THE HEDGEHOG REVIEW: VOL. 18 NO. 3 (FALL 2016)
"It is a cliché of intellectual history that the doctrine of progress emerges in the seventeenth century, and that Francis Bacon was its prophet.4 For Bacon, it was technology rather than science that was the prototypical progressive enterprise; indeed, he reproached stagnant natural philosophy with the example of the advancing mechanical arts.5 But by the late eighteenth century, the foremost exemplars of progress had become mathematics and the exact sciences. The French mathematician and philosophe Jean d’Alembert, writing in 1751, held up “geometry, astronomy, and mechanics, which are destined by their nature always to be perfecting themselves.”6 Between about 1750 and 1840, a steady stream of histories of various sciences poured from the presses, all purporting to demonstrate the existence and extent of progress in those disciplines.7 Some of the publicists of scientific progress, like the Marquis de Condorcet, claimed that it was not only inexorable but contagious, that the “progress of the physical sciences, which neither the passions nor self-interest can disturb,” would eventually correct “all errors in politics and morals.”8
What is striking about late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century views of scientific progress is not only their buoyant optimism but also their circumscribed understanding of change. Scientific knowledge steadily improved, but it was not renovated. Once the foundations for the new science had been laid in the seventeenth century, so went the standard story, the edifice could be expanded but not remodeled. Certain achievements, Newtonian mechanics being the most often-cited example, were permanent. Even Adam Smith’s remarkable history of astronomy, which treated systems of natural philosophy “as mere inventions of the imagination, to connect together the otherwise discordant and disjointed phaenomena of nature,” concluded with a tribute to the Newtonian system, “the most universal empire that was ever established in philosophy.”9 Other fields—botany, chemistry, political economy—might await their Newtons, and in this sense scientific progress was open-ended. But the open-endedness was expansionist at the fringes, not transformative at the stable center. To continue Smith’s imperial metaphor, new territories awaited scientific conquest, but old victories remained forever safe from reversal."