opposed, the previously accepted way of thinking. For instance, Copernicus’ model of the universe created an uproar among both the religious and the scientific communities and was widely opposed until later in the century. Galileo also argued for the Copernicus’ model in his writing, which resulted in an extensive inquisition process against him. He also criticized the obsoletism of thought and argued for the development and improvement of scientific beliefs based on new observations: “people seemed to forget that a multitude of truths contributes to inquiry and the growth and strength of disciplines rather than to their diminution or destruction, and at the same time they showed greater affection for their own opinions than for the true ones” (Galilei 110).
Concrete and Applicable
In most instances, early modern science was aimed at explaining the most basic processes that the people were observing in their everyday lives. For example, before the Scientific Revolution, mathematical studies were not widely used by people in daily life (Remmert 10). However, the situation changed as people found new ways to apply mathematics studies: “between the mid-sixteenth and mid-eighteenth centuries, practitioners of the mathematical sciences and garden and landscape designers shared the conviction that nature could be controlled and manipulate, and the methods used and the knowledge acquired in the mathematical sciences opened up new ways to do this” (Remmert 9). Moreover, observations of basic processes also facilitated the development of scientific thought: for instance, Isaac Newton’s discovery of universal gravitation was based on the observation of things falling to the ground. Keynes confirms that, for Newton, “experiments were always […] a means, not of discovery, but always of verifying what he knew already” (2).
Despite the promotion of knowledge among the European populations, science and higher scientific education remained predominantly occupied by upper-classmen. This was caused primarily by the strict gender roles that were in place in that period and the overall perception of women as inferior (Intemann). Nevertheless, a lack of gender diversity also opened opportunities for bias: contextual values, as Intemann notes, could lead people to justify one theory over the other. For example, the early theory of evolution involved observations that the authors used to argue for the inferiority of women, but as the scientific development continued, these claims were proven unjustified.
Conclusion: Modern Science vs. Early Modern Science
Making a comparison between early modern thought and contemporary science, it is impossible not to note some substantial differences. For example, the rise of feminism provided for equal treatment of women and men in scientific institutions, whereas the discoveries and innovations are no longer revolutionary, but rather based on the previous knowledge to reach further development. However, many aspects of science remained the same. For instance, most of today’s scientific work is experimental: a method of trial and error is employed in all areas of science, from computational to medical. Until the new technology goes through the necessary tests, it will not be allowed onto the market.
Furthermore, even though the improvement of technology gave us a practical possibility to explore other planets and the universe, a lot of scientists are still working to find a way of combatting the issues we face on an everyday basis, such as illnesses, environmental contamination, and so on. Finally, higher education institutions are still the primary sites for obtaining and promoting scientific knowledge, and it is almost impossible to become a scientist unless you complete a university-level degree. Looking at the description of early modern science was an exciting experience that allowed me to see the huge progress made by the scientists over the last centuries, while at the same time highlighting that some of the aspects of science and knowledge are unchanging.
Feingold, Mordechai, and Victor Navarro-Brotons. Universities and Science in the Early Modern Period. Springer Science & Business Media, 2006.
Galilei, Galileo. “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.” The Essential Galileo, edited by Maurice A. Finocchiaro, Hackett Publishing Company, 2008, pp. 109-145.
Hooke, Robert. Micrographia: Or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon, n.p., 1667.
Intemann, Kristen. “Feminism, Underdetermination, and Values in Science.” Philosophy of Science, vol. 72, no. 5, 2005, pp. 1001-1012.
Keynes, John Maynard. “Newton, the Man.” University of St. Andrews, 2006, Web.
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Remmert, Volker R. “The Art of Garden and Landscape Design and the Mathematical Sciences in the Early Modern Period.” Gardens, Knowledge and the Sciences in the Early Modern Period, edited by Hubertus Fischer, Volker R. Remmert, and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, Birkhäuser, 2016, pp. 9-28.
Shapin, Steven. “The House of Experiment in Seventeenth-Century England.” Isis, vol. 79, no. 3, 1988, pp. 373-404.