Realism and instrumentalism in sixteenth century astronomy: A reappraisal

Perspectives on Science 6 (3):232-258 (1998)
: We question the claim, common since Duhem, that sixteenth century astronomy, and especially the Wittenberg interpretation of Copernicus, was instrumentalistic rather than realistic. We identify a previously unrecognized Wittenberg astronomer, Edo Hildericus (Hilderich von Varel), who presents a detailed exposition of Copernicus's cosmology that is incompatible with instrumentalism. Quotations from other sixteenth century astronomers show that knowledge of the real configuration of the heavens was unattainable practically, rather than in principle. Astronomy was limited to quia demonstrations, although demonstration propter quid remained the ideal. We suggest that Osiander's notorious preface to Copernicus expresses these sixteenth century commonplaces rather than twentieth century instrumentalism, and that neither `realism', nor `instrumentalism', in their modern meanings, apply to sixteenth century astronomy.
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