Re: Books on history and philosophy of science

From: Ted Davis (
Date: Tue May 20 2003 - 06:30:35 EDT

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    Dear Preston,

    I apologize for not entering this thread earlier, I've been absolutely
    swamped at the end of a term.

    The PS books that have been recommended are good ones, mainly. I have
    nothing to add myself to that list, which is already long enough for your

    As for general works on the HSC, your point about the extinction of
    one-volume works is entirely on target. Nothing from the past 30 years
    comes to mind that I would recommend, though I could be forgetting something
    good and apologize to the author of same.

    This book you mention gets a ringing endorsement from me: David Lindberg's
    "The Beginnings of Western
    Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious and
    Institutional Context. 600 BC to AD 1450" looks like a possibility as an
    overview of pre-modern science.

    As for Daniel Boostin's "The Discoverers," I recall it being rather badly
    affected by the standard "warfare" myth that Lindberg has so effectively
    helped to debunk. I don't recommend it.
    Steven Shapin's book, The Scientific Revolution, fails to interest my
    non-specialist students, but I think it is a decent attempt to survey that
    period--and quite short. Shapin is a leading sociologist of science who
    knows lots of history. His book looks like it was cribbed from my own
    lectures--which of course it wasn't--and that's one reason I like it. :-)

    I can't think of anything comparable for later periods.

    Final comment, at least for the time being: the absence of overall survey
    books in the recent literature is indicative, I think, of the evolution of
    my discipline. When I entered grad school nearly 25 years ago, it was
    standard practice (with noteable exceptions, such as U Penn) for schools to
    offer their survey course for grad students in 3 chunks: ancient/medieval,
    sci rev, modern science. The problem was, that this last course never
    really seemed to hang together and was often actually replaced by separate
    courses on the individual sciences. This all reflects how much we now know
    about the history of science. And it reflects IMO the fragmentation of the
    sciences out of a more unified "natural philosophy" since the mid-18th
    century, reflecting in turn how much we now know about nature (or think we

    Some years ago Cambridge published a set of books on the history of science,
    and their practice reflected this well. They had one book on science to
    1400, one on Renaissance science, one on the Sci Rev, one on the 18th
    century, and three on science since then (19th century physics, 19th century
    biology, and 20th century biology). Then they ran out of gas...


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