Why there weren’t any scientists before the late nineteenth century.

It has become common practice for historians of science to admonish people who use the term scientist when applied to people who lived before the nineteenth century. They point out, correctly, that the word was first coined by Cambridge polymath William Whewell in 1833 at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Cambridge and first used in print by him a year later in his review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connection of the physical sciences. As Melinda Baldwin has shown in her guest post, The history of “scientist”, the term didn’t really become established until late in the nineteenth century or even early in the twentieth. On being thus admonished many people react negatively and ask pointedly whether historians of science mean that there was no science before 1833. On being told that this is not the case they argue that if people were doing science then it is perfectly acceptable to call them scientists. If they are doing science then they are scientists, end of story!

Unfortunately it is not as easy as that, because terms have connotations, which extend well beyond their simple denotations. For those readers who are not up on the jargon of linguistics or the philosophy of language I will try to explain the terms denotation and connotation with a simple example. Expert linguists and philosophers of language should look the other way for a minute or two. The name Sascha denotes the dog whose picture you can see in the top right hand corner of this blog. The name Sascha connotes, for me, all of the things that I experienced with him throughout the ten years that we shared our lives, a wild mixture of a thousand different emotions. Returning to the term scientists, it denotes quite simply someone who does science (whatever that may be, a can of worms I don’t intend to open today). To the distress of real life scientists, cartoonists, playwrights, film directors and others often present a sort of cardboard cut out generic figure as a scientist: white, male, bearded, wearing glasses and a white lab coat. Even the sexy female scientist presented in more up to date TV series is usually given the glasses and the white lab coat to establish their professional identity. This clichéd list of characteristics is the superficial connotation that is generated in their minds and often in that of their readers and viewers by the term scientist.

On a less superficial level the word scientists, as used since the beginning of the twentieth century, has a very strong set of characteristics, its connotation, that spring to the reader’s or listener’s mind when confronted with the term. This list of characteristic’s are usually centred round the scientist’s education, training and professional experience; the clue here lies in the word professional. The scientist is an expert who has undergone a lengthy and extensive specialist education and training to qualify them for their profession and who has enough experience in that profession to justify their being called a scientist. This set of characteristics for the scientist is something that only came into being, rather gradually, over the course of the nineteenth century. If we go back before that time the set of characteristics that we find associated with people doing what we would recognise as science is very different and in fact changed over the centuries, since science began to emerge in Europe in the High Middle Ages. In what follows I shall restrict my remarks to Europe and the period between about twelve hundred CE and eighteen hundred CE. The problems of using the term scientist for earlier periods and other cultures are even greater than those I will outline here.

In the high Middle Ages most of the sciences, as we now know them, simply didn’t exist. Alchemy/chemistry, including much that we would now call applied or industrial chemistry, was regarded as an art practiced by artisans. Where art here means technique or technology or even handcraft. Whilst its practitioners might regard themselves as seekers after or even possessors of knowledge their image was not even remotely like that of our image invoked by the word scientist. Mathematicus, astrologus, astronomus were all synonyms for the same profession, again the practitioner of an art, artisans. Mostly employed outside of the universities, often in the courts of rulers, these ‘mathematicians’ were usually principally employed as astrologers but their full job description included many other functions. Astronomer, horologist (that is designer and maker of sundials), hydraulic engineer in charge of designing water features in ornamental gardens and a whole host of other activities we would normally associate with a technician or engineer. Their social status was that of a craftsman, albeit an upper grade one, rather than that of an academic, also far from out image of the scientist.

Physics belonged in the universities, practiced by philosophers, but this was the physics of Aristotle, the study of nature and contained much that is foreign to our concept of physics. Also this was mostly a qualitative descriptive study and not a quantitative empirical one. Although some of its practitioners, such as for example Robert Grosseteste of Roger Bacon, espoused ideas similar to our concept of the scientific method in their writings their actually their actually practice bears little resemblance to that of modern scientists. Although bearing the same name, their institutions, the medieval universities, have very little in common with our modern institutes of higher educations.

There is very little change in this state of affairs up to the sixteenth century, as the demand for the use of mathematics in astronomy for cartography and navigation as well as astrology in medicine began to change the status of its practitioners. It is first in the seventeenth century when the work of people such as Kepler, a court mathematicus, and Galileo, a university teacher of astrology for medical students, began to intrude into the traditional domain of the philosophers and redefine the nature and subject matter of physics that quantitative empirical research began to make inroads into the universities. In this context it is highly relevant that when Galileo left the university for the Medici court in Florence he insisted on the title philosophicus as well as mathematicus because of the lowly status of the latter in comparison to the former, These practitioners became known not as scientists but as natural philosophers and their career profiles and public image were still substantially different to that of modern scientists. The seventeenth century also saw the gradual emergence of geology, zoology, biology and botany as separate disciplines with expert practitioners from the philosophers’ earlier domain of natural history. Chemistry didn’t make its way into the universities until the eighteenth century and then only as a handmaiden to medicine, only gaining recognition as a discipline in its own right in the nineteenth century.

