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History of Science

General Works

Specialization among historians of science and the sheer volume of publications make it difficult for a historian of science to publish a general overview of the field that pleases most colleagues and is sufficiently comprehensive. With this in mind, two generally successful efforts are Anthony Alioto's A History of Western Science (1987) and Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers (1983). Alioto's book serves well as a general introduction for undergraduate students. It is broad and inclusive up through the end of the scientific revolution (c. 1700), and it makes some effort to survey developments in science to the late twentieth century. Alioto emphasizes that science is a way of seeing the world and a way of knowing, rather than a compilation of facts. He also acknowledges the role of metaphysics. Much like Koyré, Alioto regards metaphysics as a commitment to the inherent and knowable order of natural phenomena. Boorstin was a general social historian and not a historian of science per se, but his book is a pleasure to read and is an excellent introduction to the subject for lay readers. It portrays science as human discovery on the frontier of nature and as a progressive method for defeating ignorance. Boorstin is generally weak on the effect of the social and cultural milieu on science, but he is strong in explaining the role of instruments such as the printing press, the telescope, and the microscope. In addition to the general works by Alioto and Boorstin, W. W. Norton and Company has published a series of historical surveys of major disciplines such as chemistry, physics, and the human sciences. The volumes in the Norton series are highly recommended for scholars new to the history of science.

To understand the general scope of the history of science since 1970, two other introductory texts are necessary. One is a work about women in science, and the other is about science as socially constructed knowledge. Margaret Alic's Hypatia's Heritage (1992) surveys the role of women in science from antiquity through the nineteenth century. Through a series of chapter-length biographies, Alic helps students and general readers appreciate male biases that created both social hurdles to discourage women who wanted to become scientists and historical filters to render invisible those women who did become scientists. David Bloor's Knowledge and Social Imagery (1981) helped establish "the strong programme" for the social history of science. Bloor's method hinges on the belief that "knowledge for the sociologist is whatever people take to be knowledge." Thus, according to Bloor's symmetry principle, there should be no inherent difference between the explanations about what some might regard as true beliefs and what some might regard as false beliefs. Furthermore, Bloor is interested in the form and content of science as knowledge, and not in scientists per se. The strong programme is a theory supporting the social constructionist view and is not to be confused with the social history of science, which seeks merely to explain social influences on science. That said, the origins of the strong programme and social constructionist in the history of science can be traced to "The Merton Thesis." Robert K. Merton's Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England (1938) argued for the linked origin of values in science, the English revolution, and the Anglican religion.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Jean-Paul Sartre Biography to Seminiferous tubulesHistory of Science - General Works, Preclassical Antiquity, Middle Ages, Scientific Revolution, Biological Sciences, Feminist History Of Science