The State of American History

By Herbert J. Bass | Go to book overview

On Writing the History of American Science

CHARLES E. ROSENBERG

The historian of American science is not fully accepted as either an American historian or an historian of science. Most American historians are simply indifferent to the field; but beyond this, more than a few historians of science are openly scornful. I first became aware of this scorn some years ago when I suggested the possibility of a course on the history of American science. "Nonsense," replied a senior colleague in the history of science. Perhaps science in America, he condescended, but the other was an absurdity; science was an international enterprise, its ultimate essence an ever-shifting structure of ideas dependent upon a developing internal logic and not upon the peculiar circumstances in which they happened to be elaborated.

Though it is unlikely that this gentleman would have defended his distinction as absolute, the categories "internal" and "external" serve to describe contemporary research in the history of science with disheartening accuracy. No historian of science would deny that social and institutional factors are significant in themselves, or that they play a role -- however indirect or difficult to evaluate -- in the evolution of scientific ideas; but he simply does not study them. Social and institutional factors have, in the recent past, played a comparatively small role in this new and self-consciously professionalized discipline. A survey of the past decade's title pages of Isis will make this abundantly clear. Given such an undeniable emphasis upon the internal, intellectual history of science, the study of scientific ideas and institutions in any one nation must seem inevitably parochial, a confession either

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