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  • Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe:Introduction
  • Robert Goulding

In 1713, Pierre Rémond de Montmort wrote to the mathematician Nicolas Bernoulli:

It would be desirable if someone wanted to take the trouble to instruct how and in what order the discoveries in mathematics have come about. . . . The histories of painting, of music, of medicine have been written. A good history of mathematics, especially of geometry, would be a much more interesting and useful work. . . . Such a work, if done well, could be regarded to some extent as a history of the human mind, since it is in this science, more than in anything else, that man makes known that gift of intelligence that God has given him to rise above all other creatures.1

Such a history of mathematics was attempted by Jean-Etienne Montucla in his Histoire des mathématiques (first printed in 1758, and reissued in a [End Page 33] greatly expanded form in 1799).2 Montucla's great work is generally acknowledged as the first genuine history of mathematics. According to some modern historians, previous attempts at such a history had amounted to little more than collections of anecdotes, biographies or exhaustive bibliographies: "jumbles of names, dates and titles," as one writer in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography characterized them.3 Montucla, on the other hand, was thoroughly animated by the Enlightenment project expressed in Rémond's letter, and his Histoire was a philosophical history of the "development of the human mind," as he himself described it.4 It was precisely Montucla's vision of what mathematics meant and his conviction that mathematics itself must change in order to reflect the historical elevation of the human intellect, that allowed him to transform the scattered dates and anecdotes of his predecessors into a genuine history. All subsequent histories of mathematics—until the most recent social histories5 —have been in a sense "footnotes to Montucla."

The papers here argue that there were indeed histories of mathematics before Montucla which are worthy of scholarly attention, and that the dismissal of Renaissance histories of science as nothing more than a "cloud of fine adjectives and metaphors" is unfair (although it contains a germ of truth). Anthony Grafton has argued in an article on the historical writings of Cardano, Rheticus, and Kepler, that the purpose of such texts was not so much to trace what actually happened, as to justify the study of a subject often derided—by both humanist and scholastic writers—as obscure, useless and undignified.6 The following four papers go further in arguing that writings in this genre (or, at least, some writings in this genre) were not limited to this characteristically humanist objective. Authors did not just use their histories to persuade others. They themselves relied on historical narratives in order to think about their discipline, define its parts, distinguish among its acceptable and unacceptable forms and prescribe its content [End Page 34] and method of teaching. By placing their discipline into a historical context shared by other, more mainstream humanistic arts, moreover, they could draw upon the large, narrative structures which Renaissance humanists had adapted to understand human intellectual and cultural development, origins, progress and decline.

James Byrne's article highlights a disparity of vision between those humanists who treated the origin of the arts as just another subject for humanistic display; and those (like Regiomontanus) who were invested in the arts and wrote their histories from an insider's perspective. Alongside Regiomontanus, one could include several other authors treated in this collection, such as Thomas Vaughan, Peter Ramus, and Henry Savile. In each case, history provided a means for working through problems of the legitimacy and nature of their disciplines. While their writings are not "histories of the human mind," their interests went beyond mere rehearsal of anecdotes. Ramus's histories, for instance, written 200 years before Montucla's Histoire, had the kind of unifying vision which de Montmort demanded, and shared Montucla's concern to find a meaning in the development of mathematics. Ramus, and the supporters and detractors he spawned, were convinced that constructing the history of this science was crucial to understanding how and why human beings have...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3222
Print ISSN
0022-5037
Pages
pp. 33-40
Launched on MUSE
2006-03-09
Open Access
No
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