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How to begin… January 24, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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Starting in with discussion about the upcoming course, I guess I’ll just say a few words about the course structure. As an “Introduction to the History of Science” I’m trying not to make things too fancy. I’m not going to muddy up the plot-line too much. This will be, unabashedly, the history of what we understand to be the modern scientific enterprise–not the history of knowledge about the natural world. Thus it’s largely a European story (with some detours into the Arabic-speaking world early on, of course) until the 20th century. Because, if we were to take some kind of weighted average, the most “science” does take place in the 20th century, I’m also trying to expand coverage of more recent events to try and address just how radically the character of science has changed in the last century–not just the well-known advent of “big science” but also diversification in the topics of scientific inquiry; diversification in methodology, and, above all, the full-scale integration of science into the fabric of society.

In some ways this integration (which, I would say, we can trace to the relationship between university science education and industrial R&D) represents a return to the way the medievals looked at the world; wherein knowledge of the natural was not well separated from theology, politics, history, and poetry–the most important topics of that period. I’m going to be using C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image to make this point about the medievals. This book is, as I understand it, a favorite of Katy Park at Harvard, and is now being used in their new year-long survey course. And it is a very nice way of jumping into the medieval mindset from which modern science emerges.

So, what I’m doing, after the introductory lecture is to give two lectures. The first will be on the classical philosophical issues. This will sort of give the high intellectual road to science, which comes via Arabic preservations of full classical texts–also pertinent are early Christian and Scholastic high philosophy. The second lecture will be on the “Medieval Model” as Lewis calls it. This is more of the broad “on-the-street” intellectual content of the early modern period, of which the early scientific sorts would also have been keenly aware. Subsequent lectures will focus on the clear craft influences on intellectuals in the early modern period.

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