Hans Jonas, “Seventeenth Century and After: The Meaning of the Scientific and Technological Revolution”

Just over a week ago, I published a post that gave a summary of one section from Hans Jonas’ essay “[The] Seventeenth Century and After: The Meaning of the Scientific and Technological Revolution”. The essay is from Jonas’ Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man. The essay, its argument, is worth summarizing.


Jonas opens the essay by noting that “we of the West […] have been living in [a revolution] for several centuries. We are naming its central agency when we call it the scientific-technological revolution.” [45] The scientific revolution is different from the typical revolution because it is not concentrated in time; can we still say that it is in fact revolutionary? One criterion Jonas offers as to whether a revolution of some type has occurred anywhere is whether wisdom can be accumulated on one side and dispensed as meaningful on the other: if one can, in old age, dispense the wisdom gathered over a lifetime, there is no revolution.

If, however, a man in his advancing years has to turn to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wise — then we may term the rate and scope of change that thus overtook him, “revolutionary”. [46]

We can say this about the scientific-technological revolution that is spread across centuries: it marks a break of this kind.

It did not have “technological intent” from the outset, but was contemplative and intellectual “before it materially changed, even affected, [man’s] ways of living.” [47] Technology is “the delayed effect of the scientific and metaphysical revolution with which the modern age begins” [47], even though technological change “was somehow in the cards from the beginning”. [48] “[T]he new concept of nature, contained manipulability at its theoretical core and, in the form of experiment, involved actual manipulation in the investigative process. […] Technology was thus implied as a possibility in the metaphysics, and trained as a practice in the procedures, of modern science […] [technology] is the metaphysics of science come into the open.” [48]

The original revolutionaries, in seeking knowledge, were required to pursue “personal insight” in defiance of the reigning models and “habits of thought”; future generations were simply “born into [the revolution] by historical fate”.


The seventeenth century –the time of the onset of the scientific revolution– was “a time not only pregnant with change but also conscious of it, with a will for it”. [49] The words “new” and “novelty” had formerly been anything but signals of value; prior to the modern period, anything new had to appear as, and be perceived as, old in order for it to be commended as valuable. This attitude assumed that we stand on the shoulders of giants, that we are the younger generation, that previous generations are more senior, more experienced, and we are heirs to their achievements: “the age of the thing transmitted is somehow transferred to the source that produced it”. [50] The wise ancients continue to age in memory. This is the situation in classical antiquity no less than the medieval period.

The word “modern” and other related words, as words of recommendation, begin to appear at the end of the middle ages. “Respect for the wisdom of the past is replaced by the suspicion of hardened error and by distrust of inert authority.” A “new mood of self-confidence” arrives, with the “startling” shift in perspective in the 16th & 17th centuries “that we moderns are the older ones; that mankind in times past was younger, thus more prone to the errors of childhood; that greater maturity was on our side”, &c. This inaugurates the idea of “modernity as an asset“. A “twin combination of distrust [of the past] and self-confidence [in our own powers] puts the revolutionary stamp on the movement of thought” [50] begun here. This is not a one-time break; this introduces “a principle of innovation in itself which made its constant further occurrence mandatory.” [51] It introduces a critical stance towards all history.


I have summarized the main arguments in greater detail in the previous excerpts post, but to summarize: there were three consequences of the Copernican revolution that led to a new physical cosmology:

1) nature is homogeneous throughout, made of the same stuff, following the same laws;

2) there is no “solid architecture of the universe to account for its orderliness”; things don’t move along tracks or seek to move to their proper place, because “place” is also homogenized, so that, for instance, the place below the moon is not different in kind from the place[s] above the moon;

3) the universe is not just expanded extraordinarily in size, but has “probable infinity, by which it cease[s] to be a “whole” or a “cosmos” in the sense of a determinate entity”. [52] The only thing holding the world together as a unity was a common system of dynamics. Some found this scale of things liberating (Bruno), some found this profoundly alienating (Pascal).


