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Aims and Methods of Histories of the Sciences

Nick Jardine, Geoffrey Lloyd, Hasok Chang and Cristina Chimisso; Mondays 11am–12.30pm, weekly from 23 October (6 sessions)

These graduate seminars will consider aspects of the history, aims, methods and current problems of the history of science. In the opening sessions NJ will give an overview of the formation of history of science as a discipline and of the range of recent approaches. 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 roles of sympathy and antipathy in historical biographies (NJ), and approaches to the history of cross-cultural communication in the sciences (GERL & NJ).

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

23 and 30 October
Nick Jardine: Formation and transformations of history of science

These two opening sessions will 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 socialist 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 histories of science: M. Biagioli, Galileo courtier (Chicago, 1993); P. Smith, The business of alchemy  (Berkeley CA, 1994).
    • Global histories of science: S. Schaffer et al., eds, The brokered world: go-betweens and global intelligence, 1770–1820 (Sagamore Beach MA, 2009); S. Sivasundaram, 'Science and the global: on methods, questions and theory', Isis, 101 (2010), 146–158.

6 November
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', History of Science, 38 (2000), 251–270.

13 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, 32 (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.

20 November
Nick Jardine: Emotional engagement in scientific biographies

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, antipathetic and ironic 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).
  • An ironic biography: Donna Haraway's account of the life and works of Carl Akeley in Primate visions: gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science (London, Routledge, 1989), ch. 3.

27 November
Geoffrey Lloyd and 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.


  • G.E.R. Lloyd, Disciplines in the making (Oxford, 2009), especially ch. 8 'Science'.
  • J. Secord, 'Knowledge in transit', Isis, 95 (2004), 654–672.

Further readings:

  • 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); P. Manning and D. Rood, Global scientific practice in an age of revolutions (Pittsburg PA, 2016).