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

‘See, this is what we do: terrific, isn’t it?’

This self-regarding refrain is the recommended response for defending the humanities proposed by Stefan Collini in his recently published What are Universities For? (Penguin, 2012). The book is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the future of British universities. It also provides a useful starting point for anyone interested in the future relationship of the humanities and natural sciences. Collini, who provided a new introduction to the reprint of C.P. Snow’s Rede Lecture, has no patience for ‘lazy notions’ of  ‘two cultures’, which he finds ‘misleading and obstructive’. But neither is he blind to the differences between the humanities and the sciences, and the need for the former to explain itself to the latter. The ‘this is what we do’ mantra is formulated for university administrators rather than scientists per se, but given the financial power of science (as Collini points out only 3% of the UK’s combined research council’s £3bn budget goes to the AHRC) it is no surprise to find scientists occupying many of the key positions in university management.


When we explain our trade to scientists we can expect some degree of recognition. Restless, open-ended inquiry – which Collini makes the distinguishing characteristic of the university – is common ground between science and the humanities. So too is the ambition to understand and elucidate; examine evidence systematically; and pursue arguments with precision, rigour and clarity. But it is  on the question of differences, and the manner in which Collini distinguishes the humanities from the natural sciences, that he is most suggestive. He is too aware of the problematic terrain on the porous borders of all disciplines to rely on any conventional distinction between the study of the human (the humanities) and the physical (science). Rather than differentiate on the basis of what we study, Collini finds the key distinction in how we work.  The sciences are defined by their pursuit of knowledge;  the humanities by their quest for understanding.


First, he argues that the ‘informational or propositional content’ of  work in the humanities is less important than it is in science. Historians and literary scholars can be inordinately proud at having discovered a letter from Gladstone or a long-lost Austen manuscript, but discovery and revelation are the eye-catching exception not the rule. ‘Research’ in the humanities generally means reading and analyzing documents, books, and manuscripts that countless others have read before. To the outsider this can appear the most perplexing aspect of our work. If one is not adding to the store of factual knowledge about the French Revolution or the life of Shakespeare, why study them? The answer, says Collini, is that we aim to deepen understanding, not by increasing knowledge so much as by re-ordering existing information through changes in perspective, tone, angle of entry, or points of comparison.


Second, Collini maintains that the individual voice of the author is far more important in the humanities than it is in the sciences. To the degree that perspective, tone, angle of entry, and points of comparison outweigh discovery it follows that the individual author must be central to the overall cogency of work in the humanities. Whereas ‘one scientific author could be substituted for another without damaging the truth and importance’ of an article’s findings, this is not true of the historian or literary critic. In the humanities, the success or failure of any piece of writing ‘will depend in part upon some highly individual characteristics’ of the scholar.


In short, Collini contrasts science’s search for knowledge, which is cumulative and impersonal, with the humanities’ pursuit of understanding, which is non-cumulative and individual.


As a historian, I find Collini’s characterization of my discipline convincing, but I have doubts about his construction of science as a counterpoint. Implicit in his approach, it seems to me, is an unwarranted assumption that scientific knowledge is predominantly linear and progressive, (see ‘The good in “bad” science’) and an undervaluing of the role of the individual in the triumph of scientific ideas. Historically, in the case of evolutionary biology, for example, it would not be difficult to argue that a shift in understanding, rather than a breakthrough in knowledge, was key, and that Charles Darwin’s personality was inextricably bound up in the overall cogency of On the Origin of Species (1859). I am not sure whether or not such objections apply equally to contemporary science.


This is precisely the type of question we would like to explore in our ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ workshop. What do scientists make of the contrast between knowledge and understanding? And what, more generally, do they make of the manner in which humanities scholars write about science? Do they see any value or use in literary and historical studies? We would like to know what you think, and hope to see you on the 18 July.

Dr David Stack

Reader in History


All quotes are from chapter four, ‘The Character of the Humanities’, of Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For?(Penguin, 2012).

The good in ‘bad science’

For many years I was reluctant to admit to strangers that I was a historian. This made getting a haircut a frequent source of torment: “Not working today?” the barber would ask. “No,” I’d reply in the forlorn hope of closing down the conversation. “What do you do then?” [Pause] “Erm …”. At this point, if feeling particularly adventurous, I’d ‘borrow’ an occupation from a friend or relation. The tangled web that ensued, however, was never, as Walter Scott warned, worth the trouble. (I still have nightmares about the time I found myself in a shop basement staring at an electricity meter and intoning, with as much authority as I could muster: “Yes, that’s working perfectly.”)

