Edward Grant is one of the leading historians of science and so this overview of western science to 1550 is welcome. Grant surveys the three main contributors, the Greeks, Islam and the Middle Ages. Each had an important contribution to make. This book is particularly important in stressing the vital contribution the Greeks made to medieval thought.
On his first page Grant makes the point that the dialogue between religion and science goes back to Plato and Aristotle with their very different ways of finding certainty. Do you concentrate on finding empirical evidence from which to understand the material world or is there an immaterial world which can be grasped by reason? It is important to start here as often such debates get fixated on Christianity, Galileo and Darwin. If one starts with the two opposing stands of Aristotle and Plato one has a much more far ranging and satisfying debate whih goes beyond the relatively narrow perspectives of the Christians versus Dawkins.
There is a good chapter on Aristotle, in Grant's view ` probably the most significant figure in the history of Western thought up to the end of the sixteenth century' (P. 37). Despite errors in his observations ( and this has been the case with most scientists throughout history) Grant shows us that the ways in which we understand what nature is and how to appreciate and study it is due to Aristotle. It is a massive legacy. In his Chapter Three Grant shows how the Greek tradition of empirical thought spread through a variety of disciplines and was still powerful in the second century AD. Galen and Ptolemy are two giants to whom he gives appropriate accolades. He looks at the ambivalent attitudes to `science' in the early Christian world and later in Islam, which, of course, made impressive contributions of its own which Grant details ( pp.230-43)
With the fall of the Roman empire, Grant notes the nadir of western European thought until its revival in the twelfth century. He also notes the contrast between the vitality of Greek intellectual life in the second century AD and then its gradual decline in the Byzantine theocracy so that despite some intellectual renaissances ` no significant works were composed that had any detectable influence' in the empire (p. 229). I suspect that Byzantine scholars might disagree with Grant here.
As Grant makes clear (p.24) ` Science in the late ancient and medieval periods was radically different from modern science'. It would be interesting to know how far western rationalism would have progressed from its tentative reappearance in the twelfth century without the coming of Aristotle to the rescue. Inevitably the rediscovery of Aristotle got everyone shaken up, even if his thought was often subordinated to Christian dogmatism. Grant is good at how his impact infused western thought and was successfully integrated into Christian theology by Thomas Aquinas.
In Paris theology continued to rule as supreme but this did not prevent natural philosophers. in the arts faculties, doing interesting work in areas that did not concern the church. Yet, as one of the more talented natural philosophers, John Buridan, put it when he came up against a contradiction between God's power and reason ` I yield the determination of these questions to the lord theologians ,and I wish to acquiesce in their determination `. ( p. 211). Grant is excellent on the way that angels became to natural philosophy what fruitflies are to modern genetic research. Although no medieval discussion apparently discussed angels on pinheads, natural philosophers did discuss whether God could create an infinite multitude of angels within an hour. Yes, he could, argued Gregory of Rimini ( p. 210) There were wonderfully convoluted debates on how angels, as immaterial objects, could move. Do they move instantaneously or is there a period of transition between them being in one place and another, a mid-point of their progress (pp. 213-5)? What kind of space does an angel, which is, apparently indivisible, occupy? Despite this bizarre way of doing 'science', Grant argues that it did lead to some form of progress. It is hard to say how much and whether it would ever have freed itself from the entanglements of theology. Fashions come and go and it is now fashionable to decry those who are critical of scholasticism but there were some pretty odd pathways ( divine embryology - the science of the conception of Jesus is one of them) which needed to be closed off and be replaced with mainstream thinking on the real world ( e.g. following the tradition of Aristotle) before genuine progress could be made. Too much natural philosophy was concerned with meeting the challenges of Christian dogma.
There are three areas I would have liked to see more on.
1) Robert Bartlett (The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages) has shown how the popes' determination to control the authentication of miracles led to a debate on where the boundaries between the natural and supernatural lay. This led to much more thought about the natural world. How far benign (angels) and malign ( Satan and the devils)forces affected the course of nature was another religious issue which led to more discussion on the natural world- perhaps as a bizarre way of doing science as using angels as models but least it got people thinking about the natural world. (The revival of interest in the natural wrld gathered pace in the sixteenth century, not the medieval world)
2). Grant says virtually nothing about the specific contributions of the Italian universities. Philip Jones in his monumental study of the Italian City-State (see my review on Amazon co.uk)has destroyed the myth of the church founding the first universities. They were under the control of the local communes and were very much more vocational than universities in the north. That is why medical studies developed faster in Italy as medicine was highlighted as a prestige vocation. So was law with equally important results. James Franklin in his absorbing The Science of Conjecture notes that 'the essential idea that one applies reasoning to texts to understand them had been developed by the school of commentators on Lombard law in Pavia by about 1050' e.g. in Italy outside a university- he sees this as leading directly into the university of Bologna with its famous law faculty (p.15-16). Civic humanism not only gave greater confidence to the individual (look at the arrogance of Brunelleschi in thinking he could put a dome on Florence cathedral- he showed he could!) but encouraged cities to smarten themselves up and exploit economic opportunities. Jones identifies the practical results in statistics, mathematics, cadastral surveying and map making. The first mass production of spectacles was in Florence. Here is the application of scientific thought to everyday lives which , contra Grant, could be seen as the foundation of modern science. ( Of course, nowadays we can see how the Aristoteleian approach has won out over the Platonic by adding immense value to human life - it was not so clear in this earlier period just how massive a contribution science would make to human well-being - one more reason for sharing Grant's view on Aristotle and perhaps extending it later than the sixteenth century.) Sixty per cent of books on science imported into 15th century England came from Venice, a city given only a bare mention by Grant.
3) Grant mentions Copernicus as the end point of his study but does not discuss his contribution. Was he the heir of medieval thought or, as Michael Hoskin and Owen Gingerich argue in the Cambridge History of Astronomy, maker ` of one the greatest intellectual leaps known to the history of science'.I would have appreciated Grant's thoughts as it remains unclear to me exactly important the Paris and Oxford natural philosophers were even in the relatively narrow fields of 'science' that were their concern. Were they simply supplanted by a great intellectual leap ( by someone who had studied first in Italy, if not in astronomy- as had Albert the Great and Aquinas, of course, before they went to Paris).
So there is a great deal of interest in this book and some absorbing discussions but I can never understand why historians of medieval science spend so much time on Paris and Oxford and virtually none on the practical advances made by science in the Italian peninsula during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There is never any discussion of how and why the commune governments of the Italian city states were much more conducive to scientific advance 'on the ground' than the monarchical states of northern Europe ( not least,perhaps, because they were able to avoid being dominated so much by the church).I would argue that a comparison of the two, with at least as much space given to Italy, should be the central theme of any book on science in the later Middle Ages. The tragedy is that Philip Jones' The Italian City-State is so impossibly expensive despite being recognised as the 'bible' on the period before 1300 where he shows just how much advanced thinking was under way.