The Hessen-Grossman thesis: An attempt at rehabilitation

Perspectives on Science 13 (2):166-193 (2005)
Abstract
: The work of Boris Hessen and Henryk Grossman on the emergence of early modern science is an attempt at a historical sociology of science and a historical epistemology of scientific knowledge. One of their theses is elaborated here, namely that early modern mechanics developed in the study of contemporary technology. In particular I discuss the thesis that the replacement of the Aristotelian concept of motion by the modern general and mathematical concept developed in the study of transmission machines. In addition to a discussion of the thesis and its implications, I also present a case study to substantiate the thesis. I show that Benedetti's famous refutation of Aristotle and his introduction of a new concept of motion depended on empirical knowledge of the newly invented treadle mechanism. I argue that although the historiography of science since the 1930s has explored many of the individual issues first raised by the Marxist historians of science, this perspective remains unique in that it establishes direct and informative connections between the grand narrative of the transition from agrarian-feudal society to industrial production in early capitalism and the development of science and technology down to specific cognitive issues such as shared assumptions concerning the natural order
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