University of toronto
Empiricism of Scientific Societies in the 17th Century: Intellectual, Social and Cultural Impact
| HPS210 | Dr. Christopoulos
Written by: Jinyao Wang
In his most famous memoir, Sir Isaac Newton said he was just a boy playing on the seashore, while the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before him. Despite his humble words, no century has reflected as much spontaneous scientific development as the seventeenth century. Scientific societies across Europe were indispensable in promoting scientific advancement. These societies provided scientists with a voice to project their innovations, increase engagement and cooperation in science and technology, and provide financial support for future experiments and publications. The very framework of scientific discovery and empirical methods was re-invented, forming the backbone of science we see today. Scientists, professors and artists encouraged the use of observation to find fundamental truths in life. Thus a paradigm shift towards empiricism was fuelled by the earliest forms of organized scientific academies, such as the Accademia del Cimento of Florence and the Royal Society of London. As a result, intellectually-oriented experimentation developed and quickly gained speed as a renowned technique for analyzing new knowledge. Profound changes also took place in all levels of society. These fundamental changes were reflected in culture and principles that permeated throughout the century, taking the raw level of enthusiasm and interest for science to unprecedented levels. Scientific societies across Europe were the most influential institution in emphasizing empiricism to the intellectual scene. This newfound emphasis was a profound change from the learning strategy found in traditional universities, where knowledge was passed down from the ancient authority to the students. To master the University’s curriculum, one must read, question and analyze the works of Aristotle and other authoritative natural philosophers. However, the analytical and disputative form of learning was largely abandoned in scientific societies throughout the seventeenth century. Instead, societies cultivated questions from observation, and sought answers through experimentation with vigorously tested instruments, rather than (whatever technique was used before). In Italy, many scientists were pioneers of this experimental culture. It is no surprise that the Accademia del Cimento of Florence was formed in 1657 with the motto “Probando e reprobando”. This meant that the organization desired all efforts to be concentrated upon experimentation, creation of instruments, and establishments of standards of measurement and exact methods of research. Its emblem was represented by ‘a lynx with upturned eyes tearing a Cyberus with its claws’, symbolizing the struggle between science and ignorance. Cimento was very influential in its short ten years of existence. Nine scientists contributed towards the elaboration of instruments, acquisition of empirical skills, and determination of fundamental truths. It brought experimental expertise to the intellectual landscape by producing a ‘Laboratory Manual’, truly living up to the meaning of Cimento – to experiment. The model of the Cimento society was revolutionary in the scientific community due to the fact that efforts were so united. The accumulated work of the nine scientists was published as if it were from a single author. Their final publication, Saggi di naturali esperienza fatte nell Accademia del Cimento, illustrated the ten years of the academy’s lifetime. It detailed the society trying new methods, persisting when efforts failed, and heeding to details where previously ignored. Most importantly, Saggi encouraged the intellectual world to adhere to the principles of inquiry through experiment, and never through sheer speculation. The pioneers at the Accademia del Cimento...
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