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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 November 2018

University of Warwick
Department of History, University of Warwick, Coventry, cv4


What is the history of science? How has it changed over the course of the twentieth century? And what does the future hold for the discipline? This ‘Retrospect’ provides an introduction to the historiography of science as it developed in the Anglophone world. It begins with the foundation of the Cambridge History of Science Committee in the 1940s and ends with the growth of cultural history in the 2000s. At the broadest level, it emphasizes the need to consider the close relationship between history and the history of science. All too often the historiography of science is treated separately from history at large. But as this essay shows, these seemingly distinct fields often developed in relation to one another. This essay also reveals the ways in which Cold War politics shaped the history of science as a discipline. It then concludes by considering the future, suggesting that the history of science and the history of political thought would benefit from greater engagement with one another.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018

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I would like to thank Michael Bycroft, Nick Jardine, Geoffrey Lloyd, Thomas Simpson, Claudia Stein as well as an anonymous referee who all provided invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this article.


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69 Young later described Rupert Hall's work as ‘bourgeois historiography of science’; Young, Darwin's metaphor, p. 219.

70 Ibid., p. 176. Young and Skinner did, however, differ on what exactly constituted the context. Skinner, a ‘non-Marxist’, saw his approach as a counter to the determinism of Marxist intellectual history. He chose to emphasize the ‘linguistic context’ over ‘religious, political and economic factors’. In contrast, Young wanted an approach which ‘routinely considered social and political factors in scientific research’. In the end, Young found Dunn, Skinner, and the rest of the Cambridge School to be ‘politically aloof’. Young, Darwin's metaphor, pp. 23 and 273; Skinner, ‘Meaning and understanding’, p. 3; and Pallares-Burke, The new history, p. 220.

71 The journal, Science in Context, was founded specifically to accommodate this perspective in 1987. On the limits of ‘context’ as a category of analysis, see Secord, James, ‘Knowledge in transit’, Isis, 95 (2004), pp. 654–72CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; and Galison, Peter, ‘Ten problems in the history and philosophy of science’, Isis, 99 (2008), pp. 111–24, at pp. 112–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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88 The history of professionalization was a major topic in social history in this period, including in the history of science. This extended to the Historical Journal; see Porter, Roy, ‘Gentlemen and geology: the emergence of a scientific career, 1660–1920’, Historical Journal, 21 (1978), pp. 809–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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106 Prior to the Cold War, historians of science tended to be internationalists and their histories reflected this. Sarton's, George monumental Introduction to the history of science (3 vols., Baltimore, MA, 1927–48)Google Scholar addressed Egyptian, Islamic, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian science, as did the series of ‘critical bibliographies’ he published in Isis from 1913 onwards, Sarton, George, ‘Bibliographie analytique des publications relatives à l'histoire, de la science parues depuis le 1st janvier 1912’, Isis, 1 (1913), pp. 136–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Elshakry, Marwa, ‘When science became Western: historiographical reflections’, Isis, 101 (2010), pp. 98109CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; and Numbers, Ronald, ‘The American History of Science Society or the International History of Science Society? The fate of cosmopolitanism since George Sarton’, Isis, 100 (2009), pp. 103–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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108 Basalla, George, ‘The spread of Western science’, Science, 156 (1967), pp. 611–22CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. For the Cold War origins of Basalla's model, see Elshakry, ‘When science became Western’; and Raj, Kapil, ‘Beyond postcolonialism and postpositivism: circulation and the global history of science’, Isis, 104 (2013), pp. 337–47CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. For the relationship between the Cold War and historians’ understanding of what constitutes science, see Isaac, Joel, ‘The human sciences in Cold War America’, Historical Journal, 50 (2007), pp. 725–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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114 Aileen Fyfe and Sadiah Qureshi both followed similar career trajectories, as have I.

