How scientific was the Scientific Revolution? Was it scientific at all, was it even a revolution, or was it just a period sometime in the 16th and 17th centuries that has been given a name for the sake of naming? Of course, such a subjective question has an equally subjective answer, however there are a number of factors to take into account when exploring the answer. Was it a transitionary period, or one marked by a single effect? Was it riddled with philosophical confusion that has carried through the 21st century? Why are we still discussing it today? The endless list of questions nevertheless marks an important period in global history, worthy of examination by all who study it.
Basil Willey has been quoted claiming that the 17th century began with medieval and modern society, but ended with a triumph of the modern. However, it’s important to address here that by “modern,” Willey is actually pointing to the definition of classical. Again, riddled with subjectivity (“what do medieval and modern respectively entail?”), Willey’s claim also matches the philosophical shift that occurred so notably. Although predating the Scientific Revolution a significant number of years, Aristotle’s “seemingly-outlandish-outlook-at-his-time” viewpoint reflected one of continuous learning and growth – the same perspective that marked the shift in thinking representative of the Scientific Revolution. “All people by nature desire to know,” said Aristotle, a thought process reflected with the Scientific Revolution’s shift to a more experimentally based culture. Other factors labeling the shift such as science being defined as “mathematically precise,” and a radical break from the “medieval mind” question the very fact that many of the “revolutionary” changes during the Scientific Revolution weren’t in fact scientific at all, and many of the scientific discoveries weren’t much of a revolution. We can further question the definition of “scientific” and “revolution” by looking at such feats in modern times. A number of “non-scientific changes” which occurred during the Scientific Revolution are unlikely to be recognized as “non-scientific” now, though David Wootton is credited with stating that “Modern Science” was invented in 1572-1704. Would the science that was considered to be modern at the time, be considered modern now? Should we change what is called “The Scientific Revolution” to “A Scientific Revolution?” We must look at the feats and global transformations of the 16th and 17th centuries relatively, for it is truly impossible to define and compare “modern science” or even “modern revolutions” with those considered great in our past.