The Origins of Modern Science

written work by Herbert Butterfield

The Origins of Modern Science 1300-1800 was written by Herbert Butterfield and first published in 1949.


Quotes are from the 1957 paperback revised edition, unless otherwise noted.
  • [T]ake note of those cases in which men not only solved a problem but had to alter their mentality in the process, or... discovered afterwards that the solution involved a change in their mental approach.
    • Introduction
  • It has proved almost more useful to learn something of the misfires and the mistaken hypotheses of early scientists... particular intellectual hurdles that seemed insurmountable... to pursues courses... that ran into a blind alley, but... had their effect on the progress of science...
    • Introduction
  • It is not sufficient to read Galileo with the eyes of the twentieth century... we can only understand his work if we know something of the system which he was attacking... apart from the things which were said about it by his enemies.
    • Introduction
  • Little progress can be made if we think of the older... as merely a case of bad science or... imagine that only the achievements of... recent times are worthy of serious attention...
    • Introduction
  • [I]n... celestial and terrestrial physics... change is brought about... by transpositions... inside the minds of the scientists... [H]andling the same bundle of data... in a new system of relations... a different framework...
  • Even the greatest geniuses who broke through the ancient views in some special field... would remain stranded in... medievalism... outside their chosen field.
  • It required... combined efforts to clear up... simple things which we now regard as obvious...
  • Perhaps the lack of mathematics, or... mathematical ways of formulating... was partly responsible for... verbal subtleties and... straining of language... to find the way to... modern... mechanics.
  • [T]he peculiar character of that Aristotelian universe... things... in motion had to be accompanied by a mover all of the time. A universe... [that] had the door half-way open for spirits...unseen hands had to be in constant operation... sublime Intelligences had to roll the planetary spheres... Alternatively, bodies had to be endowed with souls and aspirations... [M]atter itself seemed to possess mystical qualities.
  • Even the apostles of the new theory of impetus... regarded a projectile as moving in a straight line until the impetus had exhausted itself... then quickly curving... to make a direct vertical drop... [I]mpetus... gradually weakened and wore itself out... as a poker grows cold... Or, said Galileo, like the reverberations... in a bell... which gradually fades away.
  • It is possible that the men of the Renaissance were less capable of seeing history as the ascent of the human race, or... the successive centuries as... advancing, than even their medieval predecessors... What they saw behind them... were the peaks of classical antiquity... the summit of human reason... reached by the Greeks and since lost, the ideal for the return of which they... were engaging their finest endeavors. ...[T]hey were governed by... a static outlook... and... a theory of decadence... under a [cyclic] system. ...{T]ime and the course of history were not considered to be... generative of anything. ...[N]o conception of a world expanding to ever grander things, to an expanding future ...
  • It has been suggested that the modern idea of progress owes something to the fact that Christianity had provided a meaning for history and a grand purpose to which the whole of creation moved. ...[S]ecularisation of an attitude, initially religious ...a fine fulfilment ...leading to something.
  • Previously... there had been an idea that a scientific revolution was necessary... that it would occur and complete itself as a great historical episode, putting a new view of the universe in place of the Aristotelian... Bacon had imagined that the work... could be achieved in a limited period, while Descartes had thought... the revolution should be carried out by a single mind. A cataclysmic view... was still prevalent... rather than as a growth...
  • In the latter... seventeenth century... men have a vision of science as a young affair with... an ever expanding future—and Fontenelle points out that the sciences are still in their cradle.

Quotes about Origins

  • For those of us attempting to inaugurate teaching of the history of science after the war, Herbert Butterfield’s Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800 was literally a godsend. He began the cultivation of a largely untilled field like a deus ex machina bestriding, albeit unpretentiously, the discipline of history proper. ...[H]e also wrote a book we could give undergraduates to read. ..The current generation can scarcely imagine the conceptual and stylistic poverty of what passed for the literature half a century ago... none of which was properly historical, the pickings were thin and thorny. ...[H]e popularized, or better publicized, an analysis developed by Burtt and more deeply by Alexandre Koyré... Thanks to them... the very concept of a scientific revolution was of crucial importance to our thinking.
  • Forty years ago the British historian Herbert Butterfield proclaimed that the "so called 'scientific revolution,' popularly associated with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries... outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom."
    It was a remarkable claim. But in the generation following Butterfield's classic survey... much was written to extend and enrich the vision. And there are good reasons. Because the Scientific Revolution is the acknowledged birthplace of the history of science... But ironically, while Europeanists... have come to accept the legitimacy of the Scientific Revolution, there is a growing sense among specialists that... the once proud periodization has been lost in a wave of "New Eclecticism." ...I reduce the problem to a simple question: Is the Scientific Revolution a 'paradigm lost'?
  • The Scientific Revolution... roughly... from Copernicus to Newton, is now so deeply entrenched... that it is hard to believe that it was only given broad currency in Herbert Butterfield’s The Origins of Modern Science in 1949. Whereas 19th-century historians claimed that the great changes that catapulted Europe into the modern age were the Reformation and the Renaissance, Butterfield saw the major breakthrough in the twin advance of scientific conceptualization and factual discovery that began in the 16th century. ...Butterfield captured a major aspect of the historical shift that took place at this time, and I will stress... some of the reasons why his thesis still holds.
    We need only reread the famous aphorisms at the beginning of Bacon’s Novum Organum [Book I, Aphorisms 1-3] to be reminded that our way of viewing the world changed in the 17th century... The shift is clear: knowledge has become power to be used not to contemplate nature, but to improve it.

See also