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Roots of Modern Science January 28, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.

The first lecture in my history of science course is tomorrow. There’s not a lot to say about it–it’s a pretty standard intro lecture–except that I’m going to be introducing some terms at the outset to try and smooth the academic concept shock as we go along. So, students will be getting working definitions of: whig history, epistemology, ontology, teleology, and reification. Not being a big student of the philosophy of science, myself, (with the exception of whig history) I’ve never had these formally explained to me: I picked them up one by one, once I decided that I really, really needed to have a solid definition in my head. So, I think it will be useful to lay them out at the outset. But we won’t be hitting up the philosophical pedigree of each; I’ll just be giving some idea of what we’re talking about when we bandy these terms about as if they were the most obvious things in the world.

Now, the Thursday lecture is going to be on the philosophical roots of modern science. For a specialist in 20th century science, this is pretty far removed from what I ordinarily do. My big saving grace here was my seemingly unjustifiable decision as an undergrad to take the first two of three History of Philosophy courses offered in Northwestern’s philosophy department–Seeskin and McCumber, this post’s for you! At absolutely no point did I ever think that my freshman year course on philosophy in the middle ages (a profoundly weird topic) would prove useful later on. And yet, here I am dusting off my old Presocratic Reader, and my knowledge of Augustine and the Scholastics, and my other textbooks, conjoining them with other things I’ve picked up by osmosis in grad school, to put together a workable overview of the key conceptual traditions.

Conceptual traditions is key–I’m going to start out with a little discussion of the Pythagoreans and the Atomists and a few others to say that some of what they say is recognizable to us as resembling what we believe about the universe and how to investigate it, but then point out that they don’t really represent a consistent tradition that we can follow through to modern science. It’s really Plato and Aristotle that represent the crucial traditions that we can follow through bifurcated Middle Ages manifestations (Neoplatonism by way of Augustine; and the Arabic preservation of Aristotle). Later natural philosophers might pick up and read some of the other schools and identify their own ideas with them, but I think it would be too much to say that they were selecting one tradition over another as though off a menu. Their primary aim would be trying to give an intellectual framework to practical knowledge–this would be a reaction to the literary tradition of the Middle Ages extending beyond philosophy, and its failure to distinguish credible from not credible knowledge. We deal with that tradition next week.

That’s a rough overview–this blog is a thinking space, not an official source of course information.



1. Michael Barton, FCD - January 28, 2008

Hi Will – I’ve been enjoying your posts so far. I just finished my bachelor’s in history (SETS option) and hope to start grdauate school in the history of science this fall. Look forward to more thinking about the history of science.

2. Will Thomas - January 28, 2008

Michael, welcome! Glad you’ve somehow found your way to this isolated little corner of the blogosphere, and glad to see someone is paying attention despite the fact I’ve only promoted this to a few friends in the profession. Stay tuned for some topics that will probably be of interest to you. Daston & Park is coming up next week–Darwin’s slated for Week 7 of the course. In the meantime, I’ll link to your Darwin blog.

3. Jenny - January 28, 2008

Hey Will,

Nice blog…this is Jenny from MIT. Sorry I missed your going away party back in Cambridge. I moved to Paris to do archival research in September. Katy is on my committee…

Congratulations on your new job. Cool that you are doing an introductory course on the history of atomism…I did one of my generals on that topic. Let me know how things are in DC…

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