Tycho Brahe and the Role of Aesthetics in Scientific Revolution

Kate Finley

University of Notre-Dame

In this paper I explore the role of aesthetics in the astronomical revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. More specifically, I examine the role of aesthetics in the motivation, execution, dissemination and reception of Tycho Brahe’s scientific work. In the history of philosophy of science, Brahe (1546-1601) is mostly remembered for greatly improving the accuracy and precision of the available astronomical data of his time. In studies of Brahe, his empirical, exacting nature is often highlighted: many view his primary, and perhaps only, contribution to the astronomical revolution to be his observational data and empirical improvements to astronomy methodology. I show that this view of Brahe overlooks important aesthetic aspects of his worldview that profoundly affected his scientific work. I argue for a more complete view of Brahe’s work – one which recognizes the role played by his underlying aesthetic concerns and commitments. Understanding Brahe’s aesthetic sensibility and motivations contributes to a fuller conception of the astronomer himself, his scientific work, and the role of aesthetics in the astronomical revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. I then use Brahe as a specific case study in light of which I address, more broadly, the role of aesthetics in scientific inquiry and revolution. To this end, I first sketch the aesthetic framework through which I examine the rest of the aesthetic elements I discuss. I then examine the intellectual lineage and components of what I call Brahe’s Macrocosm and Microcosm worldview. This aesthetic worldview of Brahe’s was influenced by his study of Paracelsian, Hermetic and Neoplatonist philosophy. I then address the influence that this worldview had on Brahe’s life and work. Most notably, it motivated his study of alchemy, medicine, chemistry and astrology (in addition to his well-known study of astronomy); his rejection and acceptance of certain scientific theories; his design and construction of his observatories, gardens, scientific instruments and books; as well as the pictorial and verbal images he associated himself with. All of these aspects of Brahe’s life and work, in turn, had lasting and formative implications for the astronomical revolution. Lastly, I address the relationship between Brahe’s empirical and aesthetic concerns and how this relationship fits in the larger context of the astronomical revolution. I examine Brahe in relationship to two prominent theories in philosophy of science which address the role of aesthetic and empirical criteria in scientific revolution. I argue that neither theory can fully accommodate Brahe, and this serves as motivation for coming to a more nuanced understanding of the complex influence of aesthetics in science, and specifically scientific revolution. We must understand the of the role of aesthetics in Brahe’s scientific work in order to more fully understand the work itself, as well as its influence on the astronomical revolution. Understanding these relationships, in turn, helps illuminate the role of aesthetics in scientific inquiry and revolution.