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Sébastien Leclerc, Louis XIV visiting the Académie des sciences in 1671

Check-point: science and society

Let us see what we discussed so far.

Today, science and society are deeply connected. If you look at the word cloud produced in the first step of Week 3, you’ll see what are the most popular factors that we tend to think are associated with scientific practices today.

This association was true also in the seventeenth century, although was thought along slightly different lines.

In Week 1, you learned that seventeenth century natural philosophers were keen to attack Aristotelian philosophy. They proposed in fact to dismiss it and replace it with a new way of doing science.

In the text from Descartes and Hobbes that you read, you can find some broader implications of this agenda. Implications that go beyond the practice of science alone and concern the relationship between science and society broadly understood.

Here are the two main focal points you might want to keep in mind:

1) Science cannot be practised by isolated individuals, but it requires some form of social infrastructure.

This point emerges in Descartes’ text and in his discussion of why it is important to publicly announce scientific theories, experiments and results. Without social collaboration, science would not be able to progress.

In fact, it is during the seventeenth century that many scientific institutions are constituted outside the universities in order to promote natural philosophy and collaboration at both national and transnational scales. The most important were the Accademia dei Lincei (Acquasparta, Italy, 1603), the Royal Society (London, Britain 1660) the Académie des Sciences (Paris, France, 1666), Kurfürstlich Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin, Germany, 1700).

2) The reform of science might entail great benefits for society as a whole.

This point emerges from different perspectives in both Descartes’ and Hobbes’ texts.

Descartes stresses how a good physical theory might lead to the development of a whole array of disciplines and practices that might help human beings to dominate natural phenomena and live better lives.

Hobbes argues instead that the implementation of a geometrical approach in the moral domain might bring the same degree of certainty of geometrical demonstration in matters such as the study of human affects, and the definition of justice and duty. In this way, the foundation of a ‘science of politics’ might cut much of the controversies and fights that easily lead to wars and conflicts within our societies.

In both cases, Scholastic philosophy is presented as the cause of stagnation of scientific progress and as a stumbling block in this process of reform.

If you are curious to delve more into this topic, you might find the following suggestions interesting:

1) On the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy you can learn more about the philosophies of Descartes and Hobbes.

2) Is it true that geometry does not give rise to controversies? While geometry is often presented as a model for certainty, historically speaking there were many heated controversies among geometricians. Interestingly, even Hobbes was involved in some of them. You might discover more about this topic by looking at the Wikipedia page devoted to the controversy between Hobbes and Wallis.

3) How could we apply geometry to the study of human affects and emotions? If you’re puzzled by this suggestion that you find in Hobbes’ text, you might be interested in glancing at what Spinoza wrote in his Ethics demonstrated according to the geometrical order (published posthumously in 1675).

In the preface to the third part of the Ethics, Spinoza wrote:

Nothing happens in Nature which can be attributed to any defect in it, for Nature is always the same, and its virtue and power of acting are everywhere one and the same, that is, the laws and rules of Nature, according to which all things happen, and change from one form to another, are always and everywhere the same. So the way of understanding the nature of anything, of whatever kind, must also be the same, namely, through the universal laws and rules of Nature. The affects, therefore, of hate, anger, envy, and the like, considered in themselves, follow with the same necessity and force of Nature as the other singular things. And therefore they acknowledge certain causes, through which they are understood, and have certain properties, as worthy of our knowledge as the properties of any other thing, by the mere contemplation of which we are pleased. Therefore, I shall treat the nature and powers of the affects, and the power of the mind over them, by the same method by which, in the preceding parts, I treated God and the mind, and I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies. (Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, Preface to the Third Part)

You can delve more into Spinoza’s thought by looking at the devoted page on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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This article is from the free online course:

The Scientific Revolution: Understanding the Roots of Modern Science

University of Groningen

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