1986 – 9(2)


Allen G. DEBUS
University of Chicago


The author assesses the different trends in the field of the historiography of science today. George Sarton’s standpoint was based on rejecting the so-called pseudo-sciences, while believing in the hierarchy of sciences and the urge to cover a long chronological period. The post-Sarton era, that is, the fifties and the sixties, on the other hand, is characterized by specialized monographs, a place granted to the so-called pseudo-sciences and the study of the relationship between science and society.


L’auteur passe en revue les différentes tendances qui se manifestent aujourd’hui dans l’historiographie des sciences. George Sarton rejetait ce qu’il appelait des pseudo-sciences et croyait à une hiérarchie dans les sciences tout en défendant la nécessité de couvrir un long espace chronologique. Au contraire, la période post-sartonienne – c’est-à-dire, les années cinquante et soixante – abonde en monographies spécialisées, accorde une place aux « pseudo-sciences » et étudie les rapports entre science et société.


De auteur onderzoekt de verschillende strekkingen in de hedendaagse wetenschapsgeschiedenis. George Sarton’s standpunt was gebaseerd op het verwerpen van de zogenaamde pseudo-wetenschappen, het geloof in een hiërarchie der wetenschappen, en de noodzaak van het behandelen van lange chronologische periodes. Het post-Sartontijdperk (de vijftiger en zestiger jaren) daarentegen wordt gekenmerkt door gespecialiseerde monografieën, het toelaten van de zogenaamde pseudo-wetenschappen, en de studie van de betrekkingen tussen wetenschap en maatschappij.

In October, 1934 the Third International Congress of the History of the Sciences met in Portugal. Recent events had caused much concern and George Sarton, President of the Congress, referred to them in the inaugural session which was held in Porto.

At a moment when the liberty of thought is suppressed and man’s most sacred rights are placed in peril in many civilized countries, it is more important than ever that our studies be defended and propagated. Permit me to recall to you briefly… what these studies have as their end.

Above all to determine as exactly as possible the historical facts relative to the development of the sciences – of all the positive sciences in all periods and throughout the world – and to do this in the same spirit as other scientific researchers, that is to say, without reservation or without any desire other than to establish the truth. Finally, as soon as the facts are sufficiently known, to prepare a synthesis as perfectly as possible and without partiality.It is clear that analysis and synthesis should succeed each other in turn to permit us to gradually raise our level of knowledge without losing view of the cohesion and unity of the sciences and their history.

This investigation is immense, but there is no need to think that we will have to conduct it to its end ( thank God, we will never reach the end) to know that the most precious patrimony of humanity -the sciences and the arts -are the fruit of the efforts of men of genius of all countries, of all races and of different religions. Whatever the intellectual glory of a nation or of a race, this glory is only a small part of the common glory of all humanity – and it could never have been realized entirely without the convergent efforts of other people.


Unhappily we witness at this moment in many civilized countries deliberate efforts to falsify history and to utilize it not as an instrument for moral education and emancipation, but as an instrument for political action and enslavement. This falsification of the truth is most serious… and makes our own efforts more necessary than ever.

The meeting in Portugal had been arranged quickly. It had been planned originally for Berlin, but difficulties had been encountered. Indeed, there was to be no German representative at the Congress. The sessions here were held at Porto, Coimbra and Lisbon. But other than their obvious concern for a world situation that seemed to be deteriorating, I am sure that Sarton and his colleagues were well pleased with the outcome of the Congress. The papers presented stressed the science and medicine of Portugal and most of them dealt with subjects from the Middle Ages, the great period of Discovery, and the Scientific Revolution. Chronologically these were the main areas of research a half century ago.

In 1934 there were very few historians of science in the world. The program in Portugal lists thirty-one papers and the registrations list eighty-eight people. That figure includes wives and a number of scholars who were unable to attend. The fact these people were able to meet and work together was surely due in large measure to the efforts of George Sarton. Rarely has there been such a dedicated scholar, one so determined to establish a field of study. Sarton (1884-1956) had been educated at the turn of the century.
This was a time of ferment when authors such as Cantor, Heiberg, Heath, Tannery, Sudhoff and Duhem were preparing their ground-breaking studies in the field. Sarton learned of and studied their works early in life. A Belgian, he received his B. Sc. in 1906 and his Sc. D. In 1911 from the University of Ghent, However, most of his career was to be spent in the United States of America since he left his homeland during the first World War.

(*) Conférence prononcée à Bruxelles, le 12 novembre 1985 lors de la séance inaugurale du Troisième Cycle Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques -Derde Cyclus Geschiedenis van de Wetenschappen en de Techniek. Ce texte est basé sur deux communications antérieures, « The History of Science: Professionalization and Disunity » et « The History of Science Today » , données au Portugal en 1984 [[IIIème Congrès International d’Histoire des Sciences. Tenu au Portugal du 30 septembre au 6 octobre 1934, sous le haut Patronage de S.E., le Président de la République Portugaise. Actes, Conférences et Communications. Lisboa, 1936: 9-10. ]]

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