Classics of Historiography of Science. George Sarton

This post begins a series of posts that focus on some canonical figures and texts in the historiography of science. I write about their conceptions of history, science and future. Already in this text, the essential connection between history and future will arise. Beyond that, I find these figures interesting for many reasons.

First, the ideas presented by the historical thinkers have been so well known that generations of scholars have taken general awareness of them for granted. The thinking of the historical figures may appear simplistic, trivial or old-fashioned as the academic world has fell in love with nuances. We might even assume that all the relevant ideas of these figures have been incorporated into our thinking. However, Georg Sarton, a historian of science (and our subject in this text) wrote already in 1916 that

“It is much to be regretted that many scientists decline to admit the utility of historical research or consider this simply as a kind of pastime of small importance. They base their contempt on the following argument: ‘All the best of ancient science has been assimilated and incorporated in our own science. The rest did not deserve more than oblivion, and it is awkward to overburden our memory with it. The science that we are learning and teaching is the result of a continuous selection which has eliminated all the parasitic parts in order to retain only that which is of real value’.

It is easy to see that this argument is not sound. — [S]cience is constantly evolving, as new points of view are introduced every day, any idea that has been neglected may be considered later on as very important and fertile”. (p. 345-346)

Sarton’s observation has two important consequences. The history of historiography of science [sic] has had its own quirks and the generations of philosophers and historians between us and the historical thinkers have had their idiosyncratic criteria of selection when they have read historical thinkers. It is not obvious that the intermediate generations have selected the “really” important aspects of historical ideas (whatever that would even mean). Moreover, our own historical situation and thinking about science face novel problems. As Sarton points out, such novel problems can make forgotten ideas highly valuable.

Secondly, reading the classics is a good way to clear one’s head from excessive nuances and to see the big picture. While it is an academic reflex to dismiss big-pictures-thinking as distorted, the big pictures are needed when knowledge is transformed into action. In the case of the estimating of the futures of science this is apparent. We need to take critical distance to the current scientific and academic practices while estimating the futures of science. Specialization of scientists has been a big trend in science as we all know. If we simply ignore the big pictures due to the demands of specialization, our estimates of the future of research will be based on shattered nuances concerning this or that part of science. Given that we act on our estimates, hyper-specialization would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. While I do think that it would be naïve to think that the trend of specialization can be reversed, I nevertheless think we should be able to remain critical towards the trend. As we will see below, Sarton was worried about the consequences of specialization already hundred years ago. Sarton’s worries might reveal something important that we have missed concerning the development of science. This brings us to the next point.

In the third place, science has developed since these figures wrote their studies. The examination of these figures can give us important insights into those changes. What was possible for them to think may seem strange to us. These differences tell us many things about how science and our conceptions of science have developed. For example, the above-mentioned worry of Sarton’s concerning specialization may seem strange to us. We are so used to the fact that people from different subdisciplines cannot comprehend each other’s works that Sarton’s dream of a synthetic history of many disciplines seems breathtaking. This puts into a perspective how deep the specialization in science has become and how long that trend has been visible. What we have lost from sight, perhaps, are visions – or dreams – of science that the specialization has obscured.


George Sarton (1884 – 1956) was a Belgian-born American chemist and historian. I will not go through his biography here. However, we should note that the text we focus on, The History of Science, was written in 1916, after Sartons had left their home due to the war. We come back to this in the end of the post.

Rarely is a note from the editor as exhaustive as the one in the first page of Sarton 1916 essay:

“Dr. George Sarton is a Belgian scholar who has done much to promote the idea of a “History of Science” (as opposed to the history of any particular science, or to the sum of such particular histories.) He advocates a synthetic study that necessitates the collaboration of the scientist, the philosopher and the historian” (p. 321)

On the basis of this, we can ask (i) What is history of science? (ii) Why narrowing the focus on some particular science is supposed to be a bad idea? (iii) What is the role of synthetic studies and what do the historian and philosopher contribute?

History of Science

Sarton thinks the history of science consists of a unified set of developments:

“The history of science is the study of the development of science just as one studies the development of a plant or an animal from its very birth. We try to see it grow and unfold itself under many diverse conditions.” (p. 321.)

