Science in History: From the Cold War to Trump
This blog accompanies James Poskett’s Retrospect article ‘Science in History’.
In July 1931 a group of Soviet scientists travelled to London. They had arrived to present their research at the International Congress of the History of Science and Technology. The result was a Cold war standoff. Boris Hessen, a Soviet physicist, gave a paper entitled “The Socio-Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia”. According to Hessen, a Marxist approach to the history of science showed that Isaac Newton, the great English mathematician, was no lone genius. Rather, Newton was a product of the social and economic world in which he lived: a world of slavery, East India Company conquest, and political revolution. Others pushed the analysis even further, arguing that only the Soviet Union could rescue science “from the decay that is inescapable under capitalism”. The audience of English historians and scientists didn’t like what they heard, shouting down the Soviet delegates and preventing others from speaking.
This episode neatly captures the way in which Cold War politics framed much of the debate about the history of science in the twentieth century. My Retrospect essay, and the accompanying articles, chart that changing historiography. Drawing on the archive of the Historical Journal, I recover how leading historians, philosophers and scientists engaged with the idea that science itself could have a history: from Marxists like the biochemist Joseph Needham to more conservative figures like the physiologist Henry Hallett Dale.
I also wanted to show how the historiography of science needs to be understood in relationship to the wider historical profession. For too long, history and the history of science have been imagined as separate enterprises. But the articles from the Historical Journal challenge this idea. From Quentin Skinner’s intellectual history to Asa Brigg’s social history, many of the major figures in twentieth-century historiography seriously engaged with the history of science. At the same time, the history of science itself was shaped by these broader historiographical shifts, drawing on new work in cultural history and imperial history later in the century.
This all leads to what the future might hold. The way in which we write the history of science is absolutely a product of the Cold War. And so now the Cold War is over, at least in its traditional guise, how will the history of science be written? In concluding the Retrospect, I suggest that the history of science needs to re-engage with political thought through recent work in global intellectual history. In a world in which the President of the United States denies climate change, and international technology companies refuse to pay tax, the need for a politically engaged history of science is more pressing than ever.
Read James’s article in full for free
Main image credit: ‘The Ayurvedic Man, c.18th century.’ . Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY