The Uncertainty of the Global Earth in the History of Progress [Book Review]

Society and Politics 11:187–189 (2017)
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Is the shape of the Earth really a globe? Reading closely, the author of this voluminous paperback (first published as hardcover in 2015), historian David Wootton, does not take for granted the fact that the Earth is round or spherical. However, this does not mean that he is a relativist. And it is interesting to consider why he regards science as progress against any relativist view of the history of science. On the whole, the book is an extraordinary contribution to the studies of the history of early modern science and philosophy. Through the seventeen chapters with rich notes and illustrations, Wootton elaborates on epistemological problems in observing the heavens and the earth, or how openly and clearly people at the time constructed scientific knowledge. For instance, convincingly, Wootton re-interprets Butterfield’s and Kuhn’s conceptions of ‘scientific revolution’ in early modern Europe, and re-examines the idea of ‘eureka’, ‘discovery’, or ‘invention’ (p. 67) as a necessary precondition for science. For he positively defends the view that the scientific revolution ‘has been so astonishingly successful’ (p. 571), that the unique fact of science is ‘progress’ in its history (p. 513). In this progressive sense, he is philosophically neither committed to Kuhn’s (and Rorty’s) subdued relativism that science evolves within a set of its terms, nor to strong relativism that progress in science is illusory and thus falsifiable. Also, in some longer notes, he explicates why the relativism of a number of historians is undermined (pp. 580–92).
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