A Historical Sketch of the Relationship Between History and Science

A Historical Sketch of the Relationship between History and Science Author(s): Lynn Thorndike Source: The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Apr., 1928), pp. 342-345 Published by: American Association for the Advancement of Science Stable URL: . Accessed: 28/05/2014 09:59 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . . JSTOR is a not-for-profit se
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  A Historical Sketch of the Relationship between History and ScienceAuthor(s): Lynn ThorndikeSource: The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Apr., 1928), pp. 342-345Published by: American Association for the Advancement of Science Stable URL: . Accessed: 28/05/2014 09:59 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at  .  . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact  .  American Association for the Advancement of Science  is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve andextend access to The Scientific Monthly. This content downloaded from on Wed, 28 May 2014 09:59:42 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  A HISTORICAL SKETCH OF THE RELATION- SHIP BETWEEN HISTORY AND SCIENCE By Professor LYNN THORNDIKE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY THE relations between history and science seem not to have been hitherto at all close. It is true that the Greek word, historia, might ndicate any inves- tigation of the past, of the present or of nature, and that this usage persisted into the middle ages when in Latin anatomical manuscripts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries one finds a history of incisions, a history of arteries, a history of muscles and a history of nerves. It is true that before the present age of specialization a single person was more likely to deal with several fields of knowledge or re- search. But the number of those whom we know to have been productive n both history nd science is not very impres- sive, partly perhaps because their writ- ings in the one field or the other have been lost. Those who have engaged in both the historical nd scientific ields f activity have often kept them n separate compartments rather than effected a happy union between hem, nd have not necessarily een led either o a historical view of science or a scientific method n history. Calendars have developed into fasti and annals, and chronologists ave often been men of some mathematical r astronomical attainments. The same writers were apt to retail historical anecdotes and yarns concerning nimals and other marvels of nature: witness Aelian of Praeneste and the Deip- nosophists of Athenaeus. Encyclo- pedists comprised the phenomena of nature and the story of man along with everything lse in their oose collections. But such associations are not very im- rArZssZve. Whe-n scientific matter has been introduced into a history n the past, it has usually been in the nature of a digression. Dr. Sarton begins the first volume of his recent monumental Introduction to the History of Science with Homer, but as my time is somewhat imited, will pass on irimediately o Herodotus, once regarded as the father of history. His epic or dramatic variety of history, largely personal in his first ook, n the following survey of the lands of the Near East strews before us a number of valuable bits of scientific or pseudo- scientific ore. But it may be questioned if the Ionian philosophers with their world grou-nds nd evoluitionary heories, their scientific uriosity concerning he past, did not approach closer to a true combination f history nd science than either he or Thucydides, whose critical and sophistical treatment brought his- tory nto closer relation o the theoretical science of the day. And this raises the query whether history hall appeal pri- marily to the human nterest motive, s in Herodotus, or be limited largely to past or even recent politics, as in Thu- eydides and so much recent American teaching of it, or whether t shall survey the entire past with a scientific urpose and method nd with especial emphasis upon the past of those ntellectual facul- ties and that mental life which distin- guish man from other iving beings and from other objects of scientific nvesti- gation. The ancient Greek who best combined the historical and scientific interests appears to have been Aristotle. It is true that the notion which he handed on 342 This content downloaded from on Wed, 28 May 2014 09:59:42 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  HISTORY AND SCIENCE 343 of scienice s concerned only with eter- nal and unchanging truth leaves little room for history. But he wrote a His- tory of Animals, a Constitutional His- tory of Athens, nd treated of both the development f Greek iterature nd the views of philosophers before him. His medieval and early modern influence, however, was far more as a philosopher and a natural scientist than as a his- torian. In the Hellenistic period which fol- lowed Aristotle, he bookislh ompilation in libraries of histories from previous histories became largely disassociated from the study of anatomy, stronomy, botany, physiology, nd the like; which, while also too inclined to repeat past authors' opinions, seem to have main- tained more contact with reality. With Pliny the Elder, however, n the Roman Empire we come to a man who in his Historia Naturalis dealt with science for the most part historically. While he can not be said to have dealt with the past scientifically, e is none the less after Aristotle our outstanding example in antiquity of the union of history and science; and he was until then and for ong to come the chief his- torian of civilization. His vast influ- ence in medieval and early modern times was in the main conservative, anchoring science to previous lore and attaching the ball and chain of past superstition to the winged ankles of Afercury. The Bible is stronger n its historical than its scientific ide, and the same was naturally rue of early Christian hought and writing. History was now reviewed and reconstructed s the working ut of a divine plan and purpose, but while we have a sort of Christian Pliny in the encyclopedist and chronologist, Julius Africanus, nd while such works as the Hexaemeron of Basil cater to an obvious curiosity oncerning nature, this appar- ently existed n the audience