Sarton was well aware of the increasing specialization in science and of the many fundamental or “philosophic” changes that scientific thinking has gone through during its history. Sarton, of course, had good understanding about the historical essence of human life and activities. Despite this – or rather, for this very reason, – Sarton thought that the history of science can be seen as a unified development through history:

“In short, the purpose of the [historiography] of science, as I understand it, is to establish the genesis and the development of scientific facts and ideas, taking into account all intellectual exchanges and all influences brought into play by the very progress of civilization” (p. 333).

Science has changed during its history but so has human societies and cultures. For Sarton, the changing nature of science was not a challenge for its historical unity. He saw the changes generally in terms of growth of knowledge (but he was not naïve and he did understand that the historical development of science was not linear, as we see below) and, given the development of societies and cultures, it was only natural that science does not remain similar throughout its development. Sarton defined science as systematic knowledge (“a science proper” p. 351) and in his view the development of humankind provided new motivations, new materials and new frameworks and methods for the systematization of knowledge. Sarton discusses the relationships between science and civilization, technology, religion and arts. The discussion centers around the role of different aspects of society and culture in the growth of knowledge, and today’s reader wonders whether there is any room for a fundamental reordering of knowledge. However, we should not be misled by this impression. As we will see, Sarton thinks that philosophical developments are of great significance in the history of science. Yet, the big picture remains the same. The history of science consists of interconnected developments and progress in the systematic knowledge.  

Now, hundred years later, we do not feel the idea of unified progress – or even development – of societies and cultures compelling anymore. The idea of progress has faded away in general and in the historiography of science in particular.

Kuhn writes in the introduction to Structure

“In recent years, however, a few historians of science have been finding it more and more difficult to fulfil the functions that the concept of development-by-accumulation assigns to them. — Perhaps science does not develop by the accumulation of individual discoveries and inventions. — The same historical research that displays the difficulties in isolating individual inventions and discoveries gives ground for profound doubts about the cumulative process through which these individual contributions to science were thought to have been compounded. — Gradually, and often without entirely realizing they are doing so, historians of science have begun to ask new sorts of questions and to trace different, and often less than cumulative, developmental lines for the sciences.” (p. 2-3.)

I have always found it ironic that Kuhn’s work was published as the final monograph in the second volume of International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. No other work has had similar destructive effect towards the idea of a unified history of science as Kuhn’s. Kuhn’s work and especially the (somewhat obscure) notion of incommensurability changed the burden of proof to those who argue that science has made progress through history or that scientific developments are connected in a logical way. The shattering of the unity of science has led to the outcome that “[–] historians of science are as likely, perhaps even more likely, to consider their work part of a conversation about a particular time and place, science in the nineteenth century rather than the nineteenth century’s contribution to the history of science” (Findlen 2005, 235). No unified and progressive story seem available in the 21st century.

Of course, the main driving force of the shattering of the historiography of science is not any explicit argument but rather historiographical trends. As I wrote in my dissertation,

“Kuhn’s account provides a macro-perspective on the history of science. It discusses long periods and very general themes: how a normal science proceeds under a paradigm, how a paradigm is challenged and a new one is established. The account also seeks to establish repeating patterns of development in science and “it purports to draw general lessons from the unfolding of our collective cognitive development” (Fuller 1992, 272).

It is remarkable how dramatically the historiography of science has moved away from such macro-perspectives. In 1992, Steve Fuller observed that Kuhn’s Structure was the last book written from such perspective. Cunningham and Williams, while arguing for the necessity and desirability of such perspectives, also confirm the decline of macro-perspective or “big pictures”: “Big pictures are, of course, thoroughly out of fashion at the moment; those committed to specialist research find them simplistic and insufficiently complex and nuanced, while postmodernists regard them as simply impossible” (1993, 407). The trend has continued, as everyone can observe by going through “Current Bibliography of the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences 2016” (Isis 107). More recently, explicit discussions about the status of the macro-perspective are found in Isis 96 (2) (2005). The discussion was raised by the observation that “[the] ideal of a general history of science seems gradually to have waned” (Kohler 2005, 204). Moreover, a section in Isis 107 (2) (2016) discusses the booklet History Manifesto (2014) from the perspective of historiography of science. This booklet by Jo Guldi and David Armitage argues that short-termism has “killed” the relevance of historiography (2014, 11). The need to discuss such a general thesis about historiography in Isis indicates that the move from macro-perspective to micro-perspective has remained an acute concern in the historiography of science.” (Virmajoki 2019, 91.)

