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The best books on The Scientific Revolution

recommended by Vera Keller

The Interlopers: Early Stuart Projects and the Undisciplining of Knowledge by Vera Keller


The Interlopers: Early Stuart Projects and the Undisciplining of Knowledge
by Vera Keller


The scientific revolution is often seen as having transformed the way we think and ushered in the modern world, but in highlighting the work of a few key individuals, it has distorted the reality of how science advances in society and how it interacts with truth. Here, Vera Keller, Professor of History at the University of Oregon, challenges popularly held assumptions about the scientific revolution and explains how its meaning, significance and importance have been disputed and misunderstood.

Interview by Benedict King

The Interlopers: Early Stuart Projects and the Undisciplining of Knowledge by Vera Keller


The Interlopers: Early Stuart Projects and the Undisciplining of Knowledge
by Vera Keller

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Before we get into your five books, would you be able to recommend a brief, general introduction to the scientific revolution?

Yes, The Scientific Revolution by Steven Schapin would serve that purpose very well.

Thanks. When we first contacted you about doing this interview, you expressed discomfort with the whole idea of a ‘scientific revolution’. Are you unhappy because, although you think there was a revolution, you’re not sure it was scientific in some way? Or is it that there was something scientific going on, but you don’t think it was revolutionary?

The pendulum has swung back and forth on this question over the past century. I am actually coming round to the concept of the scientific revolution but that’s now actually a radical position within the history of science. Let me explain how the pendulum swung this way and that way, and how I’m swinging back again.

First of all, I should mention that there’s a huge disconnect between the current state of the research field among historians of science and the way the scientific revolution is taught in education, even in college classes, and by historians who aren’t historians of science. Our view of this event or non-event is really different from the popular perception, or even the educated perception of it outside this domain of the history of science. That’s been the result of developments in the history of science that were fairly political, starting in the mid-20th century. A number of books have examined the politics of the concept of the scientific revolution.

It goes back to the Cold War. On the one side, you had the US, and on the other side, the USSR. Both of them strongly believed in the power of science and technology but they developed really different views of what science means, how it relates to society and how modern science developed. In the US, we had a concept of the scientific revolution being propounded by various historians and philosophers of science. The key figure among them was a French-Russian emigre, Alexander Koyré, who studied figures like Copernicus and Galileo. For very political reasons, as has now been revealed, historians of science based in the US promulgated a certain view of the scientific revolution—which is still the commonly held view—that there was a sudden, intellectual revolution purely driven by genius scientists that was very separate from the rest of society.  That, in a nutshell, is still what is understood by ‘scientific revolution’ in the popular imagination.

“Is it just genius scientists that get credit? Or should we give credit to more varied populations of people”

On the other side, you had communist historians of science, arguing that science is not separate from society and that economic factors, as well as workers and craftsmen, were behind scientific ideas. So, there is this very clear ideological opposition between the two views in relation to what science was and what happened in early modernity. One of them saw science as separate from the world. The other looks at science as part of society, linking it to economic concerns, profit-making and seeing many, many more hands involved in a slower process of change.

Towards the end of the Cold War, American historians started embracing some of the views that had been espoused by communist historians of science since the early 20th century. They started pointing to artisans’ and workers’ involvement in science and the involvement of much broader social phenomena. All the books on my list—which are from the 1980s and 1990s—are part of that trend. None of them has the term ‘scientific revolution’ in the title. Instead, they trace a much more multivocal, slower developing, complex process, and not just a purely intellectual change. They represent the pendulum swinging away from the ‘scientific revolution’. That’s the state of the art where we are now, several decades later. We’ve been painting these pictures of more complex views of change and really shuddering at the notion of scientific revolution for 40 years now because it smacks so much of that Cold War idea.

So why are you now swinging in the other direction?

Both sides of the Cold War debate over science shared a normative view of science, meaning they thought science was a good thing, and they argued over who should enjoy the credit for it. Is it just genius scientists that get credit? Or should we give credit to more varied populations of people making this thing called science? In my work, on the other hand, I’ve been looking at fully embracing this idea that if science is a part of history, it is also a part of society’s darkest sides, including the inextricably interested and often corrupt human activities that take place within science and that have caused a lot of harm in our world.

For me, it doesn’t make sense to have a fight about who takes credit for that, but it does make sense to stress what some of the big systematic changes were in which science was involved. Who were some of these agents that did things like entangle science and colonialism, for example? That’s where I am in my scholarship right now. Carolyn Merchant, (whom I didn’t put on this list, but is another really admirable academic and definitely an independent thinker—although I don’t agree with all of her ideas) criticizes the move away from the concept of the scientific revolution, particularly because she lays a lot of blame for environmental degradation, climate change, and colonialism at the door of science.

