Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment

By Charles W. J. Withers; Paul Wood | Go to book overview

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Introduction: Science, Medicine
and the Scottish Enlightenment:
An Historiographical Overview

PAUL WOOD AND CHARLES W. J. WITHERS

The study of the history of science and medicine in eighteenth-century Scotland came of age in the 1970s. This is evident in the appearance in 1974 of a special issue of the journal History of Science devoted to ‘Science in the Scottish Enlightenment’ and in numerous other writings. The empirical study of eighteenth-century Scottish science and medicine blossomed as never before and, by 1975, a commonality of interpretation had emerged which challenged the tidy division then current among philosophers and some historians between the so-called ‘internal’ and ‘external’ factors affecting the growth of scientific knowledge.1 It is our intention here both to explain this significant ‘moment’ and to review the main features of work subsequently published on science and medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment. Through such a review, however partial, we hope to place this collection in historiographical context.


Science and Medicine in Eighteenth-Century Scotland: Initial Approaches

One of the distinctive characteristics of the literature on eighteenth-century Scottish science and medicine published during the 1970s was its recognition that, however we may theorise the connections between the cognitive and the social, natural and medical knowledge is socially situated. Some historians drew such connections in terms of the theoretical framework known as the ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of scientific knowledge then being developed by members of the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh.2 Others used variants of Marxist theory, while many either showed no allegiance to any theoretical school or were theoretically eclectic. Despite such divisions,3 the consensus was that the flourishing of the natural sciences and medicine in eighteenth-century Scotland could only be explained in terms of the contemporary state of Scottish society.

The combination of the cognitive and the social can be seen, for example, in work on the history of chemistry by Arthur Donovan. Having completed his PhD on William Cullen and Joseph Black in 1970, he published a major monograph in 1975 on the chemical tradition initiated by Cullen and Black. Donovan related their teaching and research not only to the theoretical legacies

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