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An Analysis Of Scientific Revolution

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3028 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The scientific revolution has been argued over centuries. There are two opposing points of view: one is that the scientific revolution did not happen in the history; the other one is that it has happened. This essay summarized the points of view of the predecessors about the scientific revolution. In the end, this essay provided a holistic interpretation of the scientific revolution from historical aspect, cognitive aspect, theoretical aspect and social aspect.


Scientific revolution, concept, theory, view, social, holistic interpretation


On the scientific revolution, there are two opposing points of view: one is that the scientific revolution did not happen in the history; the other one is that it has happened. Did it happen or not happen on earth? What are the criteria to judge? Is there any possible to unify the different views on scientific revolution? The definition of the scientific revolution is the key to the above questions. Analysis of the meaning of the scientific revolution can help to make sense of its definition.

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Meaning of scientific revolution

Scientific revolution, as the corresponding concept of the social revolution, is the important ​​research area of the philosophy of science and the history of science. American historian of science Thackeray presented the ten central questions of history of science early 80s in the 20th century. The second one is the “scientific revolution”. He said that revolution provided a simple and profound idea which assorted with the concept analysis method of idealism. [1]

Scientific revolution was demarcated from different angles by predecessors. They can be summed up as the following five points of view:

First, the concept shift view. The scientific revolution presented as concept revolution which is the replacement process of the center concept of science. “From the philosophical point of view, the concept is the basic objective way of thinking which reflected the essential attribute of an object. It is abstract and universal.” [2] All scientific knowledge based on of concepts. Each science is a system composed by the concepts which embodied the unity of the beliefs and referents and the unity of the scientific theories and the scientific thinking. Since the core elements of a system determine its structure and function, the replacement of center concept would inevitably lead the revolution in the structure of concept system, which caused the shift of paradigm of scientific theory or the scientific revolution. Lakatos thought that the scientific concepts system was the “hard core” of the scientific research, which is the basic theory and idea of the research program. Once the “hard core” had been refuted and negative, the new “hard core” took place of it. Then the scientific revolution occurred. French historian of science Koyré focused on the change of the science concept field. He thought the change of the concept field that caused the scientific revolution. For example, the “Copernican revolution” is considered the first modern scientific revolution. The “heliocentricism” concept took place of the “geocentricism” concept, while the major structure of concept was changing. The shift of two concepts system of center of the universe, the center state, the relationship between the planet and the center and the order of the location of planets was the scientific revolution which caused by the replacement of central concept of astronomy. The replacement of central concept is the most direct evidence of the change of scientific theory in scientific revolution and is the most profound change in scientific revolution.

Second, the theory shift view. In the 18th century, the Scientific Revolution was generally considered as “each major discontinuity over a certain period of time, as well as the clear break with the past”. [4] In 1773 Lavoisier claimed that his research program would lead to a revolution. In 1790, Fontenelle said the invention of calculus was a revolution in mathematics in the 18th century. At that time, the scientific revolution was rather vague to people’s understanding. As long as the new theory took place of the old theory, that was considered as the scientific revolution and was defined at the theoretical level. This led to two situations: one was a new theory coming up, the old theory still existing and being used with; the second scenario was the old theory being completely replaced by a new theory. In the late 18th century, Bell in “Modern History of Astronomy” pointed that there was the point in terms of the size of the scientific revolution. For large-scale scientific revolution, there were two stages: one was rebel, which destroyed a recognized scientific system; the other was the introduction of a new scientific system to replace the old scientific system. [4] In 20th century, most historians and philosophers of science still thought that the scientific revolution was the major change process of scientific theory. Kuhn thought that the scientific revolution was the process of the paradigm shift caused by the incommensurability of scientific theories. Popper argued that the scientific revolution was the reasonable overthrow of an established theory by a new scientific theory.

