Internalism vs. Externalism?

This is one of those blog posts where I do some thinking out loud[1]. I not really sure where it’s going and it might not end up where I intended it to. I shall be skating on the thin ice of historiography. The dictionary defines historiography as follows:

  1. The wring of history
  2. The study of the development of historical method, historical research, and writing
  3. Any body of historical literature[2]

I’m using the term in the sense of definition (2) here. Formulated slightly differently historiography is the methodology of doing history, i.e. historical research and the reporting of that research in writing. Maybe unfortunately there isn’t just one historiography or methodology for doing history there are historiographies, plural that often conflict or even contradict each other, dividing historians into opposing camps indulging in trench warfare with each other through their monographs and journals.

On the whole I tend to view historiographies with a jaundiced eye. I have a maxim for historiographies: ‘Historiography becomes dogma and dogma blinds.’ I like to mix and match my methodologies according to what I happen to be engaged in at any given moment. A single methodology or historiography is just one perspective from which to view a given historical topic and it is often useful to view it from several different perspectives simultaneously, even seemingly contradictory ones.

Since I have been involved in the history of science, and I realise with somewhat horror that is a good half century now, one of the on going historiography debates, or even disputes, within the disciple has been Internalism vs. Externalism.


Definitions are very slippery things but if I was asked to explain what this means my first simple answer would be internalism is the historical study of the facts, hypotheses, theories etc. that science has produced and externalism is the historical study of the contexts in which those facts, hypotheses, theorems etc. were discovered, developed, formulated etc.

To give an abstract example from the history of mathematics an internalist would be interested in when mathematician X first proved theorem Y and the technical method that he used to do so. They might investigate on whose or which work X built his own work  and also possibly, who picked up on X’s proof and extended it mathematically; anything extraneous to that wouldn’t not be the concern of our imaginary internalist. An externalist would, however, be at least as interested in the context in which X carried out his mathematical endeavours. They would possibly look at X’s biography, how X came to be doing this work at all, what were X’s motivations for this particular piece of research, in which context (university, court mathematicus, insurance mathematician etc.) X was carrying out this work, who was financing it and why etc., etc. From this brief description it should be clear that the perspective of the internalist is a very narrow, very focused one, whereas that of the externalist is a very broad, very sweeping one, although any given externalist investigation might only concentrate on one or two of the various perspectives that I have listed.

Extreme internalism assumes that just presenting the ‘facts’ in the history of science is adequate because science is somehow independent of the world/society/culture in which it arose/developed/originated. Science is totally objective in some way and doesn’t need a context. Extreme internalism also tends to be highly presentist. That is it looks back through history and selects those events/developments in science that can be identified within science, as it exists today. It sees science as cumulative and progressive even teleological. It’s destination being some sort of complete truth.

Externalism sees science at any given point in time as a product of the world/society/culture in which it arose/developed/originated. The externalist historical picture includes all the bits the researchers of the period got wrong and were subsequently jettisoned somewhere down the line on the way to the present. Externalism sees any period of science, as not just embedded in its world/society/culture but as an integral part of the whole of that world/society/culture that cannot and should not be viewed independently.

To give just a couple of very simple examples out of my own main personal historical area of interest: An internalist is only interested in Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion as results that are still valid today. They are not interested in the complex twists and turns of Kepler’s battle to find the first two laws, which he outlines in great detail and great depth in his Astronomia nova. As for the third law, they take it gladly and ignore all of the remaining five hundred pages of the Harmonice Mundi, with its bizarre theories of consonance and dissonance, and cosmic harmony. As for Kepler’s distinctly unscientific motivations, the internalist shudders in horror. For the externalist everything that the internalist rejects is an interesting field of study. They are not just interested in Kepler’s laws as results but in how he arrived at them and what was driving him to search for them in the first place.

Turning to Newton, it is now a commonplace that he devoted far more time and energy to studying alchemy and theology that he did to either physics or mathematics. For the internalist these ‘non-scientific’ areas are an irrelevance to be ignored, all that matters are the scientific results, the law of gravity, the calculus etc. Externalists have shown that the various diffuse areas of Newton’s thoughts and endeavours are intertwined into a complex whole and if one really wants to understand the man and his science then one must regard and attempt to understand that whole.

