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How Can the Historian Account for the Development of Scientific and Religious Ideas?


The question at the head of this essay asks for a strategy that would allow a historian to do intellectual history relating to science and religion. To answer it, I propose to use (necessarily truncated) examples to identify issues and see how these might be dealt with on the way to forming an account of how ideas develop.

The first area that will be examined is the question of what is meant by development and whether it implies the idea of progress. Next, the question of what thinkers of the past have been trying to achieve will be addressed. It is a truism that where they wanted to go could be very different to where the historian sees they ended up. This leads to the important question of what historical agents already knew and what foundations they were building on as well as their mindset, presuppositions and cultural baggage. Finally, the ways in which the mechanics of intellectual change can be studied are examined. While this essay will draw the majority of its examples from the history of science and the history of religion in which it is hoped many of the issues of concern will arise, methodologies and theories will be taken from where ever they can usefully be found.

Development and progress

Development implies growth and the ascent to maturity. This is more than just the unguided formulation of theories like the spread of lichen over a rock because there is a sense of both direction and progression. This leads to some very tricky problems for the historian who has to decide what progress is. EH Carr seems to believe it is nothing more than that which happens to lead in the direction of his own ‘unverifiable utopia’ [NOTE]. On the other hand, many people, including modern Westerners, have believed progress must be in the direction of whatever their own society happens to believe in and that other societies should be encouraged to follow. This definition is no less subjective than Carr’s but is at least rooted in the positive feeling that we “have never had it so good” although we should remember that Hegel thought the Prussian monarchy was perfect liberty.

Religious development

Each year, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion is awarded by the eponymous Foundation to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The purpose of the prize, according to the Foundation’s web site, is summed up:

…by drawing public attention to religion¹s positive and dynamic role in the moral and spiritual advancement of the world¹s people, the Templeton Prize celebrates and encourages the aspiration of the human spirit to know more about ultimate reality and the deepest, most fulfilling purposes of life.

To those without any religious leaning, this is essentially meaningless while to those from a conservative tradition it completely misses the point. Some ways in which religious progress can be measured, such as how effectively the faith in question gains power or dominates its society, do not gel terribly well with the idea of being progressive. Likewise, the traditional ladder of religious development of animism – polytheism – monotheism is difficult to define as objective progress, especially if there really are spirits in the woods or if there is no god at all.

For this reason, religious development is very often judged in the same way that political development is. Today, with the decline of Marxism, this usually involves movement towards liberal democracy. Having an inquisitor examine the case against heretics rather than their neighbours simply lynching them was progress according to this rule and so is tolerance over dogmatic orthodoxy. However, the basic assumption that liberal democracy represents mankind’s most enlightened state to date is best not examined too closely as, while we may believe so, it is certainly a subjective judgment and there are many, from Marxists to the hard right, who would not agree with it. Also, this formulation of progress is not terribly helpful if one is studying something like the development of the creeds through to the eighth century. Comparing the earliest Apostle’s Creed to the final form of the Nicene Creed (including the filioque and all) in an objective manner, it is hard to explain how the later is either truer or more enlightened or more useful although it is certainly longer.

The history of religion has a further problem when considering progress that appears in a lesser extent in politics. This is the habit people have of looking back to the ‘good old days’ and for Christianity, to the apostolic age in particular. The idea of an innocent past before corruption entered the equation was powerfully used by Augustus to consolidate his power as Emperor in a society that was still overwhelmingly Republican and has been recycled over and over again by religious renewal movements. The new Orders of the twelfth century were self consciously looking back to what the Benedictines once were but had lost in their compromises with worldly affairs. The Reformation as well as the Second Vatican Council both tried to remove some of the detritus of the ages and return to apostolic purity. Although most religious reformers (or fundamentalists as they are commonly called today) are reinventing the past to suit their own present they are nearly always deliberately reactive in outlook.

Perhaps it is better, then, to abandon the idea of development involving objective progress and instead be content to examine why the participants in religious and political history thought that changes were necessary and what the forces were that drove them.

Scientific development

Science stands apart from other fields of intellectual history in that it can point unambiguously towards an objective measure of advancement. This measure is not, as many scientists believe, how close science gets to explaining the way nature really is, but how well the technology that it produces works. Attacks on institutional science by Paul Feyerabend [NOTE] have drawn blood because there are many scientific models that are unrealistic. Positively charged holes do not move through semi-conductors and n-space is an abstraction but it is these two models (among others) that mean engineers can built computers that turn on each morning. If Feyerabend was correct in saying that scientific theories are the product of cultural practices, it is surely wrong to construe that this means the theories are not constrained by nature. A working computer is an objective test that the models that went into designing it produce empirically correct results and anyone who believes otherwise is strongly advised not to get on board an aeroplane.

