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Continuity and Discontinuity in class February 19, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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Sorry for the delay in posting–we just had the history of early modern medicine class today. At Harvard the history of medicine and history of science are sort of two separate worlds in the same department, so I had to do a lot of research to figure out what I was going to say today. Anyway, I enjoyed putting the lecture together and the students seemed to like it, too. In a nutshell, it was about the shift from the medical tradition corresponding to Galenic theory to anatomical-mechanistic views of medicine. The students are asking good questions–one student actually asked about a point I thought about including in the lecture but didn’t (if disease was seen as personal, what did they make of obvious contagions like plague?–Thank you Cambridge History of Medicine for preparing me for that one!); and, in response to my end of lecture homily about Robert Hooke’s self-experimentation with physic, another asked about the continuities with the Galenic tradition. I promised a blog post on it, and I think it’s worth reposting in full here, even though, again, it’s long and all pretty standard for the professionals.

Reposted from the History 174 class blog:

I want to take a look at a larger “historiographical” issue present in the last lecture on mapmaking and navigation and today’s lecture on medicine. By “historiography” I mean the art of writing history. One really big issue in historiography is whether to emphasize continuity or discontunity–is history (particularly the history of ideas) populated by gradual transitions from one way of thinking to another, or is it marked by sudden breaks? There is a traditional notion that in the 1600s we have what we call the “scientific revolution”–a sudden break with past philosophy and superstition marked by a turn toward experimental method and new theories. Some scholars have argued that the “scientific revolution” didn’t exist for various reasons. Some wish to emphasize the persistence of older methods and ways of thinking (the fact that Newton was into alchemy tends to get trotted out here). Feminist scholars point out that for women the scientific revolution might not only not have been a significant event, but may have been harmful (the turn from midwifery to authorized medicine, for example; or the growth of the prestige of science as validating a secondary position for women in society through theories in the social sciences, etc.)

I think it’s pretty clear that for practical historical purposes the scientific revolution existed, primarily because it was a self-conscious event. A socially significant group of people started turning to icons like Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes, and held them up as heading toward a new way of understanding the world, and, “inspired, they went out and performed wondrous deeds” (anyone ever seen 24 Hour Party People?–great movie; that’s a reference to the film’s narrator’s description of the musical reaction to the Sex Pistols’ first Manchester concert). Anyway, the participants in the scientific revolution saw themselves as revolutionary; and, as we will see with the French Enlightenment of the 1700s, the idea that modern science represented a clean break with the past had political implications.

Yet, I want to be sure and emphasize the continuities as well. Where Ptolemy’s Almagest was overturned by Copernicus and Kepler, his Geography set the pace for all later geography. There would be massive refinement of technique, but no sudden breaks in principles. Similarly, the turn from the Galenic theory of medicine to a mechanistic, anatomical model did not represent a clean break. Robert Hooke’s self-experimentation with physic and his careful recording of the results was clearly representative of the new experimental tradition, but the idea of promoting therapeutic flows of sweat, vomit, etc. through physic (and diet, environment, etc.) was still well-entrenched. Similarly, the example of Vesalius’ representing the vagina as an inverted penis in accordance with Galenic doctrine also shows how important entrenched ideas were in interpreting actual observations, such as those obtained through dissection. You see what you are trained to see (Descartes made the key philosophical critique of sensory knowledge, not that that necessarily made observation any more independent of ideas).

I chose this last example, incidentally, because it’s also a staple of feminist history of science, which I’m not integrating into the course as much as I might. You can find the argument in either Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex on the production of ideas about sex vs. gender, or in Londa Schiebinger’s (superior) The Mind Has No Sex? My go-to source for this lecture is the Cambridge History of Medicine edited by eminence gris historian Roy Porter, but Lisa Jardine’s wonderfully insightful Ingenious Pursuits on the scientific culture of the latter half of the 1600s also played a big role (as it did in the previous lecture).

On the idea of scientific revolution, by the way, the classic reference is Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which gives us the term “paradigm shift” which is applied to the alteration of entrenched interpretations of observation (e.g., the shift from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican world view). He claimed that science proceeds along a “normal” course until its underlying ideas are totally overturned. It has more to do with ideas and less to do with the establishment of new institutional programs (which I tend to emphasize). It is still influential among novice historians (and Al Gore), although most professionals have acknowledged its insights and moved on.

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