History of Science

The discipline of the history of science (henceforth ‘the history of science’) concerns the history of the way nature has been manipulated, modelled and understood by different societies.

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The discipline of the history of science (henceforth ‘the history of science’) concerns the history of the way nature has been manipulated, modelled and understood by different societies. Because the sciences deal with what are taken to be true statements about a natural world that exists independently of human activity, the subject of the history of science seems to resist being historicised in the same way as other topics. This alone makes the history of the sciences different from other species of historical enquiry. In addition to providing us with true statements about nature, science has been held to have a unique capacity to progress. As such, it seems to be exemplary of the potential of human reason. Belief in scientific rationality and scientific progress was almost unanimous in academic history of science until the 1960s, but such views have been heavily criticised in the last three decades.

Perhaps the fundamental question for the history of science has been why, and in what sense, science is a different sort of activity from any other. The assumption that the method and object of scientific practice demarcates it from all other human activities drew history of science and philosophy of science closely together. The opposite point of view, according to which scientific practice is fundamentally similar to other forms of human endeavour, has led to a marked separation between the two fields. Instead, the discipline has allied itself more closely with developments in sociology of science and other historical disciplines, such as imperial history, economic history and global history.

In the university curriculum the subject has sat squarely between the humanities and the sciences, only occasionally being granted the status of a department. Otherwise, it has been housed in a wide range of faculties and departments including anthropology, sociology, science and philosophy, and only rarely has the subject been located in a school or department of history. Moreover, while historians of science have published in the major journals in the field, they have been conspicuously unsuccessful in placing their work in mainstream history journals. As a consequence of this, the topic has been marginalised and there is a lamentable ignorance in the wider historical profession of basic facts about the historical development of science.

In the 20th century, the history of science has been lauded by many of its exponents as a uniquely interdisciplinary activity, and at various periods commentators and academics have argued that the history of science has an unrivalled capacity to appeal to students of both scientific and humanities subjects, tempering the narrow specialism of one group while opening the eyes of the other to the great achievements of science and technology. Many have argued that science’s rationality is peculiarly universal, and its ability to inform and improve technical practice makes it paramount in both forging and defining the central features of the modern age. It stands above national or religious interest and represents unparalleled international co-operation. Being morally neutral has also allowed it to make a uniquely important contribution to human civilisation and well-being. Historians of science have therefore had to balance the widely held view that science lacks any intrinsic or historically bounded moral values with the view that particular forms of scientific endeavour can and must be placed in their historical contexts.

Acres of woodland have been destroyed so that historians of science can debate whether it denigrates scientists to show that even their most successful theories are informed by contemporary religious and other ‘non-scientific’ values. Whatever position one takes on the capacity of science to escape its local contexts of production, the practice of the history of science has been affected by numerous external forces, most notably by the two world wars and, perhaps most powerfully, by the Cold War. In times of crisis, science has appeared to democrats as exemplary of a self-critical and meritocratic society. While in some sense neutral, it has been lauded as a form of knowledge that could only have arisen in the West, where there were unprecedented opportunities to pursue and publish natural knowledge conducted for its own sake while at the same time engaging in correspondence with other researchers. To Marxists, science is legitimated by its application to the outside world. It has appeared as a paradigmatic example of how a number of human beings – technicians, engineers and scientists – can all work together for the benefit of the whole.

The history of science in the 20th century has passed through a number of phases. The first was characterised by great individual contributions from authors such as Pierre Duhem, J. E. Dreyer and others, with major contributions to the philosophy of science coming from scientists such as Duhem, Ernst Mach and Henri Poincaré. Second, in the wake of the Great War, the history of science seemed to epitomise what George Sarton called the ‘new humanism’. It seemed to offer an account of how civilised people all over the world had contributed to the one great project that could elevate them above their petty nationalistic and religious differences.

However, in the 1930s, the arrival of Marxist-inspired socio-economic approaches to the history of science forced liberal humanists to stress the contribution to science made by individuals, theories and ‘reason’. While Marxists emphasised the socio-economic determinants and social consequences of science, the liberal humanists extolled the capacity of great geniuses to rise above the obstacles placed by these same surroundings. Increasingly, they identified elements of the Anglo-British culture as a bulwark against Marxist determinism and German obscurantism. Consequently, like those histories that examined the more occultist and less acceptable interests of scientific heroes, Marxist histories of science barely registered as serious undertakings in the academy for many years after the end of the war. However, in the 1960s and 1970s historians turned away from purified, intellectualist accounts of the exact sciences of the Scientific Revolution, to social histories of the 18th- and in particular, of the 19th-century life and earth sciences.

