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Book Review


Henry, John. The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science. Studies in European History, 2e (New York: Palgrave, 2002). 160 pp, $24.95.

     John Henry's The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science is a terrific survey of its subject, presenting a thorough historiographical overview of the Scientific Revolution. It is a solid contribution to its series, the Palgrave-published (formerly MacMillan) "Studies in European History," joining such other works as Peter Burke's The Renaissance, Roy Porter's The Enlightenment, and Geoffrey Scarre and John Callan's Witchcraft and Magic in 16th- and 17th-Century Europe. All of these works, including this one, are in their second editions. Surprisingly, Henry, Reader in the Social Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh, makes no mention of what changes were made between the first edition and this one. 1
     This slim volume, at only 112 pages of text, is not structured as a historical narrative, centered around a single overarching thesis, but as a historiographical survey. Nevertheless, anyone, whether student or instructor, interested in the history of science and the issues surrounding the Scientific Revolution will find this book invaluable. It probably is not a stretch to write that this book is the best survey of its type available. As such, it can be put to many uses in the classroom with both graduate and advanced undergraduate students. For instance, it could be utilized in semester courses or seminars devoted to the history of science or the relationship between science and religion, the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, or early modern popular culture. However, because the book has no central theme, it would probably work best accompanied by a more standard historical survey of the period, such as A. Rupert Hall's The Revolution in Science, 1500-1750 or Peter Dear's more recent Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1750. That way, students will have the broad historical sweep of Hall or Dear's work to accompany the focus on more specific areas of historical contention provided by Henry's book. 2
     Unfortunately, in a context broader than Western European history, Henry's book is lacking. For instance, Henry does not develop why the Scientific Revolution was a specifically European achievement. Though he implicitly suggests the social context of early modern Europe gave the Scientific Revolution the support it needed, this is not made explicit anywhere in the book. So, while Henry explores the medieval and Renaissance roots of the Scientific Revolution, he makes no specific mention of Islamic contributions to science and its preservation during Western Europe's medieval period. Likewise, Henry details the "Puritanism-and-science" thesis forwarded by such historians as Robert K. Merton. Thus, he devotes some energy to explaining how religion might have contributed to the rise of science in the West. However, he makes no similar argument, either for or against, for Hinduism in India or Confucianism in China. 3
     This book contains seven full chapters and a conclusion, all of which are well-balanced and organized quite usefully. Any reader would be hard-pressed to find many areas of historical debate concerning the Scientific Revolution that Henry has not included as one of his chapters (perhaps the distinctions of the earlier Greek achievement?). He also makes sure that he emphasizes the cultural and social factors which were so important to the development of modern science. As he explains, "If we wish to understand why things changed, not just describe how they changed, we have to look to the historical context out of which they arose."(99) To emphasize this context, Henry details all the major figures and many minor figures of the Scientific Revolution, though the limited number of pages of the book precludes truly fleshing out the biographical details of any of these men. To be sure, men are the central players and actors in Henry's description of the Scientific Revolution. Only a few pages are devoted to any women—Anne, Lady Conway and Émilie du Châtelet—and the gendering of science. (106-109) From these few pages, Henry decides "the main contribution to history of these" women "lies in demonstrating to historians what women were capable of in spite of the almost insurmountable barriers which their society erected against them." (108) 4
     Henry quickly establishes the subject of this book as "the period in European history when, arguably, the conceptual, methodological and institutional foundation of modern science were first established" between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. He does note that the flexibility in historians' definitions of what constituted it "indicates that the Scientific Revolution is primarily a historian's conceptual category," but quickly adds this "does not mean that it is merely a figment of their imaginations with no basis in historical reality."(1) From defining the Scientific Revolution, Henry segues into an overview of how historians and philosophers of science have approached the idea of revolution in the sciences and how such an approach can easily fall prey to the dangers of "whiggish" history. Indeed, Henry notes, the use of the word science, rather than the term natural philosophy, is very problematic. 5
      In the following chapters, Henry explores everything from how the Renaissance, with its accompanying improved technologies in navigational techniques and challenges to traditional, established authority, to the mechanical philosophy and the growing importance of mathematics and the scientific method, utilizing experience, experiment, and observation, were all important and necessary aspects of the Scientific Revolution. Not surprisingly, given Henry's own interests, he devotes a full chapter to how magic figured into the origins of modern science. In this chapter, he uses Kepler's work in astronomy, Gilbert's work with magnetism, and Newton's work in alchemy as his examples. The next-to-last chapter focuses on the ties between religion and science, in which Henry uses such ideas as the Puritanism-and-science thesis and the latitudinarian support of Newtonianism after the Glorious Revolution in England to support his contention that "There can be no fundamental incompatibility between religious and scientific thought." (92) The last chapter explores the ties between science and wider culture, with such considerations as how there were strong economic reasons for the development of science and how the body and cosmology were often imbued with political symbolism. Henry's conclusion serves as both a warning not to overstate Newton's importance, despite his serving as the apex of the mathematicization of natural philosophy, and as an explanation of how the advances and changes of the Scientific Revolution fed into the worldview of the succeeding Enlightenment. 6
     Despite his balance in presenting the material he does, the most attractive features of this book are perhaps the inclusion of an annotated bibliography of almost entirely secondary works, ranging from articles and essays to books and monographs, covering 294 titles and a glossary of major terms. Though most annotations are limited to a mere sentence, the sheer breadth of the bibliography makes this book a valuable addition to the reference libraries of scholars interested in the history of science. Given what it does include, it may be being picky to question why some works were not included, but their omission is puzzling. For example, Henry does not list Thomas Kuhn's classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This exclusion is curious because Henry's first chapter is about defining what constituted the Scientific Revolution and how historians have approached the notion of revolution in the sciences. Likewise, Henry neglects to mention James R. Jacob's Robert Boyle and the English Revolution, which is puzzling because Boyle was an important figure in the emergence of the scientific method and Henry contends the English political experience was unique in shaping scientific endeavors. 7
     All in all, this reviewer highly recommends Henry's book to anyone interested in the Scientific Revolution and the debates in which historians engage surrounding that event. The book would be useful for both upper-level undergraduate students and graduate students. In addition, even though it does not broaden itself to any true considerations of world history, this book could serve as a springboard for comparative schemas by pointing out what may have been unique about the European experience and the rise of modern science. 8
Christopher Chatlos Strangeman
Southern Illinois University Carbondale

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