This helpful objectivity has unfortunately led to a certain degree of laziness among historians of science who have been content to paint a picture of a succession of ‘Great Men’ (and the odd woman) gradually adding to the existing stock of knowledge. Robert Darnton says that the Enlightment encyclopaedist, Denis Diderot was an early exponent of this in his Discours Preliminaire [NOTE]. In point of fact, the history of mathematics is very much like this in that very few mathematical theories, once they have been accepted as canonical, are ever rejected. Science is quite the reverse, with a vast number of ideas, previously used and believed for centuries, now all but forgotten.

A further dangerous temptation for the historian of science is to pick out ideas that happen to match our own conceptions and ignore the context or reasons they were considered. For instance, it is often alleged in popular works that the Greeks ‘knew’ the Earth orbited the sun on the strength of a single citation from one Aristarchus of Samos even though there is little evidence that anyone, including Aristarchus himself, ever really believed it. Reference to the heliocentric hypothesis is made by Archimedes but the only surviving treatise by Aristarchus himself does not mention it. Likewise, praising Democritus and Lucretius for their ideas about atoms is anachronistic given they could in no way demonstrate their theories or find useful applications for them. These ideas were the fruits of unfettered metaphysical speculation that inevitably hits on the right answer occasionally. Scientific progress requires theories that can be used and give results that can be judged as successful or not. There is very little of the ancient Greek achievement in natural philosophy that can be described as science in a modern sense without anachronism.

Steven Shapin begins a book ‘there was no such thing as the scientific revolution and this is a book about it’ [NOTE]. but does not really carry his thesis. While the positivist view of science history has died a deserved death, even a full appreciation of the social, religious and intellectual currents that contributed to the scientific revolution cannot disguise the fact that, from Oresme to Newton, there was enormous progress in framing theories that both accurately reproduced the measurements achieved in experiment and had practical uses.

Motivation and intention

If progress in many intellectual pursuits is difficult to agree about in any objective sense, it might be possible to study why thinkers were moving in the direction that they were, what their motivations were and where they thought they were going. Austin and Searle formulated the notion of illocutionary force to describe what the writer of a text wants to achieve by it. A writer’s motivation and intention will not always be the same but one can shed light on the other. In many cases motivations were basically practical and a clear goal was in mind even if it was a utopian one. The grand statements of intent in enlightenment writing from Francis Bacon onwards, make it clear that the authors were trying to improve the world by using unadulterated reason. Medieval theologians were engaged in the very practical activity of improving the church’s ability to combat heresy and hence save souls. Reason was also called to this work although in this case was always kept subservient to revelation, as medieval thinkers were never so arrogant as to believe that their own minds were the most powerful tools available.

Religious motivation

The traditional view since Marx, has been that religious institutions are primarily attempting to gain and hold on to power. They were alleged to formulate doctrine largely to increase control and that the terrors of hell and the examples of saints were intended to ensure that the common people were willing to buckle under the clerical yoke. With regard to Medieval Europe, once the prime exemplar, this interpretation has been unable to survive research into the piety of common people and the private beliefs of even the most powerful clerics. With exceptions such as the controversy over the poverty of Christ, doctrine appears to have been developed for other than material reasons.

But if there is no longer an overarching theory to explain theological motivation, motives in particular disputes can be profitably examined. In the age of the scholastics the piety of nearly all concerned has been emphasised but there was also a split between those, like Peter Abelard, who wanted to know God through reason and St Bernard of Clairvaux who felt this was presumptuous. His theology was far more mystical, attuned to the subjective experience of God rather than objective study. In the thirteenth century, St Bernard’s short-term victory over Abelard was extinguished as the Dominican Order, among others, realised that reason was far to powerful a tool not to be used in the battle for souls that was raging with the Cathars. At root, the desire to keep people from going to hell was a shared aim of theologians in the Middle Ages and arguments over the place of reason were subservient.

Scientific motivation

If theology was practical, for centuries, science was anything but. Technology is the practical effect of science and although this made enormous advances during the Middle Ages, the natural philosophers of the universities, like the Greeks before them, showed very little inclination to get their hands dirty. Officially, natural philosophy made up the majority of the Master of Arts degree that was a pre-requisite for doing a doctorate in medicine, theology or law. The motivation for those who remained as teachers of the arts syllabus was to explain how the world worked but only in a theoretical way with no thought for practical applications or experiments. Consequently these people might have been inspired in a similar way to pure mathematicians today. Some natural philosophers saw their speculation as a form of worship inspired by the Bible’s words at Wisdom 11:20 “But thou hast arranged all things by measure and number and weight.”

