Book cover Thomas S. Kuhn "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions".

The History of Science

What is the History of Science? What is the History of Science for?
Book cover Thomas S. Kuhn "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions".
Image: Jan-Peter Kasper (University of Jena)

The history of science deals with the historical development of the sciences. It asks how scientific disciplines emerged, how specific methods and theories became established, how science became what it is today. Science is thereby understood as a process that is closely intertwined with political, social and cultural developments. This understanding of science yields a double task for the history of science. On the one hand, it investigates the political, socio-economic, cultural as well as the epistemological conditions for new scientific knowledge in different historical contexts and eras. On the other hand, it explores the impacts science has had on society. These interactions between science, society and culture can be investigated over longer periods of time through the development of knowledge fields, institutions, concepts and theories, but they can also be considered from a micro-perspective on instruments, technologies, research objects or experimental systems.

The history of science is an interdisciplinary field that acts as a “bridge builder” between the natural sciences and the humanities. It focuses on the natural sciences and their knowledge practices but as a historical discipline it is also in methodological exchange with other fields in the humanities and the social sciences. Philosophy and historical epistemology provide it with important approaches for reflecting on the process of knowledge production and its historical conditions. For example, it investigates, in interaction with cultural studies, the epistemic functions and cultural dimensions of concepts and metaphors in science. Exploring technologies as the prerequisite for and the result of scientific research connects the history of science with the history of technology and economics. With respect to the reciprocal influences between science, economics and politics, the history of science receives important impetuses from social sciences focused on the present, especially Science and Technology Studies.

With its interdisciplinary orientation, the history of science wants to contribute to critical reflection on the role of science in contemporary society. In recent decades, studies have questioned the notion of a linear progress advanced by ‘great men’, carried out in the face of religious, cultural and political pressures. The reappraisal of the role of science in the National Socialist period or in the ‘Cold War’ has fundamentally revised the thesis of a genuinely value-free science that can at best be hindered or at worst “misused” in negative political context and it has thus also raised awareness of the political responsibility of scientists. Critical discussions of the life sciences from the perspective of gender history have demonstrated the extent to which its concepts were shaped by culture and thus were in no way value-free. Exploring the historical emergence and development of the sciences in their respective political, social and cultural contexts thus always means addressing the question of what science is and of its social significance and function.