George Sarton and the History of Science

George Sarton was a pioneer scholar who played a decisive role by his scholarship, methodology and academic career in establishing the history of science as a recognized subject in modern academia. His monumental major work in multiple volumes Introduction to the History of Science set a high standard and led the way for many others to follow. In this article, the late Professor Aydin Sayili, who was a student of George Sarton in Harvard University, scrutinizes Sarton's contribution through his own analysis and memories, and relies on the corpus of literature produced on Sarton by historians and academics.

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Aydin Sayili*

Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. Intellectual biography
3. Methodology of history of science
4. Historiographical debates on the methodology of science
5. Sarton and the history of science community
6. Sarton at work
7. Sarton and Arabic science
8. References and further reading
9. Appendix

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1. Introduction

Figure 1: George Sarton. (Source).

Professor George Sarton (1884-1956) was a fervent advocate of the thesis of a quite wide scope that scientific activity constitutes a common bond for the whole of humanity as the most reliable type of knowledge created by the human brain; as the basic element responsible for the progressive nature of culture and civilization: and as an endeavour responsible for the amelioration of human life. He consequently was strongly convinced of the importance science must have had in the making of the destiny of mankind, and he was engaged in a concerted effort to persuade, the intellectual elite, of the great significance and relevance of the history of science in our effort to grasp the major factors responsible for the phenomenal growth of civilization and as a constituent element bringing to the fore the inexorable force of history. It was a great ideal for him, consequently, to establish the history of science securely in the universities as an independent academic discipline -with this difference, however, that even if his ideas advanced in behalf of the role of science should be reduced in certain respects, the plea for the importance of the history of science as an academic discipline would still retain its validity and cogency.

Figure 2: Professor Aydin Sayili. Source: Archives internationales d'histoire des sciences (No. 134, pp. 135-148) and Aydin Sayili (1913-1993) on www.MuslimHeritage.com.

These ideas and thoughts are seen to be closely associated with the intellectual culture sector of general culture and civilization; i.e., with the sector of culture that is based upon, or closely tied up with, science, and, more generally, with relatively sound and reliable knowledge. Intellectual culture is of course a subject of major interest for our Ataturk Culture Centre, and the history of science which has rapidly grown as an academic discipline in the universities of the Western World during the last half century is a very convenient avenue of approach for gaining acquaintance with science as a perennial human endeavour. It deals with science in the making, thus revealing its dynamic aspects in particular; and it constitutes a convenient way of avoiding the difficulty of gaining a sound scientific culture through arduous efforts involving the mastery of narrow Fields of specialization. The history of science is therefore conducive in multifarious ways to developing and promoting a broad view and outlook of science, its methods, and the scientific attitude.

We should entertain no doubt indeed that as an academic discipline the history of science should be a very welcome new item superadded to the more classical university curriculum. This usefulness could be conceived from the vantage point of a substantial culture-building process and especially as an efficient way of securing a sound and critical assessment and evaluation of science as a human activity.

From this standpoint in particular the history of science is to be advocated as an invaluable contribution to our intellectual culture and enlightenment. Moreover, it is very important that the history of science should be conceived and instituted or organized as an independent academic discipline if it is to constitute a really new and significant contribution to our culture and enlightenment. Indeed, it should undoubtedly be very useful to form views concerning the nature of science with the help of judgements acquired with the help of data and impressions gained or gleaned from within the pale of the history of science itself, as it is in fact already being done to some extent nowadays. For thus the history of science will be able to add a new dimension to our way of looking into matters pertaining to epistemology and the philosophy of science, or other matters pertaining to questions related to science.

2. Intellectual biography

Sarton, who was born in 1884 in Belgium, came to the United States in 1915. He gave a few lectures and courses during his first years in America, and in 1918 he became associated with the Carnegie institution of Washington. He had already founded Isis in 1912, while in Belgium, and although its publication was interrupted during the four years of World War I, it began to reappear in the post-war years when Sarton established himself in the United States. Following a meeting of the American Historical Association in Boston, in December 1923, David Eugene Smith, Lynn Thorndike, and a group of other members organized the American History of Science Society, incorporating it in January 1924. The History of Science Society was created for the specific purpose of furthering the study of the history of science, and to support Sarton's work and especially his journal Isis [1].

