Continuity And Discontinuity Hypothesis Statement

In the history of ideas, the continuity thesis is the hypothesis that there was no radical discontinuity between the intellectual development of the Middle Ages and the developments in the Renaissance and early modern period. Thus the idea of an intellectual or scientific revolution following the Renaissance is, according to the continuity thesis, a myth. Some continuity theorists point to earlier intellectual revolutions occurring in the Middle Ages, usually referring to the European "Renaissance of the 12th century"[1] as a sign of continuity. Despite the many points that have been brought up by proponents of the continuity thesis, a majority of scholars still support the traditional view of the Scientific Revolution occurring in the 16th and 17th centuries.[1][2][3][4]


The idea of a continuity, rather than contrast between medieval and modern thought, begins with Pierre Duhem, the French physicist and philosopher of science. It is set out in his ten volume work on the history of science, Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic. Unlike many former historians such as Voltaire and Condorcet, who did not consider the Middle Ages to be of much intellectual importance[citation needed], he tried to show that the Roman Catholic Church had helped foster the development of Western science. His work was prompted by his research into the origins of statics, where he encountered the works of medieval mathematicians and philosophers such as Nicole Oresme and Roger Bacon. He consequently came to regard them as the founders of modern science, their having in his view anticipated many of the discoveries of Galileo and later thinkers. Duhem concluded that "the mechanics and physics of which modern times are justifiably proud proceed, by an uninterrupted series of scarcely perceptible improvements, from doctrines professed in the heart of the medieval schools."[5]


Another notable supporter of the continuity thesis was George Sarton (1884–1956). In The History of Science and the New Humanism (1931), George Sarton put much stress on the historical continuity of science. Sarton further noted that the development of science stagnated during the Renaissance, due to Renaissance humanism putting more emphasis on form over fact, grammar over substance, and the adoration of ancient authorities over empirical investigation. As a result, he stated that science had to be introduced to Western culture twice: first in the 12th century during the Arabic–Latin translation movement, and again in the 17th century during what became known as the "Scientific Revolution". He said this was due to the first appearance of science being swept away by Renaissance humanism before science had to be re-introduced again in the 17th century.[6]

Sarton wrote in the Introduction to the History of Science:

"It does not follow, as so many ignorant persons think, that the mediaeval activities were sterile. That would be just as foolish as to consider a pregnant woman sterile as long as the fruit of her womb was unborn. The Middle Ages were pregnant with many ideas which could not be delivered until much later. Modern science, we might say, was the fruition of mediaeval immaturity. Vesalius, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton were the happy inheritors who cashed in."[7]:15

"We shall not be far wrong in saying that it was Occamism combined with Averroism which prepared the gradual dissolution of mediaeval continuity and the beginning of a new age."[7]:91

Franklin and Pasnau[edit]

More recently the Australian mathematician and historian of science James Franklin has argued that the idea of a European Renaissance is a myth.[8] He characterizes the myth as the view that around the 15th century:

  • There was a sudden dawning of a new outlook on the world after a thousand years of darkness
  • Ancient learning was rediscovered
  • New ideas about intellectual inquiry and freedom replaced reliance on authority
  • Scientific investigation replaced the sterile disputes of the schools.[8]:60

He claims that the Renaissance was in fact a period when thought declined significantly, bringing to an end a period of advance in the late Middle Ages, and that the twelfth century was the "real, true, and unqualified renaissance". For example, the rediscovery of ancient knowledge, which the later Italian humanists claimed for themselves, was actually accomplished in the 12th century.[8]

Franklin cites many examples of scientific advances in the medieval period that predate or anticipate later 'discoveries'. For example, the first advances in geometrical optics and mechanics were in the 12th century. The first steps in understanding motion, and continuous variation in general, occurred in the 14th century with the work of the scientists of the Merton School, at Oxford in the 1330s and 1340s. (Franklin notes that there is no phrase in ancient Greek or Latin equivalent to "kilometres per hour"). Nicole Oresme, who wrote on theology and money, devoted much of his effort to science and mathematics and invented graphs, was the first to perform calculations involving probability, and the first to compare the workings of the universe to a clock.[9][10] Franklin emphasises how much of later thought, not only in science, was built on a foundation of revived scholasticism, not Renaissance humanism.[11]