And racial differentiation…

Exactly. And misogyny. So she says that edging away from this concept of the scientific revolution is a way to edge away from accepting responsibility for some of science’s ills.

Let’s move on to the books. First up is Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park’s Wonder and the Order of Nature 1150-1750. That’s quite a chronological sweep. Tell us a bit about what this book addresses and why you chose it.

The long sweep is incredibly remarkable. It’s co-authored by a medievalist and an 18th-century specialist. It’s very rare for a co-authored book to be as seamless and successful as this has been. They were able to cover 600 years of history, which no one can do on their own. That speaks to this idea that the scientific revolution wasn’t this one-and-done sudden transformation in the 17th century. They’re able to talk about phenomena stretching across 600 years, and so tell a very well-researched story, very, very convincingly over a much longer timeframe.

What they do in this book is look at phenomena that would have been totally ignored in prior visions of the scientific revolution because they’re creepy and weird. They look at monsters and curiosity cabinets and ask what the intellectual role of these was and what they said about changing views of nature. They have a very convincing argument. They take these phenomena that seem marginal to science, marginal to society—like two-headed calves—and make a very convincing argument about how they’re absolutely essential to changing views about how nature operates, and how it should be studied. It’s one of the really admirable books out there.

Is there some very fundamental and easily captured way that they identify how thinking changed over that period of time?

Yes. In general, what all of these books do is challenge the Cold War idea that science meant new certainty, scientific method, new systems. They emphasize that, in fact, what changed in early modernity was, in large part, a rejection of a search for absolute truth, which had been what philosophy had always been about since antiquity. The shift was to a focus on studying changing cases and thinking about things more in probabilistic terms, understanding that change occurs over time. One thing that Daston and Park argue that is very persuasive is that the role of monsters was to show that a-priori systems of understanding of how nature works can’t explain away monsters. That’s what makes them monsters, that they appear suddenly, they’re not the way nature is supposed to work. And then what do you do with them?

So, the focus on monsters was a way to undercut the entire system and say, ‘this system of knowledge that we inherited from Aristotle just can’t handle the study of all of these phenomena that we can’t fit into any box. That means our boxes are wrong.’ Instead of developing logical systems and organizations of knowledge, we need to look at particular cases, particular monsters, and get our hands on the material and figure out what’s going on here.

Let’s move on to your second book, which is William Eamon’s Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. This is another one that bridges the medieval and the early modern world.

This goes even further back because he traces the genre of the secrets of nature back to antiquity. It’s an incredible work. I teach with it every time I teach early modern science and the fact that it was published in 1994 and still stands up to current research is really impressive.

One of the things that Eamon does is look at how a genre reflects knowledge, that is, he looks at the way that we shape our knowledge through forms of communication. He explores changes in media over time, from antiquity (when these secrets were given to initiates in a cave) to early modernity after the invention of print, which gives rise to a flourishing print market for these ‘how-to’ books. Looking at the media of knowledge, and the way that the media affects science, again, speaks to this turn away from the purely intellectual conception of the scientific revolution. It’s not just about how good your internal scientific ideas are, but how other phenomena related to wider social change can change knowledge—for example, conceptions of secrecy and publicity—and who has access to knowledge and how knowledge is pursued.

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The really interesting thing about secrets—and there’s been a really vibrant research into the related genre of recipes in the past couple of decades—is that secrets are associated with mystical, occult, ancient lore. But at the same time, they’re very practical, everyday, how-to recipes for how to do things.  So in the same flow of knowledge, you’ll get some really far-out recipes, but then also ‘how to take stains out of your clothing’. That was very popular. It meant, especially once print was able to popularize these recipes, that science became something that could be explored in everybody’s household, in your kitchen, as part of that more multivocal and hetero-social view of how experimentalism emerged in early modern science. This is a key book because it takes this very ancient genre, and very convincingly gives a history of its flow, of its changes over time, and shows how through changes in media such as print, a lot more people were able to get involved and to experiment in early modernity, thus contributing to this cultural shift towards experimentalism more broadly.

Let’s move on to the next book, which is Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life by Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin. This is a bit more closely focused, isn’t it?

Yes, much more. This is an incredibly influential book, really, really brilliant. I argue against it in everything I write, which just shows how much I admire it, because I wouldn’t choose to argue with it if I didn’t think it was a great book. Once again, this comes from that rejection of the Cold War view of the scientific revolution.

