Copernican Revolution (metaphor)

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The Copernican Revolution, which in terms of astronomy amounted to the acceptance of heliocentrism as suggested by Nicolaus Copernicus, has also been used widely as a metaphor supporting descriptions of modernity. A particularly prominent case was the selection of this comparison by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason to explain the effect in epistemology of his new transcendental philosophy.[1]

Characteristics of the metaphor[edit]

David Luban has analysed four different sides of the metaphorical usage, deriving from different aspects of the Copernican Revolution as it is understood in the history of science, and its wider impact on thought:

The "Copernican Revolution in philosophy"[edit]

The attribution of the comparison with Copernicus to Kant himself is based on a passage in the Preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (1787, and a heavy revision of the first edition of 1781). In an English translation, it begins:

Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge. This would agree better with what is desired, namely, that it should be possible to have knowledge of objects a priori, determining something in regard to them prior to their being given. We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus' primary hypothesis. Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved round the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if he made the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest. A similar experiment can be tried in metaphysics, as regards the intuition of objects.[3]

Much has been said on what Kant meant by referring to his philosophy as ‘proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus' primary hypothesis’. There has been a long-standing and still unresolved discussion on the inappropriateness of Kant’s analogy because, as most commentators see it, Kant inverted Copernicus' primary move.[4] This inversion is explained by Victor Cousin:

Copernicus, seeing it was impossible to explain the motion of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that these bodies moved around the earth considered as an immovable centre, adopted the alternative, of supposing all to move round the sun. So Kant, instead of supposing man to move around objects, supposed on the contrary, that he himself was the centre, and that all moved round him.[5]

According to Tom Rockmore,[6] Kant himself never used the "Copernican Revolution" phrase about himself, though it was "routinely" applied to his work by others.

Don Schneier has recently proposed an alternative interpretation. On that interpretation, the Copernican thesis that is relevant to Kant is not the Heliocentric one, but that the Earth rotates on its own axis. The relevance of this example to his doctrine is that it familiarly illustrates how what appears to be a property of an object of perception, e. g. the motion of the Sun in its daily transit across the sky, is actually a condition of the subject of perception, i. e. its rotating around the axis of the Earth. This interpretation is supported by the text, and avoids some of the peculiarities that attach to the standard interpretation.

Another alternative interpretation: The standard criticism that Kant turned the analogy on its head depends upon focusing merely on our hypothesized change in location from Ptolemy to Copernicus. But if one focusses on the changed locus of activity that accounts for the observed phenomena one can get an exact parallel.[7]

Prior to Kant it was assumed that the object had to make itself known to the epistemic agent. The ideal would be for the epistemic agent to wholly inert and allow the object to inform the agent of the object's nature. Thinkers were aware that we sometimes inject ourselves into the process, and in ways that lead to non-veridical experience. The possibility that we might always inject ourselves in the process, and in ways we are not even aware of, leads to scepticism. On this view the unobstructed activity of the object accounts for what we can know of it.

In the Ptolemeic system we are at the center of the universe and we are inert. If the sun seems to go around us once a day that has to be explained by the sun's activity. If the planets seem to make odd loops in the orbits (called retrograde motion) that has to be explained by the planet's activity and not ours, since we have none. The locus of activity that explains the phenomena is in the object to be known. This parallel Kant's predecessors.

In the Copernican system, on the other hand, the apparent motion of the sun is due to our activity - we rotate on our axis once per day. The apparent retrograde motions of planets in their orbits are not due their activity - it is due to their relation to the fixed background of stars as we pass them in our orbit. The locus of activity that explains the observed phenomena has moved from the object to us (not entirely, of course, but no analogy is ever perfect).

The same thing occurs in Kant epistmology. Instead of the object presenting itself to us as passive observers, we constitute the object ourselves. The object only presents a manifold of representation (intuitions, which, in and of themselves are not an object but merely a manifold of representation). Through the categories of the understanding we think objects for that manifold and bring unity to the manifold as an object. If it is necessary to think that substances endure and all events have causes that is not due things outside of us - it is due to the very structure of our thoughts of objects introduced by our own cognitive activity.

Kant moved the locus of activity for explaining our ability know objects from the thing outside us to within us. On this intreptation both moves, in astronomy and in epistemology, are anthropocentric: the locus of activity moves to us.


The phrase is now widely used, particularly in the humanities, for a simple change of perspective, connoting a progressive shift. Examples:

By defining hysteria as an illness whose symptoms were produced by a person's unconscious ideas, Freud started what can be called a ‘Copernican Revolution’ in the understanding of mental illness — which put him into opposition both to the Parisian Charcot and to the German and Austrian scientific community.[8]
Jacques Lacan's formulation that the unconscious, as it reveals itself in analytic phenomena, ‘is structured like a language’, can be seen as a Copernican revolution (of sorts), bringing together Freud and the insights of linguistic philosophers and theorists such as Roman Jakobson.[9]
Fredrick Barth (1969), in what could be called a Copernican revolution in the understanding of ethnicity, suggested that rather than anthropology focusing on the cultural “stuff” contained within ethnic groups, it is also the task of anthropology to focus on the problematic and socially constructed boundary between ethnic groups.[10]
The gradual shift of the cause of disability from the individual person (the rehabilitation approach) or the social interaction between people (interaction approach), to the confrontation (conflict) of the individual with the organisation of society, including the structure of the social-spatial environment, is described by Samoy and Lammertyn as a Copernican revolution.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ermanno Bencivenga (1987), Kant's Copernican Revolution.
  2. ^ David Luban, Legal Modernism (1997), pp. 18-20.
  3. ^
  4. ^ For an overview see Engel, M., Kant’s Copernican Analogy: A Re-examination, Kant-Studien, 54, 1963, p.243
  5. ^ Cousin, Victor, The Philosophy of Kant. London: John Chapman, 1854, p.21
  6. ^ Tom Rockmore, Marx After Marxism: The Philosophy of Karl Marx (2002), p. 184.
  7. ^ Darrell Johnson, unpublished paper: Transcendental Idealism
  8. ^ José Brunner, Freud and the Politics of Psychoanalysis(2001), p. 32.
  9. ^ Ben Highmore, Michel de Certeau: Analysing Culture (2006), p. 64.
  10. ^ Gailyn Van Rheenen, Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents (2006), p. 306.
  11. ^