HIST 25307

History and Historiography of Science

Adrian Johns

Winter Quarter, 2012



Course Outline

This course provides an introduction at graduate level to the discipline of the history of science.  It focuses on a series of key questions, problems, and approaches, which have shaped that discipline since its emergence as a professional academic field in the mid-twentieth century.  Some of the materials addressed are in this sense ‘classics’; others are recent publications that define the state of the field at present. 

The primary purpose of the course is to equip students to make use of the distinctive insights of the history of science in their own future work, whether they go on to concentrate on the sciences or not.  But a subsidiary purpose is to highlight what may be called the recursive role of historiography: that is, the importance of historical arguments and sensibilities in shaping contemporary realities.  The sciences are intrinsically historical on small and large scales.  For example, the processes of publishing laboratory researches involves re-reading old notebooks, interpreting them, and deploying them to articulate arguments, while representations of the nature and powers of science typically involve accounts of its development over time and across cultures.  Similar points could be made about many other cultural enterprises.  Thinking about the recursive role of history in the sciences can therefore be useful for reflecting more generally about the unsettled relationships between past and present.   

Course Requirements

Class sessions

The class meets on Mondays at 10:30-1:20, in HM 151.

Weekly requirements

Students are obviously required to show up to the weekly classes.  Beyond that, they are expected to submit electronically (via the Chalk site) some point or points for discussion in the classroom.  These should be submitted by 9pm the day before the class. 

Assuming the enrollment is large enough, each student will be expected to give a class presentation at least once.  The choice of weeks for these will be made at the first session.  A class presentation usually lasts about 10 minutes, and consists of articulating issues/themes/questions that you think merit discussion in the group.  That is, you aren't expected to summarize the readings except in so far as doing so will help to frame topics for discussion.  The format is informal – you aren’t expected to read a paper of any kind.  You are welcome to draw connections with your own interests and projects outside of the specific topics of this class, as that often helps other students to see ways in which this material can be put to use.

Final paper

Each student must submit a final paper by the Monday following the end of the reading period.  These papers should be submitted electronically.  The filename should include the student's own name and the course number (e.g., joe_bloggs_hist35003_final.doc).  The format may be MS Word, LibreOffice, or anything else that one of those programs can conventionally accept.  The essay itself should have a title, referencing (footnotes or endnotes), and a bibliography.  If you don't do these things, you may be penalized.  Deadlines are negotiable if the reason is something unpredictable like an illness, a family emergency, or a job interview.  They are not negotiable if the reason is something predictable like a sports event or a deadline in another class, because all students should take responsibility for managing such things themselves.



There is no single textbook for this class, and you are not required to buy any books.  However, one comprehensive work that has broad coverage at a consistently high level is:

R.C. Olby, G.N. Cantor, J.R.R. Christie, M.J.S. Hodge (eds.), Companion to the history of modern science (London: Routledge, 1990). 

Although it is now getting a little long in the tooth, the Companion remains a good introduction to the topics, questions, and approaches of this discipline.

Beyond this, there are a number of excellent general surveys available, many of which are very expensive.  The most authoritative of them – and perhaps the most expensive – is the new Cambridge History of Science.  The chapters in these volumes are generally excellent entry-points to more specialized discussions.  The most relevant ones for this course are:

Vol. 3. Early modern science (ed. Katherine Park, Lorraine Daston)

Vol. 4. Eighteenth-century science (ed. Roy Porter)

Vol. 5. Modern physical and mathematical sciences (ed. Mary Jo Nye)

Specific texts are assigned week by week.  They can generally be found via the course’s Chalk site, either in the library’s e-reserve system or in the Course Documents section.  For several of the sessions, I have listed a larger number of titles than anyone could reasonably be expected to read; the intent is to provide a foundation for a more in-depth exploration for those students who may want it.  In those cases, you should pick and choose depending on your interests.  The requirement then is that you read enough to participate intelligently in the discussion.  A good rule of thumb would be to get through at least 100 pages per session.  If titles bear an asterisk (*) then you should pay particular attention to them.  (In the Course Documents section of the Chalk site there is also a subsection of ‘Subsidiary’ materials that are not mentioned in this syllabus but that students in previous iterations of this course have found useful.)