However, things get quite interesting (and speculative!) once we ask why micro-perspective or “short-termism” has conquered the historiography of science. For Sarton, the historiography of science is a catalyst for moral progress: “A deeper knowledge and a greater diffusion of the history of science will help to bring about a new ‘humanism.’ — The history of science, if it is understood in a really philosophic way, will broaden our horizon and sympathy; it will raise our intellectual and moral standards; it will deepen our comprehension of men and nature.” (p. 357). “We must try to humanize science, to better show its various relations with other human activities its relation to our own nature. It will not lower science; on the contrary, science remains the center of human evolution and its highest goal; to humanize it, is not to make it less important, but more significant –. The new humanism as I venture to call the intellectual movement that has been defined in the preceding pages will also have the following consequences: It will disentangle us from many local and national prejudices, also from many of the common prejudices of our own time. Each age has of course its own prejudices. Just as the only way to get rid of local prejudices is to travel, similarly, to extricate ourselves from time-narrowness we must wander through the ages. Our age is not necessarily the best or the wisest, and anyhow it is not the last.” (p. 360-361.)

As Sarton explains in more detail in his later essay “The New Humanism” (1924), he thinks that the unified nature of science, its development in many places and eras, and the fact that classical science “is placed temporarily beyond the range of discussion” indicates the deep unity of humankind. Moreover, in the same essay Sarton argues that international scientific collaboration could (or will, from Sarton’s point of view (p. 26)) produce great progress for all humankind.

Such ideas are no longer possible. Since we no longer believe in historical progress brought by science, there is no progressive point in writing grand narratives of the history of science. This is, of course, a mere speculation – mere grand narrative by me – but I think it is generally worth asking how the death of the idea of historical progress has affected how historiography of science is written. Be that as it may, the above considerations reveal the first idea that was possible for Sarton to think but not for us:

The history of science is a unified set of developments that reveal and bring about moral progress and possibilities.

While we might have some remnants of such idea of scientific moral progress, it does certainly does not involve a humanistic orientation but merely a hope of technological solutions to our current problems. This also shapes our ideas of the future of science. We have fears and hopes concerning technology, but we rarely discuss the structure of scientific knowledge or its role in the mutual understanding between groups. This is ironic from Sarton’s point of view. He writes:

“If we study history it is not through mere curiosity, to know how things happened in the olden times (if we had no other purpose than this our knowledge would indeed be of a very poor quality); nor is it for the mere intellectual joy of better understanding life. We are not disinterested enough for that. No; we wish to understand, to better foresee; we wish to be able to act with more precision and wisdom. History itself is of no concern to us. The past does not interest us but for the future.” (p. 361, [emphasis added]).

Understanding the unity of science, science’s connection to other aspects of human life, the complexities in the development of science, and the moral and social implications of science enables us to develop science in a desirable direction. And once science is made progressive, social and moral progress will follow due to the moral potentialities of science. According to Sarton, the future of science shapes the future of humankind.

Beyond Particular Sciences

In addition to the historical unity of science, Sarton thinks that the development of particular sciences must be understood together. There are several arguments for this claim.

One argument is that it is simply impossible to understand important discoveries and breakthroughs without writing the history of science as a whole. “How could we explain, for instance, the discovery of the circulation of the blood if we did not explain the evolution of anatomy, of comparative zoology, of general biology, of natural philosophy, of chemistry, of mechanics?” (p. 332). This is a kind of empirical argument and we can of course ask whether it reveals anything essential about science. It seems possible that the increasing specialization in science may affect how isolated the development of scientific branches has become. Historical inductions are always problematic.

However, there are much more substantial arguments for the necessity of writing the history of science as a whole. One of these arguments is that focusing on the history of any particular science – or any local setting where science is practiced – would conceal the historical unity of science.

