The Renaissance and Seventeenth-Century Rationalism

By G. H.R. Parkinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3

Science and mathematics from the Renaissance to Descartes

George Molland

Early in the nineteenth century John Playfair wrote for the Encyclopaedia Britannica a long article entitled ‘Dissertation; exhibiting a General View of the Progress of Mathematics and Physical Science, since the Revival of Letters in Europe’. 1 Ever since the Renaissance’s invention of its own self, there has been a persistent belief that, during a general rebirth of learning, the natural and mathematical sciences made advances that effectively eclipsed what William Whewell later called the ‘Stationary Period of Science’. 2 No wonder that this myth triggered a ‘revolt of the medievalists’, 3 who in this century have done much to redress the balance in favour of their own period. But like all myths this one contains truth as well as falsehood, and this chapter will dwell more on the former than the latter, and so concentrate on areas of innovation. But the revolt still reminds us that innovation was not the norm: for most people (both educated and uneducated) the traditional wisdom, together with its non-trivial modifications, was a more important former of consciousness than any radical new developments, and Aristotelian natural philosophy remained firmly ensconced in the universities until well into the second half of the seventeenth century, retaining in many cases a strong vitality of its own.

Besides its bias in favour of innovation, this chapter will exhibit other, perhaps more insidious, forms of selectivity. It will neglect almost completely many important areas, especially in the life sciences, in order to give prominence both in coverage and mode of treatment to those areas that may be ‘philosophically’ more illuminating. (The inverted commas are intended to emphasize that, for this period, to distinguish rigidly between philosophy and science would be grossly anachronistic, and add even more to the historiographical distortion introduced by the policy of selectivity.) The chapter will comprise just

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