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Aims and Methods of Histories of the Sciences

Nick Jardine, Hasok Chang and Cristina Chimisso; Mondays 11am–12.30pm, weekly from 24 October (6 sessions)

These six graduate seminars will consider aspects of the history, aims, methods and current problems of the history of science. In the first NJ will give an overview of the formation of history of science as a discipline. Then HC and NJ will debate the problems of anachronism faced by historians of science. Subsequent meetings will address the historiography of the French historian of chemistry Hélène Metzger (Cristina Chimisso, Open University), the uses of case-studies in the history of science (HC), the roles of sympathy and antipathy in historical biographies (NJ), and approaches to the history of cross-cultural communication in the sciences (NJ).

Those participating in these seminars are likely to find interesting the meetings of the History and Theory Reading Group.

24 October
Nick Jardine: The formation of history of science

This first session will start with a sketch the ways in which history of science became established as a discipline. There will then be an overview of some of the main approaches that have dominated the field over the past century: positivist narratives of scientific progress, social histories of the sciences, cultural histories, and global histories.


  • On the formation of history of science as an academic discipline:
    • A. Thackray, 'History of science', in Durbin (ed.), A guide to the culture of science, technology and medicine (New York, 1980).
    • A. Mayer, 'Setting up a discipline: conflicting agendas of the Cambridge History of Science Committee, 1936–1950', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 31 (2000), 665–685.
  • Specimens of divergent approaches to the history of science:
    • A standard 'positivist' history of science: C. Singer, A short history of scientific ideas (Oxford, 1959).
    • A standard social(ist) history: J. D. Bernal, Science in history (London, 1954).
    • Social construction of science (SSK) and actor network theory (ANT): D. Bloor, Knowledge and social imagery (London, 1976); S. Shapin and S. Schaffer, Leviathan and the air pump (Princeton, 1985); B. Latour, Science in action (Milton Keynes, 1987).
    • Cultural and global histories of science: M. Biagioli, Galileo courtier (Chicago, 1993); P. Smith, The business of alchemy  (Berkeley CA, 1994); S. Schaffer et al., eds, The brokered world: Go-betweens and global intelligence, 1770–1820 (Sagamore Beach MA, 2009).
  • On uses of histories of the sciences:
    • L. Graham, W. Lepenies and P. Weingart, eds, Functions and uses of disciplinary histories (Dordrecht, 1983).

31 October
Hasok Chang and Nick Jardine: Anachronism

There are obvious problems with writing about the past from the perspective of the present. But can the historian escape the present completely? Can anachronism ever be put to productive uses?


  • H. Chang, 'We have never been whiggish (about phlogiston)', Centaurus, 51 (2009), 239–264.
  • Q. Skinner, 'Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas', History and Theory, 8 (1969), 3–53.
  • N. Jardine, 'Uses and abuses of anachronism in the history of the sciences of the sciences', History of Science, 38 (2000), 251–270.

7 November
Cristina Chimisso: Hélène Metzger on the methods and aims of history of science

Can the historian understand past texts just as readers who lived at the time when the texts were written did? Should this be the historian’s aim? Is history of science relevant to current philosophy and science? These are some of the questions that the historian of chemistry Hélène Metzger (Chatou, France, 1889 – Auschwitz, 1944) aimed to answer. This session will discuss her innovative historiography of science.


  • Hélène Metzger, Chemistry [1930], transl. C. V. Michael, (West Cornwall CT, 1991), chapters 2 and 3.
  • C. Chimisso, 'Hélène Metzger: The history of science between the study of mentalities and total history', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 32A (2001), 203–241.
  • Moro-Abadía, Oscar, 'Beyond the Whig history interpretation of history: lessons on "presentism" from Hélène Metzger', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 39 (2008), 194–201.

14 November
Hasok Chang: Case-studies

Are historians condemned to a choice between studying particular cases without general implications and making unsound  generalisations from an inevitably insufficient number of cases? How else can we learn from case-based thinking?


  • J. Forrester, 'If p, then what? Thinking in cases', History of the Human Sciences, 9/3 (1996), 1–25.
  • H. Chang, 'Beyond case-studies: history as philosophy', in S. Mauskopf and T. Schmaltz, eds, Integrating history and philosophy of science: Problems and prospects (Dordrecht, 2012), 109–124.

21 November
Nick Jardine: Sympathy and antipathy in historical biographies of scientists

Many accounts of historical interpretation assign central roles to empathetic re-enactment of past agents' motivations and reasonings.  This session will address, with examples, the strengths and weaknesses of sympathetic and antipathetic engagement by historians of science with their subjects.


  • N. Jardine, 'Kepler = Koestler:  on empathy and genre in the history of the sciences', Journal for the History of Astronomy, 45/3 (2014), 271–288.
  • A sympathetic biography: A. Koestler on Kepler in The Sleepwalkers (London, 1959).
  • An antipathetic biography: G. L. Geison, The private science of Louis Pasteur (Princeton NJ, 1995).

28 November
Nick Jardine: Histories of cross-cultural communication in the sciences

Global circulation of scientific knowledge is a, if not the, currently fashionable field in the history of science.  This session will consider some of the theoretical frameworks that have been employed in such studies.  It will be suggested that the term 'global' is potentially misleading, given that many of the most significant studies have focussed on local negotiations and exchanges. In conclusion, it will be argued that the focus on communication and exchange of knowledge rather than the establishment of consensus has led to historiographical and philosophical confusion.


  • J. Secord, 'Knowledge in transit', Isis, 95 (2004), 654–672.
  • The vast recent literature includes articles in: S. Schaffer et al., eds, The brokered world: Go-betweens and global intelligence, 1770–1820 (Sagamore Beach MA, 2009); Global histories of science, Focus, Isis, 101 (2010) (ed. S. Sivasundaram); Global currents in national histories of science, Focus, Isis, 104 (2013) (ed. S. McCook).