An honest answer, however, often brought its own difficulties, especially if someone asked what the book I was working on was about. For a few years the simplest answer to this question was ‘phrenology’. Most people understood the term – “Bumps on the head, isn’t it?” – but few could fathom why anyone would spend their time researching it. “So, is there any truth in it?” I was asked on more than one occasion (and not just by barbers, who might be expected to have had a better idea than most).

Implicit in the question, I’ve always felt, was a dual assumption: that the world (and the past) is neatly divided into the ‘true’ and ‘untrue’, and that the latter is useless and thus not worth bothering with. If one holds to this view, that ‘truth’ and ‘utility’ are the only guides to what is worth studying, historians really should be embarrassed about avowing their vocation, and not only to barbers but more especially to University administrators and government ministers (in the unlikely event that they deign to ask). For one of the key tasks of historians, and historians of science more than most, is precisely the study of what is ‘wrong’ and ‘useless’. Just after the Second World War the medical historian Walter Pagel (1898-1983), published a short manifesto for this activity. He called it ‘the vindication of rubbish’.

Pagel’s approach was the antithesis of what we might call popular histories of science. In these accounts, often written by scientists themselves, knowledge is marching ever onwards in a straight line, with each generation (to mix our metaphors) standing on the shoulders of earlier giants, in their progress towards a more truthful understanding. Oddities, such as phrenology, take their place in such accounts, but only as party-pieces to be laughed at and thus confirm our own superior understanding. Pagel, by contrast, coined his phrase while exploring the relationship between alchemy and naturalism in the Renaissance. Rather than dismiss such ‘non-progressive’ elements in the history of science, Pagel argued that an understanding of alchemy and magic was essential to understanding Renaissance medicine and chemistry.

The justification for studying phrenology was slightly different. What interested me (and earlier historians) was the manner in which phrenology’s model of the brain – especially the notion of cognitive localization – mapped onto broader social and economic changes in Victorian society, and how this related to its success and popularity. In part, what we argued was that phrenology is a good example of how the success of a science is determined less by its inherent (or ahistorical) ‘truth’, and more by its explanatory power in a definite set of social relations. Phrenology’s theory of the brain, and thus human nature, that is, was popular because it was compatible with the new industrial capitalist economy and the values of free market economics. A study of phrenology, therefore, both aids our understanding of Victorian Britain and provides a historical perspective through which to view contemporary claims about the modularity of the mind, in neuroethics and brain imaging, which have been labeled the ‘new phrenology’.

Underlying my work, and that of other historians of science, are two assumptions that, I suspect, practicing scientists will find uncomfortable. The first is that the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘pseudo-science’, associated with the philosopher Karl Popper, is unhelpful and invalid. Alchemy, phrenology, magic, and a host of other oddities all deserve to be taken seriously in the history of science. Second, that the ‘realist’ assumption that we should unquestioningly accept today’s science as ‘objective’ and ‘true’ is unsustainable in the face of historical evidence. There are so many cases of theories that were empirically successful in their own day but are now believed false – one historian (Larry Laudan) listed 30 in a range of different disciplines and eras – that there seem good grounds for assuming the historical contingency of any scientific ‘truth’. The atomic theory of matter, after all, could go the same way as phlogiston (the non-existent chemical thought to be released during combustion, prior to the discovery of oxygen) theory.

These, I concede, are difficult and contentious topics that cut to the heart of both the self-image of science and the work of humanities scholars. They are not, perhaps, suitable topics for the barber’s chair but they will, I hope, form part of our discussions at the Cultivating Common Ground workshop. And if biologists prove no more receptive to my ideas than barbers, I am well practiced in steering the conversation around to where I’m planning to spend my holidays.


Dr David Stack

Reader in History



About the organisers

Nick Battey, Professor of Plant Development at the University of Reading

Cultivating common ground is, for me, about finding ways to combine the approaches and skills of two cultures (biology and the humanities) which have a lot to offer each other.

The workshop on 18 July is a way to explore how this might be achieved. We will discuss humanities work relating to biology. We will see how biologists react, what opportunities there may be, where difficulties (and perhaps mutual incomprehension) lie. We will produce a summary analysis of the topic and the workshop, with the aim of cultivating the common ground shared by biology and the humanities.

We hope to generate teaching ideas, novel research, and deeper knowledge; whatever transpires it will be an unusual and stimulating experience.