“It has happened more than once indeed that one science became neglected while others were thriving, or that scientific culture moved from one country to another. But the historian is not deluded by these facts, and he does not think that human genius is suddenly quenched or rekindled; from his synthetical standpoint he sees the torch of light pass from one science to the other or from one people to another. He perceives better than anybody else the continuity of science in space and time, and he is better able to estimate the progress of mankind.” (p. 332.)

This argument does seem to beg the question. – Writing histories of particular sciences is a bad idea because there exists a unity of science. – How do we know that there is a unity of science? – Because the history of any particular science makes the history of science appear discontinuous.

However, we can break the circle. We can take the unity of science as a working hypothesis and write historical studies that attempt to build a narrative that shows how the “torch of light” has passed from one science to the other. As we cannot investigate the history directly, the unity of science framework can only be assessed by assessing the narrative it is able to build. For example, Sarton argues, as we saw above, that it is impossible to write the history of many important discoveries without writing the history of science as a whole. Many different sciences affect important discoveries. If we accept that a historical narrative need to make these discoveries understandable, then we need to go beyond particular sciences. According to this line of argument, scientific discoveries crystallize the developments in many sciences. Even if some particular science appears to make no progress during a historical period, the continuity of science can be established by investigating the discoveries. Discoveries make visible the hidden continuity of science, and historical narratives need to make this continuity clear.

This is related to another more substantial argument. As we already noted in the previous section, Sarton thinks that science proper consists of systematic knowledge. Sarton is worried that the specialization in science will make proper science impossible. “[O]bject of science is not to discover insulated facts, but to coordinate and to explain them one by the other. By dint of specialization, science would run the risk of missing its very aim; the quantity of scientific knowledge would increase, but it would be all in vain, the scientific spirit would be impoverished.” (p. 324.) Given the moral potential of science, discussed in the previous section, Sarton argues that “not only science would be menaced by disintegration, but our social life itself. Instead of bringing their fellow men together by giving them some common points of view, the scientists would finally be unable to understand one another.” (p. 324.)

According to Sarton, then, excessive specialization in science involves great dangers and is against the ethos of science. Again, it is difficult to see how this worry translates into a historical insight. It seems a mistake to assume that because something is bad it cannot shape the history. However, Sarton has resources to tackle this accusation. To see this, we have to remember that specialization is not a problem per se but the disorganization it causes to our knowledge. The history of science needs to be studied as a whole, because this is the only way to keep our knowledge in good order:

“The purpose of historical criticism is not merely to render science more accurate, but also to bring order and clearness into it, to simplify it. Indeed it is the survey of the past that enables us the best to extricate what is really essential. The importance of a concept appears in a much better light when one has taken the trouble to consider all the difficulties that were surmounted to reach it, all the errors with which it was entangled, in short all the life that has given birth to it. — The history of science is accomplishing an endless purification of scientific facts and ideas. It enables us to deepen them, which is undoubtedly the best way to make them simpler. This simplification is of course the more necessary as science grows bigger and more intricate. – [Highly specialized] endeavors could never give birth to a systematic knowledge, to a science proper. It is the more necessary that other scientists raise themselves above the artificial partitions of the different specialties. Their investigations irresistibly lead them to the study of history, and they obtain from it a deeper apprehension of their own collaboration in the grand undertakings of mankind.” (p. 350-351.)

Sarton considers the history of science as a resource in scientific enterprise itself. Science and aims at systematic knowledge (the science proper) and this cannot be achieved without recourse to the history. Systematization of knowledge and its critical evaluation are essentially “of historical nature” (p. 349). Given that the systematization of our knowledge concerns the totality of our knowledge and given that such systematization can be achieved only by critically evaluating the historical steps of science, we need to study the history of science as a whole. Given that the history is a necessary tool in the search for new scientific synthesis, we cannot expect to find a grand synthesis if we do not focus on the history of science as a whole. One way to reframe this argument is to point out that the specialization in science needs to be critically evaluated. This critical historical evaluation cannot be achieved if we accept the current conceptions concerning the specialization of science while writing its history. If we focus only on particular sciences, we are unable, even in principle, to understand the value and reality of transdisciplinary science. There might not be a grand synthesis or transdisciplinary value, but it is one thing to conclude this and another to deny it from the beginning.

