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The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment

The Three Cs and the Notion of Progress:
Copernicus, Condorcet, Comte
Caspar J M Hewett

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Definitions of Progress:

, n. a forward movement: an advance: a continuation: an advance to something better or higher in development: a gain in proficiency: a course: a passage from place to place: a procession: a journey of state: a circuit. – v.i. progress, to go forward: to make progress: to go on, continue: to go in progress, travel in state: to go
Chambers 20th Century Dictionary

A belief in human progress is a matter of faith. Progress does not necessarily imply a monotonically increasing advance, but rather an advance that will eventually occur within the limits of mankind's collective morality and knowledge of its respective environment. Wikipedia.org

It is common to hear both philosophers and non-philosophers complain that philosophy makes no progress. Whether such a complaint is justified depends, of course, on one's understanding of the nature of philosophy, and on one's criteria of "progress." Wikipedia.org

progress, A linear movement forward. To advance or develop. A key drive behind Western industrial culture. In the Modern world more people have greater material wealth but more people starve and suffer from malnutrition than ever before. Many philosophers claim that these two facts are directly related, and the Western notion of 'progress' is morally flawed. www.thegreenfuse.org/glossary.htm

progress v. t. Make progress [syn: come on, come along, advance, get on, get along, shape up] [ant: regress] To make progress in; to pass through. [Obs.] --Milton
progress n. [L. progressus, from progredi, p. p. progressus, to go forth or forward; pro forward + gradi to step, go: cf. F. progrès.] Gradual improvement or growth or development: "advancement of knowledge"; "great progress in the arts"; "their research and development gave them an advantage" [syn: advancement] The act of moving forward toward a goal [syn: progression, advance, advancement, forward motion, onward motion] A movement forward; "he listened for the progress of the troops" [syn: progression, advance] artcontext.org/lexicon/definitions/

The Enlightenment conception of progress rested on the notion that human history is primarily a history of the improvement of humanity in three respects:

    1. increasing knowledge of the natural world and the ability to manipulate the world through technology;
    2. overcoming ignorance bred of superstition and religion;
    3. overcoming human cruelty and violence through social improvements.

Copernicus and Galileo – The First Revolution

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Copernicus and Galileo as they laid the foundations for a whole new way of understanding the world and our place in it. Nicolaus Copernicus was an intellectual and respected church man born in 1473 in Poland who studied law and medicine in Italy while the Renaissance was in full swing. In 1543, the year of his death, his great work On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, was published and this arguably marks the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

Ptolemaic system It was the search for simplicity that set Copernicus on the path to a new description of the motion of the heavenly bodies. Since the second century AD the system of Claudius Ptolemy had been the accepted model of this motion. Ptolemy’s description was based on observation of the paths drawn out by the planets as viewed from the earth. From this preferential position the paths of the Sun and moon, both of which were considered as planets at this time, appear circular. The paths of the other planets appear to loop back on themselves and Ptolemy described this using a system of circles rolling on circles. The heavenly bodies were pictured as objects carried around the earth on crystal spheres in a beautiful, complex and predictable musical dance. This model survived for a staggering 1400 years and is rooted in the Ancient Greek’s belief that nature consists of harmonies that can be described by simple numbers and perfect geometrical relationships.

Copernican system Copernicus took a step back and asked the simple and important question: What would the motions of the planets look like viewed from another position in space, say the Sun? What he discovered was that he could describe all the motions predicted by the Ptolemaic system with one wonderfully simple answer; that all the planets except the moon moved round the Sun in circular orbits, including the Earth itself. It is indicative of how important this discovery was when we use the word revolutionary for this idea, as the current use of the word originates here with this great work on the revolution of the planets. For this was not only an astronomical discovery; it had repercussions in that it contradicted Christian doctrine, which held that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe. These were dangerous ideas and it was Galileo Galilei, who further developed the work of Copernicus, who suffered the consequences of them at the hands of the Roman Inquisition decades later.