Let us pause for a while and look at the career profiles of the most well known figures, who contributed to the evolution of the mathematical sciences in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Copernicus was a canon of the cathedral chapter of Frombork and basically an administrator or civil servant of the prince-bishopric of Ermland (Warmia). Astronomy was so to speak his hobby. His life has nothing in common with our concept of a scientist. Tycho Brahe was a Danish aristocrat, who set up a research institute for astronomy and Paracelsian medicine on a Scandinavian island in something resembling a castle and which included a court jester and a pet elk, which got drunk and broke its neck falling down some stairs. Tycho’s life was about as far removed from the twenty first century idea of a scientist as you can get. As already mentioned Johannes Kepler was a schoolteacher and district mathematicus, meaning amongst other things astrologer, who went on to become a court mathematicus, meaning principally astrologer; once again almost nothing in common with a modern scientist. Galileo was actually a university professor for mathematics but his principle activity would have been teaching astrology to medical students. He later became a court philosopher, basically an intellectual court jester. Descartes was a mercenary or soldier of fortune, who then retired to the live of a gentleman of leisure, alternating with periods of being a court philosopher with the same function as Galileo. None of these people had any real formal education or training as a ‘scientist’. There were no white coats and with the exception of Tycho nothing even remotely resembling a laboratory. Neither Copernicus nor Kepler even had an observatory. Today, we would tend to regard Newton as a physicist but he was actually a professor of mathematics in Cambridge. However a professor, who had almost no students and whose lectures appear to have been very scantily attended. He abandoned academia to become Warden and then Master of the Mint a post with little to do with his scientific activities. None of these figures who are leading lights in the pantheon of scientific heroes even remotely fulfils our connotations of a scientist.

The term physics was first used in the way we use it at the beginning of the second decade of the eighteenth century and didn’t become common usage in this sense until the nineteenth century. The term physicist was first coined even later than the term scientist. It really was first in the nineteenth century that the people doing science first began to fulfil the connotations that we have when we hear or read the word scientist, so it really is for the best if we refrain from using the term for researchers who lived in earlier periods.






Filed under History of science

19 responses to “Why there weren’t any scientists before the late nineteenth century.

  1. The trouble with ahistorical notions of science is not just that they make it hard to understand the past, but that they encourage the belief that what it means to be a scientist (if we keep on using the word) will be the same in the future. That matters because what it means to be a scientist has changed a great deal since William Whewell introduced the word scientist and it’s changing rapidly right now. We’ve seen the emergence of scientific entrepreneurs like Ernest Lawrence and Craig Venter as a crucial kind of scientist, for example. The sheer scale and expense of modern science is bringing about a phase shift in what it is. Scientists used to produce knowledge and possess it. That’s no longer true in many cases. For example, the human genome is now known, but nobody will ever know it, no matter how good a scientist they are. Science is rather like the economy. Nobody’s in charge.

    By the way. You define “connotation” differently than my old logic profs did. For them, the denotation of a a word is what it refers to, i.e. the denotation of “dog” is Rex, Sasha, and so forth, while the connotation of a word are the characteristics that define the term, i.e. the connotation of “dog” is a four-legged warm blooded animal, etc. What are popularly called the connotations of a word are just things commonly associated with it, thus dogs are thought of as man’s best friend but that isn’t part of the definition of a dog. A surly disloyal animal remains a dog, but if it’s got tentacles instead of legs, it’s not a dog. In this discussion, I think these distinctions matter because, as I’d argue and you apparently agree, what’s changed over the centuries is not merely the informal but the formal connotations of “scientist” and its earlier synonyms or non-synonyms such as sage, physicist, natural philosopher, etc.

    • Jim – I really like your point that the role of scientists, and what it means to be a scientist, has always changed AND will always change. As a scientist with c. 25 years of professional experience I get a sense that my own role has changed over that period. Part of that is just career development, of course, but (if I compare myself with the scientists who educated and trained me) it’s clear that the expectations of scientists are now rather different. I feel a blog post developing…..

      Nice post Thony, I enjoyed it.

    • While I broadly agree with your criticism, the appearance of scientific entrepreneurs is not a recent occurrence. From the 19th/early 20th century one could cite both Edison and Marconi. Going further back, the development of the steam engine, which David Wootton mentions below, combined science and entrepreneurism.