The intellectual history of science has remained a powerful force within the discipline as a whole. This approach has remained balanced between an examination of the religious and metaphysical commitments of individuals, and a more narrowly focused attention on their technical accomplishments. However, following the advent of a ‘social’ history of science, a fully fledged materialist account of the history of science became possible when historians integrated the history of scientific instruments and their use into more mainstream history of science. In the 1970s and 1980s, the discipline borrowed approaches in the sociology of science in order to discuss historically the skilful use of instruments and machines, without which almost no scientific work would be possible. At the end of the century, history of science has addressed the formation of the global (and extra-global) reach of science, and historians have linked the expansion of science to large-scale processes such as industrialisation, colonialism and imperialism.

Adapted from history.ac

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17 Comments


  1. Convoluted passage on the history of science. It talks about its place in academia and its history and development.

    Reply

  2. author purports the history of science is under appreciated.
    author provides why the subject should be appreciated.
    also the author provides with history of the subject.

    Reply

  3. The author talks about the development of the History of Science as an underrated distinct interdisciplinary field. Its appeal to people, way of operating and historical development is discussed.

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  4. MIP: HoS = interdisciplinary; focus shifting: individual + technical –> broader impact

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  5. history of science is crucial to numerous fields of study, over the ages, it has appealed to opposite ends of academic and social scales.

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  6. HoS = underappreciated + recently HoS = appeals to other subjects+ increased benefits

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  7. MI: HS=unique=above relig/soc diffs accept when lib hum fought Marxists
    tone=neut

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  8. history of science = reason; process of integration into its own discipline/becoming recognized

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  9. The store of development of History of science. History of science = unique place.

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  10. History of science : how nature was manipulated and viewed + can appeal to everyone+ powerful influence+ at first due to liberal humanism : individualism was emphasized but later social aspect was emphasized

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  11. Drive through the history of science, its contributions, and the debate between whether it is an isolated discipline or universally applicable.

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  12. The intellectual interdisciplinary history of science must be appreciated and can be historicized although It has resisted in doing so.

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  13. History of science is an under appreciated discipline that would help uphold the importance of science. It would be able to cross boundaries, connecting people and branches of knowledge as science is interdisciplinary.

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  14. MIP: History of Science = interdisciplinary + characterized by science (factual, morally neutral) but also affected by external factors; tone = neutral

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  15. Theme: History of Science was difficult to qualify in the past as it was neither science nor arts. Nonetheless it appealed to both art and science students. This subject is actually very much interdisciplinary and it has helped addressed the many phenomena and events which shaped the world as it is today: industrialization, colonialism and imperialism despite being unappreciated since its inception (central).

    History of science was historically not treated as a form of humanity like many other fields (deal with what are taken…..exists independently of human activity…resists being historicized in the same way) and our accomplishments in science were a testament to how far the human race has progressed since it reflects on our capacity to reason.

    Two schools of thought: history and philosophy of science should be studied in tandem vs both are separate entities since history is more closely associated with other historical disciplines

    In university curriculum, history of science was like the poor and unwanted cousin of humanities (occasionally being granted the status of a department ….has been housed in a wide variety….rarely has the subject been located…historians of science have published in the major….topic has been marginalized…lamentable ignorance)

    History of science has increased appeal over the years (unrivalled capacity to appeal to students….rationality is peculiarly universal. Stands above national or religious interest…morally neutral has also allowed it to make a uniquely important contribution)

    Testable: know that science has no moral, religious or political standing and is ambivalent in these areas, hence it permits international co-operation and people are thus able to work together in the name of science (new humanism…..could elevate them above their petty nationalistic and religious differences)

    Historians of science have debated (testable: through journals and publications) whether theories were formulated without scientific bases (non-scientific values). Science has been perceived as an indication of a self-critical and meritocratic society, a phenomenon that originated from the West (author alludes that it is an artefact of the Western civilized societies).

    Testable: Marxist see science as something applicable, with practical value (emphasized the socio-economic determinants and social consequences). Liberals see science as theories and reasons made by intellectuals (capacity of great geniuses to rise above the obstacles). Marxist histories of science were less popular (barely registered as serious undertakings) in early 1900s but became popular in late 1900s.

    Testable: Sociology of science paved the way for scientific work in the 1970s and 1980s.

    Reply

  16. MIP: Recognition of HS: marginalized from mainstream (no intrinsic moral values) at first → scientific efforts should be placed in historical context.
    Focus of HS: contributions of individuals, theories and ‘reason’ → social aspects, large-scale process (industrialisation, etc.)

    Reply

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