University of toronto| Empiricism of Scientific Societies in the 17th Century: Intellectual, Social and Cultural Impact| HPS210 | Dr. Christopoulos| | Written by: Jinyao Wang| 6/8/2010| | In his most famous memoir, Sir Isaac Newton said he was just a boy playing on the seashore, while the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before him. Despite his humble words, no century has reflected as much spontaneous scientific development as the seventeenth century.
Scientific societies across Europe were indispensable in promoting scientific advancement. These societies provided scientists with a voice to project their innovations, increase engagement and cooperation in science and technology, and provide financial support for future experiments and publications. The very framework of scientific discovery and empirical methods was re-invented, forming the backbone of science we see today. Scientists, professors and artists encouraged the use of observation to find fundamental truths in life.
Thus a paradigm shift towards empiricism was fuelled by the earliest forms of organized scientific academies, such as the Accademia del Cimento of Florence and the Royal Society of London. As a result, intellectually-oriented experimentation developed and quickly gained speed as a renowned technique for analyzing new knowledge. Profound changes also took place in all levels of society. These fundamental changes were reflected in culture and principles that permeated throughout the century, taking the raw level of enthusiasm and interest for science to unprecedented levels.
Scientific societies across Europe were the most influential institution in emphasizing empiricism to the intellectual scene. This newfound emphasis was a profound change from the learning strategy found in traditional universities, where knowledge was passed down from the ancient authority to the students. To master the University’s curriculum, one must read, question and analyze the works of Aristotle and other authoritative natural philosophers. However, the analytical and disputative form of learning was largely abandoned in scientific societies throughout the seventeenth century.
Instead, societies cultivated questions from observation, and sought answers through experimentation with vigorously tested instruments, rather than (whatever technique was used before). In Italy, many scientists were pioneers of this experimental culture. It is no surprise that the Accademia del Cimento of Florence was formed in 1657 with the motto “Probando e reprobando”. This meant that the organization desired all efforts to be concentrated upon experimentation, creation of instruments, and establishments of standards of measurement and exact methods of research.
Its emblem was represented by ‘a lynx with upturned eyes tearing a Cyberus with its claws’, symbolizing the struggle between science and ignorance. Cimento was very influential in its short ten years of existence. Nine scientists contributed towards the elaboration of instruments, acquisition of empirical skills, and determination of fundamental truths. It brought experimental expertise to the intellectual landscape by producing a ‘Laboratory Manual’, truly living up to the meaning of Cimento – to experiment.
The model of the Cimento society was revolutionary in the scientific community due to the fact that efforts were so united. The accumulated work of the nine scientists was published as if it were from a single author. Their final publication, Saggi di naturali esperienza fatte nell Accademia del Cimento, illustrated the ten years of the academy’s lifetime. It detailed the society trying new methods, persisting when efforts failed, and heeding to details where previously ignored. Most importantly, Saggi encouraged the intellectual world to adhere to the principles of inquiry through experiment, and never through sheer speculation.
The pioneers at the Accademia del Cimento became the model of and inspiration of other learned societies in Europe. After the termination of the Cimento society of Italy, the shift towards empiricism in the intellectual community was punctuated by the Royal Society of England from the middle towards the end of the seventeenth century. The society was founded by Royal charter; however it was only royal in name. Comprised of diverse men interested in all matters of life, the Royal Society welcomed a wide branch of professions such as businessmen, divines, scholars, physicians and amateurs.
The royal society built upon the traditions of the Accademia del Cimento of invention and improvement of instruments. For instance, Dr. Robert Hooke improved the telescope and devised a spring for watches during his tenure as curator of experiments. The society emphasized experiments as was done by its extinct Italian counterpart. Still, it revolutionized the intellectual landscape by introducing the most influential scientific periodical in Europe, one that was destined to last to the present time: Philosophical Transactions.
Initially started as a private venture by the society’s secretary Henry Oldenburg, Philosophical Transactions was designated as a monthly journal published to show the most important matters which the members of the society or foreign scientists, as communicated to the Secretary. It became a comprehensive encyclopaedia of scientific progress and discussion. Upon Oldenburg`s death, Dr. Nehemiah Grew, the succeeding secretary was quoted in a memoir: “If all the books in the world except the Philosophical Transactions were destroyed, it is safe to say that the foundations of physical science would remain unshaken. Every important experiment and article was communicated to the publisher almost as soon as it was published. With the publication of Transactions, the Royal Society transcended its political borders and resembled more of an international body. It effectively established unprecedented scientific communication in Europe. Copies were published in Latin in Frankfurt and Amsterdam both in 1671, cementing its influential place in academia.
