English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

The Beginnings of Modern Thought:

B.  A New Cosmos -- The Copernican Revolution

We turn now from a review of the Christian conception of phases and meaning of HISTORY to an examination of the medieval-Renaissance picture of the structure of the COSMOS and the nature of NATURE, and to the radical changes that it underwent in the course of the 17th Century. For the first major intellectual upheaval of the modern era was the process by which the Aristotelean-Ptolematic picture of the cosmic structure came to be replaced, for the intelligentsia of Europe, by the "Copernican" (or, more properly, perhaps, the Newtonian-Copernican) model. The key dates for this process, which was the collaborative achievement of many individuals over several generations, are 1543 (the deathbed publication of Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium [Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres] [1]), 1633 (the condemnation of Galileo Galilei by the Roman Inquisition) and 1687 (when Newton published Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica [The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy]).

The business of appreciating the main points of difference between these two pictures, and of examining the main achievements and obstacles along the path from the old to the new, will be the business mainly of lecture and class discussion, which will be organized around the framework of three documents on our web site:

The first two of these you will want to print off and bring to class, where you can take additional notes directly upon them.  All the illustrations that show up in the third you will be given on a handout, along with a host of others.  Therefor it might be most economical to print off only the text part of this one.  Directions for doing this (and other options) are given through a link you'll find there.

Our study of this topic will culminate in a series of reflections on the ramifications of the victory of the new picture of the cosmos.  This you will want to read through at the outset and consult repeatedly.  We will not devote allocate any class sessions specifically to the discussion of this crucially important document.  (Of course, if you have specific questions you want to raise in class, we will take them up.  But it will be left to your initiative if this is to happen.)  What is said there is very central to the course, and you must make it a high priority to get on top of it.

Also at the outset you will also want to consult WH 381-388, 390­391, and 395-398. Pay special attention to Figures 15.1 (Peter Apian's schematic diagram of the Aristotelian model of the universe [2]), 5.2 (Thomas Digges' diagram version of the Copernican hypothesis), 15.7 (the engraving of Leclerc's painting of Louis XIV at the Académie des Sciences [3]), and 15.8 (the frontispiece to Fontenelle's Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds). It will also help to revisit frequently Timeline 15.1 on p. 383.

To begin with, we shall have to get clear about some important logical distinctions concerning the task of explanation. Here is the scheme we will elaborate on in class. We will have to keep these distinctions in mind as we discuss the history of dispute over the structure and composition of the universe.


1.  Actually Copernicus had probably completed his study by 1530, but he delayed publication of his results for fear of the reaction he anticipated would greet it.  Return.

2.  Note that it is too simple to capture the refinements that characterized the Ptolemaic astronomy that Copernicus grew up with: all the planet-bearing spheres are concentric at the center of the earth (i.e., there are no eccentrics), nor is there any indication of epicycles or equants.  Return.

3.  Keep this scene in mind (along with the infomation provided in the caption to it) when you encounter Swift's satire in the episode in which Gulliver visits Laputa in Book III of Gulliver's Travels.  Return.

  Back to Reading List #3.

  Forward to the outline of logical structure of explanation in the sciences.

  Go to the Home Page of the course.

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright © 1997 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated Thursday, April 08, 1999.