This is written by a historian of science and a sociologist of science. What they’re doing is trying to look at how social identity and political issues play a role in the types of arguments that people make, and in the way they approach science and, in particular, whether they embrace experimentalism or not. I’ve been choosing all kinds of experimentally related sciences rather than, say mathematical sciences, because that’s been another shift in the way that we think about the scientific revolution. It used to be very much seen as a mathematical and astronomical phenomenon. But there’s been a lot more attention in recent decades paid to the rise of the experimental sciences as one of the big changes.

This book is all about whether you accept experimentalism or reject it, viewed through a social lens. Shapin and Schaffer, like Eamon, draw attention to the media of knowledge. They talk a lot about the genre of the experimental essay, for example, and why it takes the form that it does and how it can be related to a particular social type, the gentleman philosopher of the early Royal Society, and the way that they wish to present their knowledge in a particular social mode that would contrast with, for example, the raging revolutionaries from the Interregnum. They do a great job thinking about science and its relationship to society and the genres of knowledge.

Did Hobbes and Boyle actually correspond on this issue?

Hobbes had a huge fight with the Royal Society about experimentalism. The Royal Society (although they were perhaps more diverse in their approach than is shown in this book), embraced experimentalism as their primary approach. Hobbes wanted to establish a scientific logic that was not based on experiment in the same way. And so that was the kernel of the fight here. Shapin and Schaffer have a sociological view of why they were fighting over this issue.

Was Boyle effectively fighting for the Royal Society position?


Let’s move on to the next one, which is Probability and Certainty in 17th Century England. A Study of the Relationships between Natural Science, Religion, History, Law and Literature by Barbara Shapiro. What’s this one about?

As you can see from the subtitle, it connects so many different topics. It is also part of this historiographic trend—published in 1983, so this is actually the oldest book on this list—bringing in other phenomena from outside the box that we usually think of as science in order to understand fundamental changes in science. Barbara Shapiro wrote several other books and articles on this topic, and this is just one of them. It speaks to two really fundamental realizations about the change that took place in the making of modern science. One is, as I mentioned before, the rejection of this dream of being able to have absolute truth, and the embracing of probability. Because the truly scientific mentality, if you’re an experimental scientist, is that your theory could be wrong. You do this experiment 100 times, but maybe the 101st time you realize you are wrong, and you have to be open to throwing out your theory and embracing an entirely new one. And so that is a shift towards a search for a probabilistic level of certainty. That is the huge shift that took place in the meaning of science. ‘Scientia’ (science) before the modern period, and what Hobbes was fighting for, meant absolute truth, it meant universally true, no exceptions, no monsters, nothing troubling it, you can totally rely on this. And you can prove it beyond any doubt.

“It is a fundamental truth about facts that they’re not about fundamental truths”

But what shifted was the acceptance of the idea that we’re never going to get there and that we have to live with science being probabilistic. We can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, but there are still going to be some doubts. What Barbara Shapiro did is show how that idea about that level of proof comes from legal concepts, such as proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Now we think of facts coming from science, that science is the mother of all facts. Shapiro showed that science, including in the work of figures like Boyle and the Royal Society, borrowed the language of fact from law, that it was in the law court that you’re trying to prove fact. The whole point of fact is that it is something that is done by humans. That’s what fact means (from the Latin word for something ‘done’). You try to prove it according to human testimony, which is never going to be 100% believable. But you try to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s what science still aims at doing right now. That is not only a fundamental change in early modernity, but it is a change that is very different from the popular conception of what the scientific revolution entailed.

It is a fundamental truth about facts that they’re not about fundamental truths. That, I think, is really pressing for the public to be aware of, because one thing that happens when we think of science as producing objective truth that can never be doubted is that when we get an inside peek into how science works, as we just did during the pandemic, and we realize that theories get thrown out all the time and that this is not a perfect process, then we can have a knee-jerk reaction against science. That entirely reverses if we had been educated from elementary school to the understanding that the scientific revolution is not about perfect truth. It’s not about absolute certainty. It’s like justice in the law courts, getting great evidence, putting forward great arguments and trying to get as close as we can. If people understood that, we might not have the same kind of rejection of science.

I’m curious, did that give a fillip to the defence of religion during the same period? There were lots of disputes between Catholicism and Protestantism in its various forms. Was that ‘reasonable belief’ side of the Enlightenment marshalled in support of various religious positions, because then you didn’t have to prove every kind of doctrine completely, but you could recommend it on a reasonable basis over others that might be competing for allegiance? Or was that not part of the story?

