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The Meaning of the Scientific and Technological Revolution


Philosophical Essays, 1980


 We live in a revolution – we of the West – and have been living in one for several centuries. We are naming its central agency when we call it the scientific-technological revolution. Having begun as a "provincially" European event, it has by now become global. In its progress it reshapes the external conditions of our being – that is, the world we live in; it thereby reshapes the ways of our living; and finally – or perhaps first – it reshapes the modes of our thinking. In brief, what is being revolutionized is man's environment, behavior, and thought. This has been under way for a long time. Do "revolution" and length of time go together in our concepts? We speak of revolution when the change in question – a collective change in human affairs – is radical in nature, comprehensive in scope, and concentrated in time: the last characteristic setting revolution off from evolution. Radicalism of a change means that it involves the very foundations of that which changes, not merely its surface; comprehensiveness, that it affects a broad spectrum of life manifestations, not merely an isolated phenomenon. The third criterion is one of tempo and style rather than of substance: that dramatic quality which change gains only with concentration in time. While evolution spreads itself over long periods and proceeds by imperceptible degrees, the word "revolution" suggests to us a certain suddenness of onset and violence of progress. This is more than a morphological trait: its subjective side is that those caught up in the change experience it as a break with the past, as overturning the established order of things, even replacing any established order with the condition of change itself, and consequently as unsettling their lives. To be thus perceptible is of the essence of revolution. This felt "violence" of change (not identical with the physical violence that attends political revolutions in particular) is, then, very much a function of the mere speed of change: even the most profound and far-reaching change, affecting all the things we named, if only slow enough, is not considered a revolution.

But what is fast, what slow? What interval of time is long, what short? By what standard do we measure? Is not the difference between slow and fast, and thus between evolution and revolution, entirely relative and therefore arbitrary? Relative it is, but not arbitrary. For it is relative to something itself absolute, to a natural unit of measurement: the individual human life span, the length of a generation. And this is a good test that anyone can make when his time comes: If a man in the fullness of his days, at the end of his life, can pass on the wisdom of his accumulated experience to those who grow up after him; if what he has learned in his youth, added to but not discarded in his maturity, still serves him in his old age and is still worth teaching the then young –  then his was not an age of revolution, not counting, of course, abortive revolutions. The world into which his children enter is still his world, not because it is entirely unchanged, but because the changes that did occur were gradual and limited enough for him to absorb them into his initial stock and keep abreast of them. If, however, a man in his advancing years has to turn to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wise – then we may term the rate and scope of change that thus overtook him, "revolutionary." Adopting this standard – the only natural one for the finite and mortal beings that we are – it is meaningful and entirely legitimate to speak of a revolution going on through generations and even centuries, which is precisely what we do when we date the state of revolution we live in, variously, from the first World War, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, and ultimately from the rise of the new science and cosmology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with which it all began – truly a revolution of secular scale. To be sure, the pace of events during those centuries was not always as breathtaking as it is now, and the spectacular, exponential acceleration of the whole movement is a fairly recent fact. But this movement was revolutionary from its inception, by its intrinsic nature, and it periodically spawned new, sudden turning-points of the briefer and more concentrated kind customarily termed "revolutions," which in retrospect we recognize as parts, as critical phases of the ongoing movement which is a revolution in its entirety.

Let us turn back once more to the initial statement of what characterizes a revolution. We said that it is a collective change in human affairs which is radical, comprehensive, and of a certain rapid pace; and we said that it concerns man's environment, behavior, and thought. One qualification is missing here. In order to be termed a revolution, the change must be man-made, it must ultimately have its source in ourselves. We would not honor with the name of "revolution" a change in human affairs brought about by some cosmic event, a sudden change in climate, or anything of that kind. We must be subjects, agents, of the change, however much we may also be the objects of it. We inevitably become the objects, of course, if the subjective change is effective, i.e., if it turns into practice and thus affects the conditions of life. The works of man recoil upon himself, and it is of the nature of things human that in collective terms the agent becomes the creature, perhaps the victim, of his action.

To say that the revolution originates in man is to say that it originates in thought. It may even at first be a revolution of thought purely and for thought's own sake, a metamorphosis of looking at things, long before it becomes one of action too, of dealing with things. This is indeed the sequence of the scientific and technological revolution to which these reflections are devoted. The scientific revolution changed man's ways of thinking, by thinking, before it materially changed, even affected, his ways of living. It was a change in theory, in world-view, in metaphysical outlook, in conception and method of knowledge. It did not at first –and for a long time– concern itself with the realm of practice, even though some of its most eloquent philosophical prophets assigned to it this role early enough: that assignment itself was in the realm of thought. That modern science as such started with hardly any technological intent is clear from the fact that it started mainly with the astronomer's reform of cosmology, and the cosmos, the stellar universe, does not lend itself to manipulation. Technology, historically speaking, is the delayed effect of the scientific and metaphysical revolution with which the modern age begins. The theoretical change alone merits the name of a revolution in its own right, even without this later, revolutionizing effect.

