1986 – 9(2)

At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in December, 1979, Charles C. Gillispie lashed out against those who accepted the new methodologies in the field. As reported in Science Gillispie complained that « the history of science is losing its grip on science, leaning heavily on social history, and dabbling with shoddy scholarship ». He attracked those who discussed scientific problems but who had little or no scientific training.

Less odious but still troublesome to Gillispie are social historians that ignore science altogether, such as studies that deal with the role of women in a particular scientific institution but omit their actual scientific work… Another trend, he said, is that scholars focus on the personal and anecdotal: Newton on alchemy rather than on motion, Kekule’s snake dance rather than the benzene ring, Darwin’s neurosis rather than his marshaling of evidence. Some so-called scholars focus on scandal … « These scholars », says Gillispie, « have a lust for just the sort of thing most rigidly ruled out of court in the science we do now – the irrational, the personal » [[W.J. Broad, History of Science Losing Its Science, in Science 207 January 25, 1980: 389. ]].

Of course Gillispie’ s plea for a return to the values of Koyré has been dismissed by the social historians of science who have replied that

The social history of science has by now established itself within the discipline as a legitimate method of approaching the past. Despite recent rearguard action, notably by C.C. Gillispie, most historians accept that the traditional practices of analyzing theoretical developments within the sciences need to be supplemented by the study of the changing social foundations of scientific activity. The ‘intemal vs. external’ debates of the late 1960s are, one hopes a thing of the past [[P. Wood, September, 1980. – RecentTrends in the History of Science: The dehumanisation of history, in BSHS Newsletter, N° 3: 19-20. ]].

At the death of George Sarton the history of science was established as a small field, but one that was recognized by many as having importance. However, because of its historical development it was to be found in the academic world most frequently in the form of programs independent of history or science. Most publishing historians of science twenty-five years ago had been trained as scientists. Sarton recognized this, but believed that in the future the professional historian of science should have at least two masters’ degrees- one in a science and the other in history – before proceeding on to his Ph.D. in the history of science. However, the influence of Koyre and a trend among philosophers away from the history of philosophy toward the philosophy of science emphasized the growth of independent programs in the history En philosophy of science. During the fifties and the sixties there were further discussions of the relationship of the history of science to both history and the sciences.

In 1956 it seemed clear that the history of science required an expertise in the sciences that seemed to set it apart from the training received by all but the most unusual historians. But at this time traditional historians were becoming aware of the tremendous impact of science and technology on our lives and this gave rise to a certain urgency to learn more of this field. Thus, in a lecture on « The History of Science and the Study of History » in 1959 Herbert Butterfield said that,

Although the world had long known that science and technology were important, it is only recently that these things have taken command of our destiny – that destiny which we had learned from our history books to regard as depending so greatly on the wills of statesmen[[H. Butterfield, 1959, – The History of Science and the Study of History, in Harvard Library Bulletin 13: 329-347.]].

He argued that historians must take into account the rise of modern science and that when they do this it will « change the whole character of historiography » [[Ibid. 347. ]]. And yet Butterfield did not challenge the independence of the history of science. In his still influential The Origins of Modern Science 1300-1800 (1949), he presented the customary positivistic approach to the field that was current in the immediate post-war years [[ H. Butterfield, 1952. – The Origins of Modern Science 1300-1800. New York. ]]. The history of science must be understood by historians, but the field could rightly develop on its own because of the specialized knowledge it required. In fact Butterfield’s call for a greater awareness of science by historians was heeded. As more and more doctorates were awarded in the history of science in the 1960s and 1970s most of these young scholars found themselves hired by departments of history rather than by the older independent programs in the history of science or the history and philosophy of science. This new interest among traditional historians surely accelerated the move toward new areas of research such as those I have already noted, the part played by the pseudo-sciences in the rise of modern science as well as more general topics relating science to society and culture.

The development of the field in recent decades has also reopened the question of the relationship of the history of science to the sciences. In the 1950s few scientists were more influential in arguing reform in scientific education than James B. Conant. The War had shown clearly the need for more advanced scientific training for American youth. As a result, the method of teaching the sciences was rethought – and, at the same time, historical « case-studies » were introduced to give non-science majoring undergraduates the opportunity to see how the sciences have developed. But Conant, in a lecture delivered in 1960, stated that history was just as valuable for the scientist. He believed that scientific education was frequently too narrow and that the use of the case history approach would give students vision that would be broader and more informed [[J.B. Conant, 1960. – History in the Education of Scientists, Harvard Library Bulletin 14: 315-333. ]]. He outlined a new science curriculum that would prepare students first in the history of their own science specialty and then in the history of modern science. These courses were to be followed by others in the history of science taken in its widest possible sense and – only then – cultural and political history which would be understood in connection with the earlier courses in the history of science. He was far less enthusiastic about those who sought to equate the history of science with the social history of science – or the philosophy of science [[Ibid. 325.]].

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