History Of Science Research Paper

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The history of science studies the emergence and development of systematic knowledge. Just what kind of knowledge that is—whether it is defined by subject matter, reliability of results, contradistinction to technical know-how, cumulative progress, disciplinary consensus, and/or method of inquiry, demonstration, or explanation—is a point of persistent debate and reflection within the history of science and its cognate fields in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. Linguistic and historiographic traditions diverge sharply on this point. Whereas Francophone and Anglophone scholars have since the mid-nineteenth century largely reserved the honorific ‘science’ for the natural sciences and mathematics (influenced by Auguste Comte’s hierarchy of sciences in his Cours de philosophie positi e 1830–42, in which only some had reached the stage of ‘positive’ knowledge), the German Wissenschaft still refers to the range of fields covered by the Latin scientia, from physics to philology. Moreover, recent explorations of experiment and other practices have blurred the venerable boundary between ars and scientia, technique and systematic knowledge (whether understood narrowly as ‘science’ or broadly as Wissenschaft); close investigation of the sciences even in the restrictive English and French usage has furthermore revealed considerable variety among methods and explanations in, for example, biology and physics. Finally, studies of preseventeenth-century and non-Western intellectual traditions have made the creation of categories like ‘science,’ as well as the classifications of knowledge that order such categories, themselves objects (rather than presuppositions) of historical research. Hence this research paper will not attempt to delineate sharply the boundaries of ‘science,’ but rather briefly survey the (a) emergence and status of the history of science as a recognized field of inquiry; (b) principal divisions of the field and disciplinary affinities; (c) periodizations and narratives that have shaped those divisions; and (d) major historiographical developments since about 1970 (for an earlier survey see Kuhn [1968] 1972).

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1. Emergence And Divisions Of The Discipline

The history of science is an ancient pursuit, but a relatively young discipline. From Aristotle through the early nineteenth century, practitioners of one or another branch of knowledge have variously used the history of their field to argue for its dignity and importance, introduce it to beginners, situate it within a broader cultural milieu, summarize the literature to date, position themselves in relationship to that literature, praise and blame predecessors, give evidence of progress, extrapolate a program for future research, and draw lessons concerning the nature of knowledge and the conditions for its flourishing. In works like Joseph Priestley’s The History and Present State of Electricity (1767) or Georges Cuvier’s Rapport historique sur les progres des sciences naturelles depuis 1789 (1808), the history was inseparable from the science. Particularly in fields dominated by empirical research, the judicious sifting and ordering of past results was a precondition for coherence and a means for achieving consensus on what was reliably known and where the major challenges for future research lay. These functions are preserved today in the scientific review article and the posing of key ‘problems’ (e.g., the celebrated Hilbert problems), and practicing scientists occasionally still appeal to the past history of their field for present guidance, especially in times of crisis (Graham et al. 1983). By the mid-nineteenth century, however, histories of science had become distinct from scientific publications, although they were still written primarily by scientists, including prominent figures such as William Whewell, Marcellin Berthelot, Ernst Mach, and Pierre Duhem. Their histories often criticized the current state of science by establishing the genealogy of a controversial hypothesis (e.g., atomism), analyzing the origins of a suspect concept (e.g., absolute space) for hidden flaws, or pleading the superiority of one approach to science over another (e.g., Kantian ideas over Comtean facts). By 1900, histories of science had become a genre distinct from science, but they were still motivated by, and deeply engaged with, contemporary scientific developments (Laudan 1993).

History of science coalesced only gradually as a recognizable discipline in the twentieth century, with its own distinctive program of training, institutions ( journals, professional societies, university positions), and scholarly standards. Spurred by the organizational efforts of such scholars as Paul Tannery in France and Karl Sudhoff in Germany, there was a spurt of professionalizing activity around 1900, when the first international congress on the subject was held in Paris. The German Gesellschaft fur Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften was established in 1901; the first chairs in the history of science also appeared at European universities around this time (Kragh 1987). The Belgian historian George Sarton, who emigrated to the USA after World War I, brought with him the journal Isis (est. 1912), which became the official organ of the American History of Science Society after its establishment in 1924.

