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Lorraine Daston Troubles the Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution was the motor of modernization. It was a historical transformation on the scale of the ancient Greeks, or the emergence of Christianity. It changed everything. It is the most important event to analyze if we are to understand who we are today.

This is a dominant narrative, not only in the history of science, but in many academic disciplines. In classrooms, newspapers, and commonsense thought, modernity starts with the scientific revolution. Lorraine Daston, however, disagrees.


Daston, one of the best-known historians of science writing today, gave the Eugene Lunn Memorial Lecture on Thursday, April 12, in which she narrated for us how this particular narrative of science and modernity came to be so pervasive and why this “zombie” persists in the face of clear evidence that the scientific revolution is not, in fact, the starting point and essential center to modernity.


Daston is the Executive Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and a Visiting Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She is particularly well known for her 1998 book Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750, co-authored with Katherine Park, which presented an intellectual history of the orders of nature through a narration of the changing place of wonder and wonders in natural inquiry.


How did science come to be the central protagonist in narratives of modernity? Daston started first with modernity itself. Often seen as a “package deal” which includes the scientific revolution, democratization, industrialization, urbanization and technoscience, Daston points out that these apparent manifestations of modernity developed along mismatched timelines with unclear causation. What do all these things have to do with each other, and why does “modern” carry such expansive and positive connotations?


From the Latin modo, Daston points out that the word “modern” originally just meant the present time. It was often contrasted to “ancient”, which, up until the mid seventeenth century, carried by far more positive connotations. It wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century that “modern” came to signify and reify all the many processes we now think of as modernization.

No two historians agree on when the modern period began. Suggestions range from 1492 to 1945 indicating, to Daston, the incredible lability of this term. How do we generate clear explanations of modernity when it appears radically unclear just exactly what we are defining? Often, academics do so with reference to the scientific revolution, dating the nascent elements of modernity to this early modern period, but often failing to explain why a gap of some three hundred years passed before its effects were realized.

Daston pointed out that many eighteenth century commentators discussed science as an outcome, rather than a cause, of the profound changes they were witnessing in society. She identifies two waves of scholarship emerging after the first and second world wars as responsible for shifting science from an effect to a central cause of social change. It was not modern science that they trumpeted, however, but early modern.

Authors like E.A Burtt, Herbert Butterfield, A.N Whitehead, Alexandre Koyre and Edmund Husserl harkened back to Galileo and Newton to trace a narrative in which modernity and science were twinned at birth. All of these authors agreed that, despite the enormity of the changes it inaugurated, modernity was established gradually, it arrived only in the early twentieth century and, perhaps most significantly, it cast a grey pall over lived experience.

We moderns have struck a Faustian bargain, trading experience for abstraction and gaining knowledge of the world as we lose the ability to richly connect with it. Max Weber wrote about the process of disenchantment in “Science as Vocation”, and Husserl wrote of “idea corsets” which bind and constrict. Experience, demoted to subjective truth, loses the qualities and validity such commentators retrospectively associate with the medieval period.


If this were true, Daston says, you would likely find such sentiments among the early moderns themselves. She contends that evidence for such an impoverishment of experience in the early modern period is scant. Even Romantic poets, she says, did not want to blunt experience, not did they imagine it as the “featureless cold porridge” twentieth century commentators felt themselves to have been left with. If we cannot date the total transformation of modernization to them, then, Daston is left dating this shift to its own narrators.

All of the historians Daston identifies as part of these two waves of scholarship were originally historians of religion. Learning this, Daston says, was, for a historian, “like finding out your parents were martians.” These theological foundations, she claims deeply shaped how these authors approached modernity as an all-pervasive and complete transformation. They cast around for metaphors for such total change, discussing “worldviews” and “frameworks”. Daston prefers to think of their conceptualization of modernity as like an atmosphere. As they approached religion from the inside, as an all-encompassing framework of thought, so they approached modernity. And if intellectual frameworks are as all-encompassing as air, the only possible switch is to a new atmosphere altogether. Daston traces a legacy of this mode of thought from Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms to Michel Foucault’s epistemes.

Whether modernity is written as a triumph or a tragedy, an earthquake of change or a monumental loss, it is often written as a total and pervasive shift. This simply is not the case, according to Daston. The “parts” of modernity do not all go together in the real world. We can look to countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, to see how some parts, like technological advancement, are not always hand-in-hand with others, like democratization. Moreover, given the massive gap between the supposed scientific revolution of the early modern period and its fruition in the twentieth century, why should science be at the heart of modernity at all?

Daston cites Lawrence Lipking’s recent book What Galileo Saw: Imagining the Scientific Revolution to make the case that it is actually claims to cultural achievement which are being defended in the persistent renewal of this “zombie” narrative of science and modernity. She paraphrases Lipking writing that relinquishing the science of modernity is to relinquish all of modernity. To Lipking, this is a dire warning, but Daston appears ready and willing to relinquish.

Science, and especially the European narrative of the scientific revolution, becomes a proxy for cultural achievement in such discourses. It appeared perfectly sensible when the economist Walt Rostow, for example, categorized societies as “pre” and “post-Newtonian” in the mid twentieth century, using the benchmark of the scientific revolution to arrange countries within a hierarchy of modernization inevitably led by Euro-America. “Traditional societies” are thus grouped and equated with Europe’s past. The humiliation of this discourse of cultural competition is, for Daston, one not worth defending.

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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