But little of importance occurs in any other branches of science in the two centuries between Oresme and Copernicus.[according to whom?] Like other historians of this period, Franklin attributes the decline to the plague of 1348–1350, (the black death), which killed a third of the people in Europe. Johan Huizinga's examination of this period, The Waning of the Middle Ages,[12] suggests a tendency towards elaborate theory of signs, which Franklin compares with the degeneracy of modern Marxism. He cites the late Renaissance naturalist Aldrovandi, who considered his account of the snake incomplete until he had treated it in its anatomical, heraldic, allegorical, medicinal, anecdotal, historical and mythical aspects. He marks the 15th century as coinciding with the decline of literature. Chaucer died in 1400; the next writers that are widely read are Erasmus, More, Rabelais and Machiavelli, just after 1500. "It is hard to think of any writer in English between Chaucer and Spenser who is now read even by the most enthusiastic students. The gap is almost two hundred years." He points to the development of astrology and alchemy in the heyday of the Renaissance.[8]

Franklin concedes that in painting the Renaissance really did excel, but that unfortunately the artistic skill of the Renaissance concealed its incompetence in anything else. He cites Da Vinci, who was supposed to be good at everything, but who on examination, "had nothing of importance to say on most subjects". (A standard history of mathematics, according to Franklin (E. T. Bell's The Development of Mathematics, 1940), says that "Leonardo's published jottings on mathematics are trivial, even puerile, and show no mathematical talent whatever."[13]) The invention of printing he compares to television, which produced "a flood of drivel catering to the lowest common denominator of the paying public, plus a quantity of propaganda paid for by the sponsors".[8]

The philosopher and historian Robert Pasnau makes a similar, but more extreme[according to whom?] claim that "modernity came in the late twelfth century, with Averroes' magisterial revival of Aristotle and its almost immediate embrace by the Latin West."[14]

Pasnau argues that in some branches of 17th century philosophy, the insights of the scholastic era fall into neglect and disrepute. He disputes the modernist view of medieval thought as subservient to the views of Aristotle. By contrast "scholastic philosophers agree among themselves no more than does any group of philosophers from any historical period."[14]:561 Furthermore, the almost unknown period between 1400 and 1600 was not barren, but gave rise to vast quantities of material, much of which still survives. This complicates any generalizations about the supposedly novel developments in the seventeenth-century. He claims that the concerns of scholasticism are largely continuous with the central themes of the modern era, that early modern philosophy, though different in tone and style, is a natural progression out of later medieval debates, and that a grasp of the scholastic background is essential to an understanding of the philosophy of Descartes, Locke, and others.[14]

Graham and Saliba[edit]

In 1973, A. C. Graham criticized the notion of "modern science", arguing that "The question may also be raised whether Ptolemy or even Copernicus and Kepler were in principle any nearer to modern science than the Chinese and the Maya, or indeed than the first astronomer, whoever he may have been, who allowed observations to outweigh numerological considerations of symmetry in his calculations of the month and the year." In 1999, George Saliba, in his review of Toby E. Huff's The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West, also criticized the notion of "modern science", arguing how one would define terms like "modern science" or "modernity". After quoting Graham, Saliba notes that "the empirical emphasis placed by that very first astronomer on the value of his observations set the inescapable course to modern science. So where would the origins of modern science then lie?"[15]


In The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, Edward Grant argues that the origins of modern science lie in the Middle Ages and was due to a combination of four factors:[1]

"Translations into Latin of Greek and Arabic scientific texts in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; the development of universities, which were uniquely Western and used the translations as the basis of a science curriculum; the adjustments of Christianity to secular learning and the transformation of Aristotle's natural philosophy."


Gary Hatfield, in his "Was the Scientific Revolution Really a Revolution of Science?", argues that while the "Scientific Revolution" of the 17th century did have several individual "revolutions", he does not consider the period to be a "scientific" revolution. Some of his reasons include science still being tied to metaphysics at the time, experimental physics not being separated from natural philosophy until the end of the 18th century, and comparable individual "revolutions" in different sciences continued occurring before and after the 17th century, such as the optical revolution of Faraday and Maxwell.[16]


Another contrary view has been recently proposed by Arun Bala in his dialogical history of the birth of modern science. Bala proposes that the changes involved in the Scientific Revolution — the mathematical realist turn, the mechanical philosophy, the atomism, the central role assigned to the Sun in Copernican heliocentrism — have to be seen as rooted in multicultural influences on Europe. He sees specific influences in Alhazen's physical optical theory, Chinese mechanical technologies leading to the perception of the world as a machine, the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, which carried implicitly a new mode of mathematical atomic thinking, and the heliocentrism rooted in ancient Egyptian religious ideas associated with Hermeticism. Bala argues that by ignoring such multicultural impacts we have been led to a Eurocentric conception of the Scientific Revolution.[17] Critics note that lacking documentary evidence of transmission of specific scientific ideas, Bala's model will remain "a working hypothesis, not a conclusion".[18]


