American Science in the Age of Jackson

American Science in the Age of Jackson

American Science in the Age of Jackson

American Science in the Age of Jackson

Excerpt

There are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the history of science--or, for that matter, the history of any subject whatever. One can either assume that the phenomenon he is studying is a part of a continuing development, or he can assume that it is part of a spatially and temporally bound cultural situation. Few would deny that every human activity has both these aspects at the same time; the only questions usually at issue have to do with significance and possibility. Questions frequently raised are: Which aspect of the subject is the most significant? Is it possible to study the past outside of a developmental framework? An eminent American physicist, crowning a lifetime of speculation about his own science by pronouncing upon a broader subject, answered the first of these questions in favor of development and the second in the negative. According to P. W. Bridgman:

it seems that much of history is not written with an adequate appreciation that the past has meaning only in terms of the present. The impartial recovery of the past, uncontaminated by the influence of the present, is held up as a professional ideal, and a criterion of technical competence is the degree to which this ideal is reached. The ideal is, I believe, impossible of attainment, and cannot even be formulated without involvement with meaningless verbalisms.

One cannot, Bridgman thought, even begin to sever his connections with the present in order to understand the past on its own terms. Many historians, and in particular, historians of science, have at least implicitly agreed with him on this point.

At first glance one can see good reasons for historians of science to choose the developmental approach, either on grounds of possibility or of significance. It is difficult to overlook the huge body of knowl-

Author Advanced search

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.