Science As History

Scientific Change

edited by A.C. Crombie
Basic Books, 896 pp., $17.50

The late Alfred North Whitehead is said to have once presided at a lecture by Bertrand Russell on the philosophical implications of what was then the new quantum mechanics, and to have closed the meeting by thanking Russell for his presentation and especially for “leaving the vast darkness of the subject unobscured.” The more than five-score contributors to the volume under review—a good number of them historians of science and technology, living in the United States and various European countries including Russia—deserve similar thanks. The book contains the proceedings of a week-long symposium, held at Oxford in July 1961, on “the intellectual, social and technical conditions for scientific discovery and technical invention from antiquity to the present.” Of the twenty-eight papers invited, about a third deal with the relations between scientific achievements and their socio-cultural environment, another third examine the internal development and the content of various scientific ideas and methods, while the remaining ones discuss questions bearing on the nature and the pursuit of the history of science as an intellectual discipline. However, though the learning most of the participants exhibit is impressive and often illuminating, only a few of them address themselves explicitly to the nominal theme of the symposium. There will doubtless be disagreement on whether the symposiasts have advanced our understanding of scientific change much beyond what was already known; but no one can seriously dispute that they succeeded in leaving the darkness of the subject unobscured.

Indeed, since its scope was not clearly limited, it is remarkable that the symposium succeeded in achieving anything else. The proceedings nowhere make plain just what is covered by the word “science.” However, the wide assortment of matters that are discussed suggests that perhaps the majority of the participants take the word to mean almost any continuing quest for reliable knowledge or for practical mastery of nature. The use of the word in this inclusive sense has obvious merits, but it also creates difficulties for a coherent discussion of scientific change. For in this sense, science has been pursued in diverse societies and within different intellectual traditions—and indeed by individuals whose personal motives for doing scientific work have generally been neither uniform nor unmixed. Moreover, the innumerable inquiries that make up the scientific enterprise were undertaken to resolve different sorts of specific problems—problems created by difficulties in prevailing beliefs, by the observation of new phenomena and the outcome of previous inquiries, or by the needs and opportunities of daily living. Accordingly, when science is viewed as a perennial and widespread search—whether for theoretical understanding or practical mastery—it is a truism to say that it undergoes various types of change. But it is also evident that the numerous enterprises labelled as “scientific” are often quite dissimilar in objectives, achievements, and intellectual methods. Merely because a variety of enterprises may be called “scientific” it should not be assumed that they are necessarily alike in respect to other significant features.

Unfortunately this assumption has often been …

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