Historical Expertise

Martin Rundkvist’s Enlightenment Project

The following is essentially a guest post by Martin Rundkvist. He is responding to my comments a few days ago about “Scientific Progress and the History of Science,” which was a response to his “Historians of Science Need to Know Current Science.” Dr. Rundkvist was polite and invited me to respond to his comments. Although I have not yet had time to think through his comments and to respond, I did not want to delay any longer posting his reply. In the next day or so I will collect and post my thoughts (I have now posted my thoughts. See “Resigning from the Enlightenment Project”).

I am a participant in the Enlightenment project. Based on the evidence I see around me, I believe that science (in the wider German sense of Wissenschaft) adds cumulatively to our knowledge about the world, past and present.

For instance, I believe that Darin Hayton’s work to date on Renaissance astrology means that we have better, more extensive, more detailed, more accurate knowledge about Renaissance astrology than if he had not performed that work. Dr. Hayton has not just produced more text or additional contingent perspectives on his subject. He has investigated it in a scholarly rigorous manner, illuminating a part of the world that we might want to know about. He has made certain interpretations of the subject impossible in the future by showing them to be factually incorrect. Willingly or not, he too participates in Enlightenment.

In fact (and I know that many scholars in aesthetic disciplines wouldn’t agree here) it is my opinion that a scholar or discipline that doesn’t add to cumulative knowledge like Dr. Hayton does should not be funded.

I agree with Dr. Hayton that his discipline should investigate scientific debates of the past in a fair and historically contextualised manner. That is the central part of the job. But in my field (prehistoric archaeology) we still routinely enter into dialogue with the writings of 19th century colleagues. I see the debates that Dr. Hayton studies as a still on-going concern. Therefore I think there is a second important part of his job: to put the investigated debates into the context of how they were later resolved – or not. It needn’t take more than a sentence or two:

  • “By the 1930s, this debate had been resolved in Newton’s favour thanks to the discovery of XXX (Smith 1938, pp. 123–124)”, or
  • “Though the terminology has changed, this issue has still not been settled, over 300 years later (Smith 2013, pp. 123–124)”, or
  • “The discovery in the 1960s of XXX laid this debate to rest as scientists abandoned the assumptions that propelled it (Smith 1975, pp. 123–124)”.

My field of study is abstruse and is followed by few outside academe, and I trust that Dr. Hayton would agree that his field is similar to mine in this sense. I submit that neither of us can afford to alienate large groups of potential interested readers. In Dr. Hayton’s case, I’m thinking of scientists such as myself, working in a cumulative Enlightenment framework today. I care a lot about the history of science. But I do not enjoy the suggestion that my generation of scholars knows as little about our part of the world as our predecessors did in 1750. And I would also object strongly to anyone who said that historians of science know as little today as they did in 1750.

UPDATE: See Resigning from the Enlightenment Project for my response.

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