Tocqueville’s Ghost


Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences recently gave me the opportunity to review three thought-provoking books and in the process muse on the history of “American science.” You can read the entire essay here.

I had a great deal of fun writing this essay, especially because it gave me an excuse to think about of the earliest figures in the field. For instance:

When Shryock and Schlesinger turned to science, they asked with Tocqueville: is there something distinctive about American science? Looking for American distinctiveness was part of their larger project, which multiplied exceptionalisms in the wake of the U.S.’s rise to superpower status. After the atomic bomb—Schlesinger called it “this terrible engine of destruction”—understanding American science mattered even more. Shryock recast and refined Tocqueville’s laments, explaining that industrial society lay behind the dearth of “pure” science in the United States. Shryock had reform in mind: “one way to overcome American indifference to research is to give more attention to its history.” He was looking at the nineteenth century, but thinking about the twentieth. His fundamental assumption, borrowed from Tocqueville and nineteenth-century discussions, was that politics and national character could have a defining influence over science. (336)

My argument, in sum, is that it more than time to “exorcise” Tocqueville’s ghost. You can decide for yourselves if I’m convincing.

Note: I owe a special thanks to our blog’s dear Hank for his comments, early and often, on this essay, and to the editorial criticisms of HSNS’s book review editors, Angela Creager and Michael Gordin.

Cite: (D. Bouk, “Tocqueville’s Ghost,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 42, no. 4 (2012): 329-339.)

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