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Chris Renwick on the History of Thinking about Science October 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Today we have the second guest post by Chris Renwick, who starting in January will be a lecturer in modern British history at the University of York.

In one way or another, most approaches to history of science share a common intellectual assumption: that science can be related to the contexts in which it is produced, even if historians can’t agree about what’s important when talking about those contexts. Indeed, such is the importance of this contextualist point that it is often seen as a crucial moment in moving history of science away from the wholly discredited study of great men and their ideas. When, though, did this shift take place and who was responsible for it?

Ever since I started out as graduate student, I’d assumed, like many others, that the effort to relate science and its contexts was originally the gift of Karl Marx and Marxism. After all, who doesn’t know the story of the letter in which Marx explained how Charles Darwin had transplanted Victorian society onto the natural world (though, for the record, the letter we always attribute to Marx was actually written by Engels) or the legend of Russian physicist Borris Hessen’s presentation on Isaac Newton to the Second International Congress of the History of Science at the Science Museum in London in 1931? However, in considering this issue recently I’ve come to the conclusion that something is missing from our understanding of the history of history of science and that it tells us something important about the intellectual trajectory of the field.

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

Part of what sparked my interest in this issue was a 1952 book, entitled Darwinism: Competition and Cooperation, by the British-American anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who played a leading role in the production of the famous 1950 UNESCO statement on race. In that book, Montagu argued that it wasn’t Marx or Marxists who first grasped how to relate science to its socioeconomic contexts but Patrick Geddes—the Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town planner whom I’ve spent a great deal of time studying (see pages 29 to 31 in particular). To illustrate his point, Montagu picked out a passage from Geddes’ late 1880s article on “Biology” for Chamber’s Encyclopaedia:

The substitution of Darwin for Paley as the chief interpreter of the order of nature is currently regarded as the displacement of an anthropomorphic view by a purely scientific one: a little reflection, however, will show that what has actually happened has been merely the replacement of the anthropomorphism of the eighteenth century by that of the nineteenth. For the place vacated by Paley’s theological and metaphysical explanation has simply been occupied by that suggested to Darwin and Wallace by Malthus in terms of the prevalent severity of industrial competition, and these phenomena of the struggle for existence which the light of contemporary economic theory has enabled us to discern, have thus come to be temporarily exalted into a complete explanation of organic progress.

There are many points that can be made about this passage but there a couple that have always struck me as particularly interesting with respect to history of science scholarship. The first relates to questions about the relationship between science and history of science, which was also addressed by Peter Dear in the focus section of the 100th volume of Isis (full text). In his article on George Sarton and the context in which Isis was founded, Dear points out that up until around a century ago it was quite conventional for scientists to situate their work in a much bigger picture than they—and, we might suggest here, many historians of science—do now. Geddes’s take on biology, which comes from a general interest encyclopaedia article, surprises most people—it certainly surprised me when I first encountered his work—because his comments challenge our expectations about who can and does say particular things about science. Historians aren’t accustomed to entertaining the idea that practising scientists can and did talk about themselves and their work in such a reflective way. The question, though, is why? For my money, the surprise that writings such as Geddes’ generate comes from the fact that much history of science scholarship has lost sight of important aspects of the intellectual context in which science was once practiced.

This issue leads me to the second point that that I think is highlighted by Geddes’ efforts to relate science and its contexts: how changes in history of science scholarship have altered our view of science and the nature of scientific activity. The shift (charted on this blog) towards seeing the context of scientific activity as including almost everything but philosophical ideas has had a range of impacts on history of science. To be sure, we’ve now got a better sense of how the material culture of science, for example, has helped shape various aspects of its identity. However, we’ve also reached the point where we don’t automatically see thinking and reflection as a driving force behind scientific practices and theorising (see Jim Endersby’s recent book on Joseph Hooker for a good example of this point). The point here is that even for those historians who acknowledge that scientists engaged in philosophical debate, the conclusion is seldom that those discussions actually had much impact on how science has actually been done. However, for Geddes and others like him, it was obvious that they should position themselves in terms of the bigger intellectual picture. Indeed, an understanding of the history of science was an essential part of scientific activity.

Now, I don’t have a tidy conclusion with respect to the question of when exactly this separation between science and history of science took place—though I do think that much of what Steve Fuller wrote about these kinds of issues in Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times rings true. However, I do think that the question is particularly important for a number of reasons. First, it would seem strange if historians weren’t interested in the history of their own field. Second, as I’ve mentioned, the answer to the question has important implications for how we write history of science. Finally, though, the question seems to relate to a bigger question about the purpose of history of science. If history of science was once an important part of science then what does that say about the discipline now? Indeed, can the answer to that question be used as part of a case for returning history of science to scientific debate? As I’ve said, I don’t have a tidy conclusion to present on this issue but it seems worth raising the question.

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1. Will Thomas - October 21, 2009

I have a couple of reactions from my own experience that I might add. First, even the Marxist heritage of socio-economic contextualization was not stressed in my graduate program. I only really learned about this when I visited Britain while doing my dissertation research, where some memory and perhaps even influence of that school of thought persisted.

