Where to Start?
I want to thank the organizers for their generosity and their courage in asking me to open our useful and timely workshop. Not wanting to abuse the opportunity, I’ll begin by asserting a proposition to which, as I suppose from your presence here, you all assent. Here it is: A better knowledge of the history of our discipline can help to resolve the identity crises that periodically afflict us and, perhaps, help us also to specify what, if anything, people who consider themselves historians of science have in common. Even a fuzzy specification can have its practical uses in suggesting curricula and defending territory within the institutions that support our work.1
History of Science and the Science of History
At first glance the task seems futile. Consider only the breadth of subjects slated for discussion at our roundtables and the proliferation of sub-fields reviewed in the Isis critical bibliographies. There are at least two signs, however, that point to a more hopeful prognosis. For one, the great expansion of our field, as measured by the number of entries in the Isis Critical Bibliographies, may have stabilized. After a big drop owing to changes in editors and editorial policy around 2000, they are tending towards, and perhaps will not exceed, their average in the 1990s.2 The second hopeful sign is the selection of topics for the roundtables to begin tomorrow. Most of these topics are of the form “Science and X,” where X equals science, philosophy, material culture, Eurocentrism, institutions and Thomas Kuhn. We do not have a provision for X = history. I take this omission as an indication that the organizers know that the history of science is history.
I believe that that was Kuhn’s position too although his usual status as anguished outsider made him feel keenly the resistance of some general historians to our admission to their number. He attributed their resistance to the natural dislike of mathematics by people fond of history and to the persistence among them of a belief in a method that advanced science without any interesting intervention by human beings. Since he thought that the lessons of Structure had made this belief untenable, he regarded those who clung to it much as the old positivist historians had the Simplicios of earlier times. They were only a passing irritation, however, since eventually they would go the way of all Simplicios opposed to progressive paradigms. The two-culture problem, however, the antipathy of historians in general to science whatever its methods, was a far more serious problem. “In my depressed moments, I sometimes fear that the history of science may yet be that problem’s victim.” Kuhn meant that swelling our ranks with recruits who devoted themselves to external history would kill the true history of science while papering over the chasm between the cultures (Kuhn 1977, 160–161). This expression of foreboding dates from 1971. The history of our discipline that we are to construct will help us judge how far, if at all, Kuhn’s bleak forecast has been realized.
Meanwhile, let us be content to know that history of science is history. It is not an inter-discipline, nor, I hope, an interim discipline. It has no special or preferred tie to philosophy, theology, sociology or political economy, although, as historians, some of us require some knowledge of one or more of them; as, indeed, we also do of art, literature, music, everyday life, in short, anything and everything that enables us to reconstruct the history of humankind’s struggle to grasp, adapt to, and manipulate the natural world. We need not be overly concerned to draw boundaries among our sub-specialties or between history of science and general history. What should concern us is the scientific side of our business, by which I do not mean the sciences we study, but our standards of historical investigation and writing—the level of argument and evidence, and the control of technique, bibliography and languages, expected by and from professional historians.
If you grant this reasonable position, it follows that the historiography in which we should try to locate our own is the development of history as a science. The question whether or how far history can be considered a science is an old one. History itself gives the answer. Considered as a body of knowledge accumulated and upgraded by continually improving technique and ever-widening coverage, modern history is as much a science as modern physics. The two were begotten in the same scientific revolution and turned in parallel from reliance on ancient authorities to authentic documents. At the time that natural science learned to make instruments and experiments, history took up with charters, coins, medals, seals and inscriptions. Newton’s Principia and Jean Mabillon’s De re diplomatica were coeval—which does not mean equally bad. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the standards of evidence, reporting, testing and teaching rose rapidly in both the historical and natural sciences, and sometimes, as in the invention of the seminar and the institute, and in the study of meteorology, metrology, chronology and geography, they borrowed fruitfully from one another.
At the beginning of the twentieth century natural scientists and historians unselfconsciously referred to their endeavors in the same terms. As an example, I offer you two quotations, one from a physicist, the other from a historian, each a leader in his field. It is not easy to guess which is which:
1“It seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles of [our science] have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of those principles to all the phenomena which come under our notice.”
2“Ultimate [science] we cannot have in this generation, but [...] all information is [now] within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution.”
The first quotation comes from A. A. Michelson’s speech at the dedication of the physical laboratories of the University of Chicago in 1894. The second comes from Lord Acton’s report of 1896 on the status of The Cambridge Modern History, of which he was editor.3 Acton’s claim that history belongs among the sciences, with its echo of the practice of his master Leopold Ranke, was by no means unique in England (Lord Acton 1960, 26, 32–34). Everyone in Oxford remembers the conclusion of J. B. Bury’s address at his inauguration as Regius Professor in 1904: “[history] is simply a science, no less and no more.”4
Let us agree that history is some sort of science and history of science some sort of history. Then the question that brings us together, the question how our field has developed during the last half-century or so, should be related to the development of general history over the period. We should not be narcissistic or provincial in our efforts to define our field or faddist in our ideas about its core subjects and problems. It may be that we can learn something about answering our questions from the general historians and friendly philosophers who have been discussing and refining them for 400 or 500 years.
