Science and the Renaissance - Vol. 1

By W. P. D. Wightman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
THE SYSTEM OF THE SCIENCES
IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY

IN the preceding chapters an attempt has been made to appreciate in some measure the state of 'culture' in which the sciences developed during the sixteenth century. I use the term 'developed' in the biological sense of 'structural change', which carries with it no implication of ordered progress but often includes temporary retrogression, as in the pupal stage of holometabolous insects. Here relatively rigid structures become more fluid as a preparation for the emergence of new organs which will release the creature from its earthbound or aquatic life and give it wings to soar into a new element. It may be that we shall come to look upon the 'renaissance' as such a phase in the life of science when to rationalism and empiricism, whose compresence in the Middle Ages has not always been recognised, was added imagination. If there is anything of value in this view what we have to look for is the appearance not so much of new facts, or even of new correlations, but of new ways of looking at familiar facts. Thus the remainder of this Introduction is in no sense a 'history of science in the sixteenth century' but at the most a search for significant changes in scientific perspective. Nevertheless, since a change can be fully appreciated only in terms of what is already accepted, a good deal of the discussion will be taken up with the state of knowledge or accepted opinion at or about the opening of the century. This method carries with it the danger of seeing only what is being looked for. Apart from the fact that this, pace the naïver forms of empiricism, is involved in any sort of 'seeing', whether of the eye or of the intelligence, its cruder consequences can be guarded against by looking for the opposite phenomenon, namely, resistance to change and also incomprehension.

But what were 'the sciences' in the year 1500? To this question an answer must be given which may guide our discussion but

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