The Copernican system presented a new shape to things, “but by itself gave no account of the working of things.” Kepler’s laws were “descriptive and marvelously accurate in that respect, but not explanatory.” [59] Galileo had championed a new science of motion — “a general “kinetics”. This involved […] a radical reframing of the very concept of motion […].”

In the Aristotelian system, motion was about change of place, and place is something. Place, being infinitely divisible, means that an infinite number of changes occur as an object changes places. A cause is required to be active all through whatever changes occur. Change requires a cause; no-change requires no cause. Rest is seen as the natural state. “Motion itself […] is not a cause; it has a cause. Rest, on the other hand, has no cause: it is its own cause in the absence of any active cause.” [60]

I know of no simpler way to state the conceptual revolution in kinetics associated with Galileo […] than to say that he removed motion from the category of change and made it understood as a state equivalent, in regard to cause, to the state of rest. […] [What was changed by this was] the idea of what constitutes a change. [60]

The continuation of motion “is not a repetitious change but the retention of a given state” [61], unlike the Aristotelian scheme, and so doesn’t require a cause. A change in velocity or direction requires the addition of a force to the force that is already keeping the body in motion. This had far-reaching consequences, Jonas argues.


“[A]ll appearances are on the side of the opposite, Aristotelian view”. [61] When we stop pushing the wheelbarrow, it comes to rest, &c.

The Galilean revolution has this in common with the Copernican revolution that it replaces the testimony of the senses with an abstraction that directly contradicts but indirectly grounds it. [61]

The motions of things are composites of simple motions; there are no privileged directions; rest is simply the zero value of velocity, &c. “Motions, being resultants, could be resolved into their simple components and, vice verse, constructed from them.” This lead to

1) The “geometrizing of nature and consequently the mathematization of physics.” [62]

2) The new “program of an analysis of motions necessitat[ing] a new mathematics”, the “infinitesimal calculus”. [63]

3) The “analysis of motions” inaugurates “the experimental method”. Such experiments attempt to control which single, simple features of a phenomenon show up in the artificial context of the experiment, very different from “the observation […] of “natural” nature in its unprocessed complexity […]. It essentially differs, in one word, from experience as such.” [63]


In order to have this geometrics turn into “a full-fledged mechanics of nature” [63], Newton was required. “Force” does not resolve “into purely geometrical” [64] terms the way that motion does. Force can be measured by the amount of acceleration it can impart to this-or-that body, or the amount of resistance that this-or-that body has to any given amount of force, but there is something non-geometrical here, in both cases. The concept of mass resolved this non-geometrical something.

Although Newton simply defined it as “the quantity of matter,” it actually denotes in its physical function a dynamic quantity, vi&., the quantity of inertia — a magnitude independent (not a variable) of size, shape, place, motion, temperature or any of the variables by which we may otherwise determine the being of a body. “Mass” in short denotes a power somehow identical with the essence of matter — which thus becomes an ens realissimum in its own right, with respect to whose stubborn, primary invariance all other determinations become shifting and secondary. This is worlds apart from the Aristotelian scheme of substantial forms, qualities, accidents, (&c.) determining an indifferent “prime matter” which becomes “real” only insofar as thus determined. [64]

Matter became the seat of two forces in Newton — inertia and gravitation; and so, with this, “astronomy and ballistics had become branches of one and the same science.” [65]


This altered understanding of what constituted a change “reacted on the conception of what constitutes a cause“. A cause is now what imparts or resists acceleration, with a precise magnitude, “and to this, its primary form, all […] other kinds of “causes” must be reduced.” [65]

