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Historiography of science

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Title: Historiography of science  
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Subject: History of science and technology, Sociology of the history of science, Sociology of scientific knowledge, History of science, History of botany
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Historiography of science

Historiography is the study of the history and methodology of the discipline of history. The historiography of science is thus the study of the history and methodology of the sub-discipline of history, known as the history of science, including its disciplinary aspects and practices (methods, theories, schools) and to the study of its own historical development ("History of History of Science", i.e., the history of the discipline called History of Science).

Since historiographical debates regarding the proper method for the study of the history of science are sometimes difficult to demarcate from historical controversies regarding the very course of science, it is often (and rightly) the case that the early controversies of the latter kind are considered the inception of the sub-discipline. For example, such discussions permeate the historical writings of the great historian and philosopher of science William Whewell. He is thus often (and rightly) viewed as the grandfather of this discipline; other such distinguished grandfathers are Pierre Duhem and Alexandre Koyré.

As to the explicit presentation of the Historiography of Science it is usually dated in the early Sixties of the 20th century. Thus for example, in 1965 we find Gerd Buchdahl reporting "A Revolution in Historiography of Science" referring to the innovative studies of Thomas Kuhn and Joseph Agassi.[1] He suggested that these two writers had inaugurated the sub discipline by distinguishing clearly between the history and the historiography of science, as they argued that historiographical views greatly influence the writing of the history of science.


  • The origins of the discipline 1
  • The Hessen thesis and the birth of externalism 2
  • Ludwik Fleck 3
  • Vannevar Bush and World War II 4
  • Thomas Kuhn and the 1960s 5
  • The discipline today 6
  • See also 7
  • Bibliography 8
  • References 9

The origins of the discipline

Though scholars and scientists had been chronicling the results of scientific endeavors for centuries (such as William Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences from 1837, and the popular and historical accounts which accompanied the scientific revolution of the 17th century), the development of the distinct academic discipline of the history of science and technology did not occur until the early 20th century, and was intimately bound to the changing role of science during the same time period. The history of science was once exclusively the domain of retired researchers — former scientists whose days in the laboratory had expired but still with a hearty interest in the field — and the rare specialist. However in the decades since the end of World War II the field has evolved into a full academic discipline, with graduate schools, research institutes, public and private patronage, peer-reviewed journals, and professional societies.

Outsiders are often amazed that such a seemingly specialized discipline exists (though just how specialized the subject is depends on how broadly a definition of science and technology one uses). However the study of the history of science has had great effects on the philosophy of science, conceptions of the role of science in society, and scientific policy.

The founding figure of the discipline in the Isis. Sarton and his family fled Belgium after the German invasion in World War I, and after a brief stay in England, he arrived in the United States penniless and unemployed. Sarton began lecturing part-time at several academic institutions, and in 1916 began a two year appointment at Harvard University. When his appointment did not look like it would be renewed, he appealed to Robert S. Woodward, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, for patronage. Woodward gave Sarton a two year position and in 1920 extended it to a permanent tenured appointment as a Research Associate in the Institution's Department of History.

Though modern scholars do not usually share Sarton's motivations — Sarton saw the history of science as the only genuine example of human progress — the tools he left to the field, the journal Isis and the annual volume Osiris (both still in print today), provided the foundation of the discipline in the United States.

The Hessen thesis and the birth of externalism

Just as the 1930s were a seminal decade for the development of our modern understanding of science, they were a seminal decade for the history and historiography of science as well. While Sarton taught the first American doctoral students in the discipline, in Europe some of the most influential historians and philosophers of science were first coming into the picture, and the setting of the philosophical battle which is now known as "the Science Wars" was being set.

In 1931, the Second International Congress of the History of Science was convened in London. The papers delivered by the Soviet delegation, led by N.I. Bukharin, quickly invigorated the discipline. Boris Hessen in particular delivered a paper entitled "The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's Principia," in which he asserted that Isaac Newton's most famous work was created to cater to the goals and desires of 17th century industry and economy. Hessen asserted that Newton's work was inspired by his economic status and context, that the Principia was little more than the solution of technical problems of the bourgeoisie.