The first years in the United States were not easy for Sarton, but when in 1918 he was appointed research associate of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, things started to rapidly change for the better. For this enabled him to devote himself to his studies without financial anxiety. After a short time he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was given a suite of rooms in the Widener Library, where he continued to work almost to the end of his life [2].

A French article by Sarton, bearing the title "Une Encyclopedic Leonardesque", published in 1919 in Raccolta Vinciana, clearly shows the great importance Sarton attached to his association with the Carnegie Institution. There he writes:

"Institution Carnegie, jeune comme elle est, a déjà accompli sa haute oeuvre civilisatrice dans des directions nombreuses et avec beaucoup de succès… L'an dernier elle a pris une initiative nouvelle qui lui fait le plus grand honneur; les Trustees ont décide 1'organisation de recherches systématiques sur l'histoire des sciences et m'ont nommé associé de l'institut (research associate) dans ce but précis. C'est là un commencement modeste, mais dont 1'importance ne saurait être exagérée; qu'il me suffise de dire que la position qui a été créée pour moi par la Carnegie Institution et qui me permet de consacrer tout mon temps a l'étude désintéressée de l'histoire des sciences est autant que je sache unique au monde."

Here Sarton appends the following footnote: "II existe une ou deux positions semblables en Allemagne pour l'histoire de la médecine et des mathématiques, mais non pour l'histoire des sciences [3]."

Sarton then broadly outlines his projected work. There are two major items listed here: 1) A substantial work on Leonardo and the science of his time, and, 2) The history of 19th century physics and its applications [4].

Then he continues with the following words:

"Et d'abord, pourquoi Leonardo a-t-il été choisi comme le sujet de notre première entreprise? C'est que la portée des études historiques, auxquelles j'ai consacré ma vie, dépasse de beaucoup leurs résultats immédiats. Le but n'est pas seulement de connaitre l'histoire des sciences, mais d'humaniser la science, c'est-à-dire de la rendre plus aimable et plus vivante, de la montrer en voie d'évolution et de progrès, de mettre en évidence à la fois son unité profonde et ses relations innombrables avec toutes les autres activités de notre vie. Or, comment ce but serait-il mieux atteint, comment serait-il possible de mieux faire comprendre à la fois aux savants et aux artistes cette synthèse et cette harmonie idéale, que de la leur montrer déjà réalisée dans la personnalité unique et grandiose de Leonardo, à la fois le plus grand artiste, le plus grand savant et peut-être le meilleur homme de son siècle?" [5].

Two pages later the text reads thus:

"D'ailleurs, je ne me propose pas seulement d'exposer les idées de Leonardo et de ses contemporains, mais je m'efforcerai de plus d'expliquer aussi complètement que possible leur genèse et leur évolution. Cela m'oblige à étudier plus profondément que je ne le désirerais, la philosophique médiévale chrétienne, arabe et juive, mais la récompense est grande. De même que Leonardo me permettra de démontrer d'une manière concrète l'unité la science, il me permettra aussi de montrer sa continuité. Car, si original que soit son singulier génie, il n'en est pas moins profondément enraciné dans le passé. Leonardo n'est pas un accident isolé, un miracle, mais le fruit soudain et rare d'une longue évolution, jamais entièrement interrompue et qui, pour être en grande partie secrète, n'en est pas moins réelle [6]."

Speaking of Sarton, Dorothy Stimson writes:

"Thus his first scholarly love, Leonardo da Vinci, could not properly be studied until he knew what had gone before. Out of that search grew his many-volumes Introduction to the History of Science which after twenty years' labour he had to end fifty years before he had reached da Vinci [7]."

