Looking twice at the history of science

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Different kinds of Whig history are wrong (or right) for different kinds of reasons

Which planks of the
Whig platform are rotten, and why?
There has been some noise in the blogosphere lately about "Whiggism," a term of abuse often used by historians of science against popular, old-fashioned or journalistic histories of science. Commentators agree that the term is confusingly vague, and that it is important to untangle its different meanings in order to say which forms of Whiggism are harmful and which just appear so. But I've not seen a systematic effort to distinguish the various forms and to say which ones are objectionable and why. This post separates eight strands of Whig history, with this result: not only are there different forms of Whiggism, some objectionable and some not, but those that are objectionable are objectionable for different reasons. It is important to separate the good reasons from the debatable ones, so that we can focus our debates on the latter and not waste time and righteousness on the former. Expand post.


  1. Ernst Mayr (1990) also defended himself against the accusation. Journal of the history of ideas 51(2): 301-309 []

    1. Thanks for reminding me of Mayr's work on this topic. Having read over the article again just now, I see that Mayr was trying to do there what I tried to do in this post, ie. to distinguish different strands of whiggism in order to say which are illegitimate and which merely appear so.

      Mayr's idea of "developmental histories" is an interesting one. A developmental history is similar to what I called present-directed narratives, insofar as it describes the past in order to explain the emergence of present-day concepts and theories. But Mayr further specifies that developmental histories deliberately ignore the dead-ends and blind alleys of past science.

      At some point I'ld like to write a post on the scuffle between Mayr and the historian of biology Peter Bowler that took place in the 1980s. Bowler rejected developmental histories, apparently on the grounds that dead-ends and blind alleys can make major contributions to the present-day consensus--for example, by forcing the partisans of that consensus to clarify their ideas and arguments. In other words, Bowler's point is precisely that present-directed narratives need not be, and sometimes should not be, developmental narratives.