Condillac’s Influence on French Scientific Thought [1972f]
There is a widespread tendency among historians of science to look down upon the eighteenth century as a period of stagnation in the scientific development, contrasting with the triumphant achievements of the great creative period which preceded it. Newton’s towering personality is indeed such as to overshadow investigators of nature who would otherwise have ranked as the foremost of their time and on a par with their great followers of the nineteenth century and of our own time. The main achievement of Newton, if we look at it in a wider historical perspective than could be done by the popularizers of the time, is not what impressed them so much — his formulation of the law of universal gravitation, his experimental discoveries in optics, his vindication of a theological conception of the laws of nature. Above all, he initiated a new approach to nature, a new method of investigation of natural phenomena. This inductive method, starting from the direct observation of the phenomena by painstaking, accurate experiments, and leading to a rational account of them, has since then demonstrated its unfailing efficiency and power. It is the only method in human endeavour that leads to an unending accumulation of ever improved, ever expanding knowledge, which never suffers any set-back. This is not to say, of course, that it is the only way in which we establish relationships of lasting value with nature, but it is unique in this cumulative character, and the resulting certainty, of its acquisitions.
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