New College of the Humanities

What Is The History of Science? Part II

Six leading historians of science define their discipline.

John Pickstone

For me and several of my generation it has been a progression, from science, to history and philosophy of science, to a broader form of history which includes social as well as intellectual aspects of science. The broader picture is not restricted to knowledge, it includes practice – the crafts of science and especially the practices of technology, agriculture and medicine. Thus we come to deal with a large and central area of social and economic history – the continuing and ever-changing interplay between more or less cumulative knowledge and more or less effective practices.

The 'intellectual' side remains important and stimulating. Popper – Kuhn – Lakatos – Fyerabend have become staples of philosophy of science and are all very much historical. The debates about rationality and shifting frames of reference remain stimulating. Recent French analysis, especially by the late Michel Foucault, has still to be properly explored by Anglo-American historians, though almost twenty years have passed since The Order of Things was first published. We still lack criteria for judging the depth and extent of 'structural shifts' in scientific understanding, e.g. around 1800. Shall we continue to explain such shifts as the putative sum of more particular changes linked to patterns of group advancement; or do more general links between social structures and understanding have some purchase here?

To read this article in full you need to be either a print + archive subscriber, or else have purchased access to the online archive.

If you are already a subscriber, please ensure you are logged in. 

Buy Subscription | Buy Online Access | Log In

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week

The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5