The discipline of the history of science (henceforth ‘the history of science’) concerns the history of the way nature has been manipulated, modelled and understood by different societies. Because the sciences deal with what are taken to be true statements about a natural world that exists independently of human activity, the subject of the history of science seems to resist being historicised in the same way as other topics. This alone makes the history of the sciences different from other species of historical enquiry. In addition to providing us with true statements about nature, science has been held to have a unique capacity to progress. As such, it seems to be exemplary of the potential of human reason. Belief in scientific rationality and scientific progress was almost unanimous in academic history of science until the 1960s, but such views have been heavily criticised in the last three decades.
Perhaps the fundamental question for the history of science has been why, and in what sense, science is a different sort of activity from any other. The assumption that the method and object of scientific practice demarcates it from all other human activities drew history of science and philosophy of science closely together. The opposite point of view, according to which scientific practice is fundamentally similar to other forms of human endeavour, has led to a marked separation between the two fields. Instead, the discipline has allied itself more closely with developments in sociology of science and other historical disciplines, such as imperial history, economic history and global history.
In the university curriculum the subject has sat squarely between the humanities and the sciences, only occasionally being granted the status of a department. Otherwise, it has been housed in a wide range of faculties and departments including anthropology, sociology, science and philosophy, and only rarely has the subject been located in a school or department of history. Moreover, while historians of science have published in the major journals in the field, they have been conspicuously unsuccessful in placing their work in mainstream history journals. As a consequence of this, the topic has been marginalised and there is a lamentable ignorance in the wider historical profession of basic facts about the historical development of science.
In the 20th century, the history of science has been lauded by many of its exponents as a uniquely interdisciplinary activity, and at various periods commentators and academics have argued that the history of science has an unrivalled capacity to appeal to students of both scientific and humanities subjects, tempering the narrow specialism of one group while opening the eyes of the other to the great achievements of science and technology. Many have argued that science’s rationality is peculiarly universal, and its ability to inform and improve technical practice makes it paramount in both forging and defining the central features of the modern age. It stands above national or religious interest and represents unparalleled international co-operation. Being morally neutral has also allowed it to make a uniquely important contribution to human civilisation and well-being. Historians of science have therefore had to balance the widely held view that science lacks any intrinsic or historically bounded moral values with the view that particular forms of scientific endeavour can and must be placed in their historical contexts.
Acres of woodland have been destroyed so that historians of science can debate whether it denigrates scientists to show that even their most successful theories are informed by contemporary religious and other ‘non-scientific’ values. Whatever position one takes on the capacity of science to escape its local contexts of production, the practice of the history of science has been affected by numerous external forces, most notably by the two world wars and, perhaps most powerfully, by the Cold War. In times of crisis, science has appeared to democrats as exemplary of a self-critical and meritocratic society. While in some sense neutral, it has been lauded as a form of knowledge that could only have arisen in the West, where there were unprecedented opportunities to pursue and publish natural knowledge conducted for its own sake while at the same time engaging in correspondence with other researchers. To Marxists, science is legitimated by its application to the outside world. It has appeared as a paradigmatic example of how a number of human beings – technicians, engineers and scientists – can all work together for the benefit of the whole.
The history of science in the 20th century has passed through a number of phases. The first was characterised by great individual contributions from authors such as Pierre Duhem, J. E. Dreyer and others, with major contributions to the philosophy of science coming from scientists such as Duhem, Ernst Mach and Henri Poincaré. Second, in the wake of the Great War, the history of science seemed to epitomise what George Sarton called the ‘new humanism’. It seemed to offer an account of how civilised people all over the world had contributed to the one great project that could elevate them above their petty nationalistic and religious differences.
However, in the 1930s, the arrival of Marxist-inspired socio-economic approaches to the history of science forced liberal humanists to stress the contribution to science made by individuals, theories and ‘reason’. While Marxists emphasised the socio-economic determinants and social consequences of science, the liberal humanists extolled the capacity of great geniuses to rise above the obstacles placed by these same surroundings. Increasingly, they identified elements of the Anglo-British culture as a bulwark against Marxist determinism and German obscurantism. Consequently, like those histories that examined the more occultist and less acceptable interests of scientific heroes, Marxist histories of science barely registered as serious undertakings in the academy for many years after the end of the war. However, in the 1960s and 1970s historians turned away from purified, intellectualist accounts of the exact sciences of the Scientific Revolution, to social histories of the 18th- and in particular, of the 19th-century life and earth sciences.
The intellectual history of science has remained a powerful force within the discipline as a whole. This approach has remained balanced between an examination of the religious and metaphysical commitments of individuals, and a more narrowly focused attention on their technical accomplishments. However, following the advent of a ‘social’ history of science, a fully fledged materialist account of the history of science became possible when historians integrated the history of scientific instruments and their use into more mainstream history of science. In the 1970s and 1980s, the discipline borrowed approaches in the sociology of science in order to discuss historically the skilful use of instruments and machines, without which almost no scientific work would be possible. At the end of the century, history of science has addressed the formation of the global (and extra-global) reach of science, and historians have linked the expansion of science to large-scale processes such as industrialisation, colonialism and imperialism.
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Rob Iliffe is professor of intellectual history and the history of science in the Department of History at the University of Sussex