Happy 535th Nick!

heliocentric model of universeFebruary 19, 1473 was the date of Nicolaus Copernicus’ birth. The Polish astronomer is best known for the posthumously published book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, in which he outlined a heliocentric model of the universe.

So what has all this to do with the history of psychology? According to the “Today in the History of Psychology” website, “a scientific psychology rests on the assumptions generated by the Copernican revolution,” namely, the “promoting [of] objectivity in the study of human affairs.”

Nicolaus CopernicusSeveral aspects of this topic are worthy of discussion. Was Copernicus beset by people opposed to “objectivity” with respect to the nature of the physical universe? Was “objectivity” even an idea that concerned Copernicus in particular? Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison argue in their 2007 book, Objectivity, that this concern emerged mainly in the mid-19th century, not the early 16th. Even if we were to imaginatively cast this issue backwards in time, the most significant opponent of Copernican theory, Tycho Brahe, was known for having the most accurate astronomical observations then in existence. This does not sound like a man incapable of what we would call objectivity.

It is often claimed that Copernicus delayed publishing his book until after his death for fear of the reaction of the Church, the implication being that the Catholic establishment opposed “objectivity.” This claim is highly debatable, however. Copernicus was by no means secretive about the content his theory during his lifetime, as we might expect one who worried about religious repercussions to be. Indeed, in 1533, ten years before his death, the theory was outlined in a series of lectures in Rome before the Pope and a number of Cardinals. The only public response, from one of the Cardinals, was to urge Copernicus to publish the theory. Of course, Galileo suffered a different response from the Church, but that was nearly a century later, at the height of the Counter-Reformation.

More broadly, does it remain credible to speak of the scientific revolution — stretching from astronomy to psychology — when it appears that various disciplines became “scientific” (a contested term if there ever was one) at widely different times, and in manifestly different ways? Although it is relatively easy to “connect the dots” from the astronomical revolution of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler to Newton’s “revolution” in general mechanics, is there really an important parallel continuity between them and, say, the chemical “revolution” of Lavoisier, Mendeleyev and others between the late-18th and mid-19th centuries? And again, although there is a strong connection between the scientific formation of geology and that of evolutionary theory, is there one between these and the earlier transformations of chemistry or physics? Or between these and cell doctrine in biology?

And so finally we come to “scientific” psychology. It bears a well-known connection to mid-19th century German physiology, but Wundt was notoriously wary of the Darwinian theory of natural selection. It was only with American developments in psychology (especially in the work of James, Hall, Cattell, and Baldwin) that psychology forged an explicit connection with evolutionary theory. And the possible connections between psychology and earlier revolutions in chemistry, physics, etc. are even more obscure.

So perhaps, as a number of historians of science have urged, it is better to speak a series of relatively independent scientific revolutions, each of which, though cognizant of the previous ones, possessed their own motivations and characters, rather than to lump them together into a single, unified movement that stretched across 500 years in time.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

4 thoughts on “Happy 535th Nick!

  1. I spent a fair amount of time, in graduate courses, hashing out various arguments about exactly what was (and was not) revolutionary about the Scientific Revolution, and you make an excellent point here, that in terms of both content and method it makes more sense to think of a series of smaller revolutions. I remain convinced, though, that something fundamental shifted in European science during that period. When I teach about the Scientific Revolution, I frame it in terms of authority. In Europe, coming out of the medieval period, there’s a dominant model that places scientific authority (for lack of a less anachronistic term) in the past. They looked to the past for answers, and if the past didn’t have the answers, they’d look even further back into the past. Even Copernicus, to some extent, developed his model of the universe in part by trying to be more purely obedient to Aristotle’s principles of motion.

    What begins to happen slightly later, though, is a shift in perspective, when people like Galileo and Harvey and Hooke stop looking to the past for authority, and begin looking to themselves. The old descriptions of the scientific revolution, things like the opening up of the bounded universe, don’t necessarily have profound implications for disciplines other than physics, but this does. The idea that we will have a greater state of knowledge in the future than we did in the past, that’s central to scientific inquiry as we understand it today.

  2. Susan,

    Nice to hear from you! You make an important point. I am not sure, however, that the shift in perspective you describe is sufficient to distinguish science from other sorts of intellectual activity. Philosophy, for instance, saw a similar shift around the Renaissance — a backlash against the Scholastics and the ancient sources on which they depended (esp. Plato and Aristotle) in favor of developing new arguments for themselves. Montaigne, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes — all of them partook of the skeptical Renaissance spirit without being “scientists” (not in the sense that Copernicus, Galileo, Harvey, and (to add another to the mix) Thomas Willlis were, anyway). I think what you describe is a prime element of modernism (of which science is a part, to be sure) rather than of science in particular.

  3. Excellent point, about modernism. I wasn’t trying to say that the changes in scientific thought were unique, or isolated from other intellectual work–I’m not sure that’s ever really a tenable position. The scientific revolution is definitely best understood as part of broader intellectual trends.

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