Present scholarship has revealed that Hessen's motives were not completely academic. At that time in the Soviet Union, the work of Albert Einstein was under attack by Communist Party philosophers; being supposedly motivated by bourgeois values, it was "bourgeois science" (Graham 1985: 711), and should henceforth be banned. (In many ways this attack was similar to the Deutsche Physik movement in Germany which occurred only a few years later.) Hessen's paper was a lobbying tactic: Party philosophers would not challenge the accuracy of Newton's theories, and to show them as being motivated by bourgeois concerns would, in Hessen's eyes, show that scientific validity could exist whatever the motivations were for undertaking it. However, there is little evidence that his paper had any effect in the internal Soviet philosophical battles over Einstein's work.

Despite its lack of effect in his home country, Hessen's thesis had a wide effect in Western history of science. Though Hessen’s work is now easily dismissed as "vulgar Marxism" (Shaffer 1984: 26), its focus on the relationship between society and science was, in its time, seen as novel and inspiring. It was a challenge to the notion that the history of science was the history of individual genius in action, the dominant view at least since William Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences in 1837.

Few contemporary Western readers of Hessen took his paper at face value. His rigid connection between economy and knowledge was not accepted by a majority of historians. However, his assertion that a connection existed between the growth of knowledge and the art of war, and that ballistics played a central part of physics and Newton's world, was viewed with keen interest. In the shadow of the first war to employ chemical weapons, and as the war machines were again gearing up in preparation for another world war, the role between science, technology, and warfare was becoming more interesting to scholars and scientists. Previous views of science as separate from the mundane or vulgar aspects of practical life — the disembodiment of the scientific mind from its context — were becoming less attractive than a view that science and scientists were increasingly embedded in the world in which they worked.

This became reflective in the scholarship of the time as well, with dissertations written on such subjects as "Science and War in the Old Regime," which examined the ways in which military engineering influenced pre-Revolution French scientists.

This method of doing the history of science became known as externalism, looking at the manner in which science and scientists are affected, and guided by, their context and the world in which they exist. It is an approach which eschews the notion that the history of science is the development of pure thought over time, one idea leading to another in a contextual bubble which could exist at any place, at any time, if only given the right geniuses.

The contrast to this approach, the method of doing history of science which preceded externalism, became known as internalism. Internalist histories of science often focus on the rational reconstruction of scientific ideas and consider the development of these ideas wholly within the scientific world. Although internalist histories of modern science tend to emphasize the norms of modern science, internalist histories can also consider the different systems of thought underlying the development of Babylonian astronomy or Medieval impetus theory

In practice, the line between internalism and externalism can be incredibly fuzzy. Few historians then, or now, would insist that either of these approaches in their extremes paint a wholly complete picture, nor would it necessarily be possible to practice one fully over the other. However, at their heart they contain a basic question about the nature of science: what is the relationship between the producers and consumers of scientific knowledge? The answer to this question must, in some form, inform the method in which the history of science and technology is conducted; conversely, how the history of science and technology is conducted, and what it concludes, can inform the answer to the question. The question itself contains an entire host of philosophical questions: what is the nature of scientific truth? What does objectivity mean in a scientific context? How does change in scientific theories occur?

The historian/sociologist of science Robert K. Merton produced many famous works following Hessen's thesis, which can be seen as reactions to and refinements of Hessen's argument. In his work on science, technology, and society in the 17th century England, Merton sought to introduce an additional category — Puritanism — to explain the growth of science in this period. Merton worked to split Hessen's crude category of economics into smaller subcategories of influence, including transportation, mining, and military technique. Merton also tried to develop empirical, quantitative approaches to showing the influence of external factors on science. Despite these changes, Merton was quick to note his indebtedness to Hessen. Even with his emphasis on external factors, though, Merton differed from Hessen in his interpretation: Merton maintained that while researchers may be inspired and interested by problems which were suggested by extra-scientific factors, ultimately the researcher's interests were driven by "the internal history of the science in question." Merton attempted to delineate externalism and internalism along disciplinary boundaries, with context studied by the sociologist of science, and content by the historian.

Ludwik Fleck

Around the same period, in 1935, Thomas S. Kuhn which lead to the writing his Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn also wrote the foreword to Fleck's English translation.

