What’s wrong with talking about the Scientific Revolution? Let me tell you…

Today I published in Minerva a review paper examining the reception of a classic 1993 history of science paper by Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams that proposed a new big picture of the history of science to replace the prevailing ‘Scientific Revolution’-based big picture.

Cunningham and Williams proposed instead that ‘science’ (read modern, western science) was invented in the late 18th/early 19th century in an institutional and ideological sense. And therefore science is only modern and western, and needs to be de-centred within our big picture conceptions of the history of human knowledge-making, and seen more on a par with every other knowledge-making system across the world and through time.

I have been enamoured of their paper since I read it, and wanted to find out if other scholars have accepted, rejected or ignored it in the 20 years since they published it. In other words, should I take it seriously?

Hence my review paper, published here.

In a nutshell, my research shows that

  1. The Scientific Revolution is indeed a very tired concept with little remaining coherence. But scholars still use the term to refer to a set of events in 16th-17th Century Europe, and some people are still interested in those events. In addition, some scholars who are critical of the Eurocentrism of the old big picture and its valorisation of modern, western science still see value in recognising the concept of the Scientific Revolution for ideological reasons – because the myth-making that accompanied the idea has itself had a material impact on the relationship between science and society.
  2. The chronology Cunningham and Williams propose for the ‘invention’ of science is widely accepted by scholars – in fact almost everyone agrees that the late 18th/early 19th century period is when (modern, Western) science became a thing. Even people who didn’t cite Cunningham and Williams think this (I also reviewed lots of those works, not just works that did cite them).
  3. Modern, western science should be de-centred within the big picture, but there are problems with restricting the use of the word ‘science’ just to that brand of knowledge-making. In short, ‘science’ has become a judgement word, and lends credibility to particular knowledge systems by implicitly counterposing them to things like ‘pseudoscience’ or ‘superstition’. So if we only call one kind of knowledge-seeking ‘science’, we imply that the rest is rubbish. This obviously has the opposite effect than that which Cunningham and Williams intended.

My paper discusses at length the importance of this body of work for what I call ‘applied fields of science studies’ – or science communication, science education and science policy. It’s not just the history, philosophy and sociology (the classic ‘science studies’ disciplines, that tend to be less ‘applied’) that can find value in this discussion about the ideological and institutional origins of science – and its myths of origin.

You’ll note my research t-shirt/coffee mug/etc celebrating Cunningham and Williams’ work – here tis again, doubly so. Bam! Pow!

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