1986 – 9(2)

This revolution was not to be explained by changes in society, a move from contemplation to active research, or even « the replacement of the teleological and organismic pattern of thinking and explanation by the mechanical and causal pattern » [[ibid., v. ]]. In many ways the Scientific Revolution was for Koyré the triumph of Plato over Aristotle. And yet, if Sarton would have disagreed with Koyré over the importance of Plato for the rise of modern science, both would have agreed that the subject of the history of science was science and that this was the story of progress.

As students at Harvard we were also introduced to the encyclopedic works that characterized this « heroic age » of the history of science: Lynn Thorndike’s eight volume History of Magic and Experimental Science [[L. Thorndike, 1923-58. – A History of Magic and Experimental Science. I -VIII. New York. ]]. Pierre Duhem’s ten volume Le Système du Monde, and the first two (and what proved to be the only) volumes of Henry Sigerist’s planned multi-volume history of medicine [[H. Sigerist, 1955-61. – A History of Medicine. I-II . New York. ]]. It seemed that vast areas of the field were just then being opened to our view. The multi-authored History of Technology published in five volumes by Oxford gave us insight into a subject that had been ignored by most historians of science [[C. Singer, E. J. Holmyard & A.R. Hall, eds., 1954-58, A History of Technology. I-V. New York – London. ]]. And in 1961 both the first volume of Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China[[J. Needham, 1961. – Science and Civilisation in China, I: Introductory Orientations. Cambridge. ]]and the first volume of James Riddick Partington’s A History of Chemistry (actually volume two) were published [[The first volume published was the second covering the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. J.R. Partinglon, 1961. – A History of Chemistry. II London. ]]. These works represented lifetimes of study by scholars who believed that they could cover entire fields over long chronological periods. The history of science was still a young field that had not yet reached the age of the specialized monograph.

However, it was also evident that there were gaps in our learning. For those interested in Islamic science there was not very much to turn to. I had a special interest in the science of the Iberian peninsula, but other than accounts of the great voyages of discovery there seemed little to be found. A dedicated group of young scholars had already gathered around Otto Neugebauer and as a group they were rediscovering the mathematics and the astronomy of the ancient Near East. But this group believed in specialization and they made little effort to integrate their research into the main stream of the history of science [[ « I am exceedingly sceptical of any attempt to reach a ‘synthesis’ – whatever this term may mean – and I am convinced that specialization is the only basis of sound knowledge. » O. Neugebauer, 1952 & 62. – The Exact Sciences in Antiquity. New York: v-vi.]].

Above all, the nineteenth century seemed to be a wasteland. Writing in 1954 I. Bernard Cohen noted that « once we pass the boundary between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, we encounter no general surveys written in a way that will serve the historian of ideas … Only the future can tell whether the history of science in the nineteenth century can be presented in a meaningful way for the general historian » [[I.B. Cohen, 1957. – Some Recent Books on the History of Science, in Roots of Scientific Thought: A Cultural Perspective, ed. Ph. P. Wiener & A. Noland. New York: 627 -656. Published originally in the Journal of the History of Ideas. ]]. Three years later Marshall Clagett gathered an international group of scholars at the University of Wisconsin to discuss current problems in the history of science. The resultant conference barely touched on the nineteenth century. Clagett apologized for this omission, but he explained that « so few historians are doing serious and professional historical work in the history of science of the last few decades, that the presentation of a critical discussion of such problems would be most difficult » [[M. Clagett, ed., 1962. – Critical Problems in the History of Science: Proceedings of the Institute for the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin, September 1-11, 1957. Madison: vi. ]]. In fact, in the years since that meeting in Madison, historical research in nineteenth century science has far outstripped that in the period of the Scientific Revolution. However, this research has been somewhat uneven in that the biological research has centered on the history of evolutionary thought while very little has been done to synthesize the research on the history of the physical sciences.

Fully as important ast the study of nineteenth century science has been the realization that the development of science may be influenced by factors we would not consider to be science at all. George Sarton had dismissed alchemy, astrology and natural magic as « pseudo-science », but his decision to do this could rightly be questioned if historians of science ever chose a different approach to the field. Walter Pagel was one of the first historians of science and medicine to do this. But although his first book on van Helmont appeared in 1931, his widespread methodological influence has been more recent, dating from the publication of his Paracelsus (1958) and his William Harvey’s Biological Ideas (1967) [[
W. Pazel, 1930. – Jo. Bapt. Van Helmont: Einführung in die philosophische Medizin des Barock. Berlin; 1958. – Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance. Basel-New York; 1967. – William Harvey’s Biological Ideas: Selected Aspects and Historical Background. Basel-New York. ]]. Recognizing the fallacy of Sarton’s « history of the gradual revelation of truth », Pagel countered that such an approach « based on the selection of material from the modern point of view, may endanger the presentation of historical truth » [[W. Pagel, Autumn, 1945. – The Vindication of Rubbish, in Middlesex Hospital Journal: 1-4. ]]. Indeed, histories in which « discoveries and theories of the past are taken from their original context to be judged alongside modern scientific and medical entities » are likely to be dangerously misleading [[Ibid. ]].

Rechercher sur le site