This leads to a “strict quantitative equivalence of cause and effect”; “any physical state can be represented as a determinate configuration of masses and forces from which the next state follows necessarily”. [66] In order for this strict quantitative equivalence to work, no novelty can be added to this system, and nothing removed; “[t]he constancy of matter and energy […] is therefore an indispensable axiom of modern science”, as a “necessary metaphysical corollary”. [66] This means: no miracles. It also means: no human agency, “because this would start a new causal train “from nothing” as far as physical antecedents are concerned”. [67] This flies against our most basic experience of being the “authors of our actions from purpose and design”, “relegat[ing] this basic experience to the realm of mere appearance”. Thus, not only “extramundane” interventions but purposes, ends, “final causes”, go the way of formal causes. Nature has “no formative power to serve” the final causes of human purposes. This is not even to say that our actions are pre-determined: the determinism of modern science means that there is no “pre-determinism”, no “pre-” anything, because there are no goals, there is “only a transfer of the mass-energy sum from moment to moment”: “in short, no pull of the future, only the push of the past”. [68]

Jonas briefly notes, wisely, that there is a fideism in both the new objectivity and our subjective sense of authorship of activity. [67]


The Newtonian picture of mechanics was “made more complex by the addition of electromagnetism” &c. This “more advanced scheme”, however, “still adheres to the basic postulates of quantitative cause-effect equivalence assured by constancy laws, the linear transfer of given mass-energy magnitudes through the progression of time, and the consequent fitness of mathematical computation to all natural phenomena. […] [T]he original simplification sufficed to provide the essential condition.” [68] Just as matter is homogeneous, so too only one set of laws govern all things, to which all appearances of change reduce. These laws are mechanical, “and the idea of the world machine arises. It is to be noted that it preceded the machine age.” [68]

There is a cost to the picture of the world as a machine:

Nature is not a place where one can look for ends. Efficient cause knows no preference of outcomes: the complete absence of final causes means that nature is indifferent to distinctions of value. […] The regularity which makes it knowable makes it meaningless at the same time. […] [T]here is no “good” or “bad” in nature, but only that which must be and therefore is. […] Whatever comes to be has only the validity of happening to be the consequence of what likewise happened to be a consequence before. [69]

Everything is an accident (in the sense of contingency — a different outcome would have followed a different chain, and there is no outworking of a preference in nature), and is also necessary (no other outcome could have followed from a chain of events). The extension of this Newtonian view to biology also swallows up humanity: there is nothing that was invested in producing humanity, no predisposition towards our arrival. [70]


The disenchantment of this kind of knowledge brings, in its wake, the death of awe, and offers no guidance on what one ought to do: “[i]f nature sanctions nothing, then it permits everything. […] Nature is not a norm […]. There is only the extrinsic necessity of causal determination, no intrinsic validity of its results.” [70] “The world, after first having become the object of man’s knowledge, becomes the object of his will, and his knowledge is put in the service of his will. And the will, of course, is a will for power over things.” [71] Once one can resolve a complex situation into its “simplest geometrical, material, and dynamical factors”, one is lead to know “how one can make it up oneself out of those elements.” [71] Theory, once served by practice, becomes the servant of practice.


If science-infused technology didn’t really come to maturity until the 19th century, what happened between the theoretical breakthrough of the 17th century and then? “The question involves the impact which science may have had on technology or vice versa.” [71] The theory of mechanics began as “celestial mechanics” [72] with very limited terrestrial applications. It was “not used for the designing of machines.” The theory was used to improve the mechanisms of clocks. Most of the early inventions “chronometers, telescopes, microscopes”, &c., are there to further theory, and not in the service of everyday life. Gunpowder was discovered, but not through theory.

“The investigation of magnetism and electricity” [73] was not practical until the 19th century. Geology, mineralogy, zoology &c. “were descriptive, classificatory, and historical” rather than having technological application. “Any field of natural knowledge, so it seems, has to be assimilated to physics before it becomes amenable to a scientific technology.” “Medicine alone” was a fusion of theory and practice, and, apart from this one case, “science did not significantly inspire technology before the nineteenth century”, and “[t]echnology itself moved forward in those centuries on its own”, as it had been doing since the middle ages. The “alliance of science and technology” did not happen until the “industrial revolution”. [74]

Bacon thought that the new knowledge of nature would give us mastery of our environment and, in the end, produce so much weal that humans would not seek power over one another. This is his optimism, an optimism that is a “confidence in man, in his powers, and his natural goodness, is the signature of modernity.” Jonas here strikes a note of caution: “even the light of knowledge becomes a means of our blindness.” [74] Bacon failed to understand the older lesson, that the power unleashed can be for good, and also for evil, admitting both.


