History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: 19th Century Society

Influences on scientific thinking click here for audio

Boyle's air pump

scientific method

The Newtonian synthesis instituted the scientific method: the combination of data (gathered through empiricism/experimentation) and hypothesis (tested through application). The discovery and application of universal principles became the norm in "natural philosophy" during the 18th century. Scientific laboratories became the usual place for testing hypotheses by the 19th century.


During the Enlightenment, the scientific method was applied in several areas. One of the most important expressions of the new faith in the manipulation of nature was the science of classification, pioneered by Carl Linnaeus. You may be familiar with his system: kingdom -> classes -> orders -> genus -> species. The kingdom Animalia contained the class Vertebrata, which contained the order Primates, which contained the genus Homo with the species sapiens (that's us). Controversial at the time (partly because Linnaeus organized everything by sex), this kind of organization exhibits the confidence of the Enlightenment in cataloging all that could be known.

In addition, the 18th century Enlightenment saw the application of science to society. This approach was taken as a norm by the 19th century: the idea that science could be applied to social problems in order to alleviate them.

positivism: Comte

Comte's positivism is the last step in forming the 19th century scientific consciousness. His approach, which presented his own time as entering the positive stage, emphasized the reliance on scientific proof to create social progress. See the lecture section in Industrialization: Philosophical Reaction for a review of positivism.

2. Natural Selection ->