The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, 2nd ed., by David C. Lindberg. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. 488 pp. (paperback).
When we think about the history of science, we usually think of figures such as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and others who contributed to Europe’s Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. But these giants built on still earlier achievements. The history of science stretches much further back in time—more than a millennium—to the ancient Greeks of the Classical and Hellenistic world. Following its birth in ancient Greece, science was preserved, developed, and extended by Roman, Arab-Islamic, and medieval Christian thinkers.
Professor David C. Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science, now in its second edition, is a great overview of this exciting story, told clearly and with great attention to historical detail. The book’s theme is that “the ancient and medieval periods were the scene of impressive scientific achievements, which provided a solid foundation for scientific developments of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and beyond” (p. xv).
The book presents the various ideas men have accepted over time about the natural world around them, as well as the reasoning behind these ideas. It presents their theories about the grand structure of the world, the fundamental stuff that the world is made of, the causes of motion, the nature of plants and animals, the structure and functioning of the human body, and the nature of health and disease. But it does not merely present these theories; it also places them in historical context, showing how they related to philosophy, how they were applied to practical uses, how they were taught, how they were transmitted from one culture to another, and how they were altered and extended over time.
At the outset of the book, in a particularly strong section, Lindberg discusses the intellectual achievements of the ancient Greeks, from which science as we know it was born. Earlier cultures such as the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians systematically observed the sky and developed systems of calculation and even astronomical prediction. But throughout these non-Greek cultures, Lindberg points out, thought about nature was intimately linked to gods, magic, and mysticism. The birth of science required a fundamental philosophic shift: a turn away from the gods as explanatory devices and toward an understanding of natural causes—a turn that began with the earliest Greek philosophers, such as Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.
The world of the philosophers, in short, was an orderly, predictable world in which things behave according to their natures. The Greek term used to denote this ordered world was kosmos, from which we derive our word “cosmology.” The capricious world of divine intervention was being pushed aside, making room for order and regularity; chaos was yielding to kosmos. A clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural was emerging; and there was a wide agreement that causes (if they are to be dealt with philosophically) must be sought only in the natures of things (p. 27).
The first systematic accounts of this orderly, natural world to arise in ancient Greece came from its two greatest philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Each of these accounts would prove to be immensely influential on Western philosophical and scientific traditions to come, yet they differed substantially.
Plato argued that the objects of the observed natural world are imperfect reflections of a more important supernatural world of abstract ideas or Forms, the actual and perfect objects of our knowledge. Lindberg summarizes Plato’s view: “Far from leading upward to knowledge or understanding, the senses are chains that tie us down; the route to knowledge is through philosophical reflection” (p. 37). Accordingly, Plato appreciated the abstractness of mathematics and advocated the study of geometry as a means to train the mind to look beyond observational data, thus preparing it to gain knowledge of the Forms. Perhaps not surprisingly, in Plato’s worldview, the fundamental building blocks of matter are not some solid substance, but abstract geometric shapes:
For Plato, the shape—the geometrical figure—is all there is. The geometrical atoms are nothing more than the regular solids, which are reducible without residue to plane geometrical figures. Water, air, and fire are not triangular; they are (in the final analysis) nothing more than triangles, appropriately arranged (p. 41).
Lindberg points out that a number of elements of Plato’s philosophy would later appeal to Christian thinkers. For instance, Plato’s thinking on his otherworldly Forms led him to the ideas that men possess immortal souls and that a god-like figure designed the world. Consequently, Plato’s written account of the cosmos, the Timaeus, would have a lasting influence on the Christian world, providing its basic view of the structure of the cosmos as late as the 11th century.
Aristotle rejected the notion that the objects of knowledge are abstractions in another dimension. He “directed his quest for knowledge toward the material world of individuals, of nature, and of change—a world encountered through the senses” (p. 48). Aristotle held that observation is the fundamental base on which all our knowledge rests. He developed the concepts “matter,” “form,” “potential,” and “actual” into powerful tools for describing and understanding the processes of change that we observe in nature. And he integrated previous Greek ideas with his own extensive observations into a new philosophical system—a system, in Lindberg’s words, of “overwhelming explanatory power.” At the end of his chapter on Aristotle, Lindberg concludes:
Aristotle’s philosophy is an astonishing achievement. In natural philosophy, he offered a subtle and sophisticated treatment of the major problems posed by the pre-Socratics and Plato: the nature of the fundamental stuff, the proper means of knowing it, the problems of change and causation, the basic structure of the cosmos, and the nature of deity and its relationship to material things.