Where do I stand on this issue? I think it should be obvious to anybody who regularly reads this blog that I am a convinced externalist. I am, however, happy to admit that when I first became interested in the history of mathematics as a teenager I was to all intents and purposes an internalist. Who discovered this or that theorem and when? Who developed this or that method of solving this or that type of problem? These were the questions that initially interested me. I also had strong presentist and even Whiggish tendencies. For those who have forgotten or maybe don’t know yet, the Whig theory of history is the belief that human existence or in this case science, is progressing towards some sort of final truth. Over the years, as I learnt more, my views changed and I became slowly but surely an externalist. This change was, at the latest, completed as I worked for many years, my apprenticeship, in a research project into the history of formal logic. This project was official called, Case Studies into a Social History of Formal Logic, where social is a synonym for external.

As I see it extreme internalism is not just too narrow, too focused but is actually distorting. The internalist history of mathematics, for example, when considering antiquity tends to concentrate on what could be called higher mathematics–the Euclids, Archimedes et al– who only represent a very small minority of those engaged in mathematical pursuits in their period and whose results were only interesting to an equally small minority. In doing so they ignore the vast majority of mathematical practitioners surveyors, bookkeepers extra, whose work actually contributed more in real terms to their societies than that of the ‘star’ mathematicians. A good example is the much-touted Babylonian mathematics, which was largely developed by clerks doing administration not by mathematicians. This fact is simply ignored by internalist historians of mathematics, who are only interested in the results.

Turning to the High Middle Ages and Renaissance, traditional internalist history of mathematics tend to simply ignore this period as having no mathematics worth mentioning. In reality it was the mathematical practitioners of this period–astrologers, astronomers, geographers, cartographers, surveyors, architects, engineers, instrument designers and makers, globe makerset al.–who created the mathematics that drove the so-called scientific revolution.

Having being very rude about internalist history of science I should point out that I by no means reject it totally, in fact exactly the opposite. Anybody who opens Newton’s Principia for the first time, even in the excellent modern English translation by Cohen and Whitman would probably understand very little of the mathematics and physics that they would find there. They have a choice either to spend several months chewing through Newton’s masterpiece or alternatively to turn to Cohen excellent internalist guide to the contents. The same is true of virtually any historical STEM text. Close internalist readings and interpretations help the historian to comprehension. Having gained that internalist comprehension they should, in my opinion, embed that comprehension into its wider externalist context.

Historians of science should be simply historian, in the first instance, investigating the breadth and depth of a discipline within its social context. However this also implies a solid understanding of the science involved, i.e. the internal aspects. You can’t investigate the role of a scientific discipline within a social context if you don’t understand the science. This means for me, that a good historian of science must be both an internalist and an externalist, weaving together both approaches into a coherent whole.

All of the above is of course my own subjective take on the dichotomy and they are certainly other viewpoints and other opinions on the issue. As always, readers are welcome to ventilate their views in the comments.

For any future historian, who might be interested in my motivation for writing this post, it was inspired by a request from a reader to write something on the ‘conflict’ between internalist and externalist histories of science and illustrate it with examples of the two different approaches with reference to my own blog posts. I’m not sure if that which I have written really fulfils their request and as should be obvious I, as a convinced externalist, can’t really supply the desired examples. However I am grateful to the reader for having motivated me to write something on the topic even if it not really what they wanted.

[1]If I was being pretentious I might have said, “Where I philosophise” but I don’t regard my stream of consciousness meanderings as rigorous enough to be dignified with the term philosophy.

[2]Collins English Dictionary online.



Filed under History of science, Uncategorized

25 responses to “Internalism vs. Externalism?

  1. The wring of history, indeed.

  2. The longer life grows, the more weird the internalist position seems to me. Where once it seemed a sensible way to tell a story it now seems most like a secular and science-themed version of the old, medieval, redemption pyramid – you know, the history of everything culminates in the figure of a single [formerly Latin] European male… sort of thing. brrrr.

