Metaphysics and Measurement, Essays in Scientific Revolution
In the history of science there is a consistent antithesis between idealism and sensationalism. According to one school of historians (which, having the authority of Locke behind it, has flourished throughout the last two centuries), man’s conception of his natural environment is essentially formed through sensation: of course, the senses unaided brought man little knowledge, and during the period in which he relied on them alone science was necessarily speculative, even magical, certainly restricted. Richness and precision of knowledge can come only from a great number of carefully specified sensations (colored patches, meter-readings, geometric tracings) such as experimental investigation provides. So knowledge, it is held, has developed—that is, approximated to what we now believe to be knowledge—in proportion to the quantity and quality of organized sensation, in other words empirical data.
Sensationalist historians of science do not deny the scientist’s cerebral functions for the data as they accumulate present ever new and hardier puzzles in their classification and interpretation; what they assert is the primacy of sensation (data) over cerebration. Their position has an obvious Lockean plausibility. Surely, before thinking, one must single out phenomena to think about? And are there not many examples—like Becquerel’s accidental discovery of radioactivity—of the unpredictable fact serving as nucleus for a fresh complex of theoretical activity?
The idealist historian of science cannot doubt the occurrence of accidents. What he opposes is the conception of the human mind as an empty storeroom gradually filled up with packages of facts neatly stacked into theoretical patterns. Rather the idealist sees knowledge as a picture of the external world painted by the mind; the function of cerebration is to criticize and modify this picture in order to render it as complete and brilliant as possible. Sensation is the intermediary between this picture and reality (which is, it goes without saying, unknowable, a truth which even the empiricist admits); therefore empirical data enter into the composition of the picture, but cannot dominate its composition, which is the work of thought.
Scientific empiricism has been traditionally English; scientific idealism traditionally French, from Descartes to Poincaré. Alexandre Koyré (1892-1964), the most fervent idealist among historians of science in recent times, was a Parisian of Russian birth. Born at Taganrog, educated at Tiflis and Rostov-on-Don, he moved from there to Göttingen and the Sorbonne. In the later years of his life he was also a staff member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. His early work was on mathematics and philosophy, from Russell’s numbers to Anselm’s God, and it was not until 1937 that he turned his attention to history with an essay on Galileo and the famous experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which he proclaimed a fiction. Two years later appeared a classical monograph, Etudes Galiléennes. When, after the war, this book, along with Koyré’s later writings (some published in the Journal of the History of Ideas), became better known in the United States, it was evident that a new, major force was at work. In the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.