Modern technology begins by using “artificially generated and processed natural forces for the powering of work-producing machines.” [75] It begins with an aim to serve and facilitate ends, purposes, that pre-exist in human life. It proceeded initially through at least four stages: mechanical, chemical, electrical, and electronic. Another, possibly final stage of the technological revolution (seemingly the biotech one we are really only in the infancy of now) Jonas considers later.

1) Mechanics is “the first form” of the technological stage of the revolution. It did the same work that pre-technological-stage industry was performing, pursued the same goals, but did both better, and at a larger scale, with the machines themselves as “a new class of goods”. The level of physics needed for these machines was much lower than the level of “sophistication” [76] needed for the calculations in “Newtonian celestial mechanics”. [75] Practice lagged far behind in applying theory.

2) Chemistry and “electrical technology” appear side-by-side at the end of the 19th century, and in them “scientific and industrial-technological progress” are fused inseparably. They are radically different from mechanics, because these two were “goal-setting rather than merely goal-serving: they made the very possibility of such goals known before even their desirability could be conceived”. [76] Chemistry has its origins in theory, but in it, experimentation is no longer theoretical, but manipulative and practical. The practical precursors to chemistry (e.g., dyes & fertilizers &c.) still sought to imitate nature. Here, however, “from utilizing and exploiting [humanity] advances to creating” from within “a more sovereign role”. [77]

3) Electrical technology is even more dependent on theory, because it cannot be a technology until the theory is “to all intents and purposes complete”, unlike chemistry. The matter that chemistry deals with “is still the concrete, corporeal stuff of our natural experience”, but “there was no experience of such a thing as electricity, let alone any dealing with it, before science discovered and investigated it”. [77]

4) In “the passage from electric to electronic technology”, [78] our purposes change also, irrevocably. From Renaissance figures like da Vinci to early modern figures like Bacon & Descartes, technology was seen as an imitation of nature. Electronics imitates nothing in nature, however (or only at superficial levels), its means have no analogue in nature, and it generates purposes unknown in nature. So with satellites: nothing in nature “foreshadows”[79] them. Instead, electronics “answers to needs of information and control solely created by the civilization itself which made this technology possible and, once started, imperative.”

Modern tech –computers, for example– is necessary to the continued functioning of our civilization, and its devices would have had nothing to do 150 years ago, because its utility is so attached to changes in, and the shape of, modern sociality. Compare “the extreme artificiality of our technologically constituted, electronically integrated environment and corresponding habits” to the Greek polis: unlike the polis, which Aristotle could see as the natural unfolding end of human nature, our technological environment has no parallel connection to human nature, and is “stronger than politics.” It shapes novel ends before we are aware of them. It carries us on its own, novel fate. [79]


Jonas wrote this essay around 1973 (the collection was published in ’74), and was aware that biology was the next frontier: “an engineering art which, this time, has man himself for its object”. The problem is that “the metaphysical neutralizing of man”, “while giving us the license to do as we wish, at the same time denies us the guidance for knowing what to wish.” [79] If we have no essence, which we would seem not to have under an evolutionary framework, then there is no “light” available to guide us in our self-engineering goals: “[t]he anti-essentialism of prevailing theory surrenders our being to a freedom without norms.” Jonas uses the term “the technological call of the new microbiology” [80] — a call, a summons to pursue what is both possible and permissible. He does not exhort us to heed this call, but worries that those who do heed it will have the best intentions, but will (I closely paraphrase) “change the keys on which the melody of life will be played in all future generations”. What he does exhort us to, is to engage in

a reflection on what is humanly desirable and what should determine the choice [of what to change or abstain from changing] — on ‘the image of man”, in short […] [80]

Jonas worries, however, that we, and philosophers, are not ready for this task.


Header image found here.

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