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Philosophical arguments must be understood in relation to the historical contexts in which they were produced. This yields the recognition that the distinction between early modern “philosophy” and “science” is an anachronistic imposition—the philosophical foundation of modernity and the Scientific Revolution are facets of the same transformations. However, the “contextualist turn” presents methodological difficulties arising from the opposition of philosophical analysis and historical narrative. This introduction presents two strategies for resolving these tensions in the study of the period. First, examination of how authors identified with peers and opposed themselves to foes generates a fine-grained understanding of early modern disciplines, without anachronistic impositions. Second, shifts in disciplinary boundaries can be used as entry points into the networks of influences that ramified across the intellectual landscape, yielding narratives that are sensitive to a wide range of textual and contextual factors. Together, awareness of disciplinary boundaries and their “inflection points” offers an updated methodology for the investigation of the early modern period. Anachronistic grand narratives of early modern philosophy and of the Scientific Revolution will be superseded by more modest but much more sophisticated accounts of the multiplication and reorganization of intellectual disciplines.
The last two decades have seen remarkable developments in our understanding of early modern natural history. Historians have closely scrutinized its research methods, experimental practices, and methodological and epistemological commitments. Building on this recent scholarship, this chapter focuses on a particularly important type of natural history deriving from Francis Bacon, namely, experimental natural history. We show that this new form of natural history provided many branches of natural philosophy with a method for organizing the study of nature—of determining their desiderata, applying experiment, and structuring and exploiting their evidential and observational bases. The most important contributions of experimental natural history to the Scientific Revolution were the elaboration of a new philosophy of experimentation and the introduction of new, practice-based systems of classification.
The early modern era produced the Scientific Revolution, which originated our present understanding of the natural world. Concurrently, philosophers established the conceptual foundations of modernity. This rich and comprehensive volume surveys and illuminates the numerous and complicated interconnections between philosophical and scientific thought as both were radically transformed from the late sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. The chapters explore reciprocal influences between philosophy and physics, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and other disciplines, and show how thinkers responded to an immense range of intellectual, material, and institutional influences. The volume offers a unique perspicuity, viewing the entire landscape of early modern philosophy and science, and also marks an epoch in contemporary scholarship, surveying recent contributions and suggesting future investigations for the next generation of scholars and students.
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