Copernican Revolution (metaphor)
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 (1787 edition) to explain the effect in epistemology of his new transcendental philosophy.
Characteristics of the metaphor
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:
- a sense of uprootedness within cosmology;
- a way of representing the path of reason and Enlightenment;
- mistrust of common sense as a guide to truth;
- a world-picture based on scientific laws rather than narratives.
The Copernican Revolution in philosophy
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 (published in 1787; 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.
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. 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.
According to Tom Rockmore, 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.
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.— José Brunner, Freud and the Politics of Psychoanalysis (2001), p. 32.
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.— Ben Highmore, Michel de Certeau: Analysing Culture (2006), p. 64.
- Ermanno Bencivenga (1987), Kant's Copernican Revolution.
- David Luban, Legal Modernism (1997), pp. 18–20.
- Preface to the Second Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason
- For an overview see Engel, M., Kant’s Copernican Analogy: A Re-examination, Kant-Studien, 54, 1963, p. 243
- Cousin, Victor, The Philosophy of Kant. London: John Chapman, 1854, p. 21
- Tom Rockmore, Marx After Marxism: The Philosophy of Karl Marx (2002), p. 184.