Science and Progress



Science and Progress

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Scientific Breakthroughs

The seventeenth century is generally credited with the birth of what we consider modern physical science.  It saw significant discoveries and explanations of some natural phenomena, and above all, the beginning of a methodology based on observation and analysis. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) emphasized the use of experimentation in science. His most important contributions were in scientific methodology. Baconís empiricism was highly influential, especially in his native Britain.  Galileo (1564-1642) made use of experimentation, but his strength was in theoretical insights. Isaac Newton (1643-1727), working later in the century, achieved a better balance between theory and experimental investigation. Both Galileo and Newton also made significant contributions in the use of mathematics to express, and sometimes to deduce, scientific theories.

Scientific Circles and Societies

Literary circles were common in Renaissance Europe, but during the seventeenth century topics of interest shifted to the new philosophic ideas and natural science.[1] The earliest formal group was the Accademia dei Lincei, founded in the Papal States in 1603 by Federico Cesi, an Italian scientist and nobleman, and Galileo quickly became its central figure. This scientific academy did not long survive the deaths of patron Cesi (1630) and Galileo (1642), but it has been reincarnated several times.

A number of English scientists held informal meetings at the Gresham College in London and at Oxford during the 1640's and 1650's. Prominent among these were physicists Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, and architect Sir Christopher Wren. This group became organized as the  Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge in 1660. A Royal Charter was awarded to the organization in 1662 by Charles II.[2] The society was organized in commissions who investigated specific topics such as mechanics or astronomy.  Beginning in 1665, the society published a journal entitled Philosophic Transactions, which included papers presented at the sessions and related discussions.[3]

Another key group with scientific and educational interests gathered in London around educator Samuel Hartlib (1600-1662). Hartlib had emigrated from Prussia and he maintained a large network of scientfic correspondents from his contacts throughout Europe. Hartlib proposed the creation of a bureau of knowledge to be used for the benefit of society called the Office of Addresse, The English parliament provided him some financial support, but the bureau was never established officially.[4]

Bodleian Library, Oxford
Photo Source: Wikipedia, Author: © Tony Hisgett

While the intellectual circles in England during this period had a primarily scientific orientation, France made an effort to provide leadership in a wider range of interests. Under Chief Ministers Richelieu  and Colbert, a number of academies were created in the 1600's for such subjects as literature, music, dance and architecture, in addition to science.[5]

The Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment is a term used to describe a phase in the history of Western civilization, during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries,  that emphasized rational thought and empirical observation. The Scottish enlightenment was of particular importance for our study in that they provided significant commentaries on the social value of science.


A course on moral philosophy was often included as part of the Arts curriculum in European universities throughout their history, but Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) provided an important update of the contents of this course while he taught this subject at the University of Glasgow. In addition to the classical topics, he included more political and legal material, and elements of what later became known as economics. Adam Ferguson (1726-1816) taught the same subject at the University of Edinburgh .

University of Edinburgh  Photo Source: Wikipedia, Author: Kim Traynor

The Common Good

The foundational concept of social morality is that of the "common good", which has long roots from both classical and Christian sources, but it was well developed by the Scottish enlightenment. In his textbooks,  Hutcheson grounds his treatment of social responsibilities on this concept:

We should always repute it as our business in the world, the end and purpose of our being, our duty to our kind, the natural use of the powers we enjoy, and the most suitable testimony of our gratitude to our Maker the parent of all good, to contribute something to the general good, to the common fund of happiness to our species.[7]

And Hutcheson links this duty directly to the professions:

Each one is obliged to cultivate his own powers of body and mind so as to fit himself for what offices of goodness and humanity his station may allow; to store his mind with useful knowledge, and with the grand maxims which conduce to a virtuous life... . 'Tis also the duty of each individual toward man- kind, as well as toward his peculiar friends or relations, to follow some profession or business subservient to some common good.[8]

Progress and Civilization

All of the thinkers of the Enlightenment subscribed to the principles of scientific evidence following Francis Bacon, and they tried to base their thinking on their experiences, but Ferguson did serious analysis on his observations on human behavior and on historical records. In this process, he made some foundational contributions to the science of sociology. Ferguson's writings emphasize human progress and civilization, and it is on this subject  that his legacy has been most significant. Just like Vives, Ferguson emphasizes the universal nature of progress, in space and in time and on building of the knowledge heritage across the ages:

The lights of science, even in subjects the most abstruse, are in some measure diffused into every corner of a prosperous society. They direct the hand of the artist in his work-shop. They are made a part in the course of every liberal education. They furnish the methods of thought and comprehension to those who deliberate on affairs, and, by entering into the ordinary conversations of men, become familiar in the commerce of life. So that the most retired student of nature, in extending the limits of knowledge, works for his community; separate communities mutually work for one another, for ages to come, and for mankind.[9]

[1] Robert Mandrou, From Humanism to Science (Harmonsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1978), 268-271.

[2] Roger Ariew et al, ed.  Descartes' Meditations: Background Source Materials (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 141-144.

[3] Robert Mandrou, From Humanism to Science, 268-271.

[4] Charles Webster, Samuel Hartlib and the Advancement of Learning (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 1-6, 56-62, 71.

[5] James Bowen, A History of Western Education (London: Routledge, 2003), Vol. 3, 54-55.

[6] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (Glasgow: A Foulis, 1755), Vol. 2, 116.

[7] Ibid., 111-113

[8] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792),  281.