|This is not a good metaphor for the historiography of science.|
[some assert that] during the last few decades historians have concentrated more and more on less and less and so produce fewer long-haul accounts; consequently, their work is less inviting and informative to policy makers than it used to be. An analysis of the Isis Current Bibliographies over the last thirty years does not support this characterization of trends in the history of science.To conclude, here is a big picture about the historiography of science, one that many historians of science appear to endorse. We used to write many big pictures. We stopped doing so because we discovered that the big pictures did not fit the facts, and that the very idea of big-picture history of science is wrong-headed. We have started to write big pictures again, but we still think that the old ones were wrong, and hence that the best way to build new ones is to piece together our new case studies. Here is a different big picture, one that I prefer. We never showed that the old big pictures were false. We set them aside for a range of reasons that had little to do with the evidence for them or against them. Some of these reasons were good (case studies allowed us to give a more rounded picture of science) and some of the reasons were dubious (the big pictures celebrated science, ergo they were false). Some claimed that big pictures were wrong-headed, but some of these people wrote big pictures anyway. Some of the new big pictures conflicted with some of the old ones, but usually because the new ones were inspired by other old big pictures (we replaced Butterfield with Bachelard, Koyré with Merton, and so on). True, the new big pictures were organised around “ways of knowing” rather than disciplines, but no-one ever explained why the former were preferable to the latter as a unit of analysis, and in any case the former histories were not as new as they looked (Pickstone was indebted to old histories of ways of knowing, such as Alistair Crombie’s, and to old histories of disciplines, such as Metzger’s history of crystallography). Because we believed that the old big pictures were wrong-headed, we did not bother to compare the new ones with the old. And because we believed that very few new big pictures were being written, we did not bother to compare the new ones between themselves. The upshot is that we now have an excess of big pictures and a deficit of serious reflection about how they are related to each-other. What we need, more urgently than new case studies or even new big pictures, is an understanding of the big pictures we already have. Seven theories of the second scientific revolution: Metzger, Hélène. La genèse de la science des cristaux. Paris: Albert Blanchard, 1969. Bachelard, Gaston. La Formation de l’esprit scientifique: contribution à une psychanalyse de la connaissance. Vrin, 1934. Foucault, Michel. Les mots et les choses: une archéologie des sciences humaines. Paris: Gallimard, 1966. Kuhn, Thomas. "Mathematical Versus Experimental Traditions in the Development of Physical Science." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 7, no. 1 (1976): 1–31. Heilbron, John. Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries: a Study of Early Modern Physics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Frängsmyr, Tore, J. L Heilbron, and Robin E Rider, eds. The Quantifying Spirit in the 18th Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Pickstone, John V. "Ways of Knowing: Towards a Historical Sociology of Science, Technology and Medicine." The British Journal for the History of Science 26, no. 4 (1993): 433–58. Other references, in the order they are cited in this post: Shapin, Steven. Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as If It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, p. 8. Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. The first sentence is: “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.” Shapin, Steven. "'The Mind Is Its Own Place': Science and Solitude in Seventeenth-Century England." Science in Context 4, no. 1 (1991): 191–218. Schaffer, Simon. "Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century." History of Science 21, no. 1 (1983): 1–43. Schaffer, Simon. "Scientific Discoveries and the End of Natural Philosophy." Social Studies of Science 16, no. 3 (1986): 387–420. Heilbron, J. L. "Are Historians Fit to Rule?" Isis 107, no. 2 (1 June 2016): 350–52. Expand post.