Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Book Review: The Scientific Renaissance 1450-1630, Marie Boas Hall

Marie Boas Hall’s The Scientific Renaissance 1450-1630 is one volume of the series entitled The Rise of Modern Science.  This book serves as an excellent book of reference for this period, tying the scientific activities during this time together with a theme – “First came uncritical acceptance of new or at least unhackneyed texts; then critical appraisal; finally emancipation and originality.”[1] Boas exploits this recurrent theme as it appeared with the dawn of the humanist movement to the trials against Galileo in 1633.  Humanism plays an integral part of her argument, and she has defined it as such:

“The term humanism is ambiguous; it meant in its own day both a concern with the classics of antiquity and a preoccupation with man in relation to human society rather than to God.”[2]

Her examination takes us thoroughly through the effects on science of the humanist movement as it was paradoxically pitted against the desire for novelty, the rejection of Medieval Scholasticism, the dismissal of the mystical/occult within scientific practice, and the attack on the Ancients which set the stage for genuine novelty.  Most importantly, she discusses the then-current state and development of the numerous sciences – old and new - within this framework, the printing press as a means of dispersion of ideas and record of popularity, the trend towards the mathematization of the sciences, and the elevation of status of the sciences within academia.

M. Boas attacks the subject matter with impartiality, and has strived and succeeded in ascertaining that there exists such a connection among scientific practices, illustrating these trends as they affected particular sciences throughout this period.  She did this by taking us through the older sciences of astronomy, medicine, and navigation, and newer sciences such as chemistry.  By “older”, she determines the science as having (1) a place in academia from the Middle Ages, and (2) Ancient counterparts.  By “newer”, she describes sciences that didn’t have such historical counterparts.  She illustrates, in the case of astronomy, the prevailing medieval conception as that which was put forward by Ptolemy, with reference to what was being taught in schools at this time.  The humanist-scientist, in this case Copernicus, who found fault with this model after having looked at the basis of Eudoxos’ model, considered Plato’s perfection of the celestial realm, and looking at the teachings of the Pythagoreans was illustrated with reference to his own texts.  Similarly, she describes Copernicus’ neo-Pythagorean model, and discusses the design inherent in his work as proof of his desire to exceed the work of Ptolemy’s.  She discussed the controversy that lent itself to the contradictory notion of searching for new ideas in ancient texts – a theme that she drew from each of the sciences.  She discussed the rebellion on formerly held hypotheses (such as the notion of circular orbits), and how this paved the way to a genuinely novel cosmology culminating in the work of Kepler and Galileo.  Finally, she represented the dispersion of knowledge by describing the move away from Latin texts towards texts in the vernacular, and by describing the statistics in publications (i.e. that the number of books published on this subject grew increasingly).  She went on to examine each of the sciences in a similar fashion.

As regards the mathematization of the sciences, Boas uses the spread of mathematics and mathematical tools as proof.  She could have drawn stronger emphasis on the growing interest in making each of the sciences into ‘exact sciences’.  Boas alludes to this with references to the introduction of “error” in measurement by Tycho Brahe, as well as with the quantization of forces in Galileo’s 2 New Sciences.  Instead, she points to the development of technologies in navigation, and geometrical application in the arts as support for the spread of mathematics.  She does refer to the appearance of Chairs in Mathematics popping up in small and large universities, but this served also as proof of the status and elevation of sciences and rationalism within the learned world during this period, as they grew increasingly separate from pure philosophy.

Regarding recurrent themes in the sciences during this time, there was a general trend towards the mechanical philosophy which was not fully exploited in this book.  The chapter entitled Circles Appear on Physiology touched on this subject.  However, Boas focused more on how this trend in physiology fit into her representation of science at this time, and discussed only the significance of the introduction of circles to physiology as another symbol of the primacy of circles and the heart as taken from Ancient science.  Thus, she utilizes the circles that appear in physiology solely as support for the humanist movement and its effects on the sciences.  The mechanization of nature would have been an interesting theme to have interwoven.

This was an excellent book.  Boas presented an unbiased representation of the sciences from the Renaissance period, and did well to unify a vast range of material that ranged from sources and development of ideas, to descriptions of the intellectual back-drop within which these scientific ideas were cultivated, including even succinct biographies on each writer whom she referenced.  She took the time to address issues as they arose, and explained thoroughly her reasons for making any assumptions.  One example of this is in her decision to focus solely on European science when discussing scientific practice during the Renaissance.  She utilized a wide variety of sources appropriately, including original publications texts to ascertain the opinions, ideas and motives of the writers, statistics on publications to illustrate the popularity and spread of opinions, quotations from popular literature of the times indicating the attitude towards the developments in science that were taking place by the public without taking any wildly bold and unfounded steps.


Boas Hull, Marie, The Scientific Renaissance 1450-1630, New York, 1962.

[1] Marie Boas Hull, The Scientific Renaissance 1450-1630 (New York, 1962), p.53

[2] Ibid., p.18
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