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  • Toward a Cognitive-Historical Understanding of Michael Faraday’s Research:Editor’s Introduction

It has become common to acknowledge Thomas Kuhn as a seminal figure in bringing history into science studies, and to credit him for introducing sociological concerns that broadened both history and philosophy of science. Kuhn also freely used psychological constructs, for example using early cognitive experiments by Jerome Bruner and others to interpret the discoveries of oxygen, X-rays, and the development of the Leyden Jar (Kuhn 1970, pp. 62–64). Ironically, however, Kuhn's own reliance on both psychology and sociology to understand science in its historical context remained an unusual effort. For most in science studies (and even in the history and philosophy of science), psychological approaches and those rooted more broadly in cognitive science, have seemed unnecessary, or even perniciously reductive.

However, in recent years, a specifically cognitive historical approach to science studies has reawakened Kuhn's vision (see, for an overview, Nersessian 1995). Drawing upon theories and findings in cognitive science since Kuhn's time, cognitive historical accounts have deepened understanding of the cognitive practices of scientists, enlarged our view of the nature of scientific representations, and shed new light on the relationship between scientific thought and the social and cultural dynamics of history.

In this special issue four such studies illustrate the range of possible approaches by presenting complementary analyses of the work of one historical figure, Michael Faraday. Each paper deals with a different aspect of Faraday's work and adopts a different chronological "grain," ranging from the very molecular to the very broad. Each author exemplifies a cognitive historical approach, but each in slightly differing ways. Each paper makes clear the need for such approaches, if we are to obtain a full understanding [End Page 1] of the case in hand. Taken together, the papers constitute an ostensive definition of the broader approach.1

Faraday (1791–1867) is best known for his extensive researches on electricity and magnetism, published in a numbered series of papers, the "Experimental Researches on Electricity," between 1832 and 1856.2 This remarkable set of papers laid the foundation for modern views of electricity and magnetism. Building on Faraday's experiments and theories, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Maxwell developed a mathematical theory of the field, and showed that even light was an electromagnetic phenomenon, a theoretical result that led to the discovery of "radio waves" by Heinrich Hertz. As many have argued, Faraday's field theory was thus the first step in a transformation of our view of the physical world, one that culminated in the 20th century in the theories of special and general relativity developed by Albert Einstein.3

Although best known for his discoveries in electricity and magnetism (especially his discovery of electromagnetic rotations in 1821, of electromagnetic induction in 1831, the distinction between paramagnetic and diamagnetic phenomena in 1845, and the rotation of a plane-polarized light beam in a magnetic field in 1846), Faraday's research was not confined to electricity and magnetism. He also made foundational contributions to electrochemistry ("Faraday's Law" of the electrochemical equivalents), chemistry (e.g., the discovery of benzene), and metallurgy (his preparation of alloy steels), to name only a few.4

Faraday needs no excuse then, for serving as the subject of many studies by historians and philosophers of science. In recent decades, interest in Faraday has broadened, to include a growing number of cognitive scientists. In part, this more recent interest is founded on awareness of the rich treasures to be found in Faraday's diary records. As Anderson (this issue) notes, Faraday worked in a tradition that valued and encouraged the keeping of extensive diaries and records. Thus, many thousands of pages of his [End Page 2] "thought records" survive, constituting a "database" of unparalleled richness and completeness. Few other scientists provide so much material for an understanding of the cognitive life of a scientist, and for the reconstruction of his "investigative pathways" (Holmes 2004).

Faraday's meticulous record-keeping was a habit acquired very early in life, a partial consequence of his self-education in science.5 The multiple volumes of Faraday's...


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