Science in history and beyond


The writings of George Sarton (1884–1956) and Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) are used to motivate a new approach to intellectual history called Historical Complementarity.

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Fig. 1


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    The term scientist, coined by William Whewell early in the nineteenth century, was applied to people who reached conclusions about the natural world by using some form of reason and verifiable evidence. Not requiring the accumulated written scholarship cited by a Wissenschaftler, the category of scientist admits dilettantes with their sui generis arguments (for example, the amateurs Charles Darwin relied on). Whereas historians and chemists were and are Wissenschaftler, historians in the English-speaking world during past centuries failed to have their discipline accepted as a science. In any event, the robe of science is no guarantee of righteousness. Just as historians were responsible for promulgating myths of blood and soil, so scientists gave serious consideration to spiritism, phrenology, misogyny, and eugenics.

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    Sarton’s other associates and correspondents included Max Horwitz (known as Henryk Walecki) and Victor Alter, Polish communists executed by Stalin; French pacifist, socialist, and later fascist Gustav Hervé; and pacifist, socialist, and Breton nationalist Emile Masson. Among intellectuals before 1930, a clear head seems to have been required to distinguish between economic centralization in democratic socialism, on the one hand, and state capitalism in the repressive political movement known as fascism, on the other hand.

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    From this point of view, what historians do in their day job resembles the “night science” signaled in his autobiography by the Nobel-laureate molecular biologist François Jacob, where (in something like an intellectual fever) scientists struggle to formulate inchoate concepts that coalesce linearly during the day in a scientific paper. As discussed in my book, The Shock of Recognition, Jacob’s formulation is how Armand Borel, one of the mathematicians taking the collective name Bourbaki, several years earlier understood creativity in mathematics.

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    Faced with picking only one kind of specialist to counsel leaders of humankind, we would surely be reasonable to choose historians, who explain past thought and judgment in the light of verifiable evidence. Just as not every writer about the planets and the stars is an astronomer, so not every writer about the human past is an historian.

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Correspondence to Lewis Pyenson.

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Pyenson, L. Science in history and beyond. ChemTexts 7, 4 (2021).

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  • George Sarton
  • Johan Huizinga
  • History of science
  • Intellectual history
  • Historical complementarity