A Professional Life in the History of Science*

By Gillispie, Charles Coulston | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, September 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

A Professional Life in the History of Science*


Gillispie, Charles Coulston, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


It was with some compunction that I acceded to the flattering invitation from Donald Yerxa, editor of Historically Speaking, to write of a professional life in the field of my specialty. Reluctance was the greater in that I had already given an account of that career in Isis on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the History of Science Society in 1999.1 In all probability, however, there is little if any overlap between subscribers to Isis and those to Historically Speaking. That such should be the case is one of the situations discussed. Anyone who consults the earlier essay will find that it turns on personal and institutional factors. I tried not to repeat myself more than was necessary to make what follows intelligible, and ventured instead to offer some reflections on the context of my work in relation to the development of the historiography of science.

First of all, a word about the subject. The generation to which I have the good fortune to belong is commonly said to have founded the history of science as a professional field of scholarship in the years after World War II. Marshall Clagett, I. Bernard Cohen, Henry Guerlac, Erwin Hiebert, Alistair Crombie, Giorgio di Santillana, Rupert and Marie Hall, Georges Canguilhem, René Taton, Thomas S. Kuhn-those are among the notable names. Having majored in some branch of science as undergraduates or the equivalent, and gone on to graduate school before or just after the war, all of us had somehow developed a strong ancillary taste for history. We came out of service of one sort or another in 1945, dazzled like everyone else by Hiroshima, the Manhattan Project, sonar, radar, penicillin, and so on. Independently of each other, or largely so, we each harbored a sense that science, even like art, literature, or philosophy, must have had a history, the study of which might lead to a better appreciation of its own inwardness as well as its place in the development of civilization.

With a few stellar exceptions, the history of science until that time was the province either of philosophers-Condorcet, Comte, Whewell, Duhem, Mach-each adducing exemplary material in service to their respective epistemologies, or of elderly scientists writing the histories of their science, or sometimes all science, in order to occupy their retirement. Though not written in accordance with historical standards, neither of these bodies of literature is to be ignored. The one is always suggestive and sometimes informative, the other often informative, almost always technically reliable, and rarely of much interpretative significance. Of the two notable scholars who flourished in the 19205 and 19305, George Sarton was a prophet and scholarly bibliographer rather than a historian, while E. L. Thorndike was a devoted, learned antiquarian riding his hobby horse of magic and experimental science through the library of the Vatican. Though much and rightly respected, neither found a following. Nor did E. J. Dijksterhuis, whose The Mechanization of the World Picture (1950) is a classic that will always repay study.

Anticipations of a fully historical history of science appeared in the work of Hélène Metzger on 18th-century chemistry and Anneliese Maier on medieval science. Herbert Butterfield's The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800 (1950) was a godsend both in itself and in that it was one of the few things one could expect undergraduates to read. The same was true of Carl Becker's Heavenly City of the i8th-Century Philosophers (1932), a supremely literate essay which (unfortunately in my view) has fallen into disfavor among students of the Enlightenment, and also of Arthur O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being (1936), a founding work in the modern historiography of ideas. Two ancillary masterpieces, one from the side of sociology, the other from philosophy, were still more inspirational in exhibiting respectively the social and the intellectual interest that the history of science may hold, namely Robert K. …

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