Working knowledges before and after circa 1800: Practices and disciplines in the history of science, technology, and medicine

John V. Pickstone

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    Abstract

    Historians of science, inasmuch as they are concerned with knowledges and practices rather than institutions, have tended of late to focus on case studies of common processes such as experiment and publication. In so doing, they tend to treat science as a single category, with various local instantiations. Or, alternatively, they relate cases to their specific local contexts. In neither approach do the cases or their contexts build easily into broader histories, reconstructing changing knowledge practices across time and space. This essay argues that by systematically deconstructing the practices of science and technology and medicine (STM) into common, recurrent elements, we can gain usefully "configurational" views, not just of particular cases and contexts but of synchronic variety and diachronic changes, both short term and long. To this end, we can begin with the customary actors' disciplines of early modern knowledge (natural philosophy, natural history, mixed mathematics, and experimental philosophy), which can be understood as elemental "ways of knowing and working," variously combined and disputed. I argue that these same working knowledges, together with a later mode-synthetic experimentation and systematic invention-may also serve for the analysis of STM from the late eighteenth century to the present. The old divisions continued explicitly and importantly after circa 1800, but they were also "built into" an array of new sciences. This historiographic analysis can help clarify a number of common problems: about the multiplicity of the sciences, the importance of various styles in science, and the relations between science and technology and medicine. It suggests new readings of major changes in STM, including the first and second scientific revolutions and the transformations of biomedicine from the later twentieth century. It offers ways of recasting both microhistories and macrohistories, so reducing the apparent distance between them. And it may thus facilitate both more constructive uses of case studies and more innovative and acceptable longer histories. © 2007 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)489-516
    Number of pages27
    JournalIsis
    Volume98
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2007

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