Vannevar Bush and World War II

The study of the history of science continued to be a small effort until the rise of Big Science after World War II. The influential bureaucrat Vannevar Bush, and the president of Harvard, James Conant, both encouraged the study of the history of science as a way of improving general knowledge about how science worked, and why it was essential to maintain a large scientific workforce.

Thomas Kuhn and the 1960s

From the 1940s through the early 1960s, most histories of science were different forms of a "march of progress" , showing science as a triumphant movement towards truth. Many philosophers and historians did of course paint a more nuanced picture, but it was not until the publication of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that this approach became seriously suspected as being misleading . Kuhn's argument that scientific revolutions worked by paradigm shifts seemed to imply that truth was not the ultimate criterion for science, and the book was extremely influential outside of academia as well . Corresponding with the rise of the environmentalism movement and a general loss of optimism of the power of science and technology unfettered to solve the problems of the world, this new history encouraged many critics to pronounce the preeminence of science to be overthrown .

The discipline today

The discipline today encompasses a wide variety of fields of academic study, ranging from the traditional ones of history, sociology, and philosophy, and a variety of others such as law, architecture, and literature.

See also


  • Agassi, Joseph. Towards an Historiography of Science Wesleyan University Press. 1963
  • Bennett, J. A. 'Museums and the Establishment of the History of Science at Oxford and Cambridge', British Journal for the History of Science 30, 1997, 29–46
  • Buchdahl, Gerd. "A Revolution in Historiography of Science", 'History of Science' 1965 4 55-69.
  • Dennis, Michael Aaron. "Historiography of Science: An American Perspective," in John Krige and Dominique Pestre, eds., Science in the Twentieth Century, Amsterdam: Harwood, 1997, pp. 1–26.
  • von Engelhardt, Dietrich. Historisches Bewußtsein in der Naturwissenschaft : von der Aufklärung bis zum Positivismus, Freiburg [u.a.] : Alber, 1979.
  • Graham, Loren R. (1985), "The socio-political Roots of Boris Hessen: Soviet Marxism and he History of Science", Social Studies of Science (London: SAGE), 15: 705–722 .
  • Fleck, Ludwik, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • Graham, Loren R. "Soviet attitudes towards the social and historical study of science," in Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 137–155.
  • Kragh, Helge. An Introduction to the Historiography of Science, Cambridge University Press 1990
  • Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1962 (third edn, 1996).
  • Gavroglu, Kostas. O Passado das Ciências como História, Porto: Porto Editora, 2007.
  • Golinski, Jan. Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science, 2nd ed. with a new Preface. Princeton: University Press, 2005.
  • Lakatos, Imre. 'History of Science and its Rational Reconstructions' in Y.Elkana (ed.) The Interaction between Science and Philosophy, pp. 195–241, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press and also published in Mathematics Science and Epistemology: Volume 2 of the Philosophical and Scientific Papers of Imre Lakatos Papers Imre Lakatos, Worrall & Currie (eds), Cambridge University Press, 1980
  • Mayer, Anna K. 'Setting up a Discipline: Conflicting Agendas of the Cambridge History of Science Committee, 1936–1950.' Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 31, 2000.
  • Mayer, Anna K. 'Setting up a Discipline II: British History of Science and the "End of Ideology".' Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 35, 2004.
  • Pestre, Dominique. 'Pour une histoire sociale et culturelle des sciences. Nouvelles définitions, nouveaux objets, nouvelles pratiques', Annales HSS, 1995, 50 (3): 487-522.
  • Raina, Dhruv. Images and Contexts Critical Essays on the Historiography of Science in India, Oxford University Press 2003
  • Rossi, Paolo, I ragni e le formiche: un’apologia della storia della scienza, Bologna, 1986.
  • Swerdlow, Noel M. (1993), "Montucla's Legacy: The History of the Exact Sciences", Journal of the History of Ideas 54 (2): 299–328,  
  • Schaffer, Simon (1984), "Newton at the crossroads", Radical Philosophy, 37: 23–38 .


  1. ^ Buchdahl Gerd (1965), "A Revolution in Historiography of Science", History of Science 4: 55–69,  
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