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  • Gaukroger and Scientific Culture
  • Peter Dear (bio)

A project to delineate The Emergence of a Scientific Culture must surely be seen as Big History, the sort of history that, like Jonathan Israel’s volumes on the Enlightenment, aims to create a historiographical monument that will inevitably serve as something that others will strive to tear down. Generally, when that happens, even successful destruction leaves something permanent behind: the shaping of questions, whether as positive affirmations or as negative impressions in the sand, will have made a difference, and will have subtly redirected the way in which people think of certain issues or historical periods. The five volumes that Stephen Gaukroger has planned for this work look to be on schedule, and likely to be completed, and in that sense differ from Charles Darwin’s “big species book,” the weighty work he was in the middle of writing when Wallace’s letter of 1858 redirected him to producing its “abstract,” The Origin of Species—whereupon the previous attempt to force everyone’s belief by sheer scale of argumentation and evidence soon fell by the wayside. Whether Gaukroger ever produces his own Origin of Species (I rather hope he does), the ongoing publication of his “big species book” indicates that the density of his material and the arguments that he builds with it are not calculated to overwhelm his reader but instead to persuade through an accessible narrative style that attempts to chase down various topical hares while maintaining an intelligible argumentative structure. Gaukroger’s species are various modes of natural inquiry, often “natural philosophy” in the first two volumes, and this is certainly a big book already. While he doesn’t exactly propose to account for the origin of these species, Gaukroger does mean to explain how particular modes of science developed historically as methodological and theoretical fellow travelers with distinct cultural practices or [End Page 22] institutions that served to lend a wider legitimacy to science itself. He describes science sometimes as an “activity,” and at other times as a “culture”; many of the central issues in this ambitious project seem to turn on the use of such terms.

Gaukroger’s project, outlined here in his essay, requires that his reader accept in advance a number of propositions. These include a particular notion of “culture”; the existence of a broad, homogeneous, evolving Western, or European, intellectual consensus; and, above all, a self-evident definition of “science,” the instantiations of which are usually to be unproblematically recognized. Accepting any of these, but particularly the third, may seem a high price to pay in exchange for Gaukroger’s elegant historical overview. One feature to be noted of Gaukroger’s account in his first two volumes is the nature of its cast of characters: most of them, and the most important ones, are ideas. His is an intellectual story concerning theories, methodologies, and explanations fighting it out over several centuries in literary Europe, and the reasons for the outcomes of these contests are consequentially obscure. The decline of “mechanism” in the 18th century is attributed to a failure to deliver in various areas of natural inquiry, an accounting that brings us back to the obscurity of the overarching label “science.” After all, there was nothing inherently wrong with “speculative natural philosophy,” even if difficulties were found in its application to specific empirical programs (and one can even make a case that the “rejection” of a “system” like mechanism was less absolute than Gaukroger implies; certainly one would want to know why some people chose to reject it). “Science” nonetheless retained its standing in the 18th century, according to Gaukroger, despite a rejection of mechanism, and that was achieved thanks to the new legitimating arena of the human sciences. Systems were out, but sensibility was in, and somehow “science” latched onto it.

But what is this protean, or else unalterable, central character in Gaukroger’s drama? What was, and is, the “scientific culture” that becomes consolidated through this wending and unobvious path, kicked from pillar to post, or from theologically relevant natural philosophy in the Middle Ages to mechanism, then to sensibility in the 18th century, with yet more episodes to appear subsequently? If...


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pp. 22-23
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