Copernican Revolution (metaphor)

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.[1]


  • Characteristics of the metaphor 1
  • The "Copernican Revolution in philosophy" 2
  • Usage 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5

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:

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:

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.[4] This inversion is explained by Victor Cousin:

According to Tom Rockmore,[6] 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:

See also


  1. ^ Ermanno Bencivenga (1987), Kant's Copernican Revolution.
  2. ^ David Luban, Legal Modernism (1997), pp. 18–20.
  3. ^ Critique of Pure ReasonPreface to the Second Edition of the
  4. ^ For an overview see Engel, M., Kant’s Copernican Analogy: A Re-examination, Kant-Studien, 54, 1963, p. 243
  5. ^ Cousin, Victor, The Philosophy of Kant. London: John Chapman, 1854, p. 21
  6. ^ Tom Rockmore, Marx After Marxism: The Philosophy of Karl Marx (2002), p. 184.
  7. ^ José Brunner, Freud and the Politics of Psychoanalysis(2001), p. 32.
  8. ^ Ben Highmore, Michel de Certeau: Analysing Culture (2006), p. 64.
  9. ^ Gailyn Van Rheenen, Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents (2006), p. 306.