You are expected to read a combination of both primary sources and secondary sources.  One of the nice things about the history of science is that it is a relatively young and relatively small discipline, which means that you can reach the ‘research front’ quite quickly.  Unlike, say, early modern political history or classics, in this field even the most canonical texts have often not been worked to death.  That provides an exciting and quite unusual opportunity for less experienced readers, particularly ones with new perspectives to bring to bear.  You are encouraged to take it.  The way to do so is to tackle primary materials directly.

On the other hand, you need to be aware that some secondary literature, especially but not only the older stuff, is of low quality, so you will need to exercise critical judgment.  This is true of all historical fields, of course, but in the history of science it looms large because of the temptations that the field has offered for scientists and others eager to project their convictions about method, rationality, truth, etc., onto the past.  You should be wary of all such normative accounts.  In fact, a good way to approach them is to remember that they are themselves primary sources too: that is, what a history of science written in around 1900 tells you about the culture of 1900 is likely to be at least as valuable as what it says about Galileo or Newton.


My office is in Social Sciences 505.  I have office hours on Fridays at 10-12.  You are welcome to come by at this time and ask me anything about the course; if you know beforehand, it is a good idea to write your name on the sheet on the office door, or send me an email.  You are also welcome to schedule appointments at other times.  My phone number is 702-2334.   My email address is johns@uchicago.edu.  Please don’t expect an instant response; in general I try to reply within 48 hours, but I can’t promise to be quicker than that.  I don’t have an iPhone; I don’t tweet or blog.  I once had a Facebook page, and it may still exist for all I know, but I left it dormant ages ago.

History of Science




1/9/2012          Preliminary meeting

No reading



1/16/2012        What the history of science is the history of

In this first substantive session we shall ask the large, framing question of the identity of this subject.  What is the subject of the history of science?  Does it include, for example, authoritative knowledge about the world that later came to be seen as unscientific (like magic)?  What about cultures that have had sophisticated enterprises devoted to understanding the physical world which do not map easily onto the Western concept of science?  If we do include things like magic, what don't we include?  And how do we tackle enterprises – like meteorology, for example – that are undoubtedly scientific in central respects yet depend on extensive engagement by a dispersed laity?  These questions not only define the limits of a field, but also implicitly position its center and periphery, and suggest proper lines of approach.

R.S. Westman, "The astronomer's role in the sixteenth century: a preliminary study," History of science 18 (1980), 105-47.

P. Dear, "What is the history of science the history of?" Isis 96 (2005), 390-406.

A. Cunningham and P. Williams, "Getting the game right: some plain words on the identity and invention of science," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 19 (1988), 365-89.

T.S. Kuhn, "Mathematical versus experimental traditions in the development of physical science," in Kuhn, The essential tension (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 31-65.

It may also be helpful to compare in chronological order a sampling of justificatory statements from the field, e.g.:

G. Sarton, The history of science and the new humanism (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1988 [1962]), 3-58.

E. Zilsel, "The sociological roots of science," American Journal of Sociology 47 (1942), 544-62.

H. Butterfield, The origins of modern science, 1300-1800 (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1949), vii-x, 159-74.

J. Golinski, Making natural knowledge: constructivism and the history of science (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988), 1-12.



1/23/2012        Revolutions: Copernicus, Copernicans, and Copernicanism

One of the central concepts of the history of science has been that of the revolution.  Whether speaking of physical, chemical, or life sciences – of Copernicus or Newton, Lavoisier, or Darwin – historians of science have routinely invoked the notion of scientific revolutions to capture the radical importance of their subject.  Obviously, this idea of revolutions is itself historical (it is indebted to political upheavals since at least 1688); less obviously, it carries implications both positive and negative.  Here we shall look at what historians of science have meant when they have talked of revolutions.  Our example will be perhaps the canonical instance, namely the shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric universe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  We shall look at Thomas Kuhn’s comments in his classic Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the new, exhaustive discussion by Robert Westman.  The readings also include Nicholas Jardine’s reflections on the role of historiography in establishing Copernicanism, and Peter Galison’s suggestive remarks on the pitfalls of holism involved in talk of revolutions in general. 

R.S. Westman, The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order (2010), chs. 2-3 (62-105).

T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962; 3rd ed., 1996), Chs. 1, 7, 10 (1-9, 66-76, 111-35.

N. Copernicus, Commentariolus.  There are various translations available, of which a readily accessible one is N. Swerdlow, “The Derivation and First Draft of Copernicus’s Planetary Theory: A Translation of the Commentariolus with Commentary,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 117:6 (December 1973), 423-512.