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the idea of science as a practical programme for world improvement begins to emerge with the writing of Francis Bacon, but science as worship did not die out and is still cited as an inspiration by Kepler and Boyle among others. Even today, scientists who consider themselves agnostic and non-religious still wax lyrical about the beauty and elegance of their models and how this reflects a deep pattern in nature.

That many academics, and perhaps the vast majority, are studying for their own satisfaction is something that tends to be ignored by historians who want meatier explanations. It is very likely that most theological and scientific research has been carried out by those who simply got a kick out of it and who would not want to do anything else. The fees of medieval universities were such that it involved considerable sacrifice to study for any length of time and many academics joined the mendicant Orders so that they could do research without worrying themselves about worldly affairs [NOTE]. Likewise, the proverbial Victorian country parson who collects and catalogued butterflies was at base unlikely to be motivated by much more than an instinct to horde and an appreciation for beauty.

Intellectual environment

There is a debate between those who see a mentality as a kind of prison that constrains which thoughts are possible and those who claim historical agents think in the same way we do given the evidence they have at hand. At root this can be seen as an argument between determinists and those who allow human freedom to effect events. Febrve declares that it was impossible to be an atheist for part of the sixteenth century and almost implies that brains were somehow wired differently then. Likewise, Kuhn insists that all normal science must happen within the dominant paradigm and only during certain periods of ‘crisis’ is there a licence to produce any new ideas.

The alternative view must remain grounded in the circumstances historical agents find themselves in. It is one thing to say that a person will believe something, however irrational, because they can conceive of no alternative. It is quite another to say that they believed something that seems irrational to us but to them, with the evidence available and on the authorities they respected, was completely reasonable. There are large numbers of examples in the history of science of rationality being turned on its head. To a learned professor of the University of Padua in the late sixteenth century there was nothing rational about the Earth hurtling through space at 64,000 miles per hour and simultaneously spinning at another 1,000 miles per hour when it was self evidently stationary. Not only that but Aristotle, the Bible and all other respected authorities supported his view. Even today, it is impossible to demonstrate the heliocentric model without an appeal to authority or accurate astronomical observations, neither of which were available to our Paduan. However, when Kepler had completed his work, the evidence was available to make a new conclusion rational. This does not mean that it was in earlier times impossible for someone to irrationally jump to the conclusion that the Earth was moving (as Copernicus might be said to have done, if well timed irrationality were not usually called intuition).

To examine the history of ideas the only fair way to proceed would seem to be to place before ourselves the evidence and authority that the historical agents had before them and assume they acted rationally on that basis. Otherwise, there is no hope of ever tracing intellectual development because ‘cause and effect’ assumes some sort of logical causality that is impossible with non-rational agents. The best that could be hoped for would be a catalogue of mental positions with no way to say how one led to another except by being pushed by blind exterior forces. This might be precisely what determinists are advocating but they would have to give up any hope of finding causes and restrict themselves to explanations.

For this reason it is essential for the historian to know what it is that his subjects knew and what their implicit assumptions were. One of the most important assumptions concerns which sources of evidence were to be considered authoritative and how these authorities should be interpreted. It is not enough to declare that all medieval theologians thought the Bible literally true in every detail when that would suggest the world was flat and not a single one of these theologians actually thought that [NOTE]. On the other hand, on many other occasions when the Bible conflicted with Aristotelian natural philosophy, it was the former that was considered to be the reliable authority. To untangle this web one should consult the commonplace texts from which students were taught and unrelated pronouncements in vernacular literature that state a fact as if it were common knowledge. The historian must guard against the work of a master claiming much greater credit for originality than he is entitled to while at the same time avoiding the opposite error of claiming something was accepted during a particular period based on a speculative entry in a highly scholarly text. This point is made forcefully by Quentin Skinner as being an essential step in establishing the context of a text.

Implicit in this background knowledge is a worldview or ideology, as Skinner calls it in reference to politics. This is often so deeply imbedded in the psyche that it is very rarely considered explicitly except by specialists. Questioning these worldviews can cause confusion as very often the person who holds on to one will not have considered that things could be any different – the worldview is seen as self confirming fact of life and hence it is not strictly rational. For instance, Hume demonstrated that the inductive method on which science depends is not provable outside itself and AN Whitehead suggested that belief in a law abiding deity was what gave Western European thinkers faith in induction in the first place [NOTE]. Worldviews may go some way towards explaining the success or failure of cultures in various intellectual fields but it must be remembered that they are generalities. The existence of a dominant worldview does not mean that a particular individual is unable to think outside the box but rather that his ideas are unlikely to fall on fertile ground. Unless his new ideas can be stated in a language that makes them comprehensible to his peers, his intention in writing will not be met.

