The first lecture of the Continuing Revolutions seminar was about “The Scientific Revolution”, by Dan Cohen. The main idea of the lecture was actually proof-checking whether that event that we so proudly call the scientific revolution was that special after all. In order to answer this question we primarily have to actually be sure we know what do we mean by the term revolution. Revolution represents a sudden radical change in absolutely new direction that affects an enormous number of people who are not interconnected. Now, what Cohen successfully explains in his lecture is that we should not take things we hear for granted, but question them, not for the sake of the argument or just to spite the others, but in order to check if a certain statement is true or not. Even John Stuart Mill has come to this conclusion in his book “On Liberty”. He states that if something that is taken as a truth is not questioned or is protected from questioning, it becomes a dead dogma where the truth actually loses its strength because the ones who believe in it, believe in it without actually understanding why they think that is truth. It is important to notice that here we do not talk about the revolutions that might exist on the personal level and whether they can actually be called revolutions, as that is a completely different discussion.
So, was “The scientific revolution” the, scientific or revolutionary?
As it was shown during the lecture, many scientific parts of this revolution were not exactly that scientific. The scientists of that time had many bigot perspectives and have actually not made any experiments (something essential to any scientific process), but just tried to support the hypothesis they had in any possible way. They actually even ridiculed the scientist who, as we can see now, were right the whole time. That was the time when it was more important who you were and who supports than what you were saying. Continuing further, we can see that there were many different events in our history that can be seen as more important for the scientific community than the one we call “The one”. The difference does exist between them: Only The revolution took place in the western world, while when the major mathematic discoveries were created together with incredible advances in medicine much before this revolution in Arabic world, for example, nobody even thought of calling that “The one”. Following this argument, one can say that The scientific revolution was not even that revolutionary, as some of the things were only rediscovered by the western scientists – in other parts of the world knowledgable people knew about those things long time before that.
Nevertheless, The scientific revolution was definitely an important time in the history of mankind, but was not necessarily the only time when changes of that kind were made, or when the changes of that size were made. The truth is, however, that the history is written by the winners and we all know who colonized the rest of the world – white male christian western European. Thus, what these people have considered to be the most important remained written in the history books that we read now as the most important, even though it did not have to be. Hopefully, we learned from that and are ready now to appreciate revolutions wherever they are, just for the sake of their utility and impact.
Professor Cohen’s lecture began with an interesting definition about exploration of ideas explaining humanity’s relation to our planet. Basically he states that science is about exploring the cosmos in order unfold the essence of us. He believes that all people desire to know more about our purpose on earth through understanding more about our earth and how our existence affects our earth. Now I thought this was an interesting way to begin a talk on the scientific revolution because usually professors who discuss this period talk about the production of knowledge and how these developments are the crux of advancing knowledge. While important, I believe this idea of exploring the cosmos in order to unfold the essence of humans really allows us to understand whether the Scientific Revolution of 16th century is truly a revolution or merely evolution. What I will argue is this period does not mark a period of revolution in our view of the cosmos, and that I believe it merely an evolution in the depth that we explore the cosmos.
The main reason I believe the Scientific Revolution to be merely an evolution of ways that we explore the cosmos is that much of the empiricism that was supposedly revolutionary developed out of Greek, Indian, and Islamic discoveries. Specifically, thinkers like Ibn al-Haytham developed a system of empiricism that many European scientist and mathematicians were noted as being the pioneers of, such as the development of hypotheses. This is important because this empiricism has been articulated as being the fundamental reason for Europe’s superior advancement at this period. But as you can see that assertion actually a historical misconception that does not give credibility to the legacy it developed from. Further, many of the hypotheses that developed and were seen as changing our view of the cosmos were often later disproved and or merely developed in Europe at the time and were believed in other parts of the world earlier. Views, such as heliocentrism that were supposedly discovered by the European intellect Corpernicus, who developed a system of astronomy that we note as giving us our view toward Earth’s rotation, seasons, and the understanding that we revolve around the sun. However, this view does not give proper due to previous thinkers hundreds of years before such as al-Buruni who discovered the notion of heliocentrism in Iran. This is important because this apparent new understanding about our relation to the cosmos is seen as a large reason for this period being revolutionary but it merely discredits non-European thinkers and doesn’t articulate the discovery for what it is, an evolution on inherited theories.
Overall, it is apparent that although the period of the Scientific Revolution marks a deeper understanding and development of empirical study about the cosmos in the European tradition it does not mark a revolution in how the whole world explored the and understood cosmos. Merely, this period marked an evolution in the understanding that European intellectuals had about our earth and the world around us.
One of the primary questions for this class is, “What constitutes a revolution?” I would like to take this question a step further by asking, “Who gets to say what constitutes a revolution?” Professor Cohen had the slides at the ready, prepped for the inevitable questioning of the Eurocentrism of his presentation. While he may have minutely quelled the intrigue, the question remains: Who gets to say what constitutes a revolution? What revolutions do we teach and who are the leaders of said revolution? Professor Cohen resolved that what really came from the Scientific Revolution was “a revolutionary metaphor,” and he admitted that “winners get to write history,” but with this reflection, do we not have the control over how we get to teach history? Why allow the non White Christian men to be sidelined when there is the potential to center them? As we delve into the question of “What is a revolution?” I think it is only proper to examine the current Academy’s potential for revolutionary acts of pedagogy. Will we revolve around the Eurocentric pedagogical approach, or will we revolt against the continual erasure of Othered thinkers?
In my examination of revolutions, identity, pedagogy, and power in this presentation, I want to underscore the danger in assuming an “objective body of knowledge” without asking the key questions of “whose revolution?” and “whose world view?” After all, what is modernity and who claims it? Growing up, my education centered the Medieval world view without much acknowledgment of the multiplicities of world views. There continues to be an assumption that the Medieval world view is “our” world view, is the world view; what is more, these assumptions birth ethnocentric comments that the “West is the best” and so on. I believe Professor Cohen subtly highlighted these assumptions as he spoke of the attempts to overthrow Aristotle. In this dissection, it is clear the intellectual hierarchies as Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo sought to become the “great authority.” They presented what they believed to be “objective bodies of knowledge.” Moreover, as we think about the ways power shaped the Scientific Revolution and our perception of it, I would like to point out the Biblical underpinnings of Professor Cohen’s presentation. As Professor Cohen articulated, we speak of the Scientific Revolution as if it is unique–like a creation story. It serves as this period of 1572-1704 in which we often think of the current dominant understanding of how the world works to be invented, and thus the inventors or creators of these stories become a prophet. Newton is Adam. These great authorities deliver the laws, as if some greater force thrust the knowledge (and thus the power) onto them.
Yet, if what Professor Cohen is true–that the fundamental background came from Pagans, Jews, and Muslims–then when are we going to dismantle the creation story as it stands? When are we going to give credit where credit is due? And why are we still upholding hierarchical historic academia when we have the potential and the capacity to at least question the benefits of giving and seeking “great authority” because of academic discovery? Ultimately, as we study the Scientific Revolution I find it helpful and important work to think about the revolutions that have not happened. Those that are imbedded in the creation stories, the scientific stories, the exclusionary stories. Those that have the potential to be, to create new metaphors and new meanings, if only we are willing to admit that none of us exist in a vacuum, and to use the term a “great authority” may be neglectful of all the collaboration and creation inherit in knowledge making.