Although Sarton’s Comtean view of the history of science as a saga of intellectual and moral progress that should evaluate the past in light of present scientific understanding (Sarton [1927] 1948) has left little trace in current historiography, his tireless attempts to institutionalize and organize the discipline in the form of university departments, specialized journals, and research tools like the Isis Current (earlier Critical) Bibliography: (History of Science Society 1967) and Dictionary of Scientific Biography (Gillispie 1981) had a lasting impact on the field (Thackray and Merton 1972). During the 1950s graduate programs dedicated to the history of science (sometimes in conjunction with the philosophy of science) multiplied; the 1992 Guide to the History of Science lists 188 programs in 25 countries, led by the USA with 72 institutions granting doctorates in the subject.

By no means all history of science is done under the auspices of university departments or published in journals expressly devoted to the subject. The disciplinary affinities of the history of science are many and mutable, with distinctive national differences. Until the 1970s the primary connection, both in Europe and North America, was probably with the sciences themselves. This connection was rooted deep in the origins of the field and sustained by the continuing importance of some form of the history of science in the intellectual and social initiation of young scientists, as well as by the recruitment of historians of science from the ranks of those with scientific training. In the UK and North America, history largely replaced philosophy during the 1980s and 1990s as the discipline to which historians of science felt most akin, although interactions with sociology and, more recently, anthropology have also exerted a powerful influence. In France, Germany, and Italy, philosophy has remained a significant framework for the history of science, in diverse forms ranging from neo-Kantianism to logical empiricism. In addition to its disciplinary polyvalence with respect to choice of problems and methods, the history of science is closely linked by its subject matter to the histories of medicine and technology, albeit to differing degrees depending on the historical period in question. The phrase ‘science and technology studies’ bears witness to these crisscrossing ties to other disciplines, serving as an abbreviation for the conglomerate ‘history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology of science, medicine, and technology’—which, however cumbersome, accurately reflects the ecumenical perspective of many historians of science.

2. Narratives And Periodization

Because of its links to philosophy, sociology, and anthropology, as well as to the natural sciences and mathematics, the history of science has been highly theorized for centuries. Theories about what scientific knowledge is, how it develops over time, where and when it expands and contracts, and in which ways it interacts with extrascientific contexts have profoundly shaped the way in which the history of science has been periodized and narrated. The more recent developments (since about 1970) in the historiography of science are incomprehensible without some background concerning the dominant theoretical schemes that had molded the field previously.

All history is inevitably written to some extent from the standpoint of the present, but present science—its orthodoxies and heresies, its controversies and critics—has exerted a mighty influence on the history of science since the Enlightenment. The great bulk of the history of science has been written explicitly or implicitly to illuminate, justify, or criticize the current state of science. In the Enlightenment histories, e.g., Jean-Etienne Montucla’s Histoire des mathematiques (1758) or Jean-Baptiste Delambre’s Rapport historique sur les progres des sciences mathematiques depuis 1789 (1810), the aim was to demonstrate that at least some of the sciences had shown steady and irreversible progress, especially since the Renaissance, and that the history of science was therefore a more edifying genre than the chronicles of human folly recounted by political and military history. The notion of progress was originally applied to art (by Giorgio Vasari in 1550) and to technology (by Francis Bacon in 1620), not to science. Once this interpretation of scientific change took hold in the eighteenth century, however, science became the premier example of progressive advance and scientific progress; a criterion by which to judge the comparative worth of civilizations. Whatever may have been the cultural achievements of the Latin Middle Ages or the Chinese empire, the stagnation of the sciences in these milieux, so ran the argument of the Enlightenment historians, revealed fundamental intellectual and social limitations— limitations that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came to be described as characteristic of ‘traditional’ or ‘premodern’ societies. Hence narratives of scientific progress eventually became part and parcel of larger narratives about modernization and European superiority.

Although the assumptions underlying the Enlightenment vision of scientific progress are seldom invoked explicitly by contemporary historians of science, the reigning periodization of the field and the definition of specialties as central or peripheral still bears the traces of the traditional modern division. Despite their glaring differences in many substantive aspects, the study of science in antiquity, the Arabic and Latin Middle Ages, and in non-Western civilizations such as China and India has often been amalgamated into a shared problematic: to what extent did the knowledge of these highly disparate cultures anticipate approximate the science of post-Renaissance Europe? And to the extent that it did not, what were the intellectual and social obstacles that blocked the way (e.g., Huff 1993)? Hence the pioneering works in these areas (e.g., Duhem 1908, Maier 1949–58, Clagett 1959, Needham et al. 1954) foregrounded possible forgotten contributions to, and missing preconditions for, the Scientific Revolution.