N. Jardine, The Birth of History and Philosophy of Science: Kepler’s ‘A Defence of Tycho Against Ursus’ with Essays on its Provenance and Significance (1988), 225-86.

P. Galison, Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics (1997), 781-810.



1/30/2012        The identity of the practitioner: Galileo

Historians of science in the last generation have focused a lot of attention on the question of their actors’ ‘roles’ or ‘identities’.  The ‘scientist’ did not exist as a recognizable social kind until the mid-nineteenth century – the word was invented in the 1830s – so prior to that we would be making an elementary mistake to call figures like Newton scientists.  But to what consequence?  That question has been faced most consistently, perhaps, in discussions of Galileo Galilei.  Readers looking for a coherent interpretation of Galileo’s identity would be hard put to find it in the works of historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science.  Every generation has seen the promotion of some new Galileo, beginning with the Platonist of Koyré.  Since the mid-twentieth century we have had Galileo the experimentalist, Galileo the anarchist, Galileo the courtier, Galileo the heretic, Galileo the venture-capitalist, and, of course, Galileo the "scientist."  These different personae reflect, of course, the various contexts in which historians were working.  But it is also the case that Galileo himself was unusually adept at taking on different roles.  This week we shall look at that combination, asking what is at stake when the historian focuses on the question of a historical actor's identity.

M. Biagioli, "Galileo's system of patronage," History of science 28 (1990), 1-62. 

M. Biagioli, Galileo's instruments of credit: telescopes, images, secrecy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 21-75.

P. Redondi, Galileo: Heretic (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987), 28-67.

P. Feyerabend, Against method: outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge (London: Verso, 1988 [orig. 1975]), 55-126.  (Note that this book has undergone various changes over the years, resulting in variable pagination across the different editions; the section I am suggesting runs from Ch. 6 in this edition ("As an example of such an attempt I examine the tower argument...") to Chapter 11 (ending with "... those features of knowledge which not only inform, but which also delight us.")

G. Galilei, "The Assayer," in S. Drake (ed.), Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Anchor, 1957), 229-80.

Galilei, Discourses concerning two new sciences (New York: Dover, 1954 [Leyden: Elsevir, 1638], 109-52 (Second Day), 244-95 (Fourth Day).

Galilei, Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,1967 [Florence: Landini, 1632)], 416-65 (Fourth Day).

A. Koyré, Galileo Studies (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978 [1939]), 154-75.



2/6/2012          Witnessing and credibility: early experimental philosophy

Experimental philosophy was an invention of the mid-seventeenth century, and many have seen in it the origins of some of modern science's most important elements.  In particular, the Royal Society of London (founded in 1660) sought to make regular experimenting into the core of an enterprise devoted to advancing natural knowledge without catastrophic cultural conflict.  The Society inaugurated a way of proceeding, with methods, practices, machines, communication protocols, and the like.  Here we'll look at how it did so, and ask how the historian of science should best approach this endeavor.  We may focus in particular on Robert Hooke, the polymathic figure who stood at the heart of the Society's work. 

S. Shapin and S.J. Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985), Chs. 1-2 (3-79).

S. Shapin, "Who was Robert Hooke?" in M. Hunter and S.J. Schaffer (eds.), Robert Hooke: new studies (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1989), 253-85.

M. Hunter, "Alchemy, magic, and moralism in the thought of Robert Boyle," British Journal for the History of Science 23:4 (Dec. 1990), 387-410.

L. Principe, The aspiring adept: Robert Boyle and his alchemical quest (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1998), 91-137.

R. Hooke Micrographia (London: J. Martyn and J. Allestry, 1667), Preface. 

For another sample of Hooke's own writings, you can now go to the Royal Society's digitized version of the recently rediscovered "Hooke folio": http://royalsociety.org/ttp/Hooke/hooke_broadband.htm  (you may need to install a plug-in).



2/13/2012        Ecology and Empire

In recent years historians have rediscovered the tangled origins of the relation between modernity and ecology in the imperial sciences of the Enlightenment.  Authorities like Priestley and Linnaeus spoke in detail of a "natural economy" set up by God, while naturalists associated with the forces of the rival British, Dutch, and French commercial empires sailed around the world to gather knowledge of that economy and put it to use.  

L. Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999), 14-32, 95-112.

E.C. Spary, Utopia's garden: French natural history from Old Regime to Revolution (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 49-98.

