International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210-1685

by Stephen Gaukroger

Introductory Essay by Peter Harrison

While this book is devoted to a range of issues in the history of science, it is of particular importance to those with an interest in science-religion relations, and for a number of reasons. At the most general level, it challenges the common assumption – albeit one that most historians of science now routinely reject – that the emergence and growth of the modern sciences was established through a distancing of science from religion, and through an increasing secularisation of the study of nature. Rather, Gaukroger argues, what we encounter in the period that witnessed the birth of modern science is a new partnership between the sciences and religion – one in which science is able to harness the legitimizing power of religion and represent itself as fulfilling key religious functions. 

Related to this general claim is the striking way in which this book frames the question of the uniqueness of Western science. Gaukroger contends that instead of focusing on the issue of the origins of science, we ought to look carefully at the less obvious question of the persistence and consolidation of science. Comparative history suggests that science had many ‘false starts’. When we consider the history of science in other cultures – in the classical and Hellenistic worlds, China, the medieval Islamic world, and medieval Paris and Oxford – what we see is a ‘boom-bust’ pattern, where the study of nature is but one activity amongst others, and in which science competes for attention with other cultural activities. Interest in the sciences is sporadic and displays no pattern of growth. In the West from the seventeenth century onwards, however, we encounter a markedly different pattern – an unprecedented consolidation and growth of scientific activity. In time, science triumphs over all other cultural competitors and establishes its own cognitive standards as the ones to which all other activities must conform.

How is this distinctive pattern of scientific growth to be explained? It is tempting to assume that the new science was self-evidently ‘a good thing’, and that the case for its rise to prominence was made by contributions to technology and human welfare. However, in the early modern period, the record of the sciences in this regard was poor, and a number of critics pointed this out. Gaukroger argues that science was able to consolidate its position as a culturally beneficial enterprise because it drew upon religious values to lend itself social legitimacy. In time, of course, science no longer needed this kind of support and the story of the secular origins of science became plausible because of a kind of historical amnesia about its true origins and development. What this book clearly demonstrates is that the unique pattern of scientific development in the West had less to do with great discoveries and inventions than with the values that underpin scientific activity and guarantee its longevity. At the birth of science, those values were religious ones.

Much more could be said about this wonderful book which is rich in detail and stimulating ideas, and is informed by deeply impressive scholarship.   It is essential reading for those interested in science, religion and Western modernity.