- “Useful Sciences”? Ursula Klein, Nützliches Wissen
In the last few years Ursula Klein, the historian of science and technology, has published two books on late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century science and technology in German-speaking Europe that have important implications for our understanding of the relationships between science and technology. In the first of these, Humboldts Preussen: Wissenschaft und Technik im Aufbruch (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2015. Pp. 336. €49.95), she focused on an aspect of Alexander von Humboldt’s early career that has been largely ignored in the literature on him: his education at a mining college and his early employment as a mines inspector. Klein uses him as an exemplar of a category of late-eighteenth-century technically expert civil servants in Prussia who were committed to social and economic reform for the public good. To that end, they championed what they called “useful science” (nützliche Wissenschaft), a form of “hybrid” knowledge based on both savant and artisan knowledges. For this group science and technology were two sides of a coin. As she hastens to point out, knowledge of this kind was not completely novel in the eighteenth century since a variety of historians have previously noted the hybrid character of the work of Agricola, Galileo, and others during the early modern period. What is new in the eighteenth century, she argues, is that such hybrid knowledge was no longer confined to exceptional individuals but became institutionalized.
In her more recent book, Nützliches Wissen: die Erfindung der Technikwissenschaften (Goettingen: Wallstein, 2016. Pp. 216. €22.00), Klein pursues this theme further, extending the analysis beyond Humboldt and Prussia to other figures and European states. As its title indicates, the book also examines the nature of “useful science,” discussing in turn “persons,” [End Page 862] “places” and “knowledge.” In the first of these sections she argues that this group of hybrid experts were bridge-builders between the worlds of commerce and scholarship. Significantly, their bridging work did not entail the one-way formalization of tacit knowledge or the scientization of craft skill; it took place from both ends. Despite very diverse social backgrounds and educational trajectories, all these experts possessed both practical experience and some form of scholarly education. And in their field and laboratory research they drew upon areas of both craft and book knowledge that looked potentially relevant to the problems of mining, salt extraction, building, forestry, agriculture, and porcelain manufacture.
In the second section, Klein demonstrates some of the ways in which “useful science” became socially embedded in eighteenth-century Prussia. Besides being a subject familiar to artisans, civil servants, and virtually all savants of the period, the new science was pursued in a wide range of institutions. Some of these were laboratories linked to production within government technical departments or educational institutions directed at military needs (e.g., veterinary and artillery colleges). The chapter, however, focuses on four others in Berlin that were dedicated to teaching and/or research: the colleges for mining and for building, the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and the University of Berlin. The colleges—whose credo was the “integration of theory and practice”—were established in the late eighteenth century as part of the Prussian state’s concern to improve the technical competence of the civil servants who would oversee its program of economic development. Many of the proponents of “useful science” were members of the Prussian Academy, served as advisers on state projects, and conducted project-relevant research funded by the academy. For its part, the new University of Berlin (1810) is generally characterized by historians as founded on the principle of “academic freedom,” but Klein points out that this has often been misinterpreted. It did not mean an exclusive focus on “pure science” but merely an attempt to curb the excessive ministerial interference that had troubled other Prussian universities in the eighteenth century. Thus, at the outset the university established chairs not only for “pure” and professional subjects but also for mineralogy, “chemistry and technology,” administrative sciences (Kameralwissenschaften), agriculture, and forestry.
In the third section, Klein addresses the character of this new science. She regards it as drawing upon two older traditions: those...