The End of the History of Science?

I went to a handful of interesting talks at HSS this year.

The first was the tail-end of a session on astrology (Kepler’s, in particular), which underscored the importance of the social and political forces that were driving–and have been written out of–the Scientific Revolution. The need for better, more accurate astrological advice for kings and emperors was the reason people like Kepler and Tycho Brahe had the support to do their work, and to a large extent astrology was why they were doing astronomy. Disagreements over the scope and validity of astrology also were part of the under-explored dynamics of intra-Protestant theological politics that buffeted Kepler and Tycho from patron to patron. The situation with early modern alchemy, driven more by practical than mystical concerns, has similarly been neglected in the big-picture accounts. Neither astrology nor alchemy figure much into Peter Dear’s 2001 Revolutionizing the Sciences or Steven Shapin’s 1996 The Scientific Revolution, supposedly the two main post-“social turn” Sci Rev reevaluations.

The next good talk was Stephen Weldon’s on Francis Schaeffer and his influence of modern American Protestant attitudes toward science. Anyone trying to understand the Intelligent Design movement and the reasons it has been considerably more successful among non-Fundamentalists than the Creation Science of the 1970s and 80s was, needs to know about Schaeffer.

But the most interesting session was The End of Science. It was nominally organized around John Horgan’s 1996 book The End of Science. Unfortunately, Horgan phoned it in on this one, delivering a talk that basically consisted of his 2006 Discover magazine article (which I blogged about a year ago when I first discovered Horgan’s work). But between Horgan and Andre Wakefield’s talk on “The End of the History of Science?”, discussing the disciplinary fate of history of science as something set apart from garden-variety history, there was plenty to rile up the crowd (as much as historians can get riled up). Wakefield was celebrating the facts that (unlike in the bad old days of Sartonian handmaiden-to-science history) one no longer needs to understand the science one does the history of, and that history of science is being absorbed into the disciplinary structure of straight history.

One of the striking things about HSS is how little one historian has in common with the next. There were up to 12 sessions going on at once, so you could stay within your temporal, geographical and disciplinary areas of interest (and probably within your historiographical approach, as well). One of the things meetings like this make apparent is the degree to which collegiality and networking (along with university press editors) drive careers in history of science (and in history more generally), rather than peer evaluations of intellectual output. It’s all about the parties and receptions after the day’s talks are over.

5 thoughts on “The End of the History of Science?

  1. jhorgan

    Sage, I’m not sure this will be posted, but I’ll give it a shot. Sorry you thought my talk at HSS was too close to my Discover article. When I give talks like this, I’m always torn between saying something new or repeating what I’m best-known for. I usually go with the latter because most people aren’t really familiar with my end-of-science schtick, and I want to give it to them as bluntly as possible, to stir up trouble. Anyway, glad to have met you there, and thanks for sprucing up my Wikipedia entry. John Horgan

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  2. Susan

    I think I don’t entirely understand the “end of the history of science” argument–maybe because I trained up in a history department, where history of science is just another historical track? I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the idea that the history of science can be studied independently of more “mainstream” history anyway–the history of science classes I teach are as much history classes as they are science classes. Or am I missing something?

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  3. Sage

    Susan, historically at least, history of science originated as something quite distinct from history…largely divorced from social and political context and focused on the intellectual development of science. It was conceived of in some sense as a handmaiden to science, something more useful for scientists (and science students) than for historians.

    I think it’s fair to say that most historians of science would now agree that integration with, or at least drawing on, mainstream history is indispensable for doing good history of science. This has been the trend since the “social turn” that started gaining momentum around the time of Structure. But there is also an “internalist” strain that remains in a lot of history of science (that is, internal to the scientific communities being studied), an engagement with the technical aspects of scientific thought and practice, that isn’t part of straight history. There is a lot of history of science that can be done in the pure history mode, but history of science still has enough that is distinctive in terms of methods and intellectual approaches that other historians can’t engage with some of it.

    If you ever have a chance to attend a history of modern physics session at an HSS meeting, this will be abundantly clear; much of that is not anything most historians would recognize as history in the sense they know it. (Although, of course, not all technically-demanding history of science is necessary inaccessible to scientific laypeople.)

    There are some lines of research in the history of science that you simply can’t pursue without advanced scientific training, but the history of science has been moving increasingly away from such work. The issue at hand in Andre Wakefield’s “The End of the History of Science” talk was whether that’s a good or a bad thing.

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  4. Susan

    Does that distinguish history of science from other types of history, though? Historians who understand military tactics and strategy bring a different level of analysis to military history, and historians who understand physics bring a different level of analysis to the history of physics, but that doesn’t mean that either military history or the history of science are really better served by being divorced from the mainstream of history.

    I think that’s what I was actually getting at with my question. I do have at least some familiarity with the history of the field, but I see increased integration with history as a -benefit- to the history of science, not a problem. What does the work really benefit by being separated from history? In my (admittedly limited, but not entirely narrow) experience, the history of science is stronger when it’s in closer dialogue with regular historical analysis.

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  5. Sage

    “In my (admittedly limited, but not entirely narrow) experience, the history of science is stronger when it’s in closer dialogue with regular historical analysis.”

    I agree with that, but I also think there could be a point at which integration went so far that some kinds of work that I think are valuable (particularly, the kinds pursued in HPS departments, or the kind of work Larry Holmes did) become harder and harder to do.

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