1986 – 9(2)

Sarton was trained as a mathematician, but his interests embraced all of the sciences. He was a dedicated man who believed that his was the most valuable form of history. To this end he took part in the founding of societies for the history of science throughout the world. He also worked for the establishment of scholarly journals in the field. He founded the History of Science Society and Isis, still the best known journal in the field, which was first published in Belgium in 1912. Of his many writings one must refer to his Introduction to the History of Science which covered the period from Homer to the fourteenth century in three massive volumes. It was published over a twenty year span and finally given up only when Sarton realized the impossibility of its completion. He also planned the publication of the lectures that composed his two year survey of the field that he gave at Harvard University – only two of the planned eight volumes had been published at the time of his death. It is unnecessary to list any of his other works here, but it is important to say a few words about his approach to the subject because of his enormous influence.

George Sarton frequently expressed his debt to the writings of Auguste Comte and there is no doubt that he considered himself a positivist. Writing in 1927 he defined science as « systematized positive knowledge.» [[G. Sarton, 1927-1948. – Introduction to the History of Science. I- III . 5 parts. Baltimore. I : 3. ]]

Our main object is not simply to record isolated discoveries, but rather to explain the progress of scientific thought, the gradual development of human consciousness, that deliberate tendency to understand and to increase our part in the cosmic evolution [[ibid., 6. ]].

As a positivist Sarton sought a history of real science – that is, science as we know it today. Subjects outside science that may have formed part of man’s outlook to nature in earlier periods were ignored or branded as « pseudo-science ». We know now that alchemy and natural magic were important elements in the development of modern science. Sarton was willing to accept the actual chemical reactions and equipment described by the alchemists in his history of science, but nothing else.

The historian of science can not devote much attention to the study of superstition and magic, that is, of unreason, because this does not help him very much to understand human progress. Magic is essentially unprogressive and conservative; science is essentially progressive; the former goes backward; the latter, forward. We can not possibly deal with both movements at once except to indicate their constant strife, and even that is not very instructive, because that strife has hardly varied throughout the ages.
Human folly being at once unprogressive, unchangeable, and unlimited, its study is a hopeless undertaking There can not be much incentive to encompass that which is indefinite and to investigate the history of something which did not develop
[[Ibid., 19. ]].

Sarton also believed in a hierarchy of sciences. Mathematics stood at the top since it was necessary for the mathematical sciences: astronomy, physics and chemistry. Only eventually as we followed this scheme would we descend to the file sciences. He explained that

Men understand the world in different ways … some men are more abstract-minded, and they naturally think first of unity and of God, of wholeness, of infinity and other such concepts, while the minds of other men are concrete and they cogitate about health and disease, profit and loss. They invent gadgets and remedies; they are less interested in knowing anything than in applying whatever knowledge they may already have to practical problems; they try to make things work and pay, to heal and teach. The first are called dreamers …; the second kind are recognized as practical and useful. History has often proved the shortsightedness of the practical men and vindicated the « lazy » dreamers; it has also proved that the dreamers are often mistaken.

The historian of science … is not willing to subordinate principles to applications, nor to sacrifice the so-called dreamers to the engineers, the teachers, or the healers [[G. Sarton, 1952. – A History of Science: Ancient Science Through the Golden Age of Greece. Cambridge: xii. ]].

Sarton surely idolized the dreamers. And, as he believed that the biological sciences stood far below the mathematical sciences, he believed that medicine was lower still. Because he was convinced that medicine was a practical art he was distressed by those medical historians who claimed that medicine is the real foundation of the other sciences. Indeed, he wrote, « the main misunderstandings concerning the history of science are due to historians of medicine who have the notion that medicine is the center of science. »[[Ibid., xi. ]] Sarton felt that medical historians had presented a warped version of scientific history because of their insufficient scientific knowledge.

Those of us who entered the graduate program in the history of science at Harvard University in the autumn of 1956 – only a few months after the death of George Sarton – expected the program to remain dominated by the spirit of his work. Instead we found that the most recent writings in the field were critical of Sarton and that the author most frequently referred to as a model was Alexandre Koyré, the Russian philosopher of science who spent most of his later years in Paris. It is understandable that Koyré should have insisted on a close linkage between scientific and philosophical thought, but history was also important to him for only through it could we be given a sense of the « glorious progress » of the evolution of scientific ideas [[A. Koyré, 1966. – Etudes Galiléennes (3 parts, 1935-1939; reprinted in one volume), Paris: 11 . ]]. Like most other scholars in the field Koyré centered his research on the development of physics and astronomy in the period from Copernicus to Newton. Galileo was an author of special concern, but he rejected the « Duhem thesis »- that is, that the sources for Galileo’s mechanics were to be found in the work of his medieval predecessors [[See especially P. Duhem, 1913-59. – Le Système du Monde. I-X. Paris. ]]. For Koyré, Galileo was an innovator far removed from the medieval critics of Aristotle, and if he had any predecessor at all, one would have to find him in Archimedes. He explained the Scientific Revolution as a fundamental change in world views (from Aristotelian to Copernican) that could « be reducible to two fundamental and closely connected actions that I characterised as the destruction of the cosmos and the geometrization of space »[[A. Koyré, 1958. – From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. New York: vi. ]].

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