Knowledge traditions that did not lead to modern science, understood to commence in early modern (a term as saturated with hindsight as ‘the Middle Ages’) Europe, were generally relegated to the periphery of the discipline, whatever their intrinsic interest and however excellent the scholarship devoted to them. Conversely, the Scientific Revolution has remained oddly central to the historiography of science: oddly, because recent scholarship on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has emphasized the heterogeneity and regional variations in the developments in anatomy, astronomy, natural history, mechanics, chemistry, mathematics, and physics once summarily lumped together as ‘the Scientific Revolution’ (Lindberg and Westman 1990, Porter and Teich 1992, Shapin 1996, Osler 2000), and because the steep increase of studies of nineteenth and twentiethcentury science since about 1980 has highlighted the novelty and significance of post-1800 developments, as the steady increase in the number of entries under these rubrics in the Isis Current Bibliography: bears witness.

Yet the Scientific Revolution retains much of the original status first granted to it by the Enlightenment historians as the mold in which modernity was cast, one of the few points upon which both the apostles of progress and the critics of modernity agree. This periodization has left traces in the division of subspecialties within the history of science, which tend to be chronological or geographic (‘ancient,’ ‘Southeast Asian’) for knowledge traditions prior to, or uninfluenced by, the Scientific Revolution, but disciplinary (‘physical sciences,’ ‘biomedical sciences’) for those following that original event—even for disciplines (e.g., astronomy) with histories that long antedate the sixteenth century and with geographical distribution well beyond Europe.

The progress of the sciences (especially mathematics and the exact sciences) set forth by the Enlightenment historians was cumulative but not revolutionary. In their accounts, knowledge steadily expanded around a stable core of permanent truths, which may have taken millennia to discover, but which were thereafter firmly established beyond challenge. The language of ‘revolutions’ declined among early nineteenth-century scientists, perhaps in order to distance the permanent improvements of natural knowledge from the brusque reversals of politics; instead, the language of ‘law’ (e.g., Comte’s ‘Law of Three Stages’) was applied to the historical development of science (Cohen 1985). In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, however, this view of durable, inexorable scientific progress gave way to one of the rapid succession of scientific theories, even in areas (e.g., optics) long believed to rest upon unshakable foundations. Scientific progress had become vertiginous and open-ended; today’s truth might be discredited as tomorrow’s error. Under these conditions, it became increasingly difficult for historians of science to portray the steady growth of knowledge as culminating in present triumphs, since the endpoint was constantly changing. Instead, the history of science turned critical and conceptual: in the hands of Mach, Ostwald, and other scientisthistorians, history of science revealed the past roots of present incoherences and taught the mutability of scientific theories. Within the revised interpretation of scientific progress, the purpose of the history of science was to use past science to change, not confirm, present science. Despite the dramatic shift in the narrative of scientific progress and in the goals of the history of science, its presentist orientation remained unchanged.

Almost all the strands of early twentieth-century historiography of science can be seen as attempts to come to grips with the peculiar character of scientific knowledge, which seemed to be simultaneously mutable and cumulative, driven by an internal dynamic and yet sensitive to ambient social conditions. These attempts often tugged in opposite directions. For example, the logical positivist program that stamped the history and philosophy of science in the middle decades of the twentieth century, especially in the modified form imported from the Vienna Circle to the UK and the USA, fixed upon the empirical findings of science as its enduring core in the Heraclitean flux of hypotheses and theories. These ‘protocol statements’ (Carnap 1928) were likened to simple observations, bringing science into the neighborhood of common sense. In contrast, the French historian and philosopher Gaston Bachelard, drawing upon the insights of psychoanalysis, insisted upon the necessity of overcoming everyday experience and intuitions in the formulation of successful scientific concepts (Bachelard 1938).

