Robert S. Westman – “The Copernican Question Revisited: A Reply to Noel Swerdlow and John Heilbron”

26 September, 2017 - MA Coursework

Robert S. Westman, “The Copernican Question Revisited: A Reply to Noel Swerdlow and John Heilbron,” Perspectives on Science 21, no. 1 (2013).


It is important to mention, at the outset, that the disciplinary divergence of astronomy and astrology, and the latter’s subsequent descent into the fringes of the comics section was an historical process of the modern era (though perhaps Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was an early instigator). As such, as it was essential for Westman to demonstrate, the sciences of the stars in Westman’s long sixteenth century were really the science of the stars, an astronomy-astrology coupling. Insofar as astronomy plays a role in the Copernican Revolution, and that is as much a tautology as there ever was, astrology must have played one as well. But that is just logic; historiography should have something more compelling for us: in light of those reviews of Robert Westman’s The Copernican Question that were assigned this week — and those that were not — I must assume Swerdlow’s and Heilbron’s have not withstood scrutiny (how could they when Westman was doing the scrutinizing . . . vicious). We are left, then, from Westman’s own defense and the civil reviews of Peter Barker, Peter Dear, and J.R. Christiansen, with the substantiation of Westman’s answer to the question of the role of astronomy in the Copernican Revolution.

According to Peter Barker, before Robert Westman’s proposal, there were two competing answers to the question of why Copernicus adopted heliocentrism: as a solution to a technical problem in astronomy (from Noel Swerdlow) and as a solution to a technical problem in cosmology (from Bernard Goldstein). Though Barker acknowledges that both Goldstein’s and Swerdlow’s suggestive motives may be operative and mutually reinforcing with Westman’s, only Westman’s accounts for the timing and urgency of Copernicus’s defense. Westman proposes that Copernicus was motivated not only by astronomical/cosmological concerns, but by astrological ones as well. In the midst of the Averroist/Ptolemaic astronomical/cosmological controversies during Copernicus’s early education and career was also a conflict over the legitimacy of astrological prognostication inextricable from astronomical concerns. According to Westman, Copernicus likely received astrological education in Krakow, and when he moved to Bologna to complete his education, he was cohabitating with and apprenticed to Domenico de Novara, whom Copernicus assisted in his prognostications. In this account, Copernicus is the recipient of an astrological education and had a vested professional interest in its legitimacy. In 1496 a challenge was issued against the astronomical-astrological complex by Giovanni Pico della Mirando. Westman situates this controversy not only within its astronomical context of uncertainty planetary arrangement and subsequent aspersion of planetary influences, but also in its political and cultural context: Pico and Novara were competitors for the patronage of Bolognese diplomat Mino Rossi.

Piling onto the Averroist criticisms of Alessandro Achillini, Pico questioned, rather obviously, how we could pretend to determine the influences of the planets on the affairs of humanity, or the planet’s elemental qualities, when we cannot sensibly order the planets in a configuration that does not contradict some component of received astronomical authority? It was in answer to this challenge to astrology (undergirded by mathematical astronomy) and the Averroist attacks on the physical impossibility of Ptolemaic mathematical heuristics (equant point, epicycles, etc.) that Copernicus, according to Westman, sought to produce a system immune to both critiques, on both physically significant and causal, and precise for calculation (and consequently prognostication).




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