Science Knows No Boundaries

Alan I. Marcus, Mississippi State University
(An essay in the “What’s American About the History of Science in America” series.)

Like virtually all historians of science before me, I entered the field from science; I had been a chemist. But unlike most science historians, I was never fully steeped in the scientific method as the only way of knowing or viewing natural phenomenon. I was too much of a sixties kid for that. Everything seemed more complex than what I had learned. Perspective seemed up for grabs. So when I was told that science knows no national borders, that scientific knowledge was an accumulation of data and facts that led to somewhere, I naturally felt dis-ease. I thought it quite cool how various practitioners of science in the past had figured things out, how they did whatever they did, but I never took it as a model for action, a model to be employed in some project to make the world a better place or to manufacture additional or new science. In that sense, I approached the history of science in the spirit of discovery but I never worried or even contemplated that that sense of discovery could or should be applied to the present or the future.

Years later I learned that some would call such an approach historical particularism. But it colored how I viewed the then current history of science tumult. A generation of historians in the early 1960s had tried to prove that there was science in America. They had settled on Joseph Henry at Princeton, the Smithsonian Institution, Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz to show that Americans participated in the debates that were engulfing European scientists. In that sense, scientists could be found in America but their work was simply part of the worldwide scientific enterprise and these American scientists on a whole added relatively little.

Another group challenged that equation a bit later in that decade. Led by George H. Daniels, they asked not whether Americans practiced science but rather what constituted science in America. At the ouset, they dismissed the idea that there was simply one worldwide scientific community. What they posited instead were communities corresponding to national borders. What was science in the age of Andrew Jackson? What was the AAAS at its founding? What did Americans trained in Justus Liebig’s laboratory take back to the United States and establish there?

That was quite a radical precept. It dismissed any number of propositions that seemed to undergird history of science. By positing more than one scientific community, it implied that science was not universal but rather relative. And it emphasized the characteristics of the community of practitioners. Daniels, for example, tried to provide a template by which any group of practitioners took steps to meld themselves into a single entity in the manner of European scientists.

It remained a short step from that approach to a full blown analysis of the cultural context of science, scientific inquiry, or any other facet of science. That approach was ultimately taken in numerous ways and has characterized much of the history of science activity over the past three decades. In this framework, what the individual or collective experiences, knows, feels, suffers, learns colors if not defines what it/they see and what it/they believe. In a sense, it places a stimulus-response model of human behavior on scientists, the complexity of which solely depends on the individual.

This social force explanation has always struck me as unsatisfactory. And I never have been comfortable identifying science as a unique type of activity. Scientists practice science but they remain people and operate within certain cultural parameters or constructs. More immediately, they accept notions that characterize that culture. Indeed, as Michel Foucault, Quentin Skinner, and Clifford Geertz has taught us, those cultural notions make argument possible. Without accepting those notions, individuals would have no common fund of perspective from which agreement or disagreement could be located.

It has always been those cultural notions that have fascinated me. But if they are indeed cultural notions—notions found at particular places at particular times—then they should not just be the possession of scientists but manifested through the various activities and enterprises of that time and place.

Put into action, this leads to an interesting proposition too frequently ignored. Indeed, most historians of science—indeed, most historians generally—follow a particular person, event, discovery, theory over time to see how experience modifies that person, event, discovery or theory. This longitudinal approach is insular in the sense that it focuses exclusively on the impact of various forces on a particular person or thing to determine how that impact changed that very person or thing.

But the cultural notions approach begins simply by treating the labors of scientists as the product of discrete cultural notions. In that sense, scientists are no different than artists, lawyers, politicians in that particular place at that particular time. It stands to reason that scientists are not pursuing an extraordinary project but rather a common one. They employ notions held in common with their peers that help demarcate what they see. And if that is indeed the case, then the investigation of science and scientists needs to be latitudinally pursued and focused on interrogating those notions.

Since the method of scientists suggests that their efforts are anything but arbitrary or culturally-based, scientists are especially frank in expressing how they arrived at their work. And by being so certain of their objectivity, they are much more willing than then contemporary artists or literary specialists to describe sans guile their assumptions and thought processes; they become an extraordinary window into the cultural notions that circumscribe them. And in that final sense, history of science in America and history of American science stand as nothing less than the history of American culture through the details and practices of science and scientists. History of science then becomes integrated within American history.

Alan I. Marcus
Mississippi State University

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