But Aristotle also went far beyond any predecessor in the analysis of specific natural phenomena. It is no exaggeration to claim that, almost single-handedly, he created entirely new disciplines. His Physics contains a detailed discussion of terrestrial dynamics. He devoted the better part of his Meteorology to phenomena of the upper atmosphere, including comets, shooting stars, rain, and the rainbow, thunder, and lightning. His On the Heavens developed the work of certain predecessors into an influential account of planetary astronomy. He touched upon geological phenomena, including earthquakes and mineralogy. He undertook a thorough analysis of sensation and the sense organs, particularly vision and the eye, developing a theory of light and vision that would remain influential until the seventeenth century. He concerned himself with what we might regard as the basic chemical processes—mixtures and combinations of substances. . . . And, as we have seen, he contributed monumentally to developments in the biological sciences (pp. 65–66).
Aristotle’s new system led to even more impressive scientific achievements in the Hellenistic age that followed. Lindberg tells us about one of the later students at Aristotle’s Lyceum, Demetrius Phaleron, who played a role in establishing the Museum of Alexandria in Egypt, which became the center for a wide range of scientific activity. It was here that the practice of human dissection began: The physicians Herophilus and Erasistratus performed systematic dissections of the human body, observed many complex anatomical features, and developed a sophisticated theory of human physiology. Their works were extended by the physician Galen, who was not only skilled at dissecting animals but also, and more importantly, a great systematizer.
Building on the works of those before him, Galen developed a comprehensive and integrated system of anatomy, physiology, and medicine. The astronomer Ptolemy, also connected to the Museum of Alexandria, created a powerful mathematical model for predicting the observed motion of the stars and planets, with the spherical earth at the center and all observed motions reduced to combinations of uniform circular motion. The systems of Galen and Ptolemy, although flawed, were the best available for the next fourteen hundred years.
In the centuries that followed the Hellenistic age, there was a notable decline in the frequency of new discoveries. Accordingly, Lindberg’s story shifts away from new discoveries to the preservation and transmission of previous discoveries. Still, the journey taken by the original scientific works during these centuries is fascinating.
After science disappeared and was forgotten in Europe during the Dark Ages, it was rediscovered by thinkers in the Arab/Islamic world. Following a significant translation movement, most of the Greek scientific writings became available in Arabic. Islamic thinkers mastered these works and added their own original discoveries in the sciences of astronomy, optics, and medicine. Later, Europeans discovered the valuable ideas available in the Islamic world, and a new translation movement began, this time from Arabic to Latin. This shift of the center of scientific learning from the Greeks to the Islamic world and then back to the Western world is an exciting chapter in the history of civilization, and Lindberg narrates the relevant developments in a clear manner.
The final chapters of the book focus on developments within the medieval Christian world and discuss, among other things, the “Medieval Cosmos,” the study of astrology, matter theory, the practice of alchemy, developments in optics, the study of motion (both kinematics and dynamics), and medicine—which Lindberg presents as a mixture of secular and religious practices. In these chapters, two developments stand out as being particularly influential on the Scientific Revolution to come. One is the discovery of the Mean Speed Theorem by the Mertonians at Oxford and Nicole Oresme in Paris, which would later be used by Galileo in his study of falling bodies. The other is the establishment of European medical schools where human dissection became a valued tradition. This would lead, in the 16th century, to the pioneering work by Andreas Vesalius, the founder of modern human anatomy.