A many-cornered debate was ignited by the attempts of Marxist historians to relate the rise of modern science to specific socioeconomic conditions (Hessen 1931, Bernal 1939), out of which emerged the opposition of ‘internal’ to ‘external’ approaches to the history of science (Kuhn [1968] 1972, Shapin 1992). External approaches found a non-Marxist model in Robert K. Merton’s influential study of how science came to be valued in seventeenth-century England (Merton 1938, Shapin 1988). Informed by German and French neo-Kantian traditions in the history of philosophy, Alexandre Koyre’s studies of the development of science in the broader intellectual context of early modern Europe stamped the work of historians of science, especially in France and the USA, trained in the 1950s and 1960s (Koyre 1939–40, 1961, Jorland 1981).

Common to all of these otherwise highly diverse perspectives on the history of science was an engagement with contemporary science and its lineage. Whether positivist or psychoanalytic, externalist or

internalist, the history of science took the form of a genealogy leading to ideas and discoveries canonized by contemporary science. However much they may have disagreed on historical methods and forms of explanation, the combatants agreed on what and who in the history of science was worthy of explanation, namely that which had turned out to be pregnant with the future. In these histories a potent telos was at work, making present science appear to be not only the actual but also the inevitable outcome of past developments.

3. Developments Since 1970

Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn [1962] 1970) broke decisively with this historiography, and stimulated new trends (not all to Kuhn’s liking) in the history, sociology, and philosophy of science that have transformed the understanding of science and its growth in these fields since 1970. Kuhn argued for a plurality of scientific revolutions, in addition to the Scientific Revolution, which alternate with periods of ‘normal science’ framed by a ‘paradigm’ that models what can count as an acceptable problem, method, and solution in a given science in a specified period. It was less, however, Kuhn’s ‘structures’ or patterns of long-term scientific development that exercised a deep and enduring influence on the history of science (although this feature of the book dominated its reception in other disciplines, particularly the social sciences) than his frontal attack on progressive narratives, his sketchy but evocative notion of ‘paradigm’ that embraced practices as well as theories, and the thoroughgoing historicism of many of his examples. All of these lines of thought were further cultivated in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science (the three disciplines were drawn into intensive interaction in part through their differentiated reception of Kuhn’s book) during the subsequent three decades, often with consequences that led in directions diverging markedly from those plotted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Kuhn’s rejection of progressive narratives in the history of science derived from his view that successive paradigms established and later overthrown by scientific revolutions were, first, internally coherent, and second, in a strong sense incommensurable with one another. This implied that science could not be cumulative in any progressive sense, one paradigm extending and building upon its predecessors. Kuhn’s claim that conflicts between rival paradigms were not necessarily resolved by paradigm-independent criteria (e.g., predictive accuracy of explanatory unity) unsettled the inevitability of scientific development still further. Sociologists of science Barry Barnes and David Bloor took these claims as the basis of an approach called ‘constructivism’ (Golinski 1998), in which the development of scientific knowledge was to be explained without appeal to its truth or falsehood, on the grounds that the truth of a proposition is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for its acceptance (Bloor [1976] 1991).

For historians of science, this program proved stimulating in at least three respects. First, in conjunction with Kuhn’s focus on periods of conflict between rival paradigms, it prompted detailed studies of how scientific controversies were in fact resolved. Second, it enlarged the definition of what could count as ‘science’ for the purposes of historical investigation by ruling out hindsight judgments about what was and was not legitimate by present standards (to the benefit of specialties such as the history of premodern science and of the human sciences). Third, it encouraged a broader exploration of the grounds for scientific conviction by enforcing a ‘symmetric’ treatment of reasons for embracing false as well as true beliefs. This deliberate refusal to adopt the perspective of present science in the investigation of past knowledge went under the name of ‘anti-Whiggery’ among historians of science (in allusion to Herbert Butterfield’s critique of ‘Whig’ political history). Among sociologists of science, the symmetry principle led to an increasingly distanced approach even to present science, to the point of adopting the ethnographer’s estranged perspective (Latour and Woolgar [1979] 1986). The overall impact of the constructivists in both sociology and history of science was to highlight the contingency of the development of scientific knowledge, in stark contrast to earlier narratives of inexorable progress (Pestre 1995, Rheinberger 1997).