more than in the preacher. Christianlity as often been called a great historical religion, but until Mrs. Eddy it was seldom ac- cused of being a great scientific eligion. The Schoolmen nd medieval theologians nevertheless ttempted with the aid of Aristotle to make it such, and to corre- late and reconcile Trinity with First Cause, angels with spheres, miracle with natural law and marvel, nd, in general, traditional supernaturalism with a ra- tional theory f the universe. The effort to establish this bold synthesis or cen- turies absorbed many of the most advanced thinkers f the medieval uni- versities, but was already in the four- teenth century questioned by some of the ablest minds among them, was later attacked by humanists and religious reformers, nd finally was generally abandoned by an indolent nd dilettante early modern society. The study and writing of history t no time had much relation to it, except that the stress aid upon authorities eminds one of histori- cal method. But we must turn back again to the earlier Moslem world. The wide sweep of Arabian conquest, embracing hree continents nd joining such distant lands as Spain and Persia in the communion f the same language, promoted a cosmopolitanism nd inter- nationalism avorable o the development of history nd science side by side. De- spite nomadism and fanaticism, ravel and study gave breadth of view and in- sight. It is true that we can no longer regard the Arabic speaking and writing world as the sole channel by which an interest in science flowed first to the later medieval, and then, augmented by a supposed revival of classical science, to the modern world. We now realize that there was always some interest n science during the early middle ages both in the Byzantine Empire and the Latin West, and that the renaissance of the twelfth nd thirteenth enturies, ar more important scientifically han the later so-called classical Renaissance, was not due merely o translations rom the Arabic. At the same time there was much more scientific writing done in Arabic than in any other anguage from the seventh to the eleventh century. This content downloaded from on Wed, 28 May 2014 09:59:42 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  344 THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY This Arabic science, like so much of ancient, medieval and early modern science, was mingled with superstition and magic, but was also often marked by rational skepticism nd experimental method. It appears to have had much greater effect pon the West than did the Arabic historiography. But for the combination n an Arabic writer of the interest n history and science with a rational attitude one may refer the English reader to the works of Albiruni on India and the Chronology f Ancient Nations, both available in translation. We have just referred o superstition and magic. The pseudo-science of astrology, whose srcins have not yet been satisfactorily stablished but which at least existed in a highly developed form by the Hellenistic and Roman periods, was still further laborated by writers in Arabic such as Albumasar, and continued upon the same basis into late medieval and early modern imes n the West, while it of course still affects all Oriental peoples. Astrology had im- portant relations both to history nd to science. Not only were all properties f plants, stones and animals referred to the planets and signs, and the formation and medical treatment of the human body placed likewise under their influ- ence, but we also find the astrological interpretation of history as in the treatise of Alkindi, the first nd only great philosopher f the Arab race, on the duration of the Arabian Empire, or in the theory of great conjunctions of the superior planets as marking transi- tions and periods in history. Comets and eclipses, too, were no mere natural phenomena but related to the course of human history. Rulers assiduously con- sulted astrologers; t was important to know the particular constellations nder whose influence given region ay; the date of the founding of a city was as significant s the horoscope of an indi- vidual; and annually, at least in fif- teenth century taly, elaborate forecasts of the probable course of events-nat- ural, social, and political-during the coming year or for each of its four seasons, were ssued not by half-educated impostors but by university professors. Never n all probability ave history nd science been in such close relationship as they were supposed to be brought by astrology. One reason why Arabic historiography made less impression n the West than Arabic science may be that already in the tenth and eleventh centuries there were several remarkable historians in the Latin world' with whom Gerbert an alone be compared n the realm of Latin science, nd he, by virtue of his inform- ing letters, was a bit of a historian oo. Since the medieval Latin revival of learning in the twelfth nd thirteenth centuries there has been a continuous development of science to the present time. In the fourteenth century we have significant criticism and amend- ment of the Aristotelian physics; in the fourteenth nd fifteenth enturies much activity n medicine and astronomy, x- perimental method in anatomy and surgery. Science to-day would not stand so firm f it did not have these deep foundations. This scientific evel- opment eems by and large to have been only slightly affected one way or the other by such historical movements s the so-called Italian Renaissance or humanism, and the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. The historical writing f the time was more susceptible o their nfluence. The humanists, who took rather more inter- est in history han n science, understood classical history nd writers better han most of their medieval predecessors ad, but this did not necessarily make them better historians or scientists. They were too prone to imitate Livy, to take some such barren subject as The Cartha- ginian Domination of Spain before the Punic Wars. And they ceased to under- stand the middle ages. Not all his- torians of the fifteenth nd sixteenth centuries were humanists fortunately, but the disparagement f the medieval period became general and has been This content downloaded from on Wed, 28 May 2014 09:59:42 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


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