I'll be travelling for the next three weeks, and won't post again on this blog until the New Year. In the meantime I'm pleased to introduce Matthew Paskins, who will be writing a few posts in my absence. Matt is a PhD student in the STS department at UCL whose diverse interests include the historiography of science. Update: Matt will be contributing a series of posts on the theme of critical historiography, with the collective title "From vision to inheritence."
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
During the nineteenth century the institutional and social structure of the sciences was transformed in ways not even foreshadowed in the Scientific Revolution. Beginning in the 1780's and continuing through the first half of the following century, newly formed societies of specialists in individual branches of science assumed the leadership which the all-embracing national societies had previously attempted to supply. Simultaneously, private scientific journals and particularly journals of individual specialties proliferated rapidly and increasingly replaced the house organs of the national academies which had previously been the almost exclusive media of public scientific communication. A similar change is visible in scientific education and in the locus of research. Excepting in medicine and at a few military schools, scientific education scarcely existed before the foundation of the Ecole polytechnique in the last decade of the eighteenth century... These are the developments which first made possible and then supported what had previously scarcely existed, the professional scientific career...It is time [these developments] found [their] way into history books, but [they are] too much a part of other developments in the nineteenth century to be untangled by historians of science alone (287-288).This is fine summary of the technical, social and institutional developments that Kuhn called the “Second Scientific Revolution” and that he detailed in his “Mathematical versus Experimental Traditions in the Modern Physical Sciences” . The same article 1976 includes a thesis about the relationship between science and religion that is even more explicit in its externalist interests. This is Kuhn's conjecture that the ancient mathematical sciences (such as optics and astronomy) flourished mainly in Catholic contexts whereas the new experimental sciences (such as heat and electricity) flourished mainly in Protestant contexts. Historians will recognise this as an extension of a thesis advanced by the sociologist Robert Merton. The final antidote to the view that Kuhn was a hard-core internalist is that he has nice things to say about a new crowd of young externalists. These historians of science are, he says...
...turning more and more to the study of what is often described as external history. Increasingly they emphasize the effects on science not of the intellectual but of the socioeconomic milieu, effects manifest in changing patterns of education, institutionalization, communication, and values. Their efforts owe some thing to the older Marxist histories, but their concerns are at once broader, deeper, and less doctrinaire than those of their predecessors (299).These new-comers should be welcomed, Kuhn writes, because the sciences “provide a particularly promising area in which to explore the role of forces current in the larger society in shaping the evolution of a discipline which is simultaneously controlled by its own internal demands” (299-300). Skeptics will detect an internalist echo in this last quote. And indeed, Kuhn insists throughout this article that historians pay attention to the “internal demands” of specialised disciplines. Even as he writes about the relations between “science” and “technology" he urges that we treat them as two distinct entities. And he has no patience for externalist historians of science who ignore the technical details of the science they purport to explain. Nevertheless, Kuhn's stance in “The Relations between History and the History of Science” is a far cry from the narrow internalism that one finds in Structure and Black-Body Radiation. In the article he takes very seriously the project of uniting technical history of science with broader social and intellectual history, and he reminds us of his own attempts to bridge the gap. Postscript. Where does this leave my claim in the previous post that there is nothing wrong with internal history of science? Isn't Kuhn arguing for the kind of “hybrid” history of science whose primacy I questioned in that post? To a large extent Kuhn is arguing for that view, and insofar as he is doing so then I have to bite the bullet and say that he's wrong. He seems to not only argue for the importance of hybrid history of science, but also to place it on a higher rung than internal history—and that's exactly what I object to. However there are two important caveats. One is that Kuhn was writing at time when there really was a gap to bridge. As he says in the article, the best general historians of the time had a poor understanding of the technical content of science, and the best historians of science had little interest in anything else. Since Kuhn's article we have spent forty years bridging the gap, and now that we have done so we can remove hybridisation from the top of the discipline's agenda. The other caveat is that in practice Kuhn did not require that all works in the history of science try integrate science and society. In some of his works he did just that; in others, such as Structure and Black-Body Radiation, he had other fish to fry. So in practice he was an advocate of variety rather than a slave to hybridity. And that's precisely the stance I was arguing for in my previous post.  The best account of these four points, and one that I recommend, is Joel Isaac, Working Knowledge (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2012), chap. 6. Related points are made in Stephen Fuller, Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History of Our Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).  “Thomas Samuel Kuhn, 18 July 1922-17 June 1996.” Isis 89, no. 3 (1998): 505–515, at 511-512.  Daedelus 100, no. 2 (1971): 271–304.  Journal of Interdisciplinary History 7, no. 1 (1976): 1-31. Expand post.