U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What’s American about History of Science in America?

The folks at News and Views: The History of Science in America (a blog of the Forum for the history of science in America) have introduced a series of posts asking What’s American about the History of Science in America. The first few essays ought to be of interests to the readers of this blog for a number of reasons. First, they describe how starting during the 1960s a group of researchers tried to influences their discipline (history of science) to pay attention to American topics and to organize themselves within the discipline: a goal which bears some similarity to the motivation behind this blog. Second, their efforts are interesting from the point of view of American intellectual history itself: the history of history of science in American during the second half of the last century. Finally, they touch on perennial question of historians of science: making garden-verity historians take note of history of science.

What, if anything, can we learn from this group? How, if at all, are the goals of U.S. intellectual historians and historians of American Science related? Those are important questions to ponder as we continue to read new essay in the series.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Sylwester,
    Thanks for this post. I read a few of the essays, and I still wonder: what is American about the History of Science in America? The growth of the discipline bears the marks of its national culture, but one of the defining characteristics of science (and therefore of any study of its history), is the transnational scope of its practitioners and of its knowledge claims. The whole point of science is its portability–the science done in Beijing, Berlin, and Buffalo should (and often does) comport with one another. Its practitioners can communicate with one another (in English) irrespective of national boundaries. The scope of its knowledge claims and the scope of its community of practitioners, it seems to me, mean that when undertaking the history of science as a subject of study the practitioners of the history of science would be taking a wrong turn to focus on “American science” as though that science could be disentangled from the wider transnational community of experts that constitute the global scientific community. What are your thoughts?

  2. Undoubtedly, Western science has been practiced by an international community of scholars and one cannot ignore that wider community. However, the portability of science cannot be assumed to be a “natural” phenomena, instead much work goes into making scientific knowledge portable.

    There are several aspects in which national context of science matters. The first and simplest is simply investigating the practitioners of scientific inquiry in different geographical locations. Second, history of science not only investigates the intellectual products of scientists (in fact the focus on that part of the disciplines seems to be diminishing, hence my interest in USIH) but also the institutional structures in which science is produced, the relationships of scientific activity to other aspect of society and culture such as politics, literature etc, the visual and material aspects of scientific practices, the relationship between professional science and public perception of it, science and empire, scientific education and many other. All of those aspects have very specific national context, and, many historians convincingly have argued that those national context do make a difference in the intellectual products of the scientists.

    That is, despite its aspirations and self portrait, scientific view of the world is not a universal abstraction describing the world as it really is. Just like other ideals of universal abstractions scientific ideas do have different meaning and manifestations in different contexts, including national contexts.

    One last thing to remember is that the profession of a scientist and the word itself are 19th century inventions. The last two centuries saw acceptance of Western science by other cultures, but, for example, 17th century Western and Chinese sciences were quite distinct. Historians of science increasingly study other indigenous ways of knowing the world and their interactions with each other and with Western science.

    The question, then, is do we concentrate on what is unique about American science, or do we start by saying science is America because it is done in America. In that sense, it resembles one of the discussions which took place earlier on this blog, and that is the reason why I brought it up.

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