On the Shoulders of Merchants

Exchange and the Mathematical Conception of Nature in Early Modern Europe

By Richard W. Hadden

Subjects: Social And Cultural History
Series: SUNY series in Science, Technology, and Society
Paperback : 9780791420126, 191 pages, July 1994
Hardcover : 9780791420119, 191 pages, August 1994

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Table of contents



1. Accounts of the Rise of Early Modern Science


Post–World War II Accounts of the Rise of Science

Marxism, Praxis and Science

Social Relations, Value and the Mechanistic Abstraction

2. Marx, the Commodity Abstraction and Mechanistic Knowledge of Nature


Marx, Technique and Industrial Science

Society, Thought and Historical Specification

Commodities, Value, Abstraction and Homogeneity

Commodity Fetishism and the Representation of Society and Nature

The Concrete Existence of Abstract Relations

Commerce, Finance, Credit and the Money Economy

Production, Labour and Labour-Time

3. Mathematical Mechanics and Abstraction


Ancient Mathematics—Discontinuities

The Ontological Shift to Modern Mathematics—Jacob Klein

Mathematics and Mechanics—The Homogenization of Nature

4. Exchange Relations, Commercial Arithmetic and the Foundations of Mathematical Mechanics


John Philoponos

The Early European Arithmetic and Record-Keeping Traditions

Thomas Bradwardine

Nicole Oresme

Robert Recorde

John Dee

Thomas Harriot

Rafael Bombelli

5. Exchange, Labour, Mathematics and Natural Philosophy: The Social Roots of a Science of Mechanics


Niccolo Tartaglia

Galileo Galilei

Francois Viète

René Descartes

Simon Stevin

The Hartlib Circle and the Royal Society

Conclusion: Social Relations and the Intellectual Appropriation of Nature





This book shows how the universal quantification of science resulted from the routinization of commercial practices that were familiar in scientist's daily lives. Following the work of Franz Borkenau and Jacob Klein in the 1930s, the book describes the rise of the mechanistic world-view as a reification of relations of exchange in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Critical of more orthodox, positivist Marxist accounts of the rise of science, it argues that commercial reckoners, in keeping with the social relations in which their activity took place, delivered a new mathematical object, "general magnitude," to the new mechanics. The book is an historical extension of the sociology of scientific knowledge and develops and refines themes found in the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel and Gideon Freudenthal.

Richard W. Hadden is Associate Professor at Saint Mary's University in Nova Scotia.


"Hadden's originality lies in the diligence with which he pursues, at the empirical level, the connection that Marxists generally draw between capitalism's distinctive forms of social relations, based on commodity exchange and money, and modern science's distinctive modes of thought, based on universal quantification and abstraction. " — Steve Fuller, Executive Editor of Social Epistemology