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The importance of Copernicus’s discovery for the development of the humanities

Copernicus’ work had a significant impact not only on the spheres of strictly understood mathematic and physical sciences. With all its power it also had a major influence on the newly founded field of modern humanist philosophy. This was due to the fact that the cosmological view of the world postulated by Copernicus (which was in a sense a unifying synthesis of various ideas deriving from the Pythagorean, Aristotelian, Platonic, Stoic, Ptolemaic, Buridan, and Neo-Platonic thoughts) was completely contradictory to the geocentric cosmology that had been universally recognised for centuries and which in turn had been integrated with the world-view, religion, and theology, and which was reflected in the works of art, namely literature, painting and architecture, being created at that time. Thus De Revolutionibus (1543) undermined that hierarchical system of thought. This caused numerous destructive consequences for the whole system of medieval thought and resulted in a huge intellectual, metaphysical and psychological ferment and unrest which began in the second half of the 16th century and lasted for another three hundred years. This may be reflected in the works of poets, writers, theologians, and mystics.

Yet Copernicus was regarded in various ways. For Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) he was a symbolic figure, a hero of independence who negated the existing state of things by rejecting the superstitions of primitive philosophy and the world-view, including the theory that the Earth, a place of birth and death, of motion and change, is worse in the sense of ontological excellence than wandering stars, i.e. planets. Bruno, just like Nicolaus of Kuza in the 15th century, presented a far more radical vision of the world than Copernicus. Basing his reflections on the Neo-Platonic metaphysical principle of plentitude, which would be attributed to God, he revived views of Greek and Roman atomists by propagating theories concerning the infinity of the world or the multitude of worlds (planetary solar systems) and the existence of rational beings in these worlds. And human beings were cast into the infinite vastness of the universe. Yet according to Bruno there was nothing to worry about.

However Copernicus’s cosmological proposals were regarded quite differently by Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) and John Donne (1572-1631). In their opinion they refuted congenial geocentric cosmology, which in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period was integrated with Christianity and thus defined a safe place for the human being both in the earthly and in the supernatural worlds. This psychological and metaphysical unrest was stirred up even more by the new physical systems of Galileo and Kepler that were formed as a consequence of Copernicus’s heliocentric system, which could be observed in the case of a great mathematician, mystic, and at the same time a metaphysical poet, namely Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). For some, like Alexander Pope (1688-1744), it was now the physics of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) presented in Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (1687) that quietened their fears and for others, like the writer, philosopher, and philosopher of history Johann G. von Herder (1744-1803), it was only achieved by the Mécanique céleste (1799), a proof for stability of the solar system.

However, starting from Jean S. Bailly (1736-1793) and the interpreters of Kant’s thoughts from the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, Copernicus was regarded by many thinkers (especially from France and Germany) as the author of the intellectual revolution, which radically, in the positive sense of the world, changed not only the way of thinking in the Sciences, but also in cosmology, that is in the vision of the world and the place of man in it.

This variety of opinions on the world-view significance of Copernicus’s achievements was still alive in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th. Some thinkers (for example positivists and marxists) just like William Whewell, Jan Czyński, Dominik Szulc and Andrzej Nowicki, emphasised very positive sides of Copernicus’ discovery. Although it showed the physical insignificance of human kind, it proved its greatness in the sphere of rational thinking and mind. For a human being, in spite of his physical minuteness, which is only a dot against the immensity of the universe, may successfully uncover inherent mysteries of space. Therefore this discovery inspired confidence in the intellectual powers of man and his self-esteem. This way the foundations were placed of further increase in human knowledge, both of nature and of the philosophy of man and society.

However, a more pessimistic vision of the humanist consequences of Copernicus’s work dominated. Thinkers, such as the poet, writer and nature philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the psychiatrist and the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the physicist and philosopher of Sciences Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and the dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), were convinced that the result of the formulation of the heliocentric theory by Copernicus was the fact that mankind lost his central position in the universe and the title of the lord of this world. Goethe, Nietzsche and Brecht could find in this the principal source of the nihilism and atheism of the modern epoch; and Freud saw in it the destruction of the Narcissistic illusion of Man certain about his imaginary greatness.

This view became even more radical at the end of the 19th century with Frederick Engels in the context of Marxism, who interpreted Copernicus’s achievements as a revolutionary refutation of ancient and medieval superstitions and their radical replacement with the new knowledge that could no longer be doubted, as a “coup”, which was to constitute the stable basis for further development of science and the humanities (it is from Engels that a new understanding of ‘revolution’ as a ‘coup’ may be derived). This radical spirit of Engels’s interpretation was also close to that of the Nazis from a later period, as well as to that of Marxists. The previous group added to it an extremely nationalist, Germanic and fascist character. The others, by identifying the concepts of ‘revolution’ and ‘coup’ with each other, used interchangeably the terms ‘Copernican revolution’ and ‘Copernican coup’.

Despite these various views in the 19th and in the first half of the 20th century a common belief became established that Copernicus had started a new era of human thought not only in the sphere of Sciences, but also in the cultural, humanist, ideological areas.

However, since the first half of the 20th century the reputation for originality of Copernicus’s achievements and their philosophical significance for the whole culture became downgraded by some historians of science. By stressing forcefully the reliance of the author of De revolutionibus on numerous thinkers before him, including Ptolemy and the group of thirteenth and fourteenth century Arab astronomers from the school in Maragheh, they strongly criticised the ideas of ‘Scientific Revolution’ and ‘Copernican Revolution’ in the sphere of science. According to them as far as science is concerned Copernicus was not a revolutionary at all, but largely conservative.

These arguments provoked lively discussion among experts that has been going on up to now. In the present phase it concerns different myths connected with the interpretation of Copernican thought and deliberate use of metaphors, such as ‘revolution’ and ‘reform’, in the description of the historic process, as well as the proper understanding of ideas of ‘scientific revolutions’ and ‘Copernican revolution’.

Michał Kokowski
Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies
Institute for the History of Science, Polish Academy of Sciences