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The New Canon: Contents/Forman Thesis April 7, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
Tags: , , ,

Well, I think my thoughts on the sociology-history link are exhausted for the time being (though I want to get back to SEE later). Today I want to talk about canons, and the fact that as near as I can tell, we have no up-to-date canon in the history of science, whether in individual fields, or across the profession as a whole. I know that preparing for my general exams was a highly arbitrary and undirected process, and that prior to teaching Intro to Hist Sci, my overall factual knowledge of the history of science was embarrassingly limited to a few historical islands. And I’m fairly sure this is typical for most students coming out of grad school today. A good way to develop a broad knowledge, and to have something to talk about with your peers, is to build a canon. Whenever I’ve mentioned a lack of canon, I’ve usually met with some kind approving affirmation that we have loosed ourselves of the bounds of a rigid set of things that constitute the history of science. Who needs a canon? I once asked if there’s some set of books that everyone in my old grad program had read–I’m not sure we got past Leviathan and the Air Pump. This gives me a sort of nervous feeling, so I’d like to explore the issue of the canon.

Well, then, smart guy, what should be in our canon? I really have no idea, so it’s time to start some wild speculation! I’d like to start by asking whether we should have “game changing” texts in our canon. I once heard that everyone in the history of physics needs to read the Forman Thesis (Paul Forman’s 1971, “Weimar culture, causality, and quantum theory, 1918-27: adaptation by German physicists and mathematicians to a hostile intellectual environment”). This was one of the first major forays (prior to SSK) in exploring the relationship between science and its external context (edit: or so I am led to believe–there’s a whole Marxist scholarship for example that is doubtless worth a look).

But I’m not so sure we need to read it. I’ve never found it particularly enlightening–why not put one of the several responses to it in the canon in its place? I always liked John Hendry’s 1980 “Weimar Culture and Quantum Causality” in Darwin to Einstein: Historical Studies. Not only does it contain a good recap of Forman’s arguments, it presents a much more sophisticated treatment of the relationship between the internal intellectual dynamics of physical theory and broader cultural movements.

Why isn’t Hendry our champion on this subject rather than Forman? I think it’s out of reverence for Forman’s path-breaking achievement. Older scholars seem to remember how differently they thought about the history of quantum mechanics after Forman–he started the debate. That’s fine, but shouldn’t we really be studying the most refined product of this line of thought rather than the foundation stone? Doesn’t it just lead us to reenact arguments that were pretty well settled long ago? I’ve seen a similar attitude in play with regard to Merchant’s Death of Nature. If we read or refer to one text, it seems to me it’s the original, even though the subject of gendered language and science has been handled much more deftly since (see the extended discussion on Merchant’s book in Isis, September ’06). Why don’t we ever anoint a “new champion” like they do in other fields, like literary translation?

Anyway, the Hendry Thesis is in my new canon–the Forman thesis is out.


1. Anonymous - April 7, 2008

I agree on both counts. There is no canon that spans even HSCI let alone the history of technology and medicine. I’ve been surprised how few students have read both Kuhn’s SSR and Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan.

Forman’s thesis is so outdated and wrong, that it appears more a caricature of social history than an exemplar.

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