Third, the view shift view. The scientific view is the essence of scientific thought in a certain period of time to guide the scientific development. Shaping thought that the scientific concept revolution of Koyré was the most far-reaching scientific view revolution since ancient Greece when the human mind was completed. [5] American historian of science Cohen argued that the scientific revolution was process of scientific view replacement and process of accepting the new view and discarding the past beliefs. Bernal also believed that many changes in the scientific view composed the scientific revolution. As Kuhn pointed out that every revolution forced the scientific community to overthrow a very popular scientific theory to support a theory incompatible with it. Every time the scientific revolution changed the scientific issues to be discussed, what can be adopted or the standard which defined the rationality. Each time the scientific revolution completely changed the image of science, so that finally world inside which people did the scientific research had fundamentally changed. These changes were always followed with the arguments which determine the characteristics of the scientific revolution. [6] Einstein also thought that in scientific development there was not only the quantitative accumulation, but also the qualitative leap. In his opinion, the scientific revolution presented as the change of the scientific view. For example, in the 17th century the revolution in physics was a bacon-style revolution in the view of mathematical physics. In the 19th century Darwin biological revolution was a revolution in non-mathematical bacon style. Between late 19th early 20th century, the Maxwell revolution, the theory of relativity revolution and quantum mechanics revolution were scientific view revolution which characterized by probability theory. The essential of the plate tectonics revolution was the Earth view revolution, i.e. the activity earth view replaced the old fixed earth view which was the theoretical foundation of the earth structure. The large scale scientific revolution would inevitably lead to changes the scientific view which was the sublimation and the deepening of the theory. Such as Copernicus’s “heliocentric” not only caused the significant changes in astronomical theory, but also changed people’s view to the world from thinking the earth as the center into the sun as the center.

Fourth, the thinking shift view. The so-called thinking is the procedures and methods that people think based on a certain cultural background, knowledge structure, habits and methods such factors. Major changes in the way of thinking embodied not only during the scientific revolution, but also after the revolution in both science and society. Generally, large-scale scientific revolution caused the major change in the ways of thinking. Koyré thought that Newton integrated together the contribution of predecessors and contemporaries such as Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes, Galileo, Huygens, Hook and Wallis. Cohen believes that Newton caused a revolution which was the marking the birth of modern precise science. This was the “Newtonian style”, i.e. the ability to divide the process of precise scientific research into two parts: mathematical reasoning from the imagination structure or system and explaining the real phenomena by using the mathematical results obtained from the reasoning. The “Newtonian style” was the embodiment of the mechanism thinking. He achieved the unification of the movement rule of objects both in space and on the earth by mechanical rule. The representative modern scientific ways of thinking were organism, biological evolutionism and geological evolutionism. British historian Butterfield also pointed out that the first scientific revolution not only overthrew the medieval scientific authority, i.e. the scholasticism overshadowed, but also ended the Aristotle physics. Thus, it lowered the religion level. Because of this revolution, the image of the physical world, the structure of human life and even the features of the people spirit activities in the treatment of non-material science changed. Therefore, the first scientific revolution stood out as the origin of the modern world and the modern spirit. [7] The performance of the scientific revolution was change of the scientific way of thinking which reflected the change in the cognitive model of the scientists.

Fifth, the social shift view. The scientific revolution was the result of the direct impact on social shift. In middle 20th century, by the impact of Marxist view of history, a number of historians of science from Soviet Union and the United Kingdom explained the reasons of the scientific revolution and the early origins of modern science from the perspective of political economy. In their view, the occurrence of Newton revolution was based on the development of new capitalist economy and incensement of commercial practical economic problems. The new system of Newtonian physics was based on the solutions of mining, shipbuilding, gun manufacturing, technical issues such of navigation and mapping. Therefore, the scientific revolution should be carried out on the study of social shift. Needham thought that the reason why China did not produce modern science that time was the social conditions of the feudal society. He pointed out that whoever wanted to interpret why the Chinese community failed to develop modern science was better to explain why the Chinese society failed to develop business and industrial capitalism. [8] Bernal thought that the scientific revolution should be judged by its role and functions in the society. All these views put the scientific revolution on the social context and focused on the social factors and functions of scientific revolution in the social field. Sociology of Scientific Knowledge and feminist historiography of science also advocated the comprehensive view to re-analyze the scientific revolution. In their view, the scientific revolution was more than just an internal matter of science.