The terminus a quo
The subject of our meeting—the development of our field since Structure—does not make a perfect period for the historiographer. A better start date would be the years around 1900. We still depend on the work of the scientist-historians of that time and some of our major projects follow their lead. Consider only the edition of Galileo’s Opere by Antonio Favaro
Commencement around 1900 would also allow us to evaluate better how much our conception of our field, its limits and problems, owed and owes to scientists. The division of our discipline into sub-specialties still follows too closely the organization of knowledge current in 1900. Pierre Duhem’s
Another eligible terminus a quo is 1930. In contrast with the fin de siècle, when an Acton and a Michelson, a historian and a physicist, could describe their fields in much the same terms and scientists could turn historian without changing their positivist underwear, historians of science of the later period responded to the wider historiographic trends of the depression-ridden 1930s. The decade began with Herbert Butterfield’s
Two new journals with distinctive programs in history of science made their appearance in the decade. Annals of Science, which aimed to “illuminate new aspects of political and social history” and to demonstrate that “all Science, all Natural Philosophy, is as purely human a production as Art or Literature, and is equally precious,” began life in 1936 under the effective editorship of one of the world’s few full-time lecturers in history of science, Douglas McKie
To stay with my theme of the relationship between general history and the history of science, I’ll say a few more words on Butterfield
The so-called “social turn” in the history of science has the merit of attacking the more obvious forms of whiggism in narrative but often at the expense of abridgments that admit the subtler sorts. The restriction famously intoned, by the authors of Leviathan and the Air Pump, that “solutions to the problem of knowledge are solutions to the problem of social order,” seems a transparent translation of our concerns about the place of science in government, industry and the military into motives for the behavior of historical actors who had no desire or means to make their contributions to knowledge of any use beyond their own amusement. Perhaps a more gaping abridgment in the same work is the extravagant synecdoche of taking Hobbes as the leader and also the only member of a group who shared his paradigms of science and power.
Returning to the benchmark 1930s, I find in the history of historiography by the notorious Harry Elmer Barnes
History of science was just readying itself for promotion to a historical science in 1937. A year earlier the first professor of the history of science at Harvard, who had been waiting in the wings for 20 years, made his appearance stage center. This was Sarton
To drive out the amateurs, Sarton
This good was the positive systematized knowledge that constituted science. While cleansing his stables, Sarton
The view of science as systematized positive knowledge was defended most vigorously around the middle of the last century by the logical positivists. One of their main projects was an International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. Its second volume, on social science, carried a long essay on the structure of scientific revolutions. The essay’s main purpose was to bring what its author called the “new historiography of science” to bear on the philosophy of science, that is, to destroy the foundations of the logical positivism that had initiated the Encyclopedia. In so far as it undercut the epistemology of the old historiography, Structure made common cause with Sarton’s
By the new history, or new paradigm in the history of science, Kuhn meant the intellectualized approach of Koyré
Although Kuhn deplored this unintended result, the advent of the constructivists had the important merit of accelerating the integration of history of science with general history. Koyré’s
One way to keep the good money in circulation, to escape the degradation Kuhn deplored, is to brave the criticism of scientists. Just as general historians, especially of modern times, must endure the criticism of informed outsiders, so historians of science have the opportunity of exposing to scientists their reconstructions of episodes about which the scientists think they know something. Sometimes their interventions are salutary. An instructive example is the squabble in the late 1990s over a permanent exhibition of the place of modern science in the United States mounted at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. Its curators decided to emphasize applied science and especially its deleterious effects on the environment. Pesticides, pollution and weaponry occupied more space than the great discoveries that the scientific societies who paid for the exhibition thought appropriate. The scientists were correct in their criticism if not in their methods. For in their quite appropriate determination to avoid hagiography and include the wider ramifications of science, the curators had lost their balance and left out or downplayed science as most scientists had experienced it.
I take this story as a warning that the autonomy we may achieve by driving scientists, philosophers and other naturally interested people from our historiography of science comes with a risk. The ease of playing tricks on the dead increases with our distance from the time in which our victims lived. There are no professional societies except our own to protect the experiences and self-conceptions of historical actors in the remote past from obliteration by historians too eager to impose their own views or too lazy to go beyond them. We have a responsibility to the historical actors we create.
This consideration brings me back to the program of Sarton’s
If the current issue of the British Journal for the History of Science is any guide, we haven’t the slightest idea. The issue is devoted to “transnational science.” There is nothing obviously wrong with that. But what is the science transnationalized? We learn from the editors that “science is constructed as a universal and international phenomenon” and that “the production of scientific knowledge should be understood as the result of a struggle between alternative networks competing for durability” (Turchetti et.al. 2012, 331). These assertions are either empty or scary. If science is a phenomenon, how does it differ from moonshine or a talking dog? If scientific knowledge is the result of a struggle between great networks competing to sustain themselves, how does it differ from market share? What is science? Here is the answer given in the conclusion to the collection on transnational science. “‘Science’ is something that is constantly being deconstructed and redefined, or, more accurately, dissolved” (Pestre 2012, 426).
Let us hope that we may recrystallize our identity through an account of the development of our profession—an account that meets our standards as scientific historians and that does not cause sympathetic bystanders to laugh. I trust that it will disclose that science is not a phenomenon, although it deals with phenomena, and that it is not a market share, although we may hope to retain and even enhance ours among the many divisions of history.
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