In general, one gets the sense that in our histories scientists are simply not supposed to do much thinking (at least about certain kinds of things), because we are the ones who are trained to spot the crucial socio-cultural contexts. In studying operations research, decision science, and other areas 1940-1960, I had a very similar sense of surprise when I started finding that not only did in-depth reflection about what they were doing exist, it was everywhere and extremely important to the way different sciences were related to each other and the way institutions were built and evolved. According to the literature, though, critical thinking was something that simply was not done in a Cold War context (usually there is an explicit reference to some pervasive post-war “faith” in sci-tech to underscore the point). It was our responsibility to demonstrate the links between that context and the work we were studying (the word “Cold War” is almost ubiquitous in the titles of history of science books about this era).

Much of the content on this blog is motivated by the sense that there is much in the history of our profession that has a stake in making sure self-conscious reflection does not appear in the histories that we write. So I think we’ve arrived at similar conclusions from different routes. Actually, it’s interesting, because I was recently rereading Dave Kaiser’s very good book on Feynman Diagrams, and was struck by how often he used some phrase like “and this point was not lost on physicists”.

2. Steve Jones - November 1, 2009

Good heavens – this could only have been written by somebody who never practiced natural sciences. Of course scientists have viewed their subjects in wider historical and philosophical contexts. Natural scientists are almost obsessed by the history of their subject. The contexts in which modern western science operates is a constant theme. Roles if individuals in the weapons industry, in medicine, in pharmaceutics – all these are active issues in science.

Many scientists wondered about eh consequences of their own thoughts. Famously Darwin fretted endlessly on what the implications of his own ideas were in both personal and society contexts. Einstein wrote to the US president of the dangers of Axis powers gaining nuclear weapons. Many on the Manhattan Project questioned their role in history – several changed subjects away from physics.

There are not many physicists that I can think of who are not aware of the emergence of modern western science through the twin effects of the enlightment and the reformation. The reaction of the Catholic church to these new ideas that were perceived by it a force theat threatened it’s own authority. On the reformation side, the great role played by clerics in natural science in the belief that it would expose God’s working. Then there was the sacking of Priestley’s laboratories by a Birmingham mob. Franklin’s role in the founding of the USA.

Of course it goes back far further than that – to the Babylonians, the ancient Greeks, to the early centuries of the Islamic Empire under which many scholars worked, until clerical rule brought the golden age to an end.

I think the big mistake that many in the humanities make in assessing scientists is that many of the latter are not terribly interested in the day-to-day machinations of the political process. For many of a scientific outlook, these sort of activities are often awkward or even distasteful. That should never be mistaken for being uninterested in the history of their own subjects. Whatever their academic interests, the different schools of thought in the natural sciences have vastly more in common than do the equivalent schools of thought in the humanities.

Watch Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man if you think scientists neglect their own history. It just might not be the way you view history.

3. Chris Renwick - November 2, 2009

You’re right — I don’t have any training in the natural sciences. However, I think broader thrust of my piece has been lost here. I agree with and wholeheartedly support the main point that you make: scientists take their history seriously and think about the relationship between their work and other factors (though it doesn’t necessarily follow that they do either of those things well — more on that shortly). The point I made was about the relationship between that thinking by scientists and how historians of science write about it.

The issue I was trying to deal with in the post is why historians of science don’t take the kind of thinking we see in scientists such as Geddes more seriously. Whilst it isn’t uncommon to see writing on a scientist who is, say, concerned about the possible applications of some technological artefact that they’ve been involved in developing, it is uncommon to see history of science work that recognises a scientist who thought a scientific idea of their time was, say, a product of the dominant economic and cultural form of the period. Why is that?

As Will suggested, it seems important that a profession be able to stake a claim to a particular form of knowledge./way of thinking about something. It’s therefore likely that historians of science want to say that they developed the sophisticated ways of udnerstanding science that they now specialise in. To return to an earlier point, the party line for historians of science is usually that scientists’ history of science is whiggish and lacks the kind of sophistication, objectivity, etc that you get from a professional historian writing about the subject. In some cases, that’s true but (a) it doesn’t have to be and (b) it hasn’t been the case in the past.

In many ways, this point is more to do with the knowledge that historians of science have about the history of their own discipline and its relationship with science than it is to do with science itself. That said, it’s interesting to look at the question from the other side of the equation and ask why history (and, for that matter philosophy) of science often don’t enjoy the same relationship with the sciences as they did in the past. But that, no doubt, is the matter for another day — though I’m more than willing to air my thoughts if asked.

4. Will Thomas - November 23, 2009

To anyone who may have seen a heckling comment in this space:

This comment, it turned out, was someone pretending to be another scholar. I checked with that scholar, who was appalled that such a statement appeared under her name (and whoever it was even used her email address to post the comment), and so it has of course been erased. Whoever posted it clearly had good knowledge of historians of 20th-century Britain, so this was really a pretty foul move by some other scholar out there. Pathetic. My apologies that this blog was used in such a way, and I hope very much I won’t have to start monitoring comments.


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