This course addresses the history of science from a broad societal perspective. Rather than tracing the origins and evolutions of specific scientific disciplines and their most important accomplishments, it sets out to contextualize these and to examine the historical conditions in which decisive transformations occurred and in which long-lasting scientific developments took place. Specifically, the impact and influence of political, socio-economic and cultural factors on science will be traced and discussed, which will help to reveal the – often power-related - mechanisms behind the acceptance of certain concepts, theories and approaches as more advanced, accurate or truthful.
In so doing, the students will not only learn to understand the views of the victors of history but also appreciate the myriad often very heated debates and disputes in which scientists were constantly engaged and, consequently, become acquainted with the views which were eventually eclipsed in the process. To that end, we will specifically concentrate on a selection of key moments in the history of science, which engaged key figures in the history of science and – with hindsight – turned out to have marked our present-day conceptions of science and knowledge in a persistent way. For each of these case studies, we will explore the epistemological positions of the most important protagonists involved, and investigate how these positions were connected to the broader societal context in which scientists operated. This allows us for instance, to explain the history of science as a history of conflict and power rather than one of inevitable linear progress.
Thematically, a lot of attention will be paid to the history of the natural sciences, including its entanglements with the history of (natural) philosophy, mathematics, technology and medicine – which often cannot be understood in isolation from each other. Chronologically, our course starts in the Middle Ages, the period in which the foundations of the natural sciences were laid. Antiquity will be treated too, yet this will particularly be through the lens of Renaissance scholars and their views on it. Our geographic focus is on Europe, although we will pay due attention to the role of scholars from other part of the world (Arabic scholars, China, etc.) as well as to processes of circulation and appropriation and the mechanisms through which European views became dominant.
Some red threads through the course are the disappearance of (the immanence of) God as an explanatory mechanism, the evolving centrality of Man in the universe, the central role of instruments and institutions, the construction of ‘modernity’ (understood as the separation of nature and society), and the ethical debates surrounding scientific approaches to society.
Preliminary list of topics which will be discussed:
- Introduction: the need for an historical reflection/contextualization
- Medieval Science: waiting for Islamic & Copernican revolutions?
- The emergence of quantification and practical science
- The Scientific Revolution in political context
- China & Europe: Qualifying the European experience
- Disease & the study of the human body in an ethical context
- Environmental Science and its origins: the Islands or the Woods?
- Chemistry, soil science and Liebig
- The age of the earth and the discovery of geology and evolution
- The journey into the infinitesimally small
- Relativity theories and their controversies
- The discovery of climate
- Science and totalitarianism in the 20th century