Galileo was born in Italy nineteen years after the death of Copernicus, in 1564. He established himself in Pisa as a commercial scientist and inventor with a flair for self-promotion which led to a professorship in mathematics in Venice. Galileo was fully engaged in dealing with the practical problems of his day, as is indicated by his first job in Padua as professor of physics and military engineering. While the Italian Renaissance had venerated the Ancient Greeks Galileo was living in a time when the ancient physics was not advanced enough to deal with the questions he wanted to answer. The concept of power, or rate of work, which he invented to explain why it is easier to move a given load up an inclined plane than to lift it straight up, provides a prime example of the practical bent of his early work.

In 1609 Galileo came across an invention which was to prove immensely important to his future and to history, for it was to provide the foundation for the establishment of the scientific method. Galileo described it as ‘a spy-glass, made in such a way that very distant things are made to look quite close, so that a man two miles away can be distinctly seen.’ This simple spy-glass had been developed by some spectacle makers from Flanders. They came to Venice to try to sell their invention, but Galileo quickly figured out the principle behind its operation and created one of his own. What is more to the point is that, by the time he got the Senate to the Campanile in Venice to see what it could do, he had made a telescope of much higher magnification (8-10 times) with which to impress them. Such an instrument had obvious military implications for, with this telescope, it was possible to see ships out to sea from the top of the Campanile some two hours before they could be seen with the naked eye.

Galileo Galilei All this was great for Galileo’s reputation but the next step he took was not an obvious one. He built a telescope of even higher magnification – some thirty times - and turned it on the heavens. In March 1610 he published The Starry Messenger, an illustrated book presenting his observations. In it he published the first maps of the surface of the moon and described seeing more than ten times more stars than had ever been seen before. One of the most exciting discoveries of all was four ‘planets’ which were not known, nor had been observed by any astronomers before him - they were the moons of Jupiter. The book earned him the position of chief mathematician and philosopher mathematician to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de Medici II, in Florence in July 1610.

The Starry Messenger represents the first book which is recognisable as a work of science; he built the experimental apparatus (the telescope), made his observations and published them in form in which they could be refuted or confirmed by others. The book caused a sensation, but the attention it attracted was not all to Galileo’s advantage for it contained some dangerous ideas. First, his observations seemed to confirm the findings of Copernicus and throw out once and for all Ptolemy’s Earth-centred model. Second, he argued that the laws of the Universe are the same in the heavens as they are on the Earth. In some ways this was the more risky of the two ideas to hold at the time as it provoked the umbrage of the Pope. The church maintained that, as the Universe was created by God and was subject to his whims, it could not be governed by natural laws which were discoverable through observation and experiment. This is a crucial point for, while it seems that Galileo was sensitive to the risks of promoting the Copernicus world system, he was naïve enough to believe that the truth would protect him. Ultimately it didn’t of course, for the case against him with the Holy Office of the Inquisition began just after publication of this work.

This was the period of the Counter-Reformation. The authority of Rome had been seriously undermined through the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe. In 1517 Martin Luther’s attack on the selling of indulgences had started a chain reaction that was unstoppable. The Catholic church was on the offensive and held that anyone who was not for the authority of the church was a heretic. The Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition had been created by Pope Paul III in 1542 in an attempt to halt the spread of Protestantism. In the 1570s an Index of Prohibited Books was introduced. In 1616, partly in response to The Starry Messenger, Rome expressly forbade holding that the Earth is not at the centre of heaven and is not immovable, but moves round the sun and rotates on its axis.

