The ‘new’ science of the 17 Century: what it entailed and


The ‘new’ science of the 17


Century: what it entailed and contemporary reactions


Lady Cavendish and her maverick response to ‘new’ science.

The ‘new’ features of 17 th

Century science.

Questions of historiography and religion.

Features of ‘new’ science

Founding of the Royal Society of London in 1660 and consequential shift from science in the private sphere to science in the public sphere.

Rise of the mathematics model. (Mathematics and objectivity as a theme in Stuart England, i.e. Newton’s Principia and Hobbes.)

Distinction between political factions and science after the Civil War.

Instruments and experiments were used to find inductive conclusions about the natural world – Baconian science.

Emphasis on the senses.


Context of Cavendish

Royalist exiled in France and then Antwerp.

Returned after the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

Distinguished herself in the field of ‘natural philosophy’ with her work on the nature of atoms in 1663.

Sought fame and was seen as an eccentric.

First woman to address the Royal Society of London in 1667.

Following this, women were banned until 1945.

Blazing new science and critique of contemporary natural philosophy

Blazing World explores science

(amongst other issues) through a fictional utopia.

Explores unexplained natural phenomena, such as the changing position of the Sun and Moon, and considers ‘the various patterns of the


‘Blazing Stars’ – subjectivity.

Cavendish’s understanding of atoms.

Telescopes as ‘false informers’ which

‘delude your Senses.’

Similarity between Hobbes’ critique of


Critique of the Royal Society – personified by ‘bear men’.

Cavendish’s criteria for natural philosophy

Science should be free of subjective interpretation.

It should not cause factions political divisions.

It must be useful information to better the lives of humanity.

Was Cavendish’s critique fair?

Depicts natural philosophers as ‘bear men’ who argue about experiments without knowing their true meaning.

In order to not cause ‘factions’ in the state, she orders that optical instruments be used in schools, but not for actual scientific enquiry.

Cavendish feared that divisions over inconclusive evidence might lead to Civil War.

Did her involvement in the English Civil War cause her to view science through the wrong lenses? Was she superstitious or simply conscious of the recent past?

Baconian science and Cavendish share similar premises but reach different conclusions.

However, Trobowitz argues that the fairy-tale qualities of Blazing World along with

Cavendish’s gender have made her an unfair target for ‘scholarly scorn’. This, she argues, accounts for the lack of recognition of Blazing World in studies of utopias.

Religion and science

Puritanism and the aim to improve nature.

Comenius, a Protestant, desired scientific progress to benefit the public good.

Religion and utopia.

Bilgrami – Hartlib and Bacon as seeing nature as completely conquerable by science.

Robert Pope contends that the 17 th Century was essentially a period of secularisation. Argues that Koinonia was not the purpose of the sharing of knowledge; argues for recognised intrinsic value.

Was ‘natural philosophy’ a secular or religious phenomenon? Both?

Historiographical challenges to understanding Stuart science

17 th Century generally acknowledged as the birth of modern science.

Revisionists claim that it in fact begun in the 19 th


Internalist accounts (emphasis on Scientific thinkers) and externalist accounts

(emphasis on social, religious, institutional and political contexts) – tend to be relativists.

Boris Hessen (20 th

Century Soviet) critiqued Newton from a Marxist perspective and attributed the focus on mathematics to the requirements of capitalism.

Robert Merton, influenced by Weber, pointed to a connection between puritanism and technological progress and argued that the cultural values of Protestantism are generally conducive to scientific enquiry.

Counter-arguments developed in the later Cold War period. Porter points to ‘leaps of reason’ for scientific progress rather than external explanations.

Hunter suggests more understanding is needed in contemporary debate of ideas and their relationship with the wider context, and warns against ‘timeless laws’.

Concluding thoughts

Was ‘new’ science actually new?

Was it essentially religious or secular?

What does the controversy regarding experimentation and observation tell us?

Should scientific progress be judged on its own terms or in relation to its social, political and religious context?

Did science become more or less accessible?