This paper sets out to examine the various temporal frameworks that made up the discourse of early modern natural philosophy. It takes into account a range of views and debates such as the comparison between the achievements of ancients and moderns, belief in the gradual decay of the earth and/or the cyclical nature of time, appreciation of recent improvements in the material conditions of life (especially technology), and projections of future techno-scientific progress, adherence to the doctrine of the prisca sapientia, and Judaeo-Christian notions of apocalypse and future redemption. This analysis also embraces, as a matter of course, changes in the ways natural philosophers both appealed to and reconstituted authorities. I look at Francis Bacon's treatment of time, and at the various sources of his accounts of scientific modernity. I conclude by considering the situation in late seventeenth-century England, when conservative critics of the ‘new’ philosophy – and the Royal Society in particular – charged that the uprooting of natural knowledge from its traditional institutional contexts would pervert the purpose of philosophical knowledge. In turn, supporters of the new philosophy, having defensively compiled lists of modern inventions and scientific discoveries, were to recast the advent of scientific modernity as starting properly with the publication of the Principa Mathematica in 1687.
No doubt the greatest wits in each successive age have been forced out of their own course: men of capacity and intellect above the vulgar have been fain, for reputation's sake, to bow to the judgement of the time and the multitude; and thus if any contemplations of a higher order took light anywhere, they were presently blown out by the winds of vulgar opinion. So that Time is like a river that has brought down to us things light and puffed up, while those that are weighty and solid have sunk.
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