115 Steven Shapin, ‘Why scientists shouldn't write history’, Wall Street Journal, 13 Feb. 2015.

116 Sujit Sivasundaram (co-editor), James A. Secord (editorial board), and Emma Spary (editorial board).

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118 This was the theme of a series of Arts and Humanities Research Council workshops, convened by Sujit Sivasundaram and Simon Schaffer, on ‘Exploring traditions: sources for the global history of science’, held between 2013 and 2014 in Cambridge and Delhi.

119 On the history of this separation, see Golinski, Jan, ‘Thomas Kuhn and interdisciplinary conversation: why historians and philosophers of science stopped talking to one another’, in Mauskopf, Seymour and Schmaltz, Tad, eds., Integrating history and philosophy of science: problems and prospects (Dordrecht, 2012)Google Scholar; and Toulmin, Stephen, ‘From form to function: philosophy and history of science in the 1950s and now’, Daedalus, 106 (1977), pp. 143–62Google Scholar.

120 See Chang, Hasok, Inventing temperature: measurement and scientific progress (Oxford, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Mauskopf and Schmaltz, eds., Integrating history.

121 See particularly Bell, Duncan, Reordering the world: essays on liberalism and empire (Princeton, NJ, 2016)Google Scholar; and Skinner, Quentin, Liberty before liberalism (Cambridge, 1998)Google Scholar. My hope is that historians of science can draw inspiration and contribute further to the project of writing a global intellectual history, see Moyn, Samuel and Sartori, Andrew, eds., Global intellectual history (New York, NY, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I make this case in Poskett, James, ‘Phrenology, correspondence and the global politics of reform, 1815–1848’, Historical Journal, 60 (2017), pp. 409–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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125 Michael Gove, interview with Faisal Islam, Sky News, broadcast 3 June 2016.

126 Secord, James, ‘Introduction: the big picture’, British Journal for the History of Science, 26 (1993), pp. 387–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

127 For a rare example of philosophy of science explicitly pitched as political philosophy, see Rouse, Joseph, Knowledge and power: towards a political philosophy of science (Ithaca, NY, 1987)Google Scholar.

128 For example Cooter, Roger, The cultural meaning of popular science: phrenology and organization of consent in nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge, 1984)Google Scholar; and Desmond, Adrian, The politics of evolution: morphology, medicine and reform in radical London (Chicago, IL, 1989)Google Scholar.

129 See, for example, chapters on the ‘social sciences’ and nature’ in Jones, Gareth Stedman and Claeys, Gregory, eds., The Cambridge history of nnineteenth-century political thought (Cambridge, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, as well as other volumes in the same series.

130 A number of historians of political thought and historians of science are crossing this divide, often combining training in both disciplines or working collaboratively. Recent exemplars include Bashford, Alison and Chaplin, Joyce, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: rereading the Principle of Population (Princeton, NJ, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jonsson, Fredrik Albritton, ‘Rival ecologies of global commerce: Adam Smith and the natural historians’, American Historical Review, 115 (2010), pp. 1342–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Forrester, Katrina and Smith, Sophie, eds., Nature, action and the future: political thought and the environment (Cambridge, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

131 Articles collected together in Isis special issue ‘A second look: Leviathan and the air-pump’, including Heilbron, John, ‘Comment: a last judgement’, Isis, 108 (2011), pp. 122–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Pinch, Trevor, ‘Comment: all pumped up about the sociology of scientific knowledge’, Isis, 108 (2011), pp. 127–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

132 Shapin and Schaffer, ‘Up for air’, pp. xli–xliv.

133 See also ‘That is why the materials in this book are contributions to political history as well as to the history of science and philosophy’, in Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the air-pump, pp. 21 and 332.

134 Shapin and Schaffer, ‘Up for air’, pp. xxxiv–xxxvii.

135 Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik, Merchants of doubt: how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming (New York, NY, 2010)Google Scholar.

136 Recent work at the intersection of environmental history and political philosophy is exemplary in this respect, see Katrina Forrester and Sophie Smith, ‘History, theory and the environment’, in Forrester and Smith, eds., Nature, action and the future.