Galileo came to Rome in 1616 to find out what views it was suitable to hold regarding the Copernicus world system. He was told by Cardinal Bellarmine that it was contrary to the Sacred Scriptures to hold the opinion of Copernicus as a proven fact. However, he was also told that, while it could be neither held nor defended, it could be used as a hypothesis, and he obtained a document to that effect from Cardinal Bellarmine. It is on this that his trial in 1633 eventually hinged but it was his next work, Dialogue on the Chief World Systems, that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Galileo made a huge error of judgement. He recognised that the time was not right to openly defend the theories of Copernicus in 1616, but in 1623 a new Pope was elected, Maffeo Barberini, who was a lover of the arts and who had even written a sonnet complimenting Galileo on his writings on astronomy. In 1624 visited the new Pope, Urban VIII, and had a number of discussions with him in the hope that the 1616 ban on holding the Copernicus world system would be lifted. He was to be disappointed. The Pope would not consider it. However, Galileo left Rome with a sense that, given time, the new ideas would be allowed to gradually replace the old. This was his ultimate mistake for there was a fundamental difference of opinion between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII. Galileo believed that what we observe in the natural world should influence the study of physical problems most, not what is written in the scriptures. Further, he took a great risk and argued explicitly for freedom of inquiry and expression. Urban VIII felt that to claim that the world is governed by natural and discoverable laws was to attempt to limit and confine God’s power, which was clearly not acceptable. He made it clear that Galileo must state in his book that there could be no ultimate test of the Divine wisdom.

With this in mind Galileo decided to present his next work as a dialogue between three characters, one of whom was to make all the necessary objections to the theories of Copernicus, the other two of whom were to answer them. The Dialogue on the Chief World Systems was published in 1632 and the Pope was furious when he read it. Proceedings were instigated against Galileo. The Inquisition claimed that there was a document dated 1616 which expressly forbade Galileo to teach the Copernican system in any way whatsoever, even as a hypothesis. The truth of this claim is highly doubtful, but there was no arguing with the Inquisition and Galileo stood accused of tricking the censors and deliberately ignoring the prohibition. Galileo was threatened with torture and forced to retract. He was held under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The trial of Galileo was to have far reaching implications – Scientists in the Catholic world were effectively silenced and the Scientific Revolution shifted to Northern Europe where conditions were more favourable. Surprisingly this is not the end of the story for Galileo; he completed Discourses on Two New Sciences, a major work on mechanics, in the three years following the trial and got it published in 1638 far away from Rome in the Netherlands. We will not go into the content of this work here as the details are not relevant to our story. Galileo died in 1642, still under house arrest. His books were not removed from the Index of Prohibited Books until 1835. What is more, it took a staggering 350 years for the Roman Catholic Church to formally admit to making a mistake in the way they dealt with Galileo, eventually doing so in 1992!

Before the Scientific Revolution nature was viewed in functional terms; the teleological view pioneered by Aristotle. As the Scientific Revolution progresses we see the emergence of an entirely new vision of nature as autonomous and proceeding according to its own laws. As this notion of a natural order developed humanity was placed further within it and this eventually led to the concept of natural law as the basis of human nature. Although the new ideas placed humanity within the natural order the thinkers of the period celebrated human reason as the instrument through which nature could be explored. It is to this that we now turn.

Condorcet – The Enlightened Man

The Enlightenment is the term used to describe the intellectual movement that began in the 17th Century in Britain and developed in the 18th Century in France and Germany. This period is sometimes described as the Age of Reason or Age of Enlightenment in contrast to the superstition and irrationality characteristic of the Middle Ages. Immanuel Kant described the Enlightenment as

    the emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of the Enlightenment is: Sapere aude! Have the courage to use one’s own reason!

Broadly the Enlightenment can be characterised by a number of doctrines related to a belief in progress, human perfectibility and a questioning of authority and tradition. Enlightenment thinkers saw reason as humanity’s central capacity and argued that beliefs should be accepted only on the basis of reason - not on the authority of tradition or religious doctrine. They believed that human beings are by nature rational and good, that both the individual and humankind as a whole can progress to perfection and that all people are equal in respect of their rationality and thus that they should be granted equality before the law and individual liberty. They argued for tolerance to be extended to other ways of life and devalued local customs and prejudices in favour of a universalism which depends on the exercise of reason.

