From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, by Alexander Koyré, , at sacred-texts.com
It is generally admitted that the seventeenth century underwent, and accomplished, a very radical spiritual revolution of which modern science is at the same time the root and the fruit.1 This revolution can beand wasdescribed in a number of different ways. Thus, for instance, some historians have seen its most characteristic feature in the secularization of consciousness, its turning away from transcendent goals to immanent aims, that is, in the replacement of the concern for the other world and the other life by preoccupation with this life and this world. Some others have seen it in the discovery, by man's consciousness, of its essential subjectivity and, therefore, in the substitution of the subjectivism of the moderns for the objectivism of mediaevals and ancients; still others, in the change of relationship between θεωρία and πράξις, the old ideal of the vita contemplativa yielding its place to that of the vita activa Whereas mediaeval and ancient man aimed at the pure contemplation of nature and of being, the modern one wants domination and mastery.
These characterizations are by no means false, and they certainly point out some rather important aspects of the spiritual revolutionor crisisof the seventeenth century, aspects that are exemplified and revealed to us, for example, by Montaigne, by Bacon, by Descartes, or by the general spread of skepticism and free thinking.
Yet, in my opinion they are concomitants and expressions of a deeper and more fundamental process as the result of which manas it is sometimes saidlost his place in the world, or, more correctly perhaps, lost the very world in which he was living and about which he was thinking, and had to transform and replace not only his fundamental concepts and attributes, but even the very framework of his thought.
This scientific and philosophical revolutionit is indeed impossible to separate the philosophical from the purely scientific aspects of this process: they are interdependent and closely linked togethercan be described roughly as bringing forth the destruction of the Cosmos, that is, the disappearance, from philosophically and scientifically valid concepts, of the conception of the world as a finite, closed, and hierarchically ordered whole (a whole in which the hierarchy of value determined the hierarchy and structure of being, rising from the dark, heavy and imperfect earth to the higher and higher perfection of the star and heavenly spheres),2 and its replacement by an indefinite and even infinite universe which is bound together by the identity of its fundamental components and laws, and in which all these components are placed on the same level of being. This, in turn, implies the discarding by scientific thought of all considerations based upon value-concepts, such as perfection, harmony, meaning and aim, and finally the utter devalorization of being, the divorce of the world of value and the world of facts.
It is this aspect of the seventeenth century revolution, the story of the destruction of the Cosmos and the infinitization of the universe that I will attempt to present here, at least in its main line of development.3
The full and complete history of this process would make, indeed, a long, involved and complicated story. It would have to deal with the history of the new astronomy in its shift from geocentrical to heliocentrical conceptions and in its technical development from Copernicus to Newton, and with that of the new physics in its consistent trend toward the mathematization of nature and its concomitant and convergent emphasis upon experiment and theory. It would have to treat the revival of old, and the birth of new, philosophical doctrines allied with, and opposed to, the new science and new cosmological outlook. It would have to give an account of the formation of the " corpuscular philosophy," that strange alliance of Democritus and Plato, and of the struggle between the "plenists" and the "vacuists" as well as that of the partisans and the foes of strict mechanism and attraction. It would have to discuss the views and the work of Bacon and Hobbes, Pascal and Gassendi, Tycho Brahe and Huygens, Boyle and Guericke, and of a great many others as well.
However, in spite of this tremendous number of elements, discoveries, theories and polemics that, in their interconnections, form the complex and moving background and sequel of the great revolution, the main line of the great debate, the main steps on the road which leads from the closed world to the infinite universe, stand out clearly in the works of a few great thinkers who, in deep understanding of its primary importance, have given their full attention to the fundamental problem of the structure of the world. It is with them, and their works, that we shall be concerned here, all the more so as they present themselves to us in the form of a closely connected discussion.