  3. A very interesting post, Thony. As you know, I too have been interested in this topic for a while, so here are some comments;
    First, I see your own work as a very fruitful mixture of the ‘internalist’ and ‘externalist’ approaches to the history of science. Indeed, I think very few of today’s historians of science would describe you as an ‘externalist’ , given the detailed technical considerations in your various studies. Which brings me to the second point.
    You mentioned the extreme internalist approach, but didn’t give any concrete examples. In fact, I think it would be hard to find any studies published in the history of science in the last few decades that took quite such a narrow view.
    Also, from this point on in the post, it isn’t really clear whether you are talking about the extreme internalist view, or the standard internalist view (For example, I think “they would possibly look at X’s biography, how X came to be doing this work at all, what were X’s motivations for this particular piece of research, who was financing it and why” would be very standard for any internalist study I know).
    A third point is that there is no mention in your post of the other extreme, the extreme externalist approach. In this way of telling the story of science, the focus is entirely on social context, while the science itself is essentially black-boxed, as you know. I very much agree with your point that one also needs knowledge of the latter, but that is not how many others see it. In fact, I would argue that mainstream history of science has shifted significantly towards this end of the spectrum. For example, what few appointments to positions in the field of the history of science that have been made in the last decade have typically gone to graduates of the humanities (often anthropology), with little or no training in any field of science. This ‘professionalization’ of the subject, where the history of science is considered just another subject in a history department, has led to something of a schism, with professional historians of science publishing in humanities journals, while scientists attempting to write the history of their field publish in,different journals.
    By the way, there is one drawback of the conventional (and extreme) externalist approach that is worth pointing out as it rarely gets mentioned; namely that societal explanations typically involve a significant amount of speculation. To really show that social factor X influenced the development of Y, one would need to show that Y wouldn’t have happened (or would have been significantly delayed) without X. Which is a very difficult thing to show, yet such speculation has become the norm (Think ‘Leviathan and the Air Pump’). In my view, this is the main reason many scientists react badly when they unexpectedly encounter an essay on the history of science by a historian. Especially if the author has not considered whether a given advance might have occurred anyway, i.e., may been driven by the internal drive of logic! The latter considerations are not always Whig histories….

    • Laurence Cox

      I was thinking about ‘Leviathan and the Air Pump’ when I made my comment below. The tensile strength of liquids has been known since Berthelot (1850), but Shapin and Schaffer’s failure to understand the true cause of anomalous suspension (p 241) in Huygens’ apparatus, gives a misleading tone to their discussion of the replication issue in this chapter.

    • one drawback of the conventional (as well as the extreme) externalist approach that is worth pointing out as it rarely gets mentioned; namely that societal explanations typically involve a significant amount of speculation.

      I agree. But also: the surrounding social context is interesting for its own sake. You don’t need to argue that one caused the other to study both.

      A good example: Cantor’s book Sandemanian and Scientist: A Study of Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century was rightly taken to task by L. Pearce Williams [Isis 85(1), March 1994 pp,120-124] for increasingly strained attempts to correlate Faraday’s religion with his science. Williams becomes more and more irritated, concluding, “There is not a scintilla of evidence to support this passage, and I don’t believe that much of historical worth can come from this kind of fictional history.”

      But as Williams also notes, none of this is necessary. Williams writes of the first less speculative part of the book, “These chapters provide a rich and new view of Faraday’s life outside his science and are a major contribution to Faraday scholarship.”

      Interest in Faraday’s religious views doesn’t require electromagnetic justification. You don’t need to suggest (as Cantor does) that Faraday got his ideas about fields from Deuteronomy 33:16.

  4. Sorry, top line of last paragraph should have read “one drawback of the conventional (as well as the extreme) externalist approach is”

  5. Laurence Cox

    “You can’t investigate the role of a scientific discipline within a social context if you don’t understand the science.”

    I shall certainly be quoting this when criticising historians of science who are not only ignorant of the science involved but also do not see the need to ask experts in that science to enlighten them [with the appropriate credit to you, of course].

    On the subject of Isaac Newton, there is a specific problem for a modern scientist in understanding how he explained the motion of the planets round the Sun in his Principia. Even Dick Feynman, when he came to recreate it for his eponymous Lectures on Physics, ended up with a geometrical approach that owed more to James Clerk Maxwell and William Rowan Hamilton, than to Isaac Newton (Goodstein and Goodstein with a great deal of difficulty recovered it from Feynman’s notes and published it as “Feynman’s Lost lecture” [1]). Mathematicians of Newton’s day would have been very familiar with the subtle properties of conic sections, the teaching of which was lost when algebra came to dominate the frontiers of mathematics. Feynman had had difficulty in explaining one point in the derivation, which led him to an alternative, equivalent geometrical construction, dividing the orbit into equal angles rather than the equal times that Newton had used.

    [1] David L Goodstein and Judith R Goodstein “Feynman’s Lost Lecture – the motion of the planets around the Sun” Vintage Books, London (1997)

  6. I wonder how you would characterize Aiton’s The Vortex Theory of Planetary Motions. Primarily this is about internal aspects, as you present them: facts, theories, mathematical arguments, threads of influence. Social factors take a back seat. Yet this is an extensive study of a discarded theory. From a Whiggish perspective, the vortex theory can be disposed of in a page or two.

