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Seminario: Historicizing the Universal: Writing the History of International Science after Sarton



Seminari impartit per Geert Somsen

History Department/STS Program

Maastricht University

Data: Dimecres15 de gener de 2020 a les 16:00 hores

Lloc: Saló de'actes. Palau Cerveró. Institut Interuniversitari López Piñero

Resum del cicle: És la ciència local, és global, o és universal? Són contradictòries eixes qualitats o es poden conjugar? Com són diferents una història local, una història nacional, una història global i una història universal? Tenen objectes, aproximacions, fonts o tècniques diferents? Són les històries de la ciència distintes a la resta d’històries locals o globals? Aquest cicle de col·loquis presenta una reflexió situada sobre el problema de les escales en la història de la ciència que posa l’èmfasi sobre la seva definició teòrica i pràctica, així com els seus reptes metodològics, professionals i cívics.


The notion that science is international has long been at the heart of historians’ fascinations with it. Already for George Sarton, one of first organizers of the field, it was precisely its capacity to transcend national differences that made science a worthy object of historical study. Ordinary historians might focus on wars and conflicts, historians of science revealed what brought humanity together, “the only heritage that it entirely holds in common”. Science knew no borders, its truths could be discovered anywhere and were valid everywhere; science was “la grande pacificatrice”, leading the world to international cooperation.

Over the last two decades, historians of science have become fascinated with their subject’s global dimensions again, but now on entirely different grounds. Rather than claiming its transcendence, scholars following Kapil Raj and Jim Secord are interested in how science is molded by the different contexts that it travels through. When knowledge circulates, subsequent settings affect its meaning, its practices of production, evaluation, etc. This perspective has grown out of the field’s “local turn” in the 1990s, whose stress on contextuality was meant as a direct challenge to, and alternative for, Sartonian universalism.

Yet there is still another way in which the international character of science can be studied, and that is not by debunking universalism but by historicizing it. If science transcends nations and creeds, as has often been claimed, what precisely does that mean and imply? Why has it been claimed, in what specific instances, to whom, with what purpose, and in which form? These are the kinds of questions that I have been working on for a number of years, and in this paper I will share some examples of that work as well as reflect on the challenges and opportunities that this approach brings. One such benefit is that it relates science directly to geopolitics: Sarton’s internationalism grew out of the First World War; Italian fascists promoted “scienza universale” in a bid to share in Hitler’s hegemony. Another advantage is that it brings texture to an otherwise shapeless universalism: H.G. Wells’ view of a world united by science was modeled on the British Empire; Bertha von Suttner envisioned the pacifying effects of science within an international order in the image of the Habsburg empire. One disadvantage is studying international imaginaries tells us little about the practice of science. But then again it provides us with all the more insight into why that practice was deemed important and meaningful in its larger contexts.

Geert Somsen és professor d’història de la ciència a la universitat de Maastricht i editor del Journal for the History of Knowledge. Ha desenvolupat projectes de recerca a la Uppsala universitat, Columbia University i el Max Planck Institut i és un dels coordinadors del projecte europeu “The Scientific Conference: A Social, Cultural, and Political History”. Ha dedicat la major part de la seva recerca a estudiar l’internacionalisme científic, sent autor entre molts altres, d’un article de revisió exemplar sobre el tema: “A History of Universalism: Conceptions of the Internationality of Science from the Enlightenment to the Cold War” (Minerva, 2008).

Més informació:

DURATION: 93 min


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