Unfortunately, this overview of the early days of science is plagued by a major shortcoming: Lindberg’s failure to criticize the cultural and philosophical factors that have impeded scientific advancement. This first becomes evident in his discussion of the Romans. Despite its close contact with Greek Hellenistic culture, Roman culture had a notable absence of scientific achievements. Lindberg traces this to the fact that the Romans had little interest in the more abstract scientific and philosophical reasoning of the Greeks. But rather than criticize the Romans for their disinterest in the abstract, Lindberg practically condones their attitude:
Romans . . . borrowed [from the Greeks] what seemed interesting or useful. If certain Greeks had devoted their lives to subjects that were abstract, technical, impractical, and (as some no doubt judged) boring, that was no reason for large numbers of Romans to make the same mistake (p. 136).
Similarly, Lindberg fails to acknowledge the negative influence that Plato’s ideas had on science. Although Plato clearly implies that observational details of nature—being mere shadows of reality—are unworthy of study, and although his disparagement of the senses (which deeply influenced Christianity) has led many thinkers to eschew the empirical study of nature (an influence acknowledged by other historians, such as George Sarton and Peter Whitfield), Lindberg never mentions such things.
His failure to name the negative consequences of bad philosophy on scientific progress is more glaring in his discussion of religion, where he appears to be downright evasive. The medieval Christians’ claim that science is the handmaiden of religion, Lindberg writes in a particularly illogical and muddled passage, did not contradict science or impede progress; on the contrary, science has to be the handmaiden of something, and when it was the handmaiden of religion, that led to (unnamed) “important developments”:
[A] critic determined to view the early church as an obstacle to scientific progress might argue that the handmaiden status accorded to natural philosophy is inconsistent with the existence of genuine science. True science, this critic might maintain, cannot be the handmaiden of anything, but must possess total autonomy. . . . In fact, this complaint misses the mark: totally autonomous science is an attractive ideal, but we do not live in an ideal world. And many of the most important developments in the history of science have been produced by people committed not to autonomous science, but to science in the service of some ideology, social program, or practical end; for most of its history, the question has not been whether science will function as handmaiden, but which mistress it will serve (p. 150).
An explicit aim of The Beginnings of Western Science is to place early science within a broad historical context—a “philosophical, religious, and institutional context.” But it is noteworthy that in Lindberg’s extensive discussions of these cultural factors, there is virtually no discussion of religion’s countless attacks on rational thought, including the Medieval Inquisition, which played a prominent role in stifling independent thought across the span of centuries.
Lindberg’s whitewashing of religion is not confined to Christianity: The book’s second edition extends the whitewashing to Islam. The section on the decline of Islamic science is notably different between the two editions. In the first edition, this section is titled, appropriately, “The Decline of Islamic Science.” In this section, Lindberg points out that “during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Islamic science went into decline; by the fifteenth century, little was left” and offers reasonable suggestions for the causes of this decline, notably including the growing influence of “conservative religious forces.” But in this second edition of the book the section has been completely bowdlerized. Re-titled “The Fate of Islamic Science,” the discussion of a decline has been replaced with “politically correct” rambling. After asking whether or not Islamic science declined, Lindberg then dismisses the question as a product of anti-Islamic polemics:
The truth is that the image of decline in the twelfth to fifteenth centuries is not the product of research in manuscript archives, but an assumption made in the absence of research and encouraged for its usefulness as a tool in religious polemics over the relative merits of Islam and Christianity: which religious culture wins the natural science sweepstakes? (p. 191)
Lindberg concedes that Islamic astronomy did not advance much beyond the 16th century. But he fails to acknowledge a similar decline in the other sciences, positing that perhaps these sciences advanced in the Arabic world, but did so unbeknownst to the West: “[T]housands of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts remain in libraries from Europe to the Middle East, unexamined. What they may contain we have no way of knowing until we look” (p. 191). Given the recent rise of the openly irrational and violent Islamist movement, Lindberg’s revisions and arbitrary claims appear to be sheer appeasement.
Despite its substantial flaws, The Beginnings of Western Science is a fascinating overview of the history of science, from its earliest origins to the dawn of the Scientific Revolution. In fact, to my knowledge, this is the only book to successfully present the history of ancient and medieval science as one integrated story, thus better placing these eras in the context of Western intellectual history. Although many of the early theories presented in the book have since been proved faulty, Lindberg demonstrates that they represented genuine achievements—steps forward in our understanding of the natural world. As such, they are vital parts of a story well worth reading.