Giordano Bruno and the history of science

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Virginia Tech

Historians of science express widely divergent interpretations of the significance of the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) to the history of science. An examination of the history of science reveals two basic schools of thought about Bruno. Specifically, historians of science disagree on the reason for Bruno’s execution at the hands of the Roman Inquisition in 1600. One school of thought, the “martyr to science” interpretation, insists that Bruno died as the direct result of his advocacy of Copernicanism. The opposing school rejects this assessment and names a variety of unorthodox religious beliefs as the motivation for Bruno’s execution.

These two positions, the “martyr to science” and the “anti-martyr to science” schools of thought, form the basis of two parallel interpretive schemes about early modern science that have coexisted in the history of science for nearly 150 years. In particular, the “martyr to science” school tends to view religion as innately hostile to science. Moreover, this school also emphasizes the discontinuities between medieval and modern science. In contrast, the “anti-martyr to science” school often rejects the existence of an inherent conflict between science and religion. The “anti-martyr to science” school also tends to highlight the continuities between medieval and modern science.