Peter Dear’s Historiography of Not-so-Recent Science

I came across Peter Dear’s “Historiography of Not-so-Recent Science” (Hist. Sci. 1, 2012) while doing some research last week at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Memorial Library. It is a fine article, reviewing some of the most recent themes and trends on the historiography of science on the period c. 1500-c.1700; that is, on the late Scientific Revolution.

What I found interesting about the article, and worthy of a post here, is the attention Dear gives to recent work on Francis Bacon and Empiricism, Alchemy and Anatomy, Networks and Circulation, Ideas and Intellectual Culture, and Big Names.

To start with, Dear draws our attention to recent work by Sophie Weeks, who “presents a Bacon who sought above all, not just a systematized way of producing by artifice the properties of natural bodies, but whose ambition extended to a kind of ‘magic’ that would create novel things hitherto unheard-of, by forcing nature into paths that it had never followed by itself when ‘free and unconfined.'”

There has also been a “renewed focus on alchemy.” In particular, Dear notes the prolific writings of “William Newman and Lawrence Principe,” who “have striven to establish a particular thread of alchemy as having been central to the intellectual history of science in the seventeenth century.” Although these two authors have played down the spiritual significance of the alchemist’s search for the Philosopher’s Stone, their scholarly work has shown, however, “that both practical techniques and theoretical alchemical doctrines concerning atomism and corpusculariansism played important roles informing the work of such natural philosophers as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.”

Pamela Smith’s recent work reveals the movement of material objects as well as of instrumental practices (including such items as plants, instruments, books, astronomical data, ethnographic reports) along the trade routes of the modernizing world, especially those of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and thus creating the first “global networks.”

An “intellectualist history of science,” as Dear calls it, is perhaps the most vigorous modes of history of science writing. This is a history of ideas, a history of a specifically intellectual culture. We find this mode in authors such as Steven Nadler, Christa Mercer, Roger Ariew, Stephen Gaukroger, and  Dan Garber. He draws attention to Peter Harrison’s most recent work on the “importance of the Fall from Grace as an element in seventeenth-century evaluations of the potential of human knowledge” and the emergence of modern science.

Finally, Dear still recognizes the importance of the biographical approach to the history of science. John Heilbron’s recent work on Galileo is one example. There is also a veritable cottage industry of work buzzing around the life and work of such men as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Michael Hunter, for example, has made a career on Boyle, whereas Rob Iliffe has created a remarkable website dedicated to publishing in full an online edition of all of Newton’s writings—whether they were printed or not, “The Newton Project.”

Dear aptly concludes that “grand overviews survive in the pedagogically necessary genre of the textbook, but the days of the large scale historical account of the Scientific Revolution seem to be almost gone.”


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