Two mutually related ideas on which Sarton insisted throughout his career were the ideas of "the unity of mankind" and "the unity of science" or "the unity of knowledge". He must have felt entitled to a verdict on these points also because of his wide coverage of so many groups of people from all over the world in his Introduction volumes. And he dealt there with periods during which there was comparatively little cultural contact between those widely different geographical regions. Early in his career, Sarton says:

"For one thing, science -at least that part of it which has already become classical- is the common thought of the whole world; it is the organized body of all the facts and theories from which almost all arbitrariness has been excluded, upon which enlightened people are unanimously agreed and which is placed temporarily beyond the range of discussion. The domain of classical science in the privileged domain of internationalism, for it is already the common patrimony of all men. Moreover, science constitutes the very axis of human advance and furnishes the very principle and the fundamental methods of social organization… [8]."

We also hear him speak in the following words:

"The history of science establishes the unity of science in at least two different ways. First, the progress of each science is dependent upon the progress of the others; this implies of course that the sciences are not independent, but interrelated in a number of ways, and that the interrelations are not accidental but organic. Second, the simultaneity of scientific discoveries made in different places and sometimes by means of different methods implies also an internal congruency… [9].”

Suchlike assertions by Sarton, of which he was sparing, have created quite widely the impression that he was much given to philosophizing. Such a generalization would be quite misleading, however, particularly with respect to certain aspects of his ideas. With respect to his words in his last quoted passage, e.g., I feel that Sarton never appreciably underscored the idea of unity of knowledge in the sense of close interrelations between various fields of knowledge; he perhaps referred to it partly for the sake of completeness. It is my impression that his references to it were only sporadic and that they were often superficial rather than substantial. But, in contrast to this, he did emphasize the idea that science oversteps national, linguistic, and religious boundaries, which occurs in the passage quoted from him to which footnote 8 has been appended.

Sarton, as we have seen, had planned to prepare a history of 19th century physics for the Carnegie Institution. At Harvard he gave a history of mathematics course which was called Mathematics 7 and was listed among mathematics courses, if I remember correctly. Moreover, James B. Conant writes: "And the scholarly training which Professor Sarton considered essential for a real scholar included 'A knowledge of the European languages, palaeography, scholastic philosophy, political history, ecclesiastic history' as well as a basic training in one of the natural sciences [10].”

All this indicates that Sarton did not hesitate to take up different sciences separately. We also see that he considered it quite natural for historians of science to cultivate only one scientific field as that of their major interest. Yet he did not believe that the juxtaposition of courses on the histories of physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology in different departments of a university could constitute instruction in the history of science anywhere close to an ideal state of affairs.

Conant says, "From Professor Sarton I learned, while I was a graduate student in chemistry, the difference between the history of a science (as exemplified by Chemistry 8) and the history of science [11]."

It is well known that Sarton had pet ideas such as the claim that the history of science should be accorded a place of major importance in history in general and that it should constitute a bridge between science and the humanities, or between science and humanism. He might dwell briefly on such ideas at the very beginnings of his courses, but then he would rarely refer to them again as the courses proceeded. More frequently he would call attention to unintentional and accidental cooperation between scientists working in different countries whenever, as in the case of science in modern Europe, the subject matter dealt with served to throw light on many clear and interesting examples of such nature. But even then his remarks would be of the nature of brief asides.

At any rate, as far as I know, Sarton practically never took up these notions in purely conceptual lines in a systematic manner, he never wrote substantial monographs on these ideas or on the concepts they involved with a formal philosophical approach. For him the unity of man and the unity of scientific knowledge were practically obvious on a factual basis, on the basis of copious data pervading all parts of the history of science. Over and above such notions and such pet ideas he was interested in promoting and establishing on a firm footing the cultivation of the history of science. His main concern or objective was to establish the history of science as an independent academic discipline.

In 1930 he wrote, "The intellectual elite are at present divided into two hostile groups, -which we might call for short the literary and the scientific, - who do not speak the same language nor think in the same way. If nothing is done, the gap separating them must necessarily increase, together with the steady and irresistible progress of science (…).

