Great shifts in scientific thinking and human development in the last four hundred years: Evolution and impact of western science

Hubert Laitko, Horst Kant


1.The modern "scientific project", started about 400 years ago and connecting Greek traditions of rational thought with practical experience of the crafts, created a new method of world exploration, based on a synthesis of (terrestrial) mechanics, astronomy, and mathematics. The scientific manner of cognition exhibited an unprecedented evolutionary dynamics, rooted in internal sources, but at the same time readily assimilating external incentives and influences of different kind, from industrial practice up to philosophy, culminating from time to time in revolutionary paradigm shifts, partly restricted on single disciplines, partly expanding into the whole area of science. In an epistemological perspective, western science - as founded by Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, and others - confronted man as the subject of scientific activity on the one hand and nature as an object, underlying exploration, transformation, and exploitation by human society, on the other hand.

Natural laws, shaped in scientific theories and mainly expressed in a mathematical language, thus became tools of controlling nature in practice, applicable according to the economic logic of capitalist industrial society.

2.The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century, establishing science-based industries and increasingly transforming science into the most important source of practical innovations and economic growth, reversely opened the way for extending it - from "little science" to "big science" (Price) - into an extremely important and expensive sphere of human activity, intensively interacting with many other spheres of culture and fundamentally changing conditions and style of human life. Western science, firmly connected with industrial practice, proved to be extraordinarily vital and penetrating; all over the world cognitive enterprises with different cultural orientations (traditional Japanese, Chinese, and Indian science etc.) were pushed to the periphery of culture. Innovations in many areas of practice, emerging from science, have resulted in a doubling of life expectancy (on the average) and a factor 10 growth of global population within 400 years.

3.The cognitive nucleus of modern western science, deeply rooted in our social and economic system as well as in our cultural traditions, up to now remained the subject-object-relation between man and nature, favourable for the scientific enterprise, but not secured against the risk of loosing the internal measure given by the simple fact that man will always be a part of the world and cannot take the position of an unlimited outside ruler. Therefore, the practical outcomes of science have always been ambivalent, abundant benefits were coupled with threat and damage, caused by deliberate action or emerging as unintended side effects of genuinely fruitful applications. Modern high technologies, as nuclear, gene or computer technology, include risks of a much more subtle and penetrating manner, than applications of science in former times ever had.

Many scientists are aware of these problems; discourses on scientific responsibility and on responsibility of society against science - among scientists themselves as well as between them and a broader audience - therefore have become a necessary part in the further development of modern culture.

4.Reflections on responsibility should not be restricted to the ethical dimension of the problem. They should be regarded as a cognitive challenge, too: How to create an epistemological position in science that is suited to the essential fact that Man's existence and evolution is embedded into a world he is not allowed to act upon arbitrarily? All the great paradigm shifts of the past (for instance, from phlogistic to anti-phlogistic chemistry, from pre-darwinian to Darwinian biology, or - especially important - from a deterministic to a probabilistic physical world view) have not treated or solved this problem. Global ecology may be considered as the hitherto most powerful impetus for re-formulating the epistemological approach in science. There are also resources in the history of ideas to be taken into account, from non-european traditions as well as from arts and humanities, from dialectic and holistic philosophies, and, last but not least, from philosophical and historical reflections of scientists themselves.

Possibly, the mainstream of science, resulting in theories of self-organization, non-linear dynamics etc., has now become mature to start a new synthesis with more historical, reflexive, and even aesthetic modes of thought in order to establish the foundations for human knowledge in the 21st century.


Hubert Laitko is a historian of science and former head of the history department in the Institute for Theory, History, and Organization of Science at the Academy of Sciences of the GDR. He has worked in different fields of philosophy of science, social relations of science studies, and history of science. His main interest in history of science is devoted to the emergence and development of scientific institutions and institutional networks in an urban and regional context.

Horst Kant is a physicist and historian of science; he was a research scholar at the Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin and at the Academy of Sciences of the GDR, and he is now a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. His main interest is devoted to the history of physics in the 19th and 20th centuries (esp. institutional and social aspects); history of radioactivity and nuclear physics; development of physics in Berlin.

Paper in MSWord format