    I also have trouble reconciling this sentence:

    An internalist is only interested in Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion as results that are still valid today. They are not interested in the complex twists and turns of Kepler’s battle to find the first two laws,

    with Stephenson’s Kepler’s Physical Astronomy (or many earlier articles by Curtis Wilson and others) that did exactly that. Yet these are generally considered internalist works. Indeed, I remember a review of Stephenson’s book that complained about how it was too internalist.

    The blogs Double Refraction and Ether Wave Propaganda (both unfortunately dormant) wrote lots of good stuff on internalism vs. externalism.

  7. Many thanks to Michael Weiss for the link to that extremely interesting Bycroft essay on Leviathan, I hadn’t seen it.
    On the theme of speculation, what bothers me most is that many historians excavate the societal context to death, but avoid explicitly claiming that said context was directly influential in a given discovery – instead they leave the reader to infer the connection (and often back off when challenged at conferences). Too often, readers like me are left to think ‘that’s very interesting history, but it may well be completely irrelevant’

    • Glad you liked the link. Another essays by Bycroft that is highly relevant to this post: A manifesto for internal history of science. Check out the paragraphs “Parity not priority” and “Variety not hybridity”. Thony plunks for hybridity (“a good historian of science must be both an internalist and an externalist”). Incidentally, Thony seems to have commented on Bycroft’s piece, but for some reason his comment has disappeared.

      As for your other remark—ah yes, the celebrated pomo bait-and-switch. See Bycroft’s post The constructivist straw man and the link therein to one by Will Thomas.) I wonder if this is as prevalent as it used to be.

      that’s very interesting history, but it may well be completely irrelevant

      Well, relevant to what? Katharina Kepler’s witchcraft trial had, I daresay, naught to do with her son’s discovery of his three laws. It still tells us a lot about 17th century Germany, and about Kepler’s character. Variety, not hybridity.

  8. Ray

    Interestingly enough, while the way internalism is described in this post is acknowledged to be unfavorable (perhaps unfairly so,) the much more heartily condemned “Whig history” is defined in such a way that I’m mystified why anyone would not accept it on the proposed terms as a historiography of science.

    ” the Whig theory of history is the belief that human existence or in this case science, is progressing towards some sort of final truth.”

    Are those who condemn “Whig history” in science really denying that science is a search for truth? or that the overwhelming pattern of the past few centuries at least has been one of success in attaining this goal? One could perhaps read the denial of Whig history defined above as a somewhat plausible pessimistic claim that science will ultimately fail in its goal of searching for truth, but this seems inconsistent with what I’ve seen elsewhere, since the claim I see most routinely denied as “Whig history” is the claim that science experienced some sort of regression or prolonged stagnation in the Medieval period. Perhaps Whig history of science should instead be read as the normative claim that science SHOULD progress towards truth, and any other outcome is to be regarded as pathological, but then I am even more mystified as to why anyone would oppose it.

    Ironically, taking that normative notion of Whig history of science as a starting point, I think I can come up with a very good reason for some of your externalist critiques of the history of science. If we are to fairly evaluate what strategies have best avoided past pathologies in science it will do us no good to focus only on the successes while ignoring the failures, which is precisely what happens when you ignore Kepler’s mystical mumbo-jumbo, Newton’s alchemy, Galileo’s polemics on comets as optical effects and tides as effects of Terrestrial motion etc.

  9. Ray, you don’t give a source for that definition of ‘Whig’ history. I think it’s rather generous – the term is usually understood to mean a one-sided history of events that lists the successes of one side (the Whigs) and ignores their failures

    • Gavin Moodie

      Surely the Whig view of history is as is explained by Engel (1985: 256):

      ‘There has also been an effort to question the Whiggish assumption of many earlier studies that the course of historical development was an unbroken chain of ascent from a benighted past to an enlightened present.’

      Engel, Arthur J (1985) Revisionist studies in the history of English education, Comparative Education Review, volume 29, number 2, pages 256-261.

    • Ray

      Cormac, My source for that definition is Thony’s original article. I agree, Whig history as you define it is clearly a problem.

