Further Thoughts on Edward Shorter’s Interview

The opinions Edward Shorter expressed recently in an interview seem at odds to his earlier work, at least according to people familiar with his previous books. Shorter now dismisses most history of science and medicine as uninteresting because it doesn’t study “science.” His objection raises once again the internalist/externalist debate and to reflect the different ways scientists and historians approach the past.[1] John Wilkins has a good discussion of these differences (as Wilkins points out, what is really at issue is how we use the past). If Shorter’s earlier scholarship aligns more with externalist historiography (or is at least not internalist—as different people on Twitter have suggested), I wonder why he derides externalist histories now.

One person who praises Shorter‘s earlier work suggests that he has “joined the club” that sees the history of medicine useful only insofar as it is concerned with “bio-medicine.” If the history of medicine answers to the wants and needs of today’s medical education, this might be a valid explanation. Clearly, however, not all history of medicine is confined to questions relevant to today’s medical school needs. Further, this explanation doesn’t help me understand why Shorter might now limit his work to the medical school’s concerns and questions. Somebody else suggested that Shorter’s attack on externalist historiography is motivated by local departmental politics at the University of Toronto, which seems a plausible though unconfirmed explanation.

I still wonder how Shorter’s interview would have been different if he had been talking to a historian of some stripe rather than an attorney. How were initial questions and the follow-up questions shaped by the interviewer’s own understanding of both history and the uses of history? I also wonder how the posted interview relates to the interview that was conducted. Did Shorter have a chance to respond to or revise the post? Put differently: How much of Edward Shorter do we see in the interview and how much of the interviewer do we see in it?

I don’t have answers to those questions, but I think they merit further reflection and investigation.


  1. Caveat lector: In this post I use the terms externalist and internalist as shorthands. Like others, I grow tired of the polemics around these terms and typically find those debates arid. I also cannot say whether or not Shorter’s work is internalist or externalist nor whether or not he would describe his work as either.  ↩