In order to understand Sarton´s idea of systematization of knowledge and the role history plays in the process, we need to take a look at how Sarton connects science, history and philosophy. We will do that in the next section. However, it interesting to note second item that was possible for Sarton to think but not for us:

Specialization has moral consequences but we can fight against it by allocating resources for a synthetic, historically oriented, studies of science.

We no longer think that specialization is a moral problem. It might involve or sorts of inconveniences and missed research opportunities (e.g. the problems of getting funding for genuinely transdisciplinary projects, the problems of communication in such projects) but we do not consider it as threatening our worldview or the unity of humankind. Surely, we are worried about how the shattered knowledge can be used in policy and to make lives healthier and things like that, but these are rather technocratic worries, not humanistic like Sarton’s. There might exist some need to be aware of this way of thinking about science when estimating its future. Accordingly, we rarely discuss the possibility of a new systematization of science, physics perhaps being an exception. We are more interested in technologies that science produces (CRISPR, quantum computers, AI etc.). And if the possibility of new theoretical breakthroughs in science is reflected on, re-examining the historical development of science is rarely suggested (or if it is, the suggestion does not come naturally but requires a philosopher of the caliber of Hasok Chang to explicate it). I think this indicates how complex science has become and how our expectations towards it have been shaped accordingly. The complexity of science is not the surprise but the fact that a hundred years ago it was still possible to think that all knowledge could be systematized and that it is possible to reorganize the whole stock of knowledge.

As a final remark, I want to speculate a little. Sarton wrote: “Fortunately it happens at certain periods of evolution that resounding and paradoxical discoveries make an inventory and a thorough survey of our knowledge more obviously necessary to everybody. We are fortunate enough to be living at one of these critical and most interesting periods.” (p. 350). Making an inventory of our knowledge was supposed to make it more systematic and clear. However, it seems that we are today more willing to accept the Kuhnian idea that breakthroughs in science make the old knowledge redundant, not because of any argument, but because the speed of scientific development and branching is so enormous that we are not able to comprehend the history of science. It is convenient to confine the past sciences to historical dungeons built out of the notion of incommensurability or historical idiosyncrasy. In that way, we do not need to face what we cannot comprehend, and the present situation becomes self-explaining: the current science is the science of the current times.

Philosophy and Science

We have seen that Sarton thought that the specialization and expansion of science, “the analytical tendency” (p. 324), need to be balanced with a synthetic one. The interplay between these two tendencies produces the essential rhythm of the development of science. In the same rhythm, the respective roles of science and philosophy change. As Sarton points out, the minds of canonical figures in the history of science “must have been of a very synthetical nature, and they have certainly borrowed much in a more or less conscious way from the philosophical store to formulate their revolutionary ideas. Think of Galilei, of Kepler, of Newton, of Darwin. Their work and influence cannot be understood, unless one takes into account these continuous interchanges between science and philosophy.” (p. 325.) These figures have also recreated the philosophical landscape of their times. At the same time, canonical figures in the history of philosophy have both relied on and recreated the scientific domain of their times. Sarton clearly senses that great scientific changes have occurred in the early 20th century and observes a philosophical revival taking place. While synthetic tendencies had had a bad reputation in the 1900th century and analytic ones dominated, new discoveries and research made a “philosophical reaction unavoidable” (p. 326).

Sarton writes how positivism had been developed in the 19th century but did not become accepted by scientists until it became more sophisticated and “until the whole structure of knowledge had been shaken and endangered by the very progress of science” (p. 328). Sarton then goes on to describe how “people thought that philosophy would soon be incorporated into science. It would be a philosophy of science, it would gravitate around scientific facts and ideas, or it would not be at all. Its function would be to think out science, nothing more.” (Ibid.) What follows after this is really interesting. Sarton argues that “[s]uch exaggerations, such a misunderstanding of philosophy’s historical role, namely, to be an independent vanguard, a storehouse of general and leading ideas extracted not only from science but from the whole of human experience, could not help bringing about a new reaction.” (Ibid.)

