Copernican Revolution

The Copernican Revolution was, of course, that almost two centuries long scientific revolution, begun by the Polish astronomer Copernicus and the Italian astronomer Galileo and completed by Isaac Newton, which overturned the paradigm of the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian finite, geocentric, qualitative, and teleological world view and replaced it with a new infinite, heliocentric, quantitative, and mechanistic cosmos.

For Barfield, the nature of this revolution, like all else, must be understood as a stage in the evolution of consciousness:

Unless we realize, with the help of a little historical excavation . . . what from the epistemological point of view astronomy signified and had signified for almost ten thousand years, we shall not understand the real significance of Copernicus and Galileo. The popular view is that Copernicus “discovered” that the Earth moves around the sun. Actually the hypothesis that the earth revolved round the sun is at least as old as the third century B.C., when it was advanced by Aristarchus of Samos, and he was neither the only nor probably the first astronomer to think of it. Copernicus himself knew this. Secondly it is generally believed that the Church tried to keep the discovery dark. Actually Copernicus did not himself want to publish his De Revolutionibus Orbium, and was only eventually prevailed on to do so by the importunity of two eminent Churchmen.

The real turning-point in the history of astronomy and of science in general was something else altogether. It took place when Copernicus (probably—it cannot be regarded as certain) began to think, and others, like Kepler and Galileo, began to affirm that the heliocentric hypothesis not only saved the appearances, but was physically true. It was only this, this novel idea that the Copernican (and therefore any other) hypothesis might not be a hypothesis at all but the ultimate truth, that was almost enough in itself to constitute the “scientific revolution.”
(Saving the Appearances 50-51)

Our ordinary understanding of the forced recantation of Galileo’s espousal of the heliocentric cosmos is likewise misunderstood.

When the ordinary man hears that the Church told Galileo that he might teach Copernicanism as a hypothesis which saved all the celestial phenomena satisfactorily, but “not as being the truth,” he laughs. But this was really how Ptolemaic astronomy had been taught! In its actual place in history it was not a casuistical quibble; it was the refusal (unjustified it may be) to allow the introduction of a new and momentous doctrine. It was not simply a new theory of the nature of the celestial movements that was feared, but a new theory of the nature of theory; namely, that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances. It is identical with truth.
(Saving the Appearances 51-52)

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.