The Rise of Science and the Mathematization of Reality: Competing Views

It [Mathematics] did not, as they supposed, correspond to an objective structure of reality; it was a method and not a body of truths; with its help we could plot regularities—the occurrence of phenomena in the external world—but not discover why they occurred as they did, or to what end.

– Isaiah Berlin, from an entry in Dictionary of the History of Ideas – The Counter-Enlightenment

Isaiah Berlin in his entry on what he termed the “counter-Enlightenment” tells us that opposition “…to the central ideas of the French Enlightenment, and of its allies and disciples in other European countries, is as old as the movement itself”. 1 The common elements that these reactionary writers opposed in the Enlightenment project were notions of autonomy of the individual, empiricism and scientific methodology, its rejection of authority and tradition, religion, and any transcendent notions of knowledge based on faith rather than Reason. Berlin himself places Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and his Scienza nuova (1725; radically altered 1731) as playing a “decisive role in this counter-movement”. He specifically uses the term “counter-movement” rather than the appellation “counter-Enlightenment”.

I’ve been following – – blog Persistent Enlightenment, and one of the interesting threads or series of posts on his site deals with the concept of “Counter-Enlightenment,” a term coined by none other that Isaiah Berlin in the early 50’s (see his latest summation: here). I believe that he correct in his tracing of this concept and its history and use in scholarship. Yet, for myself, beyond tracing this notion through many different scholars I’ve begun rethinking some of the actual history of this period and of the different reactions to the Enlightenment project itself as well as the whole tradition of the sciences. One really needs to realize the Enlightenment itself is the culmination of a process that started centuries before with the emergence of the sciences.

Stephen Gaukroger’s encyclopedic assessment of the sciences and their impact on the shaping of modernity has been key in much of my own thinking concerning the history and emergence of the sciences as well as the understanding of the underpinnings of the mechanistic world view that informs it in this early period. One of the threads in that work is the battle between those traditionalist scholars of what we now term the “humanities” who seek to protect human learning – the study of ancient literature along with philosophy, history, poetry, oratory, etc. – as Gaukroger says, “as an intrinsic part of any form of knowledge of the world and our place in it” (1).1  He mentions Gibbon’s remark that during his time that the study of physics and mathematics has overtaken the study of belles lettres as the “pre-eminent form of learning” (1). In our own time this notion that philosophy and the humanities are non-essential to the needs of modern liberal democracies has taken on a slight edge as well.

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