The contents of the publication were truly reflective of what has become the consensus course of scientific discovery over the next three centuries. New hypotheses were broadcast; plans for initiating research were made public; experimental results were compiled; recent scientific works were critically reviewed. With the publication, what is now known as the Scientific Method was advocated to intellectual institutions worldwide. Additionally, protection of ongoing inventions from the Society further encouraged the original research of its Fellows.
Secretary Mr. Oldenburg declared “When any notion or invention not yet made out, and desire proper authorship, the invention should be sealed in a box to be deposited with a secretary till perfected. ” This allowed better security of inventions to their proper author, as well as ensuring cooperation between experts researching in the same field. The open dialogue created from the publication spurred scientific progress like no other. As the historian of the Society Thomas Sprat puts it: “…in Assemblies, the Wits of most men are sharper, their
Apprehensions readier, their Thoughts fuller, than in their Closets. ” From the legacy of the Accademia del Cimento of Florence to the development of the Royal Society of England, we have seen a group of experimenters and science-loving amateurs – hardly helped by royalty – creating organizations where new science could be fostered. We have seen a legacy of making and improving instruments; experimenting along varied lines of research; establishing the first de facto international scientific publication; encouraging innovative research by publishing new works.
Through the efforts of scientific societies throughout the seventeenth century, it became clear that a new scientific era had risen. The scholastic approach of learning based on disputation was supplanted by an empirical approach based on observation. Not surprisingly, the fundamental shift in ideology was soon felt, not only in the intellectual communities, but in the echelons of society as well. The great age of discovery that is the seventeenth century came about from the emphasis on inquiry and observation.
It manifested in remarkable intellectual achievements through empirical principles. The encouraging signs of success of scientific societies caused people to apply reason and empirical thinking in society – most noticeably in religious politics, government and social class. Religious politics was affected, at times bothered, by the works and influence of scientists. Before the creation of scientific societies, the church was an intimidating presence for natural philosophers. The intellectual atmosphere was tense in Italy after the church`s trial of the great astronomical virtuoso Galileo.
Galileo`s trial with the Church is a case that examines religious politics prior to the creation of notable scientific societies. Galileo`s pamphlets on sunspots won him remarkable praises from Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who was a great intellectual and a personal friend. Confident in discussing his work’s contradictions with the Bible, Galileo released the pamphlet Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, which contained the following passage: Let us grant, then, that Theology is conversant with the loftiest divine contemplation, and occupies the regal throne among the sciences by this dignity.
By acquiring the highest authority in this way, if she does not descend to the lower and humbler speculations of the subordinate sciences, and has no regard for them because they are not concerned with blessedness, then her professors should not arrogate to themselves the authority to decide on controversies in professions which they have neither studied no practiced. The passage shows a defiant attitude towards the religious institution. However Galileo’s intention was not to challenge the authorities, but to overcome theological objections to the Copernican system through observation and reasoning.
His sensible arguments had the opposite effect, and brought the Inquisition that banned everyone from defending the heliocentric system. The church’s decision shows that society has not adjusted to the revolutionary changes in astronomy. Despite being blessed by the Cardinal for his discoveries on sunspots, society was simply not ready for intellectual disputes that were based on observations and experimentation. This had a chilling effect on the scientific atmosphere in Italy. Even with the creation of the Accademia del Cimento, its member scientists only confined their efforts towards instrumentation and experimental work.
Discovery of facts was far less dangerous than drawing conclusions from them. Galileo’s struggle with religious politics demonstrated the steep hill scientists had to climb to gain a platform for the discussion of new ideas. As scientific societies became more influential later on, discussions of new knowledge were far more acceptable and even encouraged. Science gained esteem in society after the Royal Society became influential in the intellectual realm. This was evident in the middle of the century, where science became more ‘approved’ by the government.
Empirical approach to discovery permeated throughout government. In Britain, Charles II led the example with his interest in chemistry and navigation. Sir Matthew Hale and Lord Keeper Guilford tended to hydrostatics problems. Even though the interest of these worthies contributed little directly to scientific development, it was highly important as a symbolic representation of the social esteem and enhanced value attributed to scientific inquiry. Thanks to the contribution of scientific societies, government’s stance on science was far more tolerant than the Church half a century earlier.
