History of Science as Savior for the Humanities

In 1960 A.C. Crombie was optimistic.[1] After more than a century of neglect, historiography had once again turned its attention to the history of science as an important part of civilization alongside social and intellectual history. According to Crombie, this represented a return to the origins of modern historiography first developed in the 18th century. During the 19th century historians had privileged the “history of government” and had lost sight of their obligation to make history of science and technology part of the history of civilization. “Classically trained historians” focused on political and constitutional history, excluding topics not traditionally considered part of the humanities. In this way they reinforced a division between the humanities and the sciences. For Crombie historians’ renewed interest in the history of science as part and parcel of “the study of civilization as a whole” promised to provide “a bridge, instead of reflecting a division, between the scientific and humanistic sides of our education.”

Crombie envisioned a return to a better time, when historians recognized and celebrated science’s fundamental role in the progress of civilization. He found examples in Voltaire, Hume, Robertson, Gibbon, and Condorcet. For Crombie, the late 18th and early 19th century provided the best models for good history in the works Pierre-Simon Laplace, Georges Cuvier, Thomas Young, Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, Guglielmo Libri, and William Whewell. Unsurprisingly for a zoologist-turned-historian of science, Crombie’s list of intellectual progenitors is populated by men who contributed to the development of, inter alia, mathematics, astronomy, anatomy, zoology. In other words, what Whewell himself would come to identify as “scientists.”

In words he applied to other historians but were equally applicable to himself, Crombie was “taking an attitude to the past determined by the needs and aspirations of the present and providing a programme for future action.”

Whatever became of Crombie’s ideals for the history of science, it clearly did not live up to his “needs and aspirations.” Considering the latest round of chronic handwringing about the demise of the humanities, see, for example, Why the humanities?, The Decline and Fall of the English Major, and A Case for the Humanities Not Made, either historians of science have failed to realize Crombie’s “programme for future action” or the history of science was not up to the task. No longer does the history of science justify a progressive historical narrative. Instead, it emphasizes contingency, uncertainty, and the role of extra-scientific concerns in the development of science, as others have pointed out. To adapt Martin Jay’s more general formulation:

Instead of serving us bland comfort food for the mind, leaving us unchanged by what we’ve experienced, history of science should compel us to reflect on the premises and categories we take too quickly for granted and expose the values we uncritically accept.

Crombie’s optimism appears, fifty years later, to have been misplaced.

  1. A.C. Crombie, “Historians and the Scientific Revolution,” Endeavour 19(1960): 9–13.  ↩