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17th Century Scientific Revolution in the Unfolding of the Age of Enlightenment

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The Scientific Revolution inspired and “jumpstarted” the Enlightenment.  It could be argued that the Scientific Revolution itself started far earlier than the 17th Century.  Perhaps it started with Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus written in 1267, but not published for mass consumption until 1733, in which the good friar describes the scientific method of experimentation1 or perhaps it started with William of Ockham in the 14th Century, in that he helped “blaze a path . . . of logic and natural philosophy uninhibited by faith.”2  Regardless of when it started, the primary influence of the Scientific Revolution on the Enlightenment was: “. . . not a fixed set of beliefs but a way of thinking, a critical approach . . . for constructive thought and action.”3 

Trailblazers of the Scientific Revolution were consumed not just with discovering the workings of nature through observation and experimentation but also with explaining them through describing general natural laws.  Take, for example, the science of astronomy that with the observations and discoveries of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler finally managed to escape the dead hand of Aristotle and Ptolemy.  Kepler took Brahe’s observations and using careful mathematical calculations discovered and published his “Laws of Planetary Motion”.4 

The ultimate expression of humanity discovering and then expressing newly found laws of nature during the Scientific Revolution was Sir Isaac Newton’s “Laws of Motion.”  Newton, it can be fairly said, created the science of Physics with the publication of his Principia Mathe-matica in 1687.5   He also made seminal contributions to the science of optics, including inventing the reflecting telescope and he, along with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, invented Calculus.6  

Some philosophers, seeing these and earlier discoveries, attempted to apply these kinds of natural and immutable laws to human behavior and human institutions.7  Perhaps the first of these was Thomas Hobbes.  Even though he died eight years before the publication of the Principia Mathematica, Hobbes believed that politics and government were subject to laws as clear, true and demonstrable as those of motion.  Hobbes laid out this concept in his great work; Leviathan published in 1651.8  

Advancing from the ideas of Hobbes and Newton, as Peter Gay puts it; “the philosophes celebrated the Scientific Revolution, accepted its findings, and imitated its methods.” 9 The imitation of method consisted of applying, as Hobbes did, the paradigm that there were natural and uncontestable laws that were applicable to humans and their works.  That is to say that the social sciences such as political science, economics and history were subject to laws, just as the natural sciences, like physics and astronomy, were subject to such laws.  In short, the Enlightenment thinkers believed the scientific method could be used to “understand all life.” 10

In the area of government and politics, John Locke followed Hobbes in an attempt to apply natural laws to those institutions. Locke’s primary idea is laid out in his An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government, which is that all human are born with the natural rights to life, liberty and property.11 Both Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau reached a social contract theory of government by extrapolating from these laws.  Of course, Locke, Rousseau and Hobbes each reached different conclusions regarding the natural rights of men and the social contract.12  Further, and perhaps most telling on the scientific veracity of the social contract theory was the vigorous historical criticism of the theory by David Hume.13

Adam Smith’s great work on economics, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, was not “self-consciously scientific”.  But still, The Wealth of Nations was Smith’s attempt to observe and theorize about economics as never before and to place economic activity in a context of fixed principles and to extrapolate economic laws from those principles.  In short, Smith’s work represented the “dawn of a science”, not its climax.  After all, it wasn’t until 1803 that the term “the science of political economy” was used in the English language, even though the term “economics” had entered French some ten years before Smith published his master work.14

History, as a philosophical and literary endeavor was also “becoming one of the sciences of man, less precise than the physical sciences, perhaps, but no less scientific for all that.”15  History, as a field of study, certainly was important to many of the philosophes.  For example, Hume was better known in his own day as a historian than as a philosopher16  and his historical writings certainly paid better than his philosophical ones.17  Voltaire was a historian as well.18 History was largely made into a science by the Enlightenment writers through their insistence on seeking accuracy, finding and using authentic sources and seeking “cause and effect” in history.19  This is just as the natural scientist seeks “cause and effect” in the natural world.  The best and most well known example of this is Gibbon’s masterwork, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which represents a very real attempt to rationalize historical inquiry and, as a true classic, escapes the bounds of its own time and is still read and cited today.20

Using Hume’s famous passages: “It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men. . .” and that “the same motives always produce the same actions”21 as a starting point, it may be fairly said that the philosphes created the science of psychology.22 While not giving it the name, the Enlightenment writers invented the science of sociology as well, with Montesquieu as its first and greatest Enlightenment practitioner.  In these new social sciences the philosphes were trying to move from “statement of facts to general laws” and “imposes quantitative methods on qualitative experience”, all in an attempt to exchange “rational theory for guessing”.23

In conclusion, the primary issue that the Enlightenment, as a movement, had in the goal of finding and applying some kinds of immutable laws to human nature is demonstrated by the fact that the philosphes reached many different conclusions regarding government, history and the other social sciences.  If there were a set of absolute laws of human nature, as there are a set of absolute laws of the physical world, then no different conclusions could be possibly.  There would be one clear and correct answer.  However, these disagreements did not stop the Enlightenment philosophers from trying.  Perhaps the last word on how Scientific Revolution inspired the Enlightenment may be left to David Hume: “Even, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of MAN; since the lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties.”24 

1Robert Belle Burke, Introduction to The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon, Volume 1 by Roger Bacon, (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2002), xiii.

2Judith M Bennett and C Warren Hollister Medieval Europe: A Short History 10th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill co., 2006), 380.

3Thomas Hankins, Science and the Enlightenment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 2.

4James R. Jacob, The Scientific Revolution: Aspirations and Achievements, 1500-1700 (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999), 41-45.

5J. G. Crowther, The Social Relations of Science, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941), 433.

6Jacob, The Scientific Revolution, 127.

7Abraham S. Luchins and Edith H. Luchins, Revisiting Wertheimer's Seminars, Volume 1: Values, Social Influence and Power, (Canbury, NJ: Associated University Press, Inc., 1978), 33-34.

8Jacob, The Scientific Revolution, 97.

9 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1969), 126.

10 Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Since 1500, 7th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2009), 510.

11 John Locke, An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government , sec. 87 (1696), (accessed 24 June, 2010)

12 Christopher W. Morris, Introduction to The Social Contract Theorists: Critical Essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, (Lanham, MD: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 1999), ix-x.

13 David Hume, Of The Original Contract, (1748), origcont.htm  (accessed 24 June, 2010)

14 Jacob H. Hollander, “Adam Smith, 1776-1926”, The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 35(2) (April 1927): 61-62, (accessed 24 June, 2010)

 15 Gay, The Enlightenment, 378.

 16 John A. Taylor, British Monarchy, English Church Establishment and Civil Liberty, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 48.

17 Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge: from Gutenberg to Diderot, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2002), 166. 

18 Gay, The Enlightenment, 374.

19 Ibid., 375 - 386

20 Ibid., 317

21 David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, section VIII,  (1740) (accessed 24 June, 2010)

22 Gay, The Enlightenment, 167.

 23 Ibid., 323.

 24 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Introduction, (1740) http://www.gutenberg. org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm#2H_INTR (accessed 24 June, 2010)

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