The Historical Context of Early Modern Philosophy

The late medieval and early modern eras with which we’re concerned are bookended by the births and deaths of specific people, and are often categorized as falling into particular distinct ‘periods.’ These include the birth and death of particular figures, as well as the span of distinctive social or cultural movements.

Important Dates & People

The following people and dates are important for the period we will be discussing.

The Scientific Revolution

The philosophical systems which we study in eary modern philosophy take place against a backdrop of radical changes in our understanding of the natural world and the place of humankind in it. Accordingly, this era is often termed the ‘scientific revolution.’ Some important people and dates include:

  • First printed edition of Euclid’s Elements in 1482.
  • Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543, which advanced the heliocentric theory of cosmology.
  • Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) published On the Structure of the Human Body (1543), which discredited Galen’s views. He found that the circulation of blood resolved from pumping of the heart. He also assembled the first human skeleton from cutting open cadavers.
  • Franciscus Vieta (1540–1603) published Introduction to the Art of Analysis (1591), which gave the first symbolic notation of parameters vs. unknown quantities in literal algebra.
  • William Gilbert (1544–1603) published On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and On the Great Magnet the Earth in 1600, which laid the foundations of a theory of magnetism and electricity.
  • Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) made extensive and accurate observations of the planets in the late 16th century, which became the basic data for Kepler’s studies. Brahe was one of the last astronomers to work without a telescope, using only the naked eye.
  • Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) published the New Organon in 1620, which outlined a new system of logic based on the process of induction, which he offered as an improvement over Aristotle’s philosophical process of syllogism. This contributed to the development of what became known as the scientific method.
  • Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was a scientific genius who, among other things, improved the telescope, with which he made several important astronomical discoveries, including the four largest moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, and the rings of Saturn, and made detailed observations of sunspots. He developed the laws for falling bodies based on pioneering quantitative experiments which he analyzed mathematically. His work was famously condemned by the Catholic church. He died under house arrest.
  • Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) published the first two of his three laws of planetary motion in 1609.
  • William Harvey (1578–1657) demonstrated that blood circulates, using dissections and other experimental techniques.
  • René Descartes (1596–1650) published his Discourse on the Method in 1637, which helped to establish the scientific method.
  • Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) constructed powerful single lens microscopes and made extensive observations that he published around 1660, opening up the micro-world of biology.
  • Isaac Newton (1643–1727) built upon the work of Kepler and Galileo. He showed that an inverse square law for gravity explained the elliptical orbits of the planets, and advanced the law of universal gravitation. His development of infinitesimal calculus opened up new applications of the methods of mathematics to science. Newton taught that scientific theory should be coupled with rigorous experimentation, rather than metaphysical speculation, which became one of central principles of modern science.

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