Social environment

The society a thinker lives in will have helped form his opinions, supplied some motivation and might be changing in a way that demands progress in intellectual disciplines. Thus many rationalist writers of eighteenth century France were grounded in the mechanistic worldview, inspired by the new science (even if they did not understand it), motivated by the abuses of the church and were trying to find answers to problems that their society was throwing at them. Likewise the burst of theological activity in the thirteenth century was not just a function of the rediscovery of ancient Greek philosophy but also met the pressing need to combat widespread heresy, itself much caused by the circumstances of the society that spawned them.

Intellectual history, written by intellectuals, has often portrayed the role of the social environment to be to oppress the thinker and very little else. Stories of scientific martyrs abound, and when they are lacking, non-scientists, like Giordano Bruno, are drafted in to take their place. The conflict between science and religion has been told and retold as a story of a religious hegemony trying to snuff out the shoots of free thought.   None of this is allowed to stand in current scholarship where the differing agendas of the academy and outside it can be acknowledged while also finding a great deal that they had in common.

Another area much examined of late is the mutual organisation of intellectuals, whether through exchanges of letters, guilds and societies or a university. Few professions are as incestuous and valuable work, such as Lewis and Susan Pyenson's Servants of Nature has been done on the societies they have constructed for themselves. The picture that emerges is one of enormous complexity with petty rivalries, money problems, peer pressure and plain arrogance seeming to have a far bigger direct effect than any of the high minded historical considerations given above. Medieval students were as bitter about debt and fees as they still are today [NOTE] while the short answer to why Darwin published The Origin of Species when he did is that Wallace was about to trump him. Research into the domestic lives of scientists have produced a crop of popular works about their spouses and children, for example Dava Sobel's Galileo’s Daughter; Dennis Overbye's Einstein in Love; and Randal Keynes's Annies’s Box. Apart from looking for some human interest in the dry tale of experiments and equations, they also seek to discover more close-to-home influences on their work. Faced by this web of conflicting forces both exterior and domestic, one finds it is possible to do micro-history even with what Robert Darnton calls the canonically ‘great books’ [NOTE], Professors might not massacre cats but they did chase a dead duck around the gables of All Souls College, Oxford.

The mechanics of development

How ideas grow and change has been the subject of some interesting speculation. In science popular perceptions have been dominated by Karl Popper’s work while in religion Marxist power struggles, James Fraser’s anthropology and Freud have provided the dominant ideas in the twentieth century. The trouble with all these grand theories is that they often suffer death by detail where it is found that up close the situation is too complicated for the theory to handle. Also, in time, the most useful parts of a theory are absorbed into the general consciousness and their origins forgotten leaving, as its only distinctiveness, the most idiosyncratic parts. In the end, after it has changed the course of the river of enquiry, the theory can end up as a mortlake cut off from the general flow.

The mechanics of scientific development

Most scientists who have given the matter any thought, tend to be fans of Karl Popper’s falsification theory of scientific development as it squares with both their positivist view of science history and the desire for there to be something epistemologically unique about their craft. Popper claimed that all scientific theories are hypotheses that are continually being tested and would be thrown aside if they were to be falsified.

Among historians, it is Thomas Kuhn who has been most influential with his concept ‘paradigm shifts’ moving out of science and into practically every other field of human endeavour. He said that far from being thrown out, a falsified theory is enhanced to deal with new information until such time as it finally collapses under the weight of anomalous results. Then, after a chaotic period, a new theory emerges that can deal with the anomalies and normal service resumes. It is worth distinguishing between Kuhn’s paradigms and Skinner’s ideologies, if only so we have two useful concepts instead of a single nebulous one. A paradigm refers to but one field, say classical mechanics or health policy whereas the ideology/worldview is the general background that underpins all the paradigms.

Feyerabend insists that the acceptance of a theory is a social matter that depends on the environment it arose in. There are always loads of ideas floating around and some are considered acceptable to orthodoxy while others are not. Ideas that are beyond the pale, such as Intelligent Design or parapsychology, are not accepted for any reason other than there being heresy.