The Enlightenment developed in part thanks to the philosophes, a group of French thinkers who emerged in the 18th century. This group was a heterogenous mix of people who pursued a variety of interests but were united by some common themes: belief in the perfectibility of humanity, the rejection of the authority of the past and a dedication to systematising a number of intellectual disciplines. For the purpose of this discussion I will focus on just one of the philosophes, the grandfather of sociology Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, otherwise known as Condorcet.

Marquis de Condorcet Condorcet was the son of a cavalry officer born in 1743 in Ribemont, France. His title, the Marquis de Condorcet, came from the town of Condorcet in Dauphiné. Like the other giants of the Enlightenment he was a multi-faceted individual who can comfortably be described as a philosopher, mathematician, historian of the sciences, social scientist, economist, political theorist and social reformer. He is particularly interesting in the context of this discussion as a proponent of human progress with ideas incredibly ahead of his time. He was the only one of the Enlightenment philosophes who actually played an important part in the French Revolution of 1789. He was also one of the youngest of Denis Diderot's Encyclopadiasts. Educated in Jesuit Colleges in Reims and at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, he went on to study at the Collège Mazarin in Paris.

His first major work Essai sur le calcul integral was published in 1765 at the age of twenty two and this was undoubtedly a major factor in his election to the prestigious Académie des Sciences in 1769. Seven years later he became secretary of the Académie.

While a member of the Académie, Condorcet produced a number of important works including a series of eulogies to deceased academicians which helped to popularise science and make it more accessible to a growing literate, middle class audience. He was also the protege of the leading mathematician and philosophe, D'Alembert (1717-1783). In 1772 he published a work on the integral calculus which was described by Lagrange as ‘filled with sublime and fruitful ideas which could have furnished material for several works.’ Soon after the publication of this work, he fell in with Voltaire, Diderot and, most importantly, the economist Jacques Turgot who became his mentor and encouraged him to explore economic questions. Turgot became an administrator under Louis XV and later became Controller General of Finance in 1774 under Louis XVI and had Condorcet appointed Inspector General of the Mint. When Turgot was dismissed from his post in 1776 Condorcet tended his resignation, but his resignation was refused and he ended up staying at the mint until 1791.

His most important work was on the philosophy of mathematics and probability. His Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions, published in 1785 is a particularly important work in the development of the theory of probability. He is widely known for showing that it is possible that a majority prefers option A over option B, a majority prefers option B over option C, and yet a majority prefers option C over option A, which is known as the Condorcet Paradox. Condorcet published two important biographies: one of Turgot in 1786 and one of Voltaire in 1789 in which he made it clear that he favoured Turgot’s economic theories and agreed with Voltaire’s opposition to the Church.

In 1786 Condorcet married Sophie de Gouchy, whose salon in Paris was one of the most important gathering places of the philosophes before the French Revolution. In this period he was a member of the municipal council of Paris and took part in the opening debates of the Revolution, playing an active part in campaigns for legal reform, religious toleration, economic freedom and the abolition of slavery. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1791 as the Paris representative. As secretary of the Assembly he directed a great deal of effort to drawing up plans for public education which provided the basis for the educational system of France established in 1805. By 1792 he had become one of the leaders of the Republican movement. His opposition to the death penalty led him to argue strongly against the execution of Louis XVI in 1792/93. He then set about drawing up a draft constitution for the new republic which resulted in a liberal constitutional scheme commonly known as the Girondin Constitution of 1793. However the Girondists fell from favour and the Jacobins, a more radical political group led by Robespierre, took over. Foolishly defending his liberal constitution against one proposed by the Jacobins led to his condemnation in July 1793.

Condorcet went into hiding and spent the remaining months of his life in seclusion in Paris writing his greatest work Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (Sketch for a historical picture of the progress of the human mind), which was published in 1795. In it Condorcet examined history in order to demonstrate the power of reason in social affairs. Its aim was to demonstrate humanity’s progressive emancipation from both the bondage of the social structures it had created for itself throughout history and from the arbitrary domination of the physical environment. He argued that progress would ultimately result in liberal democratic government which would sweep away all the obstacles which had hindered reason in the past. In his own words:

    “The time will therefore come … when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master but their reason; when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments will exist only in works of history or on the stage; and when we shall think of them only . . . to learn how to recognize and so to destroy by force of reason, the first seeds of tyranny and superstition, should they ever dare to reappear amongst us.”