Apart from its profound effects on the stance of political bodies, new wealth was created through application of empirical techniques to industries. While a large-scale industrial revolution did not occur, the century did see extensive world trade both in England and the Netherlands. As a result of wealth created from market and trade, a new middle class was born. These members of the commercial middle class had virtues of industriousness, common sense and realism that went hand in hand with the rise of experimental science, which required the same virtues for its success.
The rise in wealth and power of the middle class was reflected in the political power achieved by the House of Commons in England towards the middle of the century. With the execution of Charles I, England’s middle class demonstrated that Parliament could execute or depose any monarch who tried to rule without consent. The middle class’ rejection of authoritative orthodoxy changed the old structure of society, much like the way empirical inquiry replaced revered knowledge from Antiquity. Scientific societies of Europe played a direct role in gradually improving society’s reception to new knowledge.
The intellectual atmosphere at the end of the seventeenth century was remarkably more fertile than that of the Galileo era. Profound change in attitudes and structure of class and society over a single century is truly a testament to the overall influence of scientific societies. The culture of the seventeenth century was fertile for scientific growth, even more so in the second half of the period. Numerous aspects of European culture reflected the values and principles of the scientific societies. As empiricism gained social esteem in all levels of society, forms of art became relevant to illustrate this phenomenon.
After the English Restoration in 1660, interaction between English and other European artists became more prominent. It was similar to the widespread intellectual dialogue between the Royal Society and other talented European scientists. This increased the prestige associated with the field of arts, and inspired the blossom of new genres within. The descriptive essay was introduced in the seventeenth century, likely as a result of the influence of scientific periodicals. The new form of writing drew from observations and perception from experiences in life, just as the journals illustrated the observations of scientific experience.
The goal of the descriptive essay was to communicate the author’s record of the topic, with a specific purpose and comprehensive details. This was closely shared with the aim of a given document found in the journal Philosophical Transactions. Similarly, realistic painting gained a revival of interest from European royalty and art connoisseurs. The principles shared by scientific societies have clearly penetrated through the fabrics of artistic culture. The interest of young people in scientific pursuits serves as another showcase of influence from the learned societies.
Although universities remained mostly outside of the stream of scientific development during this period, they reflected the interest of the current and future generation nonetheless. The initial five professorships established at Oxford and Cambridge in 1546 were as follows: Divinity, Hebrew, Greek, Civil Law, and Medicine. Out of the five professorships, Medicine was the only field that had contact with science. In the seventeenth century however, professorship in the following field were added at Oxford and Cambridge: Geometry (1619), Natural Philosophy (1621), Astronomy (1621), Mathematics (1663) and Botany (1669).
The shift of interest from classical studies to science was lamented by Isaac Borrow as he served his position as Professor of Greek at Cambridge: “I sit lonesome as an Attic owl, who has been thrust out of the companionship of all other birds; while classes in Natural Philosophy are full. ” . Borrow soon left the position and accepted the newly established Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, soon becoming the mentor and predecessor of Sir Isaac Newton. As the populace showed fervent interest in science, natural philosophy was slowly being divided between humanities and sciences.
More importantly, the decline in enrolment in traditional subjects such as Greek and Hebrew shows a telling popularity trend and a transition from ‘Aristotelian science’ to ‘Newtonian science’. Overall, it is seen in the seventeenth century society and culture was increasingly reflective of the principles found in the scientific societies across Europe. Expression itself began to have roots in empiricism, spawning new forms genres such as the descriptive essay, as well as reviving interest in realistic painting.
Youth pursuit in the sciences at universities caused the impetus to introduce chairs into the various sciences in universities. Fundamentally, the inspiration behind the cultural shift was drawn from none other than the distinguished scientific societies. From Galileo to Newton, the seventeenth century was a magnificent stage for scientific virtuosos. Even more profound than the groundbreaking discoveries was the empirical framework that guided every step of their development. Scientists were required to draw proofs from their experience in terms of the approved canons of scientific verification present in society.
In a testament to its powerful influence, the early model of empirical discovery in these scientific societies still remains the accepted method of inquiry. In addition, the underlying principles behind the scientific advancement in this era sparked an emphasis on observation in not only intellectual circles, but in all levels of society, as the middle class sought justification for injustice and negligence from their rulers. The powerful winds of change brought by the scientific societies also permeated throughout culture, where empirical forms of expression gained popularity.
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