  1. ^ abcGrant, Edward (13 Oct 1996). The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts. Cambridge History of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-56137-X. 
  2. ^Dear, Peter (Apr 2001). Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1700 (1st ed.). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08859-4. 
  3. ^Margolis, Howard (25 Apr 2002). It Started with Copernicus: How Turning the World inside out Led to the Scientific Revolution. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-138507-X. 
  4. ^Westfall, Richard S. (Oct 1971) [Reprint of ed. published by Wiley, New York, in series: Wiley History of Science]. The Construction of Modern Science: Mechanisms and Mechanics. Cambridge History of Science. London: Cambridge University Press (published 27 Jan 1977). ISBN 0-521-29295-6. 
  5. ^Lindberg, David C.; Westman, Robert S., eds. (27 Jul 1990) [Duhem, Pierre (1905). "Preface". Les Origines de la statique1. Paris: A. Hermman. p. iv.]. "Conceptions of the Scientific Revolution from Bacon to Butterfield". Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (1st ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 14. ISBN 0-521-34804-8. 
  6. ^Cochrane, Eric (Dec 1976). "Science and Humanism in the Italian Renaissance". The American Historical Review Cochrane. Oxford University Press for the American Historical Association. 81 (5): 1039. 
  7. ^ abSarton, George (1947). Introduction to the History of Science. 3. Williams & Wilkins for Carnegie Institution of Washington. 
  8. ^ abcdeFranklin, James (Nov 1982). "The Renaissance Myth". Quadrant. 26 (11): 51–60. ISSN 0033-5002. 
  9. ^Grant, Edward (Jan 1974). A Sourcebook in Medieval Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-82360-5. 
  10. ^Hannam, James (6 Aug 2009). God's Philosophers. London: Icon Books. ISBN 978-1-84831-070-4. 
  11. ^Franklin, James (2012). "Science by conceptual analysis: the genius of the late scholastics". Studia Neoaristotelica. 9 (1): 3–24. doi:10.5840/studneoar2012911. ISSN 1214-8407. 
  12. ^Huizinga, Johan (1924). Herfsttij der middeleeuwen [The Waning of the Middle Ages]. Translated by Frederik Hopman (2nd ed.). London: E. Arnold & Co. 
  13. ^Bell, E.T (2 September 1992). The Development of Mathematics. Dover Books on Mathematics (Reprint 2nd ed.). New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-27239-7. 
  14. ^ abcPasnau, Robert (Nov 2006). "A Theory of Secondary Qualities". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 73 (3): 568–591. ISSN 0031-8205. 
  15. ^Saliba, George (Autumn 1999). "Seeking the Origins of Modern Science?". Bulletin of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies. 1 (2). ISSN 1466-2361. Archived from the original on 2008-05-09. Retrieved 2008-01-25. 
  16. ^Hatfield, Gary (July 1996). "Was the Scientific Revolution Really a Revolution in Science?". In Ragep, F. Jamil; Ragep, Sally P.; Livesey, Steven John. Tradition, Transmission, Transformation: Proceedings of Two Conferences on Pre-Modern Science Held at the University of Oklahoma. Collection de Travaux de l'Académie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences. 37. Brill Publishers. ISBN 90-04-10119-5. 
  17. ^Bala, Arun (15 Sep 2008). The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1-4039-7468-3. 
  18. ^Sobol, Peter G (Dec 2007). "Book Review: The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science". Isis. University of Chicago Press on behalf of History of Science Society. 98 (4): 829–830. doi:10.1086/529293. ISSN 0021-1753. 

The Debate of Language Origins

The origin of language will always continue to be a puzzling question for researchers and linguists. So much is unknown about where language could have originated from resulting in much interpretation and theory. In Ib Ulbaek’s, “The Origin of Language and Cognition,” he discusses the four main theories that dominate this field, those dealing with interpretations on whether language is either innate or learned and whether it is based on a discontinuity approach or rather a continuity approach.  It will be further detailed what it means to believe in any combination of these approaches as well as which theory Ulbaek and I myself support.

Both a continuity approach and a discontinuity approach exist in the debate of the origin of language. The continuity approach has a Darwinian perspective of language suggesting the potential for language to have evolved from more primitive forms of animal communication. This theory makes a connection between our human language and the rather advanced forms of animal communication such as bird and whale songs and even the complex chirps of crickets. To fully grasp this approach of continuity, we can also consider language as “a topic like echolocation in bats or stereopsis in monkeys” as suggested in an article by Pinker and Bloom which depicted language as a necessity to properly function in life (Pinker, 708). Researchers in the field today try to connect even our most abstract ability of language to Darwin’s theory of evolution. This impresses upon us the idea that language has evolved from precursors within us and without these “hard-wired devices” humans would be without the capabilities of language. However the approach of discontinuity depicts language as too complicated to have ever come from mere animals, expressing that language is unique to humans and far more complex than other forms of communication on Earth. Noam Chomsky defends this position and suggests the concept of a “language organ” (Ulbaek, 30). Yet, rather than accepting that this “organ” could have evolved from pre-existing structures in the body, Chomsky instead suggests that language could be due to a sporadic mutation in our species.