In March 1794, Condorcet thought that the place where he was hiding was being watched and fled from Paris only to be arrested and imprisoned three days later. On 29 March he was found dead in his prison cell in Bourg-la-Reine and it is not known whether he died of natural causes thanks to exhaustion, or if he was murdered or even took his own life.

Condorcet is a perfect example of an Enlightenment thinker. He was an optimist on the possibility of social progress, believing passionately in the perfectability of man. His mathematical science of man represented an attempt to apply mathematics and statistics to socio-economic phenomena. He rejected Rousseau’s approach which attempted to augment classic rationalism with sentiment, and instead tried to raise reason to the mathematical level, arguing that the only social obligation is to obey the general reason, rather than the general will. Thus, according to Condorcet the will of the majority should only be adhered to if it complies with reason. His model of human behaviour was based on the notion of an individual acting as a gambler, weighing the probability of one opinion against that of another. His social mathematics was intended to be both an objective description of social behaviour and to act as a scientific basis for individual conduct, freeing human beings from instinct and passion by applying reason to all social affairs. Most significant from the point of view of this discussion his Sketch was a key factor in establishing the notion of progress as the guiding principle of 19th century social thought.

Auguste Comte – The Father of Sociology

We turn next to Auguste Comte, founder of Positivism and inventor of the term ‘sociology’ as a description of the scientific study of humanity. While there can be doubt that Condorcet, was the forefather of Comte, in that both aspired using the methods of observation and experimentation used in the natural sciences to establish a science of humanity, but there are also great contrasts in their approach, particularly in their understanding of the way in which society could be transformed.

Born in Montpellier in 1798, just four years after the death of Condorcet, Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte was the son of discreetly royalist, Roman Catholic parents who rejected the scepticism and republicanism that followed the French Revolution. However, at an early age Comte rejected both the Catholicism and royalism of his parents in favour of an ardent republican faith in liberty.

Auguste Comte A very bright youth, Comte entered the prestigious École Polytechnique in 1814 and worked his way through his education as a journalist and mathematics teacher. He read widely in history and philosophy and developed a strong interest in thinkers who had attempted to understand the history of human society including Condorcet, Turgot, and de Maistre.

In Paris Comte got to know one of the founding fathers of socialism, Henri de Saint-Simon, who was distinguished as one of the first thinkers to recognise the importance of economic organisation in modern society. Comte was to be highly influenced by Saint-Simon, who was to become his mentor. Some four years before they met, in his Essay on the Sciences of Man (1813), Saint-Simon had applied the word "positive" to the natural sciences, emphasising the way they are based on "facts which have been observed and analysed." Some of Comte’s early articles appeared in Saint-Simon’s publications and they worked together closely for some time. However, there were also some important differences between the outlooks of the two men and this eventually led to them falling out in 1824.

In his late twenties Comte began to develop his ideas for a system of “positive philosophy”, and in 1826 began to disseminate his ideas through a series of lectures to a private audience. Comte married Caroline Massin in 1825, but their marriage was unhappy and this may have contributed to the mental breakdown he had in 1826. It was almost two years before he was again well enough to resume his lecture series. By 1829 the interest in his work had grown sufficiently for him to complete his lecture series at the prestigious Royal Athenaeum. Over the next twelve years (1830-42) he devoted his energy to publishing his Course of Positive Philosophy.

