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Bowler and Morus/Naive Positions March 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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In History 174 we’ve now come to the end of Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences, a textbook which I like a great deal (and the students seemed to like it, too). For the rest of the course, the textbook is Peter Bowler and Iwan Rhys-Morus’ Making Modern Science, which I generally like, but I have one major criticism that applies both to it, and to history of science writing in general, and that is its insistence on arguing against naive positions.

We’re starting out with their chapter on “The Chemical Revolution”, which they frame around the question of whether the chemical revolution was delayed by a century from the rest of the scientific revolution (and, of course, whether it was a revolution at all). They mount a sustained attack on the notion. This general strategy is employed throughout the book. Various historians, like Kuhn, are constantly making an appearance. I can’t help but think that this is distracting to students. I would be willing to bet they have no a priori notions abut the “chemical revolution”, so why burden the text by structuring it around a refutation of such notions? I believe the point of a textbook is to tell the best, most informative history we can, not to lay bare the neuroses of our profession induced in us by our battles with our forebears [edit; rereading Bowler and Morus this morning, this last clause is too extreme a description for what they clearly have intentionally deployed as an interesting framing device–but I think the statement is valid for why it might seem like a good idea to insert the “history of science profession” so prominently into a “history of science textbook”].

Really, the strategy isn’t surprising, because it is, in general, a habit ingrained in our desire to elevate our own analyses by arguing against the naive positions of certain prior thinkers about science, or against the “science textbook presentation”, or against “pop science”, or against the notion that the progress of science is independent of its context, as if these represented a living and threatening school of historical thought. My historiography guru David Edgerton has publicly and privately criticized technology historians’ habit of taking on straw men like the “linear model” (my students will read his piece against this straw man) and technological determinism. I tend to glorify mainline historians, but they, too, tend to rail against viewing developments as inevitable, and insist on looking at how events are “contingent”. If we’re going to improve our art, we need to avoid intellectual crutches like arguing against long-comatose naive positions.

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1. Will Thomas - March 3, 2008

Just to add a little comparative flavor to this post, one of the reasons I admire Peter Dear’s textbook is that it clearly incorporates historiographical advances into a coherent narrative. The entire book is framed by relatively recent insights contrasting what was worth knowing and what it meant to know about the world in the 1500s vs. in the 1700s. But, he never really argues against the old positions. He just tells the most significant story he can given the state of the field.


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