The hundred years between us and Sarton has shown that the relationship between philosophy (of science) and science has many dimensions. Very crudely put, we can think about the role of philosophy of science in at least the following ways:

(i) philosophy interprets scientific results (e.g. what are the ontological commitments of science),

(ii) philosophy attempts to describe how science works (e.g. how causal explanations are build),

(iii) philosophy attempts to improve science (e.g. what conception of causation can clarify scientific disputes),

(iv) philosophy is a critical analysis of science (e.g. what epistemic or moral challenges science faces),

(v) philosophy generates ways of thinking and ideas independently of science or loosely (e.g. though experiment concerning our concept of causation).

Sarton seems to think that many of his contemporaries were confining philosophy to the role (i) of a mere interpreter of scientific results. On the other hand, Sarton seems to suggest that the role of philosophy can also be that of (v) an independent generator of ideas, as the phrase “a storehouse of general and leading ideas extracted not only from science” suggests. This role can be assigned to science on the basis of historical connections between science and philosophy. I somewhat agree. I tend to think that philosophy should be understood as the mapping of possible ways of thinking and ideas. The mapping can then be used to answer mere specific questions concerning science and other aspects of life.

Sarton also argues for a kind of philosophical pluralism. He does not think that the tension between what he calls “positivism” and “pragmatism” (latter including Bergson, Schiller, James and Dewey [p. 328]) is a grave is it might appear. Both schools have the same purpose to explain, generalize, simplify and deepen “the data of experience”. Moreover, the complexity of our intellectual needs, generated by the complexity of our “ever changing life”, requires that we have a vast stock of philosophical resources that can be used to navigate in the world. (p. 328-329.)

Here, Sarton moves towards integrated history and philosophy of science. To keep our knowledge systematic, as a science proper, we need “the study of scientific generalities” (p. 330). “To secure the unity of knowledge it will be more and more necessary that some men make a deep study of the principles and of the historical and logical development of all the sciences — which induces a collaboration of philosopher, historian and scientist” (ibid.). In this project, all the items (i) – (v) from the list above will be present.

Item (i): As we saw in the previous sections, Sarton thinks that a philosophically oriented study of the history of science enables us to understand better the logical and conceptual structure of scientific knowledge. “The purpose of historical criticism is not merely to render science more accurate, but also to bring order and clearness into it, to simplify it. Indeed it is the survey of the past that enables us the best to extricate what is really essential. The importance of a concept appears in a much better light when one has taken the trouble to consider all the difficulties that were surmounted to reach it, all the errors with which it was entangled, in short all the life that has given birth to it.” (p. 350.) This way of thinking plays important part also in the current philosophy of science. For example, Schickore argues that

“[–] a history of the present should remain part and parcel of our present efforts to understand the sciences. Fully to understand the concepts, practices, and methodological and epistemological goals and commitments of present science, we need to trace how they have come into being.” (2011, 477.)

and Psillos concludes that

“[–] what science tells us about the world, as well as the reasons to take what it tells us seriously, are issues that are determined historically, by looking at the patterns of convergence in the scientific image of the world”. (2012, 101).

Item (ii): In the previous sections, we saw how Sarton thought that the historiography of science should describe how science has developed and what conditions have affected its development. Now this is a kind of a descriptive enterprise, but one wonders what the level of detail in the analysis is supposed to be. Sarton operates on a very general level: “The progress of science is due to two different kinds of causes: (i) Purely psychological causes, the intellectual work of the scientist; (2) Material causes, principally the appearance of new subject matter or the use of improved scientific to” (p. 354). Everything depends on how the scope of “psychological causes” is understood. On the one hand, Sarton writes about “the general laws of the intellectual evolution of man” (p. 354) and gives an example: “[it has been] shown that the development of calculus generally precedes that of geometry”. This is quite far from what is today understood as the analysis of scientific practice, for example the analysis of causal explanation in the systems biology. On the other hand, Sarton writes about the methods of discovery, the mental experiences, the hidden mechanism of intuition, the influence of the environment of scientist, the role of social activities in the domain of science, and asks questions like “By what mental processes are the ideas of the initiators integrated in the collective thought, to become, by and by, common notions?”. (p. 356.) While Sarton categorizes these as psychological problems, it is quite obvious that analyzing them require resources beyond psychology. They resemble quite a lot the kinds of questions that philosophers of science ask in 2020.