Separating from Caroline in 1842, Comte went on to meet Clothilde de Vaux for whom he developed a deep romantic attachment in 1845 but who sadly died of tuberculosis the following year. This romance was to have a profound influence on Comte and was to be important in his developing thoughts on the role of women in the positivist society he hoped to establish. After the death of Clothilde, Comte spent a number of years developing his positivist ideas further and completing his formulation of sociology, publishing his Discours sur l'Ensemble du positivisme (A general view of Positivism) in 1848 and his most important work, the Systeme de Politique Positive (System of Positive Polity) between 1851 and 1854. Comte rejected metaphysics in favour of the scientific method as the path to enlightenment, arguing that morality and moral progress should be the central preoccupation of human knowledge. In the Systeme he described the form of political organisation required to make this possible. Comte’s Positivism can rightly be considered as humanist philosophy in that it placed humanity at the centre of its concerns. However his position could not have been further from Enlightenment humanism in that he rejected democracy, and instead emphasised hierarchy and obedience, arguing that the ideal government would be made up of an intellectual elite. The period in which Comte lived was one characterised by huge changes - science, technology and the Industrial Revolution were transforming the societies of Europe and this provided the backdrop to his work. His great strength was in drawing on diverse schools of thought and attempting to synthesise them within his positivist philosophy: from Saint-Simon he adopted the position that there was a need for a unifying social science to explain existing social relations and provide the knowledge required to plan new and better forms of social organisation; from the Enlightenment thinkers he took the notion of historical progress; from the philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant he took the idea that positive knowledge must be rooted in the methods of the natural sciences; and from the French clericalist thinkers he adopted the idea of a form of social organisation that would imitate the hierarchy and discipline of the Catholic church.

Comte’s view of the development of human intellectual development in general and of the sciences was that of progression through a historical sequence. He proposed (following Saint-Simon) a ‘law of the three stages’ that began with a theological stage, progressing through a transitional metaphysical stage to the positive stage, In the first two stages, attempts are made to understand the nature of things through supernatural and metaphysical explanations. The positive stage, by contrast, was distinguished from those that preceded it by a recognition of the limitations of human knowledge: the positive thinker relies only on the experience of the senses and seeks to establish truth by means of observation and experiment.

His sequence for the development of the sciences began with mathematics, moving through astronomy, physics, and chemistry to biology and ultimately to sociology. He held that a positivist approach to examining social phenomena would lead to the discovery of laws to describe social relations just as in the natural sciences, and that the sum of human knowledge would eventually be synthesised through sociology. Further, he believed that humanity would progress to a superior state of civilization by means of the application of sociology itself.

Within his lifetime many English intellectuals were influenced by Comte, most notably John Stuart Mill, and as a consequence his publications were translated into English and widely disseminated. His influence in France also grew after the publication of the Systeme, and a number of positivist societies sprung up throughout the world. However, in his later years Comte’s ideas became increasingly bizarre as he descended into mysticism, arguing for a Religion of Humanity, with himself at the head. Perhaps this was inevitable when we consider that his start point for Positivism was a faith in the scientific method as the route to social progress, something that stands in stark contrast to the rejection of authority so important to the Scientific Revolution and to the Enlightenment philosophes. Beginning as a fervent admirer of the French Revolution, Comte ended as a proponent of draconian government to coerce people into changing their nature. The influence of certain French clericalist thinkers also led him to refuse to condemn church opposition to social reform, something that was to alienate many who had been influenced by his work. T.H. Huxley went as far as to describe his later ideas as ‘Catholicism minus Christianity.’ Towards the end even his friends shied away from him, so that he was melancholy and alone when he died of cancer in September 1857.

John Stuart Mill wrote of Comte in On Liberty ‘M. Comte, in particular, whose social system, as unfolded in his Systeme de Politique Positive, aims at establishing (though by moral more than by legal appliances) a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers.’

Another of Comte’s contemporaries, Karl Marx, was particularly contemptuous of Comte’s work, condemning his "shit positivism" (Scheisspositivismus) and vehemently denying ever "writing Comtist recipes for the kitchens of the future." Marx saw the supposed expertise and neutrality of social engineers influenced by Comte as a sham, as it is impossible to stand above society and manipulate social variables. Marx pointed out that the social engineer is human, and is therefore "no abstract being squatting outside the world."

Caspar Hewett, March 2006

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