1986 – 9(2)

Conant’s ambitious plans for the historical training of scientists never bore fruit although the case-history approach to science was extensively employed in American universities in the fifties and sixties. However, eventually these courses were largely abandoned. For scientists they seemed to move too slowly for the mass of material required to be taught. For historians of science they were not historical enough – and for students with little interest in the sciences these courses were often less interesting than a concentrated survey course in a particular science might have been [[This assessment is my own after having taught courses of this genre for four years both at Harvard University and the University of Chicago during the years 1957-1959 and 1961-1963. ]].

Although there are several notable cases in the history of science in which a scientist’s knowledge of much older literature led to a breakthrough, these cases are few and far between. I can recall a discussion presided over by Herbert Butterfield in 1959. There were some thirty students and faculty members present and Butterfield asked if anyone knew of a case in which a knowledge of the history of science proved to be of direct value in a scientific discovery. I was the only one present who answered – and that was only possible because I had then recently been working on the discovery of the inert gases and knew of Ramsay’s reading of the eighteenth-century papers by Cavendish and of their influence on him.

Thomas Kuhn agreed that the sciences might not benefit much from the reading of the history of science. In 1968 he wrote that

Among the areas to which the history of science relates, the one least likely to be significantly affected is scientific research itself. Advocates of the history of science have occasionally described their field as a rich repository of forgotten ideas and methods, a few of which might well dissolve contemporary scientific dilemmas. When a new concept or theory is successfully deployed in a science, some previously ignored precedent is usually discovered in the earlier literature in the field. It is natural to wonder whether attention to history might not have accelerated the innovation.

Almost certainly, however, the answer is no. The quantity of material to be searched, the absence of appropriate indexing categories, and the subtle but usually vast differences between the anticipation and the effective innovation, all combine to suggest that reinvention rather than rediscovery will remain the most efficient source of scientific novelty [[T.S. Kuhn, 1968; 1979: 81. ]].

In general I would agree with Kuhn’s conclusion: … we should not study the history of science only in the hope of finding long forgotten laws or discoveries still valid today. And yet, the history of science does have a real value for scientists as well as non-scientists. Through a study of the earlier literature in his own field the student will become aware of the scientific process. He should surely learn to appreciate the fact that the results we accept today were not generally arrived at in a simple manner – and that the same process of debate is part of science today. I have heard historians of astronomy argue that a knowledge of the history of astronomy does help to clarify current astronomical debates. And we find historians of Darwininian evolution active both in the biological sciences and in the heated Creationism debates.

During the past hour I have chosen to illustrate the change in this rapidly growing field by concentrating on only a few factors, its growth in subject matter, the debates that have occurred over the introduction of the so-called pseudo-sciences and societal factors in the growth of modern science, and the discussion of the relationship of the history of science to both history and the sciences. I might well have turned to other topics such as the new interest in the history of technology and its relationship to scientific research or the study of science in specific national settings, but I believe that the examples I have chosen will suffice to indicate the types of problems that have engaged the members of the profession over the past few decades.

I sometimes wonder what George Sarton would think of the field if he were still alive. At the time of his death his positivistic views were still dominant. Today they are passé. The history of science has developed to its present state in a relatively short period of time, but this maturity has also been accompanied by a decay of the comfortable sense of progress with which it was once identified. Indeed, the present defensive attitude of some historians of science indicates just how far the interest in new methodologies has penetrated the field. Today in addition to scientists and historians of science there are a number of historians, literary critics, and social scientists who are effectively applying the history of science to their own areas of research.

And yet, there is really no need to fear – as Gillispie evidently does – that the history of science will lose its need for the technical data of the sciences. The history of science will always require technical research in the sciences and the histories so produced will always have value. But this does not mean that we should be unwilling to go beyond the technical monographic studies and the technical criticism that have characterized much of the post-war scholarship in this field. There must be room for syntheses that lead to a broader understanding of science as a whole as well as its interrelation with other areas of human endeavor. I think that we should learn to apply the method of Walter Pagel to understand discoveries in terms of the entire work of the discoverer and then go on to understand the discoverer in terms of the total intellectual milieu that shaped him. Only when this is done will it be possible for our histories to truly reflect the impact of science on civilization. Only when this is done will we see that there is no real conflict between the traditional internalist and externalist schools of the history of science. And only when this is done will the value of the history of science be universally accepted by historians and scientists alike.

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