Using representations of space to study early modern physical science: An example of philosophy in the service of history

Most historians of science eagerly acknowledge that the early modern period witnessed a shift from a prevailing Aristotelian, spherical, centered conception of space to a prevailing Cartesian, rectilinear, oriented spatial framework. Indeed, this shift underlay many of the important advances for which the period is celebrated. However, historians have failed to engage the general conceptual shift, focusing instead on the particular explanatory developments that resulted. This historical lacuna can be attributed to a historiographical problem: the lack of an adequate unit of analysis by which to investigate the conceptual change. Here, a philosophical argument is made for representations of space as an appropriate category of historical investigation, and methods of textual interrogation are suggested to this end. Finally, two examples, taken from Aristotle and Newton, demonstrate the feasibility and importance of this project.
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