      Turning to astronomy, I remember attending a talk back in the early 1970s by Jack Meadows, who died only a couple of months ago. He founded the astronomy department at Leicester University and one of his passions was the history of astronomy. One of the points that he made was that astronomy was very important in ancient times: he used to cite the Egyptians’ realisation that the heliacal rising of Sirius could be used to tell them when to the Nile was due to flood, and to to plant their crops. We can also see this in the Antikythera mechanism from 2nd Century BCE Greece. I would argue these are examples of science from the ancient world.

      Our view of science is, I think, coloured by the fact that the West lost almost all its knowledge of the Greeks’ achievements and only recovered some of it later through translations preserved by the Arabs.

      • When I wrote the first paragraph, I thought of mentioning some forerunners of industrial-scale science: Tycho Brahe’s observatory complex was in the back of my mind along with some of the big observatories built in Central Asia in the palmy day of that region. As you suggested, Edison’s Menlo Park is another example. There are always continuities as well as discontinuities in history, and you can certainly overdo the historicist obsession with epistemic breaks and quantum leaps. Nevertheless, contemporary big science is simply off the charts relative to earlier efforts: the CERN accelerator is our version of the Pyramid of Cheops, one of the wonders of the world. More to the point, scientific research is now a significant part of the overall economy and is important quite apart from the discoveries and invention it produces simply because it employs a huge number of people and expends a great deal of money. Again, there was a social infrastructure to science in earlier centuries, but the scale is much greater now. It’s not just global temperatures that have a hockey stick graph; and quantity, as Hegel used to insist, does eventually become quality.

        Small anecdote: I started to think of science as a social/economic process rather than the pursuit of individuals or small groups when I became friends with the Pennsylvania rep for Purina rat chow, the guy who went around the labs selling feed for the enormous herds of experimental animals. It occurred to me that he (and all those rodents, for that matter) was as much a part of science as the man at the lab bench.

  2. I’m reminded of Toby Huff’s review of George Saliba’s “Islamic Science” where he takes him to task for this anachronism, and then reading Huff’s “Intellectual Curiousity” and finding that he offends with the same anachronism more frequently and about many of the same characters. Presumably there are rogue editors out there complaining that properly non-anachronistic titles obscure more than they reveal to the modern reader.

  3. The problem with Thony’s argument is that it runs at odds with our ordinary understanding of the world, which is that words and things are not the same. A simple example: the term “steam engine” dates (I’m relying on the OED) to 1753. Are we going to avoid any reference to Newcomen’s steam engine (invented 1712)? Are we going to insist on referring to it as a “fire engine”? Of course you might say people are different from steam engines — Newton never called himself a “scientist”, and how he thought of himself counts. But he was, in Latin, a “physicus” or a physicist — “physicist” is simply an attempt to find an English equivalent for the Latin because the obvious term, “physician”, had been stolen by the doctors. For an extended critique of the argument Thony presents here see my Invention of Science, pp. 22-32 (which can be read for free on Google books).

    A different point: Thony lists a long series of people who we think of as scientists and says they weren’t trained or employed as scientists. True, but every one of them was trained as a mathematician, and nearly all of them (Descartes is the exception) was either employed as a mathematician or (in the case of Brahe) funded because of their mathematical skills — and this of course relates to Thony’s earlier insistence that the seventeenth-century was a mathematical century.

    And a pedantic note: Galileo was not the first mathematician to claim the status of being a philosopher: Benedetti was mathematician and philosopher to the duke of Savoy. I have yet to read anyone claiming that Benedetti was therefore “an intellectual court jester” and the claim that Galileo was is (in my view) unfounded.

    • “The problem with Thony’s argument is that it runs at odds with our ordinary understanding of the world, which is that words and things are not the same. A simple example: the term “steam engine” dates (I’m relying on the OED) to 1753. Are we going to avoid any reference to Newcomen’s steam engine (invented 1712)? Are we going to insist on referring to it as a “fire engine”?”

      This is a bizarre objection to Thony’s thesis: of course we can refer to ancient Roman dogs as dogs, even though the word hadn’t been coined. But we shouldn’t refer to creatures *prior to the evolution of the dog* as dogs. And Thony’s main point is that before the 19th century, the modern scientist hadn’t yet evolved.

      They were trained at mathematics: well, that would make them mathematicians, right? Why would it make them scientists?

      • Indeed the question at issue here is “What is a scientist?” We can’t solve that question simply by asking what word contemporaries used, we have to ask what we mean by the word and to what (according to our usage of the term) it can properly be applied.

        Newton lectured on optics in his role as professor of mathematics. In the eyes of his contemporaries optics was a branch of mathematics. Do we think his demonstration that white light is made up of all the various colours of the rainbow is mathematics? What do we think it is? I would say it was experimental physics, and that Newton was a physicist and indeed a scientist. Thony, who says that Newton wasn’t a physicist or a scientist because these did not exist until the nineteenth century needs to find a way of defining physics which excludes Newton’s optics, and a way of defning a scientist which establishes that Newton wasn’t one. This can certainly be done — which is what makes the debate an intreresting one — but I would argue that you are going to come up with definitions of “physics” and “scientist” which miss the fundamental features of what, for us, constitute doing physics and being a scientist.

