Looking twice at the history of science

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Kuhn's Big Picture I: from the Harvard Case Study to the Berkeley Survey

This post is a follow-up to my account of Kuhn's internalism. There will be at least two more posts in this series on Kuhn's historiographical legacy.

What did Thomas Kuhn take from his experience as a teacher of history of science? And what has he taught historians of science? The standard answer to the first question revolves around the "Harvard case method." Answers to the second question usually refer to the sociology of science, integrated HPS, and the rejection of cumulative narratives. What these answers overlook is our debt to Kuhn's influential big picture of modern physical science, which emerged not from case studies he developed at Harvard but a survey course he taught at Berkeley. Expand post.


  1. Very interesting...

    Heilbron's Kuhn obituary (Proc. Amer. Phil. Soc., 142:4 (Dec.1998), pp.678-686) had some reservations about Kuhn's "close reading" approach also:

    The right way to do history of science, Kuhn's way, was "to climb into other people's heads." ... No doubt he was a master of this art. In truth, however, he climbed about in only small and isolated spots in the heads he hunted. In his usage, "Max Planck" stood not for a once-living person, but for a certain small set of papers and letters...

    A danger of believing yourself capable of crawling into other people's heads is an over-investment in your version of their ideas.

    Heilbron's Electricity book has been sitting on reading list for quite a while, next to I.B.Cohen's Franklin and Newton. How would you compare them?

  2. Sorry for the tardy reply.

    I think those sections from the obituary are very intriguing, and I'm not sure how to square them with the remarks from Heilbron that I quoted in the above post. I wonder whether Heilbron thought that a paper like "Mathematical versus Experimental Traditions" was guilty of dealing only with "isolated" spots in the heads of the people it considers. If Heilbron means that Kuhn was a narrow-minded internalist, then I think he is doing Kuhn an injustice, as per my earlier post on Kuhn's internalism ( Indeed, if I read Heilbron right, he owes his own broad interests--in institutions and instruments as well as the corners of minds--partly to Kuhn.

    Perhaps it is relevant that the section of the review that you quote is directed mainly at Kuhn's book "Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912." This is an internalist book if ever there was one, but it does not follow that Kuhn always wrote history in that vein, or that he thought that other historians should do so.

    Most of what Cohen wrote about electricity, in "Franklin and Newton," has been superseded by Heilbron's book (though Heilbron acknowledges a large debt to Cohen's scholarship). Cohen's book has been criticised more generally for seeing eighteenth-century science as the unrolling of the Newtonian programme, or what Cohen calls "speculative experimental inquiry."

    Cohen also comes under fire from Heilbron for being the chief promulgator of "Franklinist historiography" ie. studies of the history of 18th-century electricity that exaggerate the clarity and importance of Franklin's ideas on the topic, and that downplay Continental contributions (like Nollet's). Heilbron thinks that Cohen, for all his care and thoroughness, swallowed whole the pro-Franklin history served up by Joseph Priestley in his "History and Present State of Electricity" (1767).

    In Cohen's defense, his book was innovative for treating Franklin as a theoretician rather than a tinkerer, and for giving proper attention to Newton's "Opticks" as opposed to his more famous but less digestable "Principia."

    In sum, I'ld skip Cohen's chapters on electricity but read with interest his compare-and-contrast of the personalities and experimental styles of Newton and Franklin, and his comparison between the "Opticks" and the "Principia." From memory, these sections make up about the first third-to-half of the book.

    In case you didn't know, Heilbron's "Elements of Early Modern Physics" is a condensed version of his bulky "Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries." The former contains all of the first part of the big book (the best 150-page survey you'll find of early modern physics), followed by an abridged version of Heilbron's case study of electricity.

    There's a separate article on "Franklinist historiography," and it's vintage Heilbron: short, witty, erudite, and uncompromising. See "Haller, Franklin, and Franklinist historiography", Isis 68 no. 4 (1977), 539-549.

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