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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 57.2 (2002) 239-241

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Book Review

Ways of Knowing:
A New History of Science, Technology and Medicine

John Pickstone. Ways of Knowing: A New History of Science, Technology and Medicine. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001. xii, 271 pp. $20 (paper).

Traditional histories of science, focused on single disciplines, have limited cross-fertilization between the histories of physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, and technology. John Pickstone presents a daring correction of this overspecialization. Offered to everyone from the interested public to experts in science or history, Ways of Knowing provides a new approach to the history of science, technology, and medicine (STM). Finding parallels across all fields of science, Pickstone defends a “hypothesis of synchronicity” (p. 148): specific ways of approaching nature developed simultaneously in fields as diverse as physics and demography.

Drawing on an impressive array of twentieth-century historians and theorists, from R.G. Collingwood to Michel Foucault, Pickstone models [End Page 239] his ways of knowing on Max Weber’s notion of “ideal types.” Natural history came first, with scientists describing and classifying nature, collecting its products in curiosity cabinets, museums, or databases. Classification enabled analysis, by which scientists broke natural objects into their constituent tissues, forces, or molecules. These techniques allowed experiment and synthesis, the control of conditions for the production of novel products and phenomena. This culminated in modern technoscience, which applies the knowledge and methods of STM to the needs of government or commerce. In Pickstone’s model, ways of knowing emerged successively in a process of complex accumulation from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Each new approach depended on what had come before and enabled new incarnations of prior ways of knowing. The human genome project, as I interpret it, is a project of natural history, but one that relies on the analytical and experimental techniques of molecular biology.

Pickstone situates his ideal types firmly within their institutional and cultural contexts: ways of knowing are also ways of working and ways of producing. Just as ways of knowing shaped the institutions and products of science, economic and political pressures motivated ways of knowing, tying science and commerce together in networks for the systematic production of novelty. The values and meanings that underlie ways of knowing appear especially clearly in the unprecedented commercialization of late twentieth-century STM. Though skeptical of commercialized science, Pickstone is not universally critical. Technoscientific enterprises have often been interested in both principles and products.

Although offering a reconceptualization of the whole history of STM, Pickstone does not attempt a comprehensive survey. Instead, he focuses on Europe and North America, especially Paris and Manchester, over the past 300 years. This focus allows him to mix local history and broad trajectories, while linking his narratives to the major historical developments of the French and Industrial revolutions. Although most of his examples come from core areas of STM (e.g., steam engines, cloud chambers, bacteria, bombs), nearly all fields make cameos, from geology to linguistics. His accounts of medicine, for instance, include all the usual suspects: the case histories of seventeenth-century physicians (natural history), the numerical method of postrevolutionary France (analysis), the cellular pathology of mid-nineteenth-century Germany (analysis), the discoveries of bacteriology and antibiotics (analysis and experiment), and the academic-industrial complex of late-twentieth century biomedicine (technoscience).

Ways of Knowing does have limitations. Although Pickstone targets both a general and an expert audience, only someone already familiar with the characters and narratives of STM will be able to understand his arguments or his originality. Experts will certainly find faults, whether inconsistencies [End Page 240] in his chronological frameworks (did all sciences really make the transition from natural history to analysis at the same time?) or ambiguities in his ideal types (if much of science is simultaneously natural history, analysis, and synthesis, do the typologies have rigorous value?). He also marginalizes mathematics, something that will surprise some historians of science.

These complaints should not dissuade prospective readers. For someone...


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