        We can go on multiplying examples. What was Boyle doing when he and his colleagues came up with Boyle’s law? That’s an even more complicated question, but contemporaries might have said physico-mathematics. Is that what we should say? What do we think the Royal Society was doing when it was first founded? What, for that matter, was Darwin doing when he wrote the Origin of Species?

        There’s a long tradition which says Boyle, Newton et al were doing what we call science, and that people who do science are called scientists. If you think science is about experiments, theories, hypotheses, facts and the discovery of laws of nature then indeed it is a construction of the late seventeenth century (and Copernicus for example is a mathematician but not a scientist). If you think it is about wearing a lab coat, or receiving funding from industry, or receiving a university training in physics or chemistry or natural history, then Newton, Lavoisier, and Darwin aren’t scientists. I think to argue that Newton, Lavoisier and Darwin weren’t scientists is pretty odd, but there is no great harm in it if you make clear what you are doing and why you are doing it.

        It does leave though a significant problem: what language are we going to use to describe the study of nature between 1600 and 1900? And how are we going to convey how it differed from what went before? A standard answer is that we can say Newton was doing natural philosophy… but Newton was no philosopher… not according to the seventeenth century understanding of the term, and not according to our understanding of the term. And what he was doing was not natural philosophy as that term had always been understood but something quite new — a mathematical natural philosophy (which we call physics). There’s a perfectly good seventeenth-century word, “physiologist” — but the word means “scientist” in the seventeenth century, not what it means now.

        Fundamentailly I think the issue here is whether we are going to define terms like “scientist” sociologically, in which case there are no scientists until they have a professional identity, or conceptually, in which case the first scientists are people who employ certain key concepts and ways of thinking. Sociologists of course go for the first option; I’m an historian of ideas, so I go for the second. Your statement “they were trained at mathematics: well that would make them mathematicians, right?” fails to select between these two options, and indeed a third, which says that people are what they would describe themselves as being (in which case Galileo was a philosopher). It also makes it hard to talk about change. Harvey was trained as and employed as a doctor; does that make De motu cordis a medical text? I would say it was a work of physiology, but that would be to use “physiology” in a sense unknown to Harvey.

      • I don’t think that the sociological and conceptual definitions of science are watertight compartments. What changed over time was not simply the professional identities of the people we now call scientists, though that’s part of the story, but the nature their game. The ideas and the practices are intertwined. I’m sympathetic to David Wooton’s point of view because there is obviously a significant analogy between what Darwin was doing and what Craig Venter is doing and historians of science can overdo the epistemic break bit. Perhaps I just find the discontinuities more interesting than the continuities.

  4. Oh for an edit function — “who” in the first line of paragraph 2 should of course be “whom”. Hangs head.

  5. Bill Storage

    I started a comment to ask if you had read David Wootton’s recent book, The Invention of Science, with its heavy etymological focus. I then looked up to see the previous comment. The book is long. I loved it, semantic/linguistic excursions included.

    • Sssshhh! I owe David a review of his excellent book, which is stalled at the moment but coming soon I hope.

    • David’s web site on the book is also worth reading, not least for his responses to some reviews of it. For those who have not read the book, you can download the introduction from his web site, or read the first 107 pages free at Google Play..

    • I found reading David Wootton’s book a revelation; it immediately made all previous linguistic turns in HoS seem shallow.

      The standard argument against the anachronistic use of “scientist”, “physicist”, “biologist”, etc., is that it implies that Newton (or Darwin, or Aristotle for that matter) was doing the same thing as modern scientists. With equal justice (i.e., very little) we can level this charge against picking Whewell’s coinage as the cutoff date for acceptable usage, that it implies that all scientists after that date were doing the same thing, and all those anachronistically referred to as scientists were doing something completely different.

      • Bill Storage

        Agree. Wootton’s turning the linguistic turn upon itself is masterful. That was the highlight of the book for me.

  6. Jeb

    I don’t think it matters what term you use. It’s disputed so the issues of the clunky nature of language and argument should be noted.

    Not the terms deployed its leaving the reader the tools to be able to begin to navigate cultural and intelectual practises very different to our own.

    Does not matter what words you use if you fail to leave the reader with the sense of a different culture doing its own thing in its own way its not going to work.

    Words and things are not the same but I think mistaking termonology for thought is a common cultural past- time.

  7. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #04 | Whewell's Ghost

  8. “Tycho’s life was about as far removed from the twenty first century idea of a scientist as you can get.”

    If he were still alive, Feynman would disagree!

  9. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #28 | Whewell's Ghost

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