  10. Michael, re “Well, relevant to what?… It still tells us a lot about 17th century Germany, and about Kepler’s character. Variety, not hybridity.”
    Relevant to how a given area of science developed, which is what interests me. This is what I consider the ‘real history of science’. It seems to me that many people who consider themselves historians of science focus on historical points that have no obvious bearing on the ‘progress’ of science, if we can use that word. It may be good history (and requires no technical knowledge), but is often incidental, as far as the history of science is concerned. Of course, such scholars argue that all human activities must be put in context, but that ignores the way in which the practice of science attempts to make it independent of cultural context.
    At seminars, I often ask at question time ‘isn’t that history, rather than history of science? In what way is it relevant to the development of a particular field of science?’. Doesn’t make me too popular…

    • Relevant to how a given area of science developed, which is what interests me.

      That’s what primarily interests me too. But I don’t dismiss other approaches as unworthy or uninteresting. In one of Michael Bycroft’s essays (or maybe it was Will Thomas), he contrasts “the history of science” with “the history of science”.

      I enjoyed reading Maxwell’s poetry—not that it’s all that good as poetry, but it deepened my appreciation for Maxwell the person. Of course, I’m curious about Maxwell mainly because of his scientific achievements, and the poetry has little if anything to tell us about that. As Feynman once wrote, “We should take our pleasures where we find them.”

    • Continuing my previous comment… And also relevant to Ray’s remarks…

      In one way, historiography in the 20th C. has illuminated the “history of science” by exploring the failed approaches in way more depth than before. Example: Aiton’s book on the vortex theory of Descartes and Leibniz.

      Also, a Whiggish approach (in principle) extracts from a scientist’s work only that which endured. But looking at the “cutting room floor of history” can be fascinating. Examples: Stephenson’s book details Kepler’s physics (instrumental in his discoveries of the first two laws); Hunt’s book The Maxwellians describes Maxwell’s “hexagonal aether” model which helped him along to his e/m theory; Williams’ biography of Faraday elucidates the models that guided him in his researches (for example, Faraday regarded electric current not as something flowing, but as a tension). I regard all this as an essential part of the history of science.

      All this said, I do feel that thony’s post sketches not just an extreme version of internalism, but a straw man (in the worst sense of that phrase). Thony, if you’re reading this, could you name some actual historians that fit your description in the tenth paragraph: “An internalist is only interested in Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion as results that are still valid today” etc. etc. As just one counterweight to this jaundiced evaluation, Kepler’s Platonic solid picture is practically a cliché in histories of astronomy, and has been for many decades. If the older historians really cared only about the end result, they’d leave it out.

  11. Dave

    This was a bit of a bomb article, tbh. The dichotomy between internalism and externalism is a disease among historians. Both offer different tools for different situations. I will say, however, that extreme versions of externalism tend to pollute the history of science with stuff that simply is NOT relevant to the development of a particular field.

  12. Michael: only Thony could write a blog post that has readers writing comments months later! But I couldn’t agree more about the cutting-room floor – I consider theories that were discarded very much part of the history of science, as do all ‘internalists’ I know. (it’s the histories that don’t consider theory at all that bother me).
    Mind you, I must admit I was disappointed at the reaction of a great many theoreticians to my little discovery a few years ago of Einstein’s brief attempt at a steady-state model of the expanding universe. I got a strong message of ‘so what, it didn’t work and was soon abandoned’ whereas I think it is what Einstein was trying to do that is the real point

    • I think that both approaches are relevant, but different. Is one interested in science itself, or its (human) history, or both?

      Where I see a problem is trying to make statements about science based on the history of science, e.g. “the cosmological constant must be bad, because Einstein introduced it as a fudge factor, later regretted it, or both”. (In this case, this is bad policy, regardless of whether the claims are true. My point is precisely that it doesn’t matter if the claims are true, since the universe is independent of how we learned about it.)

      What sort of reactions were you expecting?

      • Laurence Cox

        Dirac was famous for remarking “It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress”. This idea of beauty as an objective in an equation is something that, I believe, attracted Einstein too, although I cannot find anything quite equivalent in any of his quotes; the nearest I found is “The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.”

        So, I think that for Einstein the introduction of the cosmological constant was something that he saw as making his field equations less beautiful.

  13. Phillip: My own reaction was that I found it really interesting that Einstein considered the idea of a steady-state universe back in 1931. The standard narrative that this possibility was not considered until the late 1940s (Hoyle and others) had always puzzled me, as it was always a logical possibility. So I was pleased to come across Einstein’s steady-state MS – but the view from Cambridge was very much ‘so what, he abandoned it’. I should say that was physicists, not historians

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