Kuhnian paradigms drew upon the philosophical reflections of Ludwig Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein 1953) and Michael Polanyi (Polanyi 1958) to stress the importance of knowledge that could not be reduced to rules or algorithms or even to words in a normal scientific tradition. In the history, sociology, and philosophy of science a rich literature on ‘scientific practices’ has taken the inadequacy of the formal aspects of theory to explain the distinctive aspects of scientific knowing as its departure point. Although scientific practices may embrace everything from a knack for integrating equations to the deft adjustment of finicky instruments, studies of experiment have taken on an exemplary character in this branch of the field. Interactions among historians (e.g., Shapin and Schaffer 1985, Galison 1987, Gooding et al. 1993), philosophers (e.g., Cartwright 1983, Hacking 1983), and sociologists (e.g., Collins 1985) created a discussion that blended epistemological, historical, and social analyses.

Experiment and scientific practices more generally have emerged as autonomous forms of knowledge, no longer subsidiary to and in lockstep with theory, that depend crucially on local factors (including skill, material culture, values) that travel only with difficulty. This emphasis upon the locality of scientific knowledge has spawned a new set of problems: How is local science made global? In the earlier historiography, science had been assumed to be universal because nature was so. For historians of scientific practice, in contrast, further explanation is required to show the ways in which localized achievements can be made at least partially communicable among practitioners divided by geography, history, or culture (Schaffer 1992, Galison 1999). Sociologists of science have attacked this problem from the standpoint of ‘actornetworks’ (Latour 1987).

Both the rejection of presentist perspectives and the close study of scientific practices have pushed historians of science toward a more thoroughly historicist approach. Whereas their predecessors practiced anachronism openly and with conviction, on the view that past science must be understood by the lights of present science, most historians of science now writing insist upon some attempt to reconstruct the conceptual and cultural categories of historical actors. This historicism has expressed itself in two important movements in recent historiography of science: the aim to understand ‘science in context,’ and attempts to write histories of entities previously assumed to be transhistorical.

‘Science in context’ (which lent its name to a journal) thickens the connections of science with its historical place and time, as well as blurring the boundaries between factors previously regarded as either internal or external to a discipline. Indeed, one of the consequences of the studies of science in context has been to make the emergence, persistence, and occasional disappearance of such boundaries, topics of historical investigation in their own right. One of the most important of the new strands of contextual history of science, because of its potentially wide application, has been the investigation of how ideas and practices of gender have shaped the modern sciences (e.g., Haraway 1989, Jordanova 1989, Schiebinger 1993).

Although some critics of this embedded view have feared that context impugns scientific autonomy and therefore validity, many recent studies have depicted the social, technological, and economic milieu of science as resources for scientific creativity, not merely as ideological contaminants (e.g., Wise 1989–90). Histories of supposedly transhistorical entities such as experience (Dear 1995), truth (Shapin 1994), and objectivity (Daston and Galison 1992, Porter 1995) make use of the tools of science in context to anchor these Kantian abstractions in specific historical circumstances; they are also at least indirectly indebted to the remarkable studies of Georges Canguilhem (Canguilhem [1943] 1966) and, especially, Michel Foucault (Foucault 1969) that challenged the universality and permanence of fundamental modern categories like normalcy and sexuality.

The most recent developments in the history of science might be briefly described as materialized and embodied. The material culture of science, ranging from the architecture of the spaces in which science is done (Rheinberger et al. 1996, Galison and Thompson 1999) to the machines that do the science, have shifted from the periphery to the center of historical attention. Hands-on experience with objects is no longer understood as a means to a greater end, but as a force that shapes the culture and penetrates into the metaphysics of science (Galison 1997). Embodiment has entered the history of science through several doors: the study of the interaction of experiment and craft traditions (Sibum 1995), the investigation of the scientific persona in historical context (Lawrence and Shapin 1998, Shortland and Yeo 1996), and the making visible of the role of women in science (Rossiter 1982, Rossiter 1995). All of these explorations of embodiment challenge the Cartesian image of the disembodied knower, as well as the hagiography of great individuals; they aim at the reconstruction of collective identities of scientists, as well as their consequences for who was allowed to do what kind of science.

Given the profusion of topics and approaches in the history of science, it is understandable that one historian might wonder ‘whether the history of science is a coherent discipline or just a collection of scholars aggregated by the accidents of history and the accretion of a common historiography’ (Rosenberg 1988, p. 570). This is a doubt that in large part revolves around the difficulty of defining the sine qua non of scientific knowledge, if it has one. Yet in this still somewhat undisciplined discipline, the reward of permeable boundaries has been a rare dialogue, ongoing and sometimes heated, among the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.


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