To summarise, Popper believes the success of a theory to be wholly objective, Kuhn thinks that social factors have a large role to play but the theory must ultimately be objectively successful, while Feyerabend claims the successful theory is nearly a completely subjective matter. While the philosophers argue, the historian still has no clear idea how science was actually done in the past and he might be wiser to avoid any grand theory in favour of a methodology. In particular, the historian needs to be familiar with earlier ideas such as ether, phlogiston, and impetus that have been laid aside and rejected. He must also appreciate how these ideas were felt to be useful and what problems they solved. They provide earlier steps on which it was possible for new ideas to be expressed, often with the aid of previous results that had not been considered important at the time. For instance, Copernicus needed Nicole Oresme’s solution as to why we do not feel the movement of the Earth even though in Oresme’s time it was just a curiosity as no one thought the Earth actually was moving [NOTE].

With this information it may be possible to see how new ideas could arise within an existing worldview and hence reconstruct the mechanism by which these ideas are formed, evaluated and become normative. As Quentin Skinner has shown with political ideologies, each new idea, once accepted, shifts the boundaries of the worldview and makes it possible for further new ideas to be accepted into the pale.

The mechanism of religion

As far as a believing person is concerned, it is impossible to fully understand how religious ideas develop without considering the role of God or gods. Historians have often tried to sweep any deities under the carpet and considered only naturalistic explanations but completely disregarding the factor which historical agents considered to be the most central of all does not seem to square with historical method. To deny the supernatural any function is an anachronism but one that is today difficult to challenge.

More than other fields, progress in religion is often achieved by dressing it up as a reactionary move. The Second Vatican Council is seen by the outside world as the Catholic Church coming to terms with the twentieth century but within is often justified as a ‘back to basics’ exercise. This is not surprising as the authority of a religion almost always ultimately stems from its founder and the reinterpretation of his ideas by successive generations is one of the major sources of religious development.

Skinner’s work on politics asked how radical one can be within an existing worldview and still be able to carry one’s point. In religious thought, the dominant ideology is called orthodoxy and this gives a very powerful boost to conservatism. The difference between orthodoxy and heresy may be a very subtle point of doctrine but psychologically the gap between the two is immense. This means that it is impossible for the religious reformer to actually consider himself to be producing something new – he must think of himself as orthodox even if that means that everyone else is a heretic. Furthermore, as Skinner also argues, the reformer must be able to structure his argument with the language of orthodoxy if he is to have any hope of being accepted. The schisms, anti-popes and fringe orders of the Middle Ages provided a rich and varied vocabulary in which the battles of the Reformation could be fought with both sides convinced they represented orthodoxy.


With all this emphasis on the essential conservatism of culture, we need to ask how it is that new ideas appear at all, and when they do, why anyone else takes any notice. Frequently people do not and opinion is divided as to whether we should venerate the ignored pioneers, as we tend to do with Aristarchus or belittle them (John Scotus Eriugina’s anticipation of Tycho Brahe’s cosmology has been put down to ignorance rather than foresight [NOTE]). It should be possible to see how new ideas could arise within an existing worldview and hence reconstruct the mechanism by which these ideas are formed, evaluated and become normative. Quentin Skinner has shown that with political ideologies, each new idea, once accepted, shifts the boundaries of the worldview and makes it possible for further new ideas to be brought into the pale. I would extend this analysis to both science and religion by suggesting that new ideas, while they must arise within an existing system to be accepted, also move the system’s centre of gravity and thus allow further potential new ideas to become acceptable. This process can be rapid such as when during the Reformation, a proliferation of new sects arose once the boundaries of religious discourse had been expanded. To take a visualisation from evolutionary biology, one could imagine culture as a bubble that moves through ‘ideas-space’ in a continuous procession (and varying velocity) but without any actual saltations (that is, discontinuous jumps). It is very hard for a new bubble to spontaneously emerge and pull an old one towards it. Conversely, the greatest changes to culture open up when two collide and partly merge to open up a whole new sphere of ideas that were previously beyond reach.

Perhaps we now have a strategy that answers the question that this essay began with. We first need to understand the ideas we are studying and what is meant by their development. With the partial exception of science, this will be a subjective question and it might be better to ask where our historical agents thought they were going than to try to impose a grid from above. This leads directly to the motivation of the agents and what they wanted to achieve – whether practical solutions to pressing problems, spiritual satisfaction or simply an interesting career. The historian needs to examine the worldview or ideology of his agents and their intellectual and social environments. This might be the organisation of the institution they work in, the place of intellectuals in society and the ‘story so far’ in the field being investigated. Finally, big ideas tend to move an entire culture and to open up the possibility of further novel concepts. That dynamic is what can keep development moving.


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© James Hannam 2003.
Last revised: 08 December, 2009 .