Item (iii): Sarton thinks that philosophically oriented study of the history of science is essential in the systematization of scientific knowledge. We can either find inspiration from the history of forgotten ideas or find the redundant or mistaken parts of our scientific knowledge by studying its genealogy (p. 346-350). In addition, philosophical ideas (developed either in direct connection with science or independently) can help to reach scientific breakthroughs (p. 325) or to navigate between knowledge and action in the complex world (p. 329). This philosophical improvement of science is of course closely connected with the interpretation and description of science (items (i) and (ii)).

Item (iv): It is obvious that the improvement of science (item (iii)) requires critical analyses of science and the logical and conceptual structure of scientific knowledge. We have discussed the important role that Sarton assign to the critical historiographical work in science. However, we should not forget that Sarton thinks that the philosophy and historiography of science can be critical also in a more general sense. “History of science, if it is understood in a really philosophic way, will broaden our horizon and sympathy; it will raise our intellectual and moral standards; it will deepen our comprehension of men and nature” (p. 357). Now, this might not sound too critical. However, we must remember that this moral progress was only one of the many possible directions for science that Sarton saw. He was also worried that excessive specialization and lack of synthetic work would make that moral progress impossible. The critical aspect of Sarton’s thinking lies precisely on this. He was not critical towards all existing science. He was neither a nihilist nor a pessimist. The critical philosophy of Sarton was to contrast possible developments of science with a desirable one. He was critical towards certain developments because he was able to see an ideal alternative to them. I think this is closely related to the item (v).

Item (v): We have already seen that Sarton thought that philosophy should keep some critical distance to science at least for instrumental reasons. Philosophy can serve as a warehouse of ideas that can be used in science during the times of grave crises. However, we have also seen that Sarton thought that science could lead the humankind to a new humanism. Of course, that humanism cannot be justified on scientific grounds. It is a philosophical position, an ethical ideal. This is an important lesson from Sarton. We can be critical towards science by contrasting the consequences of certain developments of science with our independent moral ideals. Sarton though that the unity of humankind and mutual understanding would make the world better place. Against this background, he criticized developments that would lead to excessive specialization and shattering of the scientific worldview.

This leads us to the final idea that was possible for Sarton to think but not for us:

The organization of science can be directed towards humanistic goals.

Again, we clearly are able to think science as a solution to the problems of humankind, but we think about these solutions in terms of new technologies (including social technologies). We do not think that scientific knowledge in itself will unify the world and bring moral progress. The Cold War already convinced us of this. Moreover, we might also be able to think that scientific knowledge is cold or inhuman or whatever and should be replaced with some other forms of knowing. However, we are not able to think, like Sarton did, that the modification of knowledge on science’s own terms (i.e. systematization) could lead to a great progress for humankind.

Remember that Sarton’s essay was written in the middle of the horrors of World War 1. It is quite astonishing how broad-minded visions were possible for Sarton in contrast to our perceived space of possibilities.


Cunningham, Andrew & Williams, Perry (1993). “De-centring the ‘big picture’: The Origins of Modern Science and the modern origins of science”. British Journal for the History of Science 26 (4). 407-432.

Fuller, Steve (1992). “Being There with Thomas Kuhn: A Parable for Postmodern Times”. History and Theory 31 (3). 241-275.

Guldi, Jo & Armitage, David (2014). History Manifesto. Cambridge University Press.

Kohler, Robert E. (2005). “A Generalist’s Vision”. Isis 96 (2). 224-229.

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Psillos, Stathis (2012). ”What is General Philosophy of Science?”. Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 43 (1). 93–103.

Sarton, George (1916). “The History of Science”. The Monist 26 (3):321-365.

Sarton, George (1924). “The New Humanism”. Isis 6 (1):9-42.

Schickore, Jutta (2011). ”More Thoughts on HPS: Another 20 Years Later”. Perspectives on Science 19 (4). 453–481.

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