More by Nick Battey

Paul Hatcher and Nick Battey, 2011. Biological Diversity: Exploiters and Exploited. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester. http://www.amazon.com/Biological-Diversity-Exploiters-Paul-Hatcher/dp/0470778075


Nick Battey, 2002/2003. Plant Culture: Thirteen Seasonal Pieces. Journal of Experimental Botany 53/54. Follow the link to the thirteenth (December) seasonal piece: http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/content/54/393/2597.full.pdf+html


John Holmes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Reading

After six years as their Treasurer and Book Reviews Editor, I have just taken over as Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science. There is a lot of interest in biology among literature scholars, working on topics from how plants and animals are represented in literature to the evolution of literature itself. Cultivating common ground offers us a chance to share some of that interdisciplinary work with the people who do the research within the discipline(s) of biology itself, to see what biologists make of what literature scholars and historians have to say about biology, and how we can work together to further collaboration from both sides.

More by John Holmes

Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009) http://www.euppublishing.com/book/978-0-7486-3940-3


Science in Modern Poetry: New Directions (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012) http://www.liverpool-unipress.co.uk/html/publication.asp?idProduct=4074


David Stack, Reader in History at the University of Reading

I find myself thinking about science an awful lot. Not only because my area of history cannot be understood without an appreciation of the power and place of science in Victorian society, but also because science, in all its manifestations, does so much to shape my working life. I’m as content as the next technophobe not to worry about how the computers and search engines that increasingly facilitate my research actually work. It is less easy to ignore, however, the way in which models and structures developed for the natural sciences increasingly shape the day-to-day experience of working in a university. Higher education spending is now primarily directed towards ‘big science’, and as a consequence the funding and management of non-science departments – winning grants, making ‘impact’, the dreaded REF – increasingly apes models developed for the sciences.

But do my colleagues in the biological sciences, I wonder, reciprocate? Do they care what we do in the humanities? Do they think that there might be value in the literary and historical study of their discipline?  I hope so.

I’m not convinced it is desirable to cultivate common ground in the sense of some ill-defined interdisciplinarity, which too often implies the subordination of one discipline to another. (And in the meeting of multi-million pound science and the relatively poverty stricken humanities the deal is only likely to cut one way). But any initiative that enhances our mutual understanding, or at least reduces mutual misunderstanding, must be welcome.

What I hope we can cultivate is common ground where the sciences and humanities meet as intellectual equals, explore common themes, but also recognize the value of their distinct identities and contributions.


David Stack’s books include:

Queen Victoria’s Skull (2008)


The First Darwinian Left (2003)


Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Professor of Critical Theory in the English Department at the University of Reading

Although I am a Professor in a Department of English Language and Literature, I do not do the kind of work most people expect, and this is also why I am involved with Cultivating Common Ground. As a Critical Theorist I work across all disciplines asking questions of basic assumptions in any field. This means that I am not so much an interdisciplinary researcher as what is nowadays called a transdisciplinary researcher: the assumptions I question usually underpin a range of ideas in a range of disciplines which may otherwise seem quite different.
My primary (although not only) focus is the assumptions made in disciplines about childhood and gender. In this sense, I am not so much someone who cultivates common ground as someone who works on showing how the ground is already common, even where it does not seem to be. But this also means that the questions I ask are often seen to be very strange indeed, as no discipline sees them as self-evident or even as questions at all. Many people, whether academics or not, are very surprised indeed to hear that my latest (in press) article is on mathematics while the article I published before that was on how people think about childhood, gender and sexual identity in the Humanities and Social Sciences. I hope to bring to the workshop my particular perspective of not working with separate disciplines anyway, but with the common issues that underpin them all.

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein’s books include:

Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child, 1994, repr. 2000.
The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair, (editor and contributor), 2006.
On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood, 2008.
Children in Culture, Revisited: Further Approaches to Childhood, (editor and contributor), 2011

 Francoise Le Saux, Professor of Medieval Languages and Literature at the University of Reading

One aspect of medieval culture that has always interested me is the absence of the strict compartmentalisation of knowledge we now live with.  Medieval manuscripts frequently gather side by side homilies, theological treatises, obscene tales, courtly romances, medical and veterinary tracts and pharmaceutical recipes; science and culture were part of a seamless whole, informing each other, and both core to the educational experience of the medieval scholar. From the twelfth to the sixteenth century, science was no less ‘scientific’ in its approaches than nowadays; it was equally based on theories formulated to make sense of facts established by observation, and explaining the ability to reproduce certain outcomes in the laboratory or the workshop.  In the absence of sophisticated technological aids (such as effective microscopes), these observations were flawed, and many of the scientific theories of the period are now dismissed. However, the Middle Ages present us with a useful model of integration of science within a wider cultural horizon, and I look forward to exploring in our workshop the tortuous road that led to the divorce between science and culture in the Modern period.