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Edgerton’s Justification Criterion March 14, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

David Edgerton has a new short article on including the history of chemistry in the history of twentieth century science and technology, which can be found here. It’s pretty much in-line with Edgerton’s usual arguments, but in light of the discussion I’ve been having with myself here, concerning justification criteria, I’d like to point out just how strange Edgerton’s primary justification criterion is in our profession: economic importance. I recommend taking a look because it’s a very quick, concise look at the way he views the history of science and technology.

Edgerton’s criterion has a lot to do with his longstanding effort to show that a 20th century understanding of “science” cannot be separated from the fact that most scientists were involved in the production of technology (but he also claims that this isn’t a new phenomenon). By concentrating on what we view as the crucial problems of “knowledge” we miss out on most of the history of science and its relationship to society. He would argue that we don’t have historiographical gaps to fill–we have an entire cosmos of science that we haven’t even made an effort to understand, because it doesn’t accord to our accepted notions of what is historiographically significant in the history of sci/tech.

Edit: Edgerton sends me along the important caveat that his idea of justification can include many things beyond economic significance, and not just things that can be evaluated quantitatively. This is true, and you’ll find arguments for cultural and political significance as well as economic significance in his work.

I’ve always been most impressed by his frequent arguments for economic significance, though, because so few scholars ever even think to address it.



1. Daniel - March 14, 2008


It is interesting to hear your plea for economic significance from an early modernist’s point of view. An important part of recent historiography on the scientific revolution has been dealing with the commercial utilization of “useful knowledge.”

Hal Cook has explored the entangled relationship between the development of Dutch science and global commerce. Paula Findlen and Pamela Smith have investigated how cabinets of curiosities could not have come into being without extensive trade.

And, in turn, the recent emphasis on natural history shows how scientific knowledge could boost the economy. Several studies have shown how Spanish science practically became an advisor to colonial government. Londa Schiebinger and Claudia Swan have scrutinized how botany could be an early modern big science from a global perspective. Not to mention Lisbet Koerner’s classic study on Linnaeus’ efforts to improve Swedish economy by reforming its agriculture through imported plants.

From a rather different perspective, Joel Mokyr has argued that the increased exchange of scientific knowledge played a key role in the industrial revolution. Margaret Jacob and Larry Stewart did much work on the impact of Newtonianism on practical science in the period.

So, my question is, is economic significance really missing from the history of science these days? Now we even have a thorough study of the economic significance of sulfa drugs, a story that is as much about chemistry as about pharmaceutics… I am very much interested in the economy, but I think that I am only following the current fashion.

2. Will Thomas - March 14, 2008

Excellent! Very nice point. Actually, since I’ve been teaching this History 174 course, I’ve been confirming my suspicions that the early modernists definitely have an edge on the rest of us in terms of the integration of science into the rest of society. I don’t have major complaints about the focus, particularly concerning the excellent work on the broader culture surrounding the Royal Society, which I imagine will grow further in the future.

However, that said, there’s a difference between understanding the impact of economic concerns on the actions of individual scientists we all know (like Linnaeus)–which boils down to the usual point about the influence of context, in this case commerce–and understanding the economic role of science in society, which, inevitably would blur into technology history and economic history in general, and would almost have to bring us outside our case study comfort zone.

So, bringing it back to the early modern period, one thing that might be interesting is a detailed study of the scale, scope, and social structure of the hydrography and surveying communities, without reference, say, to some “key” actor. I don’t know Cook’s work, actually. Do you have a good reference?

3. Will Thomas - March 14, 2008

To look at another strand you point out, the impact of science on economy, this is also a trend worth highlighting, but it’s important not to winnow science down to a seed that has a larger impact. Rather, the aim I have in mind is the effort to portray science as a part of economy rather than a limited set of ideas having an effect on economy.

I also haven’t read it, but your mention of sulfa drugs is an excellent example of the sort of thing I have in mind as something we should really be looking at seriously.

To clarify my stance, I don’t think the historiography of science is a big disaster or anything. I just think these are discussions we ought to be having.

4. Daniel - March 14, 2008

Hey Will,

Point well taken. My reference was to Harold J. Cook’s Matters of Exchange, Yale UP, 2007.

Just to stick with watery things, there is Chandra Mukerji’s work on the Canal du Midi to explore how such a huge technological project was envisaged in the period..

And, to really explore how science, technology and the economy interact (instead of simply having an impact), there is again David Lux’s history of the Caen Academy. He shows cogently how state-governed science was given a role in economy that it could not eventually fulfill. To stick with failures, there is also Simon Schaffer’s the Charter’d Thames in the volume he recently edited with Lissa Roberts and Peter Dear.

And you are right — I think we need more of these studies.

5. Will Thomas - March 14, 2008

I will definitely check these out.

It’s interesting that so many of these studies are very recent, because the groundwork was clearly laid in the 1970s, say when Shapin and Thackray were pushing prosopography. Thus the question in my mind is how we as a culture and a profession can consolidate and build on our gains as effectively as possible. I think the internet will play a big role.

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