There then is the conflict between whether language is an innate behavior or a learned one. Much evidence supports language as a skill that humans are born with. In an article by Marcus and Fisher, they stated how when chimpanzees are raised in a human environment for years, they still do not acquire human linguistic skills. However, deaf children with limited linguistic input can still create a complex language on their own, clearly not from something they heard, but rather something that is within them, something that they were born with and already understand how to do (Marcus, 1). This is a perfect example of what the innateness of language is by depicting how even without the common idea of spoken language, language can still be created in humans by another method.

However, there is much consideration for language as a learned behavior. This position is filled with both culturists and behaviorists who believe that language is “undeniably learned” (Ulbaek, 31). Culturists prefer to see a separation between the biological functions of the human body and our social interactions. Behaviorists in the same manner emphasize the vast abilities of learning with the use of apes. They believe that because apes do not use language in the wild but are still able to learn and use signs to communicate in a laboratory setting that this demonstrates the learned ability of language, however, deemphasizing how little the apes actually learn.

Ulbaek begins defending his position of continuity and the innateness of language by stating that language came not from animal communication but rather cognition. He emphasizes how language originated from pre-existing structures in the body and believes that all of the cognitive functions that cooperate to create our human language were all established well before language ever arose. Ulbaek emphasizes the evolutionary purposes of language through the Darwinian perspective: how language has both advantages and disadvantages to fitness. He makes a terrific point here, one which I had never considered but completely agree. Language contributes multiple weaknesses to human fitness. For instance, by having and using language, it requires us to have significantly more brain tissue than other species and have changes to our respiratory system in order to utter the sounds we define as language, both of which could hinder us in our athletic abilities due to added mass and potential obstruction to the respiratory system. Language would have also theoretically harmed our level of fitness because it allows us to give away ideas that could give us an edge over our competitors. But rather than give up this ability to better our fitness, humans embraced this ability for its productivity. Language allows us to work cooperatively and ultimately more efficiently. As Ulbaek points out, language does provide fitness to us and our families. From a familial perspective, sharing information amongst family so that the family survives and continues to thrive is in some respects even more important than our individual survival.

Ulbaek’s perspective that language is something that has evolved from animals and is born within us is exactly how I have always felt about this wonderful capability. Taking a scientific approach, I believe that there is no other way that language could have originated but from the evolution of pre-existing structures. It is inconceivable to think that this complex capability, requiring the function of many organs is just due to one freak mutation in our body. Such complexity rarely, if ever, in biology occurs due to mutation. These types of skills are often the results of centuries of slow, constant evolution. A continuity approach is further supported by Pinker who suggests, “Evolutionary theory offers clear criteria for when a trait should be attributed to natural selection: complex design for some function, and the absence of alternative processes capable of explaining such complexity” (Pinker 707). Clearly language possesses both of these characteristics leading us to believe it is indeed a product of evolution.

It is for these same types of scientific perspectives that I believe language is much more innate than learned, though in my opinion, a small portion of language must be learned. Language must be an innate structure for how could we possibly learn how to speak a language and use a language without all of the machinery to do so? On the same token however, there is a portion of language that must be learned. Though a previous example demonstrated how uninfluenced deaf children could spontaneously create a language to communicate, I believe that to be able to function in society, language requires a certain degree of learned skills. These learned skills allow for everyone to communicate together because without these consistencies everyone would have their own individual language and thus our human population could not communicate effectively as a whole.

Language is an abstract capability that humans possess and question daily. It is clear that the origin of language will be debated for centuries to come as the views of continuity and discontinuity are far too contrasting to ever reach a common ground. With this it is important to accept the research that has been done on this topic and develop our own hypotheses based on the world around us that we ourselves perceive.



Marcus, Gary F. and Fisher, Simon E. (2003). FOXP2 in focus: what can genes tell us about speech and language? TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences. 1-6.
Pinker, S. (1994). Natural Language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13, 707-784.
Ulbaek, Ib. (1998) The origin of language and cognition. In James R. Hurford, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, Chris Knight (eds), Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.




By: Danielle Meyers
Major: Animal Science
Expected Graduation Date: May 2014
Hometown: Deer Park, WA

Being a part of a "hard-science" major, I typically approach liberal arts topics with a very skeptical, scientific view. I initially found this somewhat of a challenge to do with the abstract idea of language origins, but once I discovered how evolution and biology play such a huge role in how we communicate I felt right at home.

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