"I believe that the gap can be reduced considerably if there be enough good will on both sides, and that it will eventually be possible to bridge it. The main purpose of the movement which I initiated so many years ago and to which my life has ever since been devoted, is precisely to build that bridge and to educate men who will become the natural intermediaries between the two sides. Such men would be very few to begin with but they would slowly increase in number (…).

"However humanism may be defined, at least we shall agree I am sure that it should not harbour intolerance.

"Personally I would much prefer not to speak of humanism any more but to work quietly in my little corner preparing materials for the bridge to be built (…) [12]."

I believe that the statement in the last sentence above is truly descriptive of Sarton's attitude and behaviour in the years that followed.

3. Methodology of the history of science

Science historians had of course been in existence before, and a quite impressive literature of the history of science had come to exist. But its coming into being had been dependent largely on change and personal taste. The best and the most outstanding historians of science had generally been trained as scientists, and they had later developed their interest in the history of their branch of science and gone into the field of the history of science. It was Sarton's objective to have a substantial group of people trained in universities as historians of science, just as historians, physicist, and psychologists were trained by receiving instruction in these particular fields respectively. I believe that this was Sarton's paramount and straightforward goal in contrast to his more fictitious or idealized plans to humanize science or to make historians shift their central interest to science. This at least was the more urgent matter, and once it was realized to a reasonable extent, it was Sarton's hope that, somehow the rest would probably take care of itself.

According to Sarton, those who were to be trained as historians of science should, for this purpose acquire sufficient knowledge in one branch of science at least and also in certain source languages. A historian of science, in Sarton's opinion, should become familiarized with the whole field of the history of science and should, in addition, go into two kinds of specialization: Vertical specialization in a branch of the history of science such as the history of mathematics, physics, or astronomy, extending vertically through all periods, and a horizontal field of specialization spreading over a certain civilization or culture at a certain era but encompassing as much as possible all branches of science and related intellectual fields. Examples of this would be Greek science, India, medieval Islam, or 17th century Western Europe. Strictly speaking, this second type of specialization is more easily feasible for earlier periods, of course.

However, Sarton was not dogmatic or overenthusiastic, although he was in reality unswerving, in this mode of training historians of science. He used to say that as the history of science is a youthful discipline, there are various methods and manners of approach for the historians of science, and that this freedom, not infrequently, was of advantage to the field. For in this way it became possible for its representatives to complete each other and to make up for one another's shortcomings.

Although the Introduction volumes had to stop at the end of the 14th century, Sarton himself measured up quite well to the ideal he set up for a well-trained historian of science. For he was very well-versed indeed in European science in the sixteenth and the following centuries. The wide coverage of the courses he gave at Harvard as well as certain substantial articles of his give ample proof of this. Modern European science rather than the Middle Ages was, at least initially, Sarton's area of primary competence.

Sarton's ideal was, however, to have people draw their intellectual inspirations from the history of science. Historians of science, indeed, as he would have them, with their primary field of specialization in the history of science itself, would not be expected normally to impose upon the history of science notions more peculiar to other fields of endeavour and not so appropriate to science and its history. He wrote in one of his later works: "The history of science should not be used as an instrument to defend any kind of social or philosophic theory; it should be used only for its own purpose, to illustrate impartially the working of reason against unreason [13]."

Initially, Sarton's plan for his university education was to study philosophy, and the started to do so. But before long he abandoned the subject "in disgust" [14]. It is interesting to hear him speak about twenty years later, in 1919, in a passage quoted from him above to which our footnote 4 (Chapter 1) has been appended, of the necessity for him to go more deeply into the study of medieval philosophy than he would have listed to do.

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Figure 3: Frontispice of Liber canonis medicine by Ibn Sina (Venetiis: In edibus Luce Antonii Junta, 1527), illuminated with woodcut illustrations showing authors of classical medical and scientific texts in two vertical columns. (Source).

 

These statements from his student days and from the beginning of his career are ty