That effect, however, was far from accidental, or extraneous to the cause. The technological turn later given to the speculative revolution was somehow in the cards from the beginning, as those early philosophical prophets more clearly perceived than the scientific pioneers themselves. The very conception of reality that underlay and was fostered by the rise of modern science, i.e., the new concept of nature, contained manipulability at its theoretical core and, in the form of experiment, involved actual manipulation in the investigative process. Not that Galileo and others undertook their experiments with practical intent: their intent was to gain knowledge; but the method of knowledge itself, by the active intercourse with its object, anticipated utilization for practical ends (and it is only surprising, in retrospect, how long it took the actual step to be taken on any large scale). Technology was thus implied as a possibility in the metaphysics, and trained as a practice in the procedures, of modern science. Its eventual emergence into the extra­theoretical sphere of vulgar utility, as an instrument of power on the broadest public scale, was no more than drawing the conclusion from the intellectual premises which the scientific revolution had established. This being the case, the present global technology of man has itself a metaphysical side to it besides the more obvious practical one. The meaning of the technological revolution is thus part of, indeed the completion of, the metaphysical meaning of the scientific revolution. It is the metaphysics of science come into the open.

Before turning to the beginnings themselves one other remark on the sequence as a whole is in order. If the revolution started in thought, then it started in freedom and as an exercise of human freedom. Its first trail blazers, men like Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, were a select few who carne by their novel conception in acts of independent insight and personal decision. To their lot it fell to break old habits of thought and overturn long established views. These first innovators, thus, not only caused a revolution by what they did-they were revolutionaries by what they were. But the more their outlook became common property, the more there accrued an irresistible compulsion to the movement which they had started, and its later protagonists, born into it by historical fate, no longer entered it by free choice. When, in addition, the technological factor carne into play, changing the external conditions of life, a self-feeding necessity was set up which, from without as it were, took increasingly possession of the process; with this added actuator, the movement continuously gathers new momentum, carrying its carriers along as its appointed instruments. Thus while the revolution was started by revolutionaries, it is now continued, although still a revolution, by the orthodox. What began in acts of supreme and daring freedom has set up its own necessity and proceeds on its course like a second, determinate nature-no less deterministic for being man-made.



 My contention here is, to repeat it once more, that the theoretical beginnings – what we may call the ontological breakthrough occurring at the onset of the modern age and laying the foundations on which the edifice of modern science was reared – was the all important event. To understand this event historically, we do well to turn our minds back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was a time not only pregnant with change but also conscious of it, with a will for it, and with the polemical animus that turns against the old in the name of the new and hails the break with the past. A sign of this spreading mood is the currency of the world "new," which from the sixteenth century on we encounter all over Europe (and much earlier in Italy) as a commendatory epithet. That "novelty" is a recommendation is by no means the rule in the history of cultures; in fact, it was itself a signal and perhaps unique novelty. In the Graeco-Roman world, for instance, which of all former ages is most akin to modernity in so many respects, the highest recommendation for a view, a maxim, a truth was its reputed antiquity. The poets and seers of old, the sages of Egypt and Babylon, the myths of one's own past or of the still remoter past of the East, were called to witness for the truth of contemporary teaching. This hardly cramped the style of intellectual innovation, as the allegorical method could extract almost any desired meaning from the veiled evidence of the past. But novelty was no recommendation, rather the opposite, and its appearance was generally shunned. It certainly was almost never openly professed. This, and the corresponding appeal to antiquity, are found in many epochs. Even advanced civilizations, which owed their height to a history of bold innovations from their archaic beginnings, tended to hide this aspect of their genesis. Antiquity served as the stamp of confirmation on the value and truth of beliefs about the nature of things. The source of truth lies with the ancestors who were nearer to the gods and more attuned to the undimmed voice of the world. Their truth has stood the test of time; it has to be recaptured because they spoke in riddles; but truth itself is old and well weathered. Rarely before the onset of the modern age is novelty invoked in favor of a venture or a vision.

This changed profoundly at the time when the Middle Ages drew to a close. An increasing use of the commending label "new" for an increasing variety of human enterprises – in art, action, and thought – marks the great turn. This verbal fashion, serious or frivolous as the case may be, tells us a number of things. A weariness, even impatience, with the long-dominant ways of thought and life, an irreverent and revisionist spirit, betray themselves in the elevation of the word to an adjective of praise. Respect for the wisdom of the past is replaced by the suspicion of hardened error and by distrust of inert authority. Together with this goes a new mood of self-confidence, the heady conviction that we moderns are better equipped than the ancients – certainly better than our immediate predecessors – to discover the truth and improve many things.

The confidence that the new is more likely than not to represent an improvement over the old goes with a new appraisal of the ages of man. Up to that time it was natural to believe that in looking back into the past we look into a perspective of greater age and maturity. We late­comers are the heirs of more inspired times, the recipients of a wisdom so much "older" than ourselves. A strangely persuasive, perspectival illusion was at work in this belief: What comes to us from the remote past has acquired the superiority of great age by the fact that it has been transmitted for so long, and the age of the thing transmitted is somehow transferred to the source that produced it. It was a curiously startling discovery of the obvious when the sixteenth and seventeenth century moderns contended that we moderns are the older ones; that mankind in times past was younger, thus more prone to the errors of childhood; that greater maturity was on our side, and that we, taught and disenchanted by the errors of the past, are better fitted to tackle the questions of nature and man.

Thus emerges the novel evaluation of modernity as an asset

H. Jonas, Philosophical Essays. From Ancient Creed to Technological Man (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London 1980), pp. 45-50 [Excerpt from Ch. 3].