We’re Back, or, Monday on the Blog with George

American Science is back from summer vacation.

As you will have noticed, we have a new platform and webpage. Like a self-conscious adolescent on the first day of blog high school, we have traded the JNCOs and Vans of Blogger for a more buttoned-up wardrobe. We’re also going to be trying some new bloggy things this year. Check out our homepage and our twitter account, @americansciblog, for daily links posts and more on new features and a new team member(!).

Apropos of our return to blog normalcy: lately, I’ve been reading up on what various scientists had to say about the resumption of international scientific relations after the end of World War I. During the war, most scientists in the belligerent nations had hewed enthusiastically to a saying attributed to Fritz Haber: “During peacetime a scientist belongs to the world, but during wartime he belongs to his country.” (Nobody embodied this better than Haber, celebrated as a humanitarian hero for developing a fertilizer production process held to have staved off mass starvation, and vilified as a war criminal for his enthusiastic wartime leadership of the German chemical warfare effort.)

After the guns fell silent, however, many scientists were not as eager to give themselves back to “the world” as Haber’s formulation suggested they ought to be. Notwithstanding the common assumption of science’s border-denying universalism, in certain respects, the return of full international cooperation in science seemed to lag behind the restoration of diplomatic relations among the former belligerents. (A similar point could be made for sports.)

This confounded advocates of peace and rapprochement, including George Sarton, founding editor of Isis, his firmly international journal of the history of science. Sarton had managed to publish only one and a half volumes of the journal before departing his native Belgium for America during the war. After the war, as the delegates to the Paris Peace Conference were negotiating the postwar settlement, Sarton prepared to re-launch his journal.

As an introduction to the first couple of issues of his resumed journal, Sarton penned editorials expressing aspects of the scholarly philosophy that he had fleshed out during the war. By means of this collection of values, commitments, and methods, which he christened “The New Humanism,” Sarton hoped to further both political unity among nations and intellectual unity among disciplines. As Steven Shapin described in his Sarton Medal lecture at last year’s History of Science Society meeting, Sarton felt that the specialness of science—the status of science as (to Sarton’s mind) the one and only true example of progress in human affairs—was the key to doing so.

George Sarton, historian of science [http://islamstory.com/en/node/36797]

George Sarton, historian of science [http://islamstory.com/en/node/36797]

In the first two editorials with which he re-launched Isis (available here and here), Sarton had much to say about war, internationalism, education, scholarship, and comparative political economy. He celebrated internationalism but denigrated cosmopolitanism. He opined that the “young nations” of the western hemisphere were well equipped for “working out radical ideas in a conservative way.”

He also wrote about the field of scholarship that Isis represented. “A true humanist,” Sarton averred, “must know the life of science as he knows the life of art and the life of religion.” Isis would be the “international organ” for furthering the “mixing of the historical with the scientific spirit, of life with knowledge, of beauty with truth.”

Sarton advocated doing so via the sort of approach that Herbert Butterfield was soon to describe as Whig history: “A humanist’s duty is not simply to study the past in a passive and sheepish way and to lose himself in his admiration, he must needs contemplate it from the summit of modern science, with the whole of human experience at his disposal and with a heart full of hope.”

“We all live in the present,” Sarton wrote, “but the present of the uneducated is narrow and mean, while that of a true humanist is catholic and generous.” As it turned out, histories depicting science as a universal, progressive march to the present were not the very best method for attaining a “catholic and generous” perspective on the present. But what a goal to strive for!

Sarton also admonished his colleagues in the sciences not to neglect the aesthetic and human for the technical and abstract. “Our knowledge itself must be humane and generous, a thing of beauty, or it is not worth having.” He meant was to call attention to the intrinsic “humane, generous” qualities that, in his view, science always had, qua its status as the only progressive product of human culture.

We might take his suggestion in another direction. Can we help create and inform more humane and generous forms of scientific knowledge in the future by means of the history of science? Can we at least experiment with different ways of doing so, in our books and article and lectures and blog posts? In some small way, I hope so.

“If we are anxious to do our best and to bear our full share of the common burden, we must be historians, scientists, craftsmen” – and bloggers? – “and we shall be true humanists only to the extent of our success in combining the historical and the scientific spirit.”

Sarton’s words are rather too elevated for the occasion of re-launching a blog. Still, we’ll see what we can do to keep them in mind.

1 thought on “We’re Back, or, Monday on the Blog with George

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #10 | Whewell's Ghost

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