That’s a very active realm of research right now (called physico-theology). Going back to Shapin and Schaffer’s book, that was part of their argument about why these Restoration Royal Society gentleman philosophers wanted to present themselves in this kind of tentative manner and not make dogmatic statements. They argue that gentlemen philosophers limited themselves to natural philosophy and avoided delving into religious and political issues in part as a response to the violence and social uproar that had just occurred during the Interregnum, when there had been so much dogmatic religious fighting. They’re creating a space for science, which is about getting together and looking at matters of fact, in this experimental setting, and putting aside these contentious issues where you had to have a position (or be a heretic). They wanted to occupy a new terrain of knowledge where they could agree to disagree sometimes and do it in a civil way.

Let’s go on to the final book, which is Pamela Smith’s The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire.

I adore this book. I teach it a lot as well. She chose not to have the name of the main figure, Johann Joachim Becher, in her title. He is not a household name. There is so that  much is wonderful about this book but one of the things that is quite astounding is the recovery of alchemy.  That’s been a very big trend in the history of science in the last couple of decades, and Smith is at the forefront.

Again, there is the shift away from a Cold War view of knowledge as completely separate from society. Alchemy was a tradition that had always intertwined laboratory work, work of the hand and work of the mind. It had always been both about knowledge acquisition, and about powers over nature. It had always had a useful aspect to it since antiquity. Bringing alchemy back into the picture of the origin of experimental sciences is a way to bring back the intertwined knowledge of the hand and of the mind. In other words, that there are forms of knowledge that are very manual and that we can only acquire through practice, and there are forms of knowledge that do not require manual skill. Experimentation, as a manual engagement with matter for the purposes of producing knowledge, requires both. That’s gone on to be Pamela Smith’s main focus.  Since this book, she’s done a lot of work on artisans and their role in the scientific revolution. But what I particularly love about this book is that it’s not just about alchemy, it is about alchemy and business. It’s about how Becher’s innovative ideas about the economy were being developed together with, and at the same time as, his scientific concepts were being explored. It takes that integration of science with the rest of society to a whole different plane.

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Very often, when folks are trying to fight against a disembodied notion of the scientific revolution, what they do is they’ll take social phenomena, social types, maybe economic history, and set that as a context within which to understand scientific ideas. But what Smith does in this book is look at economic ideas together with scientific ideas interacting and producing each other at the same time. It integrates the two at a much more fundamental level. I would say that Barbara Shapiro does something similar when she’s talking about ‘the fact’ as a legal concept, not just a legal practice, and the way that she relates it to scientific concepts, except that Barbara Shapiro’s is a one-way direction. You have an origin (law ) that produces ideas that are borrowed by scientists. For Pamela Smith, these things are happening at the same time, modern economics is developing hand-in-hand with modern experimental science, inextricably. The range of what she has to look at and the interdisciplinary elegance that she employs are incredibly admirable.

For those of us who haven’t heard of him, who was Joachim Becher?

He was an economic adviser to Leopold I, and he was an alchemist. He was from a generation of alchemists who were producing many chemical innovations that would be really important economically. Beyond that, conceptually, he’s developing views on the circulation of money throughout society, about the consumption of goods, about how to promote that and how to organize it for the state. At the same time, he’s thinking about things like the circulation of matter in alchemical processes. So his hands-on experiments in the laboratory, that are very innovative, are really part of his experiments with ways of organizing the economy and society. That’s how he’s bringing it all together. He publishes works that are political but that include a lot of scientific ideas, and vice versa.

Interview by Benedict King

October 31, 2022

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Vera Keller

Vera Keller

Vera Keller is a professor and head of the history department at the University of Oregon. She researches the emergence of experimental science in early modern Europe and has been the recipient of many major awards including the Guggenheim and the Fulbright. Her first book, Knowledge and the Public Interest,1575-1725 looked at how new political concepts of 'interest' in the long 17th century transformed knowledge. Her second monograph, The Interlopers, forthcoming in April 2023, argues that early modern science did not represent the disciplining of knowledge, but rather the loosening and undisciplining of it.

Vera Keller

Vera Keller

Vera Keller is a professor and head of the history department at the University of Oregon. She researches the emergence of experimental science in early modern Europe and has been the recipient of many major awards including the Guggenheim and the Fulbright. Her first book, Knowledge and the Public Interest,1575-1725 looked at how new political concepts of 'interest' in the long 17th century transformed knowledge. Her second monograph, The Interlopers, forthcoming in April 2023, argues that early modern science did not represent the disciplining of knowledge, but rather the loosening and undisciplining of it.