Each of the above five points of view described the scientific revolution just from one aspect of the shift of the scientific central concept, the scientific theory, the world view, the scientific way of thinking and social sphere respectively. In the history, the understanding to the scientific revolution only stayed in a single layer, ignoring the other levels of the scientific revolution. The scientific revolution had the characters of hierarchy, associativity, foundation, inheritance, breakthrough and relativity. Hierarchy was embodied from the concept system structure to the expansion of the social hierarchy. Associativity was embodied on the non-isolated of science. Foundation was embodied by the prerequisite such as the basic concept, theoretical system and way of thinking. Inheritance and breakthrough embodied that the succession of scientific revolution must be an important breakthrough. In the same field, even study the same object, if there was no inheritance relationship between the two theories or independently developed, such as traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine, the scientific revolution did not occur. The breakthrough of scientific theory based on inheritance was the premise and necessary conditions of scientific revolution. Breakthrough presented the incommensurability between the new and the old theoretical system. It was the fundamental shift of scientific central concept, theories and view. The breakthrough was the essence of the scientific revolution. Relativity embodied that the scientific revolution was relative to the previous theory.

From the social aspect, the scientific revolution, as a historical phenomenon, certainly would be impacted by the polity, economy and culture; as a major leap in knowledge, each time changed the way people perceive the world; as a social phenomenon, be recognized by the scientific community as the basis and premise of the technological revolution, industrial revolution. Therefore, the occurrence of scientific revolution was decided by historical aspect, cognitive aspect, theoretical aspect and social aspect holistically. This can be interpreted as follow: First, the occurrence of any scientific revolution started from the cognition of the individual scientist to the social cognition. The cognitive model of individual scientist through scientific theoretical system generally was accepted by the community. That was the shift of the way people view the world. For example, the Newton revolution was decided by the Newton’s cognitive model to nature. Because that the basic assumptions and the final results from the mathematical analysis built on the basis of these assumptions were able to match the factors of the real or external world revealed by precise and strict observation and experiments. [4] The occurrence of the scientific revolution being widely recognized by the scientific community and impacting the society at that time was the social conditions of the scientific revolution. Therefore, the process of scientific revolution was the comprehensive reform process of science.

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The holistic interpretation of the scientific revolution on one hand can provide a common basis for analysis and interpretation of the intermittent and continuous development of scientific theory to realize dialogue between them; on the other hand can resolve the contradiction between the internal history and the external history of the scientific revolution and achieve a unified view of various scientific revolution. The scientific debate of intermittent and continuous development lasted over the centuries presenting in a variety of forms, from a variety of perspectives and as a variety of theories. Science simplistic Those who in favor of continuous development view simply emphasized on those transplanting and re-interpretation of the existent concept. They thought the development of the concept was the process from the internal logic. Those who in favor of scientific revolution exaggerated difference between the concept of the new system and its predecessor. What is interesting, in the essence of modern science pointed out by those who in favor of continuous development, i.e. the methods and rules of the nature, those who in favor of scientific revolution can find the sudden and rapid shift of the develpment of the methods and rules of nature. This also explaind that the process of scientific development followed the quantitative and qualitative law and reflected the unity of continuous and discontinuous scientific development. The holistic interpretation can not only let the two group analyze the quantitative and qualitative change of scientific development on the same basis to achieve unity, but also more comprehensively analyze and interpret the occurence of scientific revolution by relating with other elements of the world.

The meanings of holistic interpretation are following three points: first, different aspect of view made the role of the scientific revolution different. It is important to address the relationship between primary and secondary aspects. Second, the process of scientific discovery was non-analytical and non-logical, but in terms of the Scientific Revolution was the logical and analytical. Based on the common sense of their occurrence, the general criteria for determining can be provided. Third, each holistic analysis of the scientific revolution had the relative and concrete sense rather than absolute and abstract sense. With the development of social practice, the holistic interpretation of scientific revolution would constantly change.

Literature references

[1] A. Thackray, “A Guide to the Culture of Science, Technology, and Medicine,” A. History of Science, The Free Press, Toronto, 1980.

[2] Y. Dong, Science in generalized context, Science Press, Beijing, 2007.

[3] P.Thagard, Conceptual Changes, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1992.

[4] I.B. Cohen, Newton revolution, Jiangxi Education Press, Nanchang, 1999.

[5] S. Shaping, Scientific revolution, Shanghai Science and Technology Education Press, 2004.

[6] T. Kuhn, The structure of the scientific revolution, Shanghai Science and Technology Education Press, 1980.

[7] H. Butterfield, The origin of the modern science, Huaxia Press, 1988.

[8] J. Needham, The traditional achievement and poverty of Chinese science, Commerce Press, 1982.


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