The ideal historian of science

Recently, on twitter, the demand was repeated that historians of science should have a background in science somehow implying that they wouldn’t be so critical of pathetic attempts by scientists to define science if they did. The strange thing is most historians of science do have a background in science along with one in history. This demand led me to consider what the real requirements would be for the ideal historian of European science. Those for a historian of, say, Chinese science naturally differ.

The ideal historian of science should be a consummate linguist. A good working knowledge, good enough to read and evaluate academic papers, of English, French, German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish together with university level ancient Greek and Latin is naturally a minimum. Ideally the addition of at least one Scandinavian and one Slavic language is to be wished for. Specific historical languages such as Old Norse, Mittelhochdeutsch or early 17th century Tuscan can and should be learnt as required.

Our historian should be fit in higher mathematics and know his or her way around the basics of physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, geology, geography and anthropology. An outline knowledge of the histories of science, mathematics, technology, medicine, and engineering in Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa from at least 4000 BCE to the present is a matter of course, as is an outline knowledge of the political, religious, cultural, social, economic and military histories of Europe during the same period.

Science is a cultural activity and does not exist in a vacuum so knowledge of the histories of art, music and literature are essential alongside the histories of the so-called occult sciences astrology, alchemy and the various forms of magic.

A basic training as a librarian and an archivist is equally essential.

A general background in comparative world history with more specific knowledge of the histories of science, mathematics, technology, medicine and engineering of China, India and the Islamic Empire and their interactions with Europe is of course another basic requirement.

A working knowledge of the history of European philosophy and a detailed knowledge of all the philosophies of science from the Pythagoreans to the Post Structuralists is a further indispensible requirement.

Our ideal historian should not be of a purely theoretical bent and so basic knowledge of the practical side of woodwork, metal work, pottery, spinning and weaving, glass blowing, surveying, cartography and navigation are a necessity.

Once they have acquired this basic training our ideal historian should now be in the position to begin specialising in the history of a single period or discipline and thus be actively engaged as a historian of science.


Filed under History of science

12 responses to “The ideal historian of science

  1. … Leaving us all to feel terribly inadequate (a common scholarly experience, btw, which our ideal historian of science should also be acquainted with). Great list.

  2. I’m reminded of an old bit by Goethe about the ideal poet:

    Wanted, a large dog that neither barks nor bites. Must eat broken glass and shit diamonds.

  3. Michael Boswell

    I enjoyed the tongue in cheek qualifications for a good student of the history of science. Like my first discipline of theology, you would have retired by the time you are capable of saying anything about science. Individually, we can only know a limited amount of things. Collectively, we can know everything.

    The education is important but infinitely more important is the qualities of a good historian of science requires. The first is the humility to listen to opinions that differ from your own. Theirs might be more accurate than yours or mine. The second is to remember that this is a discipline of the history of ideas. We are tracing the development of ideas down the ages. Third, is to remember that people of the past did not think like us and we do not have the ‘right’ way to think. Ancients and even some moderns have no clear demarcation between what we now think as myth and what we now think of a science.

    Theology can draw on the history of science. One good example is that what we today would call the genetic origins of human beings. It would be impossible to understand what appears to be the misogyny of both the Hebrew and Christian parts of the Bible without understanding that the ancients did not think a woman contribute any genetic material to the baby she bore. The agricultural metaphor to sex is displayed in epistemology of the word sperm and womb. This explains the desire to ensure the paternity of the child in the laws against adultery, the virgin birth and passages like Numbers 5:11ff.

    However, the philosophy that underpins science has heavily drawn of theology. Contary to what some of the newish atheists might think, science does not assume there is no God. It assumes that nature is the result of a rational process. It assumes a divine creator who is rational and logical. Since Christians (and other Abrahamic faiths) believe God is a person, it would not make sense to study the divine effect on nature. That would depend on motivation of God not a rational mechanistic approach that can be manipulated.

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  5. Donnetta Salsberry

    i really love mathematics because it is a really interesting subject..-

    My blog [link removed]

      • Oh Jeffrey! I wanted to delete the spam but now I can’t 😉

      • “I love mathematics! It’s so interesting, just look at this blog post about dandruff shampoo!” Maybe there’s something topologically interesting about how dry scalp flakes.
        I daringly followed the link. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what they’re trying to sell. It looks like a Wikipedia cut and paste job about types of dandruff shampoo. Other posts on the blog are clearly pay to play infomercials, but not a single actual product is named anywhere on the dandruff page. Maybe it *is* art!

  6. Jeb

    Wonder what other areas of history would look like if you insisted insider knowledge was essential. History of violence is a subject I follow with interest, however as far as I am aware unlike H.O.S, historians in this area generally don’t have a working background in the subject.

    I have also just been watching the rather ace Nazis a Warning from History, Ian Kershaw seems to do rather well on the National Socialists and Hitler without having an insider perspective; although clearly some may disagree.

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  8. Pingback: Down a mineshaft or why historians (must) become polymaths. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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