Linnaeus, "The Oeconomy of Nature," in Miscellaneous tracts relating to natural history, husbandry, and physick (trans. B. Stillingfleet) (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1759), 31-108 (online at ECCO).

H.J. Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (2007), 42-81 (ch. 2).

R. Drayton, "Science and the European Empires," Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 23 (1995), 503-510.


R. MacLeod, "Introduction," Osiris 2nd ser. 15 (2000), 1-13 – and sample other essays in this volume on "Nature and Empire: science and the colonial enterprise."




2/20/2012        Expertise, Authorship, and Publics

Scientific enterprises are often characterized by expert communities practicing sophisticated techniques with specialized tools and in privileged locations.  This means that the authority of science in broader communities is sometimes fraught.  It is not unique to the present day to find interested critics suggesting that there is something troubling about an endeavor that claims to represent openness and accessible truths yet is pursued in ways that the public could not possibly replicate or even comprehend.  But the question has changed over the centuries, as different media, public institutions, and ideologies of accountability have reshaped its form and meaning.  There is therefore a historical politics to the relationship between science and its publics.  In looking at this topic we shall begin by focusing on chemistry in the Enlightenment – when rival practitioners adopted very different stances on the politics of public science – but shall also widen our focus to address later periods and topics.

J. Golinski, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820 (1992), 50-90.

J. Delbourgo, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America (2006), Ch. 3 (87-128).

J.G. McEvoy, “Joseph Priestley, Scientist, Philosopher, and Divine,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 128:3 (Sept. 1984), 193-99.

J. Priestley, Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, I (1778), Dedication and Preface.

J. Priestley, History and Present State of Electricity (5th ed. 1794) Preface (to p.xxiv).


2/27/2012        Science as Practice: Replication and Reenactment

R.G. Collingwood once claimed that all historical knowledge worth having involved some kind of "re-enactment" – the re-creation of a lost set of perceptions and convictions.  In the history of science, the role of re-enactment is especially interesting because of the centrality of knowledge-making practices to the sciences.  In recent years historians have devoted much time to re-creating the conditions of experiments originally undertaken in a variety of original settings – Newton's chambers in Cambridge, an alchemist's laboratory, Faraday's room at the Royal Institution – in a bid to understand the practical constraints and opportunities that shaped them.  What can re-enactment tell us?  What are its limits?   Our prime example here is that of the invention of thermodynamics (including the concept of energy) in the nineteenth century.

H.O. Sibum, "Reworking the mechanical value of heat: instruments of precision and gestures of accuracy in early Victorian England," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26 (1995), 73-106.

J. Buchwald, "What Does it Mean to 'Re-enact' Scientific Practice?"  Conference paper, online at http://www.anu.edu.au/HRC/research_platforms/Re-Enactment/Papers/buchwald_jed.pdf.


H. Chang, "The Myth of the Boiling Point."  http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sts/staff/chang/boiling/index.htm


A. Cook, "The Use and Abuse of Historical Reenactment: Thoughts on Recent Trends in Public History," Criticism 46:3 (Summer 2004), 487–496.


R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 282–302.

W.R. Newman, "Newton's Chymistry."  http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/newton/



3/5/2012          Information Cultures

In our concluding session we look at the development and character of ‘information.’  This includes, but is not restricted to, what are often called the digital and network revolutions.  These transformations (popular computing, digital media, the Internet, networked wireless communications, open-source and open-access protocols, and so on) clearly affect all aspects of the late-modern world.  Although information is often thought of in terms of strictly contemporary history – or even in terms that are expressly anti-historical – in fact the technologies, codes, conceptions, practices, communities, and commitments of information culture all have quite deep and complex historical roots.  In the end, it seems that historians have two duties here, which exemplify the point made at the start of the course about recursive historiography.  One duty is to reveal the historical development of information in all its complexity – to apply historiography to information itself.  The other is to apply information techniques to their own enterprise, so as to preserve and enhance historical research and teaching.  Historians of science may be unusually well placed to lead that dual endeavor.

J. Guldi, Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State (2011), 153-211.

H. Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993), Ch. 9 (241-75). [NB: this should be considered a primary source as well as a secondary one.]

C. Kelty, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (2008), Ch. 2 (64-94).

F. Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006), Ch. 8 (237-62).

P. Edwards et al., “Historical Perspectives on the Circulation of Information,” American Historical Review (December 2011), 1393-1435



Revised 1/4/2012 2:34 PM