What is the value of studying history to the pursuit of science?

Cicero’s famous remark – ‘Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child’ – might serve as the motto for historians, but how often is that sentiment echoed by scientists who, as C. P. Snow put it, ‘have the future in their bones’? Underlying academic history (as opposed to its popular variant) is a belief that history possesses an inherent value beyond its narrow disciplinary confines. History, that is, is something more than diverting tales about the past or, as one commentator put it, ‘gossip well told’: it comes with the presumption that there are lessons to be learned. What these ‘lessons’ might consist of for science can be explored in two inter-related ways. Most obviously, one can take specific historical instances, for example the popularity of phrenology, and ask what parallels, if any, there are with contemporary science. On another level, we can contrast the self-consciously reflexive practice of the historian in actively constructing the past, with the assumptions of detachment and objectivity that underlie the working methods of the scientist.

David Stack

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