Recent days has seen a bit of a cyberspace ding-dong about the function of the history of science. Martin Rundquist set the whole thing in motion with a blog post in which he requested historians of science to specify in a given historical context, who was right, viewed from the standpoint of actual modern science. Darin Hayton was, correctly in my opinion, more than somewhat upset by this suggestion and posted a virulent anti-polemic on his own blog. As Darin’s blog does not allow comments he allowed Martin to post a rejoinder there instead. This was followed in fairly short order by another rebuttal from Darin. The sequence closed, at least for the time being, with a final post by Martin on his own blog. While this was all going on a spirited debate on the subject developed on Twitter involving at least seven participants, which I will make no attempt to recapitulate here. I withdrew from the Twitter debate because I felt that I could not do justice to my own opinions on the debate in a sequence of 140 character bites and so I’m going to attempt to express some of the thoughts that I have had on the subject in this post.
For me it is obvious that Martin’s standpoint is based on a decidedly Whiggish attitude to the history of science and that his concept of the history of science is essentially an internalist one. That is he is basically only interested in the results of science and not in the contexts in which those results were created. For me his attitude leads to all sorts of problems. Let us consider for a moment the theory of gravity. In modern terms this means Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Go back to the beginning of the eighteenth century and we have a famous dispute between Newton and Leibniz about the former’s theory of gravity. Martin wants us to tell him who was right in this dispute with respect to the general theory of relativity. The answer varies according to which aspect of the dispute one views. From one viewpoint Leibniz was right from another Newton, from yet another both of them were wrong. So what does one do? In order to explain what’s going on, one ends up analysing the whole Leibniz-Newton debate in terms of the general theory of relativity and not in its own right. What we now have is not history of science but presentism. We only extract from the past that which is still relevant in the present and end up ignoring the rest.
This is not the only problem with Martin’s approach to the history of science. He draws attention to another problem himself without, I think, being aware what he’s doing. At the end of his last post on the subject he writes the following:
Finally, I don’t know what Dr. Hayton means when he calls astrology a system of knowledge rather than a belief system. I just hope he takes his flu shot in the autumn, not acupuncture, and uses a skilled non-alternative mechanic to keep his car in good shape. Because if you can’t tell knowledge from belief, the real world that Dr. Hayton and I study comes up from behind and kicks your ass.
Here again Martin is operating from a presentist position; his definition of knowledge is the one that he uses in his normal activities here and now but it is not one that can be used when doing historical analysis. As I have already commented in earlier post on this blog for most people, including most of those that Martin would anachronistically call scientists, in the early modern period, that both Darin and I study, astrology was an epistemic discipline, that is a system of knowledge not a belief. One of the interesting questions for historians of this period is when and why did astrology cease to be regarded as knowledge and become downgraded, so to speak, to the status of a mere belief? Now Martin might answer that for the purposes of modern science the answer to this question is irrelevant. In one sense he would be right in another he wouldn’t. The demise of astrology as a science indicated a major change in the forces driving astronomical research and a change in the questions being put by that research.
The sense in which Martin would be right returns us to the central problem of his standpoint for the history of science. A very large amount of that which constituted science in the past has no direct connection to or relevance for the science of the twenty-first century so if I study it I can’t possibly tell Martin who was right in the sense that he wishes. This raises a very obvious question, why bother to study it then? If, as Martin wishes, history of science were the property of scientists then it would appear that such research is indeed superfluous. But, for me at least, the real question is, does history of science really belong to science and the scientist? To be honest I don’t think it does.
The histories of science, technology, engineering and medicine (and the boundaries between these disciplines were much more fluid in the past than the are now making it oft difficult to decide what belongs where) are actually a very integral part of a much wider cultural history and history of science does not belong to the scientists but to the historians.
Let us return to the example of astrology. Astrology was a major driving force in the study of astronomy in the early modern period and almost all of the leading astronomers living and working in Europe between 1400 and 1650 CE were practicing astrologers. [The first person in the comments to claim “they only did it for the money” will get fifty cubic metres of ready mix concrete pumped through their letterbox at three o’clock in the morning. You have been warned!] There can be no doubt that the study of the history of astrology is a legitimate part of the history of science. On the other hand astrology has absolutely no relevance for modern astronomy so why bother? The answer to this question lies is the role that astrology played in early modern society. Astrology was a central part of the social, cultural and medical life of early modern European society. It permeated all aspect of this society. Court astrologers were important political advisors to the rulers of states both large and small. There was hardly a potentate in the whole of Europe who didn’t employ or at least consult an astrologer. Peuerbach, Regiomontanus, Rheticus, Tycho and Kepler, amongst others, all fulfilled this function in their lives. The dominant direction in school medicine was astro-medicine, or iatro-mathematics as it was called, meaning that medical practitioners were required to be skilled astrologers or at least to work in close conjunction with one. The central role of astrology in the social structure of the period in reflected in its art and literature, from Chaucer to Shakespeare and beyond the literature overflows with astrological references. The pictures of all the leading artists likewise are full of astrological symbols. To try and understand and interpret the history of the early modern period if one were to exclude the history of astrology would be like trying to play darts wearing a blindfold. In this period the history of astrology is part of the mainstream general history and therefore belongs to the historians.
Now Martin could respond and say astrology is not scientific so the historians are welcome to it. I chose astrology as an example because Martin was so dismissive of it in the paragraph I quoted above however I could have and can make the same or similar argument for all aspects of the histories of science, technology, engineering and medicine for all periods of human existence since human being began to develop these activities. The sciences do not exist outside of society or outside of culture but are an integral part of all human activity. If we study their history it should because they are an important part of the social and cultural histories of humanity and are thus a legitimate part of the activity of historians and belong to their realm and not to that of the modern scientist.