International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450

by David C. Lindberg

Introductory Essay by Ladislav Kvasz

When we try to understand the subtle, complex, and changing relations between science and religion in the history of western civilization, it is important not to project our contemporary understanding of science onto scientific theories of the past. Each historical period has its own particular way of doing, transmitting, and reflecting upon science. David C. Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science provides an ideal opportunity to develop a sensitivity of these different notions of science.

The book is based on a university course that professor Lindberg taught for almost four decades. His rich didactical experiences resulted in a clear, balanced, well-documented, and scholarly-argued overview of the western scientific tradition from prehistory until the end of the middle ages. In the limited space of a single volume, professor Lindberg succeeded in presenting the main themes and problems of the subject. In such limited space, it is of course not possible to describe each period extensively, with every technical detail, as in the thick volumes of The Cambridge History of Science. The author could only outline the general developments and put particular emphasis on selected themes.

The first detailed chapter is Chapter Three, Aristotle’s Philosophy of Nature. Lindberg explains Aristotle’s general theory of change, his theory of the cosmos, and his theory of motion in a way comprehensible to the modern reader. He then debunks the most common misinterpretations of the Aristotelian position. The chapter is closed with an evaluation of Aristotle’s achievements. This provides an ideal background for the understanding of the medieval Aristotelians.

Chapter Five, The Mathematical Sciences in Antiquity is also of special interest. Besides presenting the main achievements of Ancient Greek mathematics, optics, and the theory of simple machines, the chapter offers a detailed exposition of the different systems of ancient astronomy. It explains their account of the retrograde motion of the planets as well as their view of the structure of the cosmos. In this way the chapter offers sufficient technical background for the understanding of the debate around the Copernican revolution.

Also important is Chapter Ten, The Recovery and Assimilation of Greek and Islamic Science, where the author, among other things, discusses the complicated process of assimilation of Aristotelian natural philosophy at western universities.

Besides presenting the development of scientific theories, the book also puts much emphasis on the exposition of the institutional background of science. For instance, even the locations of the Athenian schools of the Academy, the Lyceum, the Stoa Poikile, and the Epicurean garden are given. In similar detail the location and the date of founding of the first twenty eight European universities is described. The history of science is presented not as happening in a vacuum, but it becomes a clear geographical, institutional, and social context. Similarly, science is located in well-drawn philosophical and religious contexts. Generally the book offers a very good understanding of the forces that formed the development of western science.