Sarton Medal Speech: “Praising Famous Men”

By Steven Shapin, on the occasion of receiving the 2014 Sarton Medal

George Sarton memorial

Several years ago—and long before I got Angela Creager’s phone call about this extraordinary honor—my wife and I were taking one of our usual weekend walks in Cambridge’s Mount Auburn cemetery—a beautiful garden cemetery where Boston’s Brahmins have, for almost two centuries, liked to be interred.

We found ourselves in a hidden spot we’d never been before—with the very best views over Cambridge, Boston, and beyond. It turned out to be a small exclusive Harvard plot, with eminent students and faculty resting there since the middle of the 19th century.

I had no idea who might be buried there, but I found myself standing on the grave of George Sarton. The inscription on the headstone is simple: “George Sarton: Historian of Science”—then where and when he was born and died and the name and dates of his wife, who pre-deceased him. I like to think the implication was not that he was a historian of science, but the historian of science—the man who imagined, and worked to create, not just the subject but the discipline: its academic departments, its journals, its professional society, and many of the institutional realities that allow us to do our work and that now bring us here together. He is commemorated by many things, including the medal bearing his name.

Standing there, I joked to my wife that I would like be buried—ideally some years from now—just to the left of Sarton and that my headstone should read: “Steven Shapin: Dates: Externalist.” Just then, I thought I felt a slight movement in the ground, possibly the result of angular momentum from our founder spinning six feet below.

Perhaps uniquely among recent recipients of this singular honor, I’ve been teaching graduate students about Sarton for many years, and I may be among the handful of people assembled here who’s actually read much of Sarton’s work and visited his archive in Widener Library.

It may surprise you that I read Sarton’s work full of admiration and respect—respect for his linguistic abilities—my own are inexcusably poor—and respect for the integrity and seriousness of his vision of what science signified and what the study of the history of science should signify.

Respect is not, of course, necessarily agreement, and, if we want to understand the past of our discipline, many would say it cannot be. I am far from the only person here distancing present-day work in our discipline from the obligation Sarton felt to “praise famous men”; from his notion that the history of science was an enterprise that might someday be completed; from the central role of bibliography in his conception of the enterprise; from the judgment that science is humankind’s only progressive enterprise, a uniquely powerful solvent of national and cultural conflict; and, especially, from his conception of the history of science as a fundamentally different practice from all other species of history—because science itself was sui generis. Sarton argued that dedicated historians of science had to have their own discipline because no one else could do what they did.

And if you’re thinking that I might distance myself from our founder because of what we used to call “internalism,” that’s wrong too, since Sarton was not a major player in the methodological conflicts that once constituted our discipline’s fault-lines. He didn’t much care about that sort of thing, and you can find in Sarton’s writings plenty of gestures to the pertinence of what we (sometimes carelessly) call “social context.”

My respect and admiration for Sarton derive for the most part from his embrace of the idea—increasingly uncommon among us now—that there was some sense of specialness attaching to the history of science, that it’s something significantly different from the histories of other sorts of culture and activity—art, politics, sexuality, war, and so on. Present-day legitimate notions of specialness preserve one thing from Sarton’s sensibilities—the acknowledgment that science, despite all our recent efforts to normalize it, and despite all the productive insistence that it should be studied as a typical form of culture, remains extraordinary. This specialness is something that should motivate us but something we should also try to account for as a historical phenomenon.

Science is special in our culture because of its reality-defining authority; because it is knowledge about the world which is, almost uniquely, taken not to be a situated human invention; because what is widely regarded its unique Method is so aggressively and consequentially marketed to other cultural practices; because it is taken to be the Mother and Father of all the technical and commercial goods wanted by our civic institutions; because it now enjoys, as it did much less in the past, access to civic power; and because it does so much to constitute that power.

Even if we regard some of these specialnesses to be partly mythic, as historians we still have the task of showing how both myth and realities came into being, and how what we might still regard as myth becomes cultural reality.

The history of science should have a special place in a liberal curriculum—to the extent that we still believe in liberal education (as I do)—not just as another esoteric subject crying out for its space in an abundantly supplied course cafeteria but as a humanistic engagement with a subject which is taken to stand against the humanities. And if George Sarton did not think of things that way, his boss, Harvard’s president James Bryant Conant, definitely did. The history of science, Conant thought, should take its place at the center of General Education, and, while it may be visionary now to say this, Conant was right– and we should seek out every opportunity to represent our subject as essential equipment for educated men and women.

When I was an undergraduate in a liberal arts college many years ago, all the freshmen were required to take a foundation course called “Humanities 110.” No scientific work had a place in its otherwise excellent and well-presented syllabus. It was as if Paradise Lost was a great human product and Galileo’s Letters on Sunspots was not. That’s one of the bad bits about the perceived specialness of the sciences, even though much of what we have all accomplished over recent years should be seen as establishing science authentically as one of the humanities, its aura of specialness itself a human product.

That’s a sense of the specialness of the history of science that Sarton would probably not have recognized, or recognized as legitimate, but I’d like to think that he’d extend historical sympathy to the future of the discipline he did so much to found. I’d like also to think that the minor disturbance I felt when standing on his grave had a natural, or at least a natural-psychological, explanation, and that Sarton wouldn’t mind someone like me receiving this immense honor, or not mind very much.

I am enormously grateful to the colleagues who nominated me, to those who accepted their nomination and who reckoned I had any place in the distinguished company of past Sarton Medalists, and to so many people who have allowed me to spend this much of my working life trying to figure how science is made, extended, and made credible. I intend to go on trying to do that. I thank you all.