6. Sarton at work
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Sarton had a prodigious capacity for work, and he spread his ideas both by precept and example. Thanks to Isis, moreover, he was quite efficiently active in propagandizing for the new discipline. Arnold Thackray and Robert K. Merton have the following to say on this and other similar matters:
"Tempting as such themes are, this essay will abstain and concentrate on the central aspect of Sarton's life: his work as key figure in the history of a discipline. That work found its focus as well as its fullest expression in the monumental Introduction to the History of Science; we shall therefore pay particular attention to it. But, as will become apparent, the Introduction was only one of a great variety of enterprises that Sarton undertook in his capacity as discipline builder.
"Exploiting the liberty available to a pioneer, Sarton enjoyed a multiplicity of roles in relation to his discipline and played them all with a characteristic lack of self-awareness. A major one was that of propagandist. His evangelizing on behalf of his chosen subject inevitably calls to mind the way Francis Bacon served as propagandist for the field of science itself. And, like Bacon, Sarton had his most enduring impact in this vital, though little acknowledged capacity. Other roles were more central to his life and mission. With a discipline to be created, a world to be won, the provision of tools, techniques, methodologies, and intellectual orientation lay uppermost in his mind and at the forefront of his actions. A cognitive identity for his new discipline was the primary goal, his own pattern of work the self-exemplifying model of appropriate scholarship. Sarton was also well aware of the real, if less immediate, need for professional as well as cognitive identity. Without it, his field of learning could never be secure, let alone accepted as crucial to man's intellectual quest. Appropriate exhortations poured from his pen. The need for career positions and institutes for the history of science were matters to which he often returned… ."
There is a claim to the effect that Sarton was wont to indulge in thinking of general principles or matters pertaining to complex human affairs in terms of simple theorems or straightforward syllogisms and that he at times fell into contradictions or became involved in paradoxes. This reminds one of the questions of the so-called many-valued logic, although the claim is not elaborated in any formal sense but rests solely on the method of exemplification. To me Sarton's falling into contradictions in dealing with clear and simple propositions is out of the question. It seems possible to me, however, that the observations made may more aptly be interpreted in a different manner, namely, to the effect that Sarton was not likely to fall into the fallacy of misplaced precision i.e., of trying to make unduly precise what is not easily possible to do so.
I have quoted at the beginning of this article somewhat extensively from an early paper of Sarton. One reason for this was that toward the end of the passage quoted from that paper Sarton writes, "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'est pas moins réelle." This brings to mind Thomas S. Kuhn. I am not ready to go into the question at any length, but it seems to me that, although Sarton put much stress upon the historical continuity aspect of revolutionary changes, he would not feel that Kuhn's thesis would be irreconcilable with that of his own. For he would think that Kuhn's idea is reconcilable with the principle of historical continuity. And this he would think of explaining on the basis of minute details involved in each particular process, as he actually asserted at least in one other case and in some detail .
Sarton was anxious to detect regularities and recurring patterns from among the facts made available through a detailed and objective study of the history of science. And although he never treated the subject systematically writing monographs devoted to such a kind of approach to the history of science but merely referred to considerations or observations of this nature in a casual manner in his writings, he may be said to have been, in a sense, more pretentious or at least more optimistic than Kuhn in this respect. This may be gathered, e.g., from Kuhn's following statement:
"A third factor in the formation of modern historiography of science has been a repeated insistence that the student of scientific development concern himself with positive knowledge as a whole and that general histories of science replace histories of special sciences. Traceable as a program to Bacon, and more particularly to Comte, that demand scarcely influenced scholarly performance before the beginning of this century, when it was forcefully reiterated by the universally venerated Paul Tannery and then put to practice in the monumental researches of George Sarton. Subsequent experience has suggested that the sciences are not, in fact, all of a piece and that even the superhuman erudition required for a general history of science could scarcely tailor their joint evolution to a coherent narrative ."
Sarton attached quite an importance to the idea that the facts of the history of science are complex and he believed that this was due largely to the complexity and intricacy of the process of the growth of scientific knowledge itself. He dwelled at times on such examples as Auguste Comte's bold guess to affect that as the celestial bodies could not be introduced into to the laboratories their chemical compositions could never be determined and pointed out that this was belied through the birth of spectrum analysis only a few years after Comte's death. Again, he would frequently refer to the failure of great scientists to appreciate contributions closely related to their own epoch-making discoveries, such as Dalton's failure to appreciate the values of the giant contributions of Gay-Lussac and Avogadro to his own atomic theory. Sarton used to refer to this kind of occurrences as the great discoverers' being "blinded" by the magnitude of their own discoveries.
[Here Professor Sayili quotes a long paragraph in French that makes several pages from the book of the French historian of ideas Georges Gusdorf: Les Sciences humaines et la pensée occidentale, vol. 1: De I'Histoire des sciences à l'histoire de la pensée. For the confort of reading, this passage is quoted in a the Appendix to this article].
I believe that Sarton himself would have been well satisfied with this more modest program of activity for the history of science and the tendency foreseeing a less pretentious role for science as a means of approaching human aims and ideals as roughly delineated by Gusdorf. He always felt keen for the possible abuses of the power gained as a result of becoming equipped with knowledge capable of being but into practical use. Science should therefore be checked and controlled in its utilizations for human needs. Scientific and technological power and skill should always be coordinated and supplemented with virtue, and standards of right and moral excellence.
At the very beginning of his The History of Science and the New Humanism, a book quoted in special by Gusdorf, as we have just seen, and quite representative of the enthusiasm he exhibited for the cause of science, Sarton speaks in the following words: "in our days an educated man can no longer behave as if the gigantic efforts of scientists did not concern him - as if they belonged so-to- say to another world; he must recognize the scientific spirit as being at least on the same level as the religious spirit, the artistic spirit, the spirit of justice, one of the four glories of humanity .
The following passage from the same book may also be considered quite relevant to the same question:
"Before, considering the very complex case of mankind as a whole, suppose we had to tell the history of a single man. How would we set about it? The main point of the story, I take it, would be to explain the development of his genius, the gradual accomplishment of his special mission. If he became a great mathematician, we would try to show how and when his mathematical bent revealed itself, how a growing boy devoted more and more attention to mathematics, how other interests were by degrees sacrificed to this dominating one. A boy who toys with mathematical ideas, what fun; but little by little they engross the whole of his mind until finally we have the awful feeling that there is no choice or freedom left. No more playing with mathematics, but rather mathematics playing with a human mind and using it to the limit. That is how genius looks when we come nearer to it. Nothing very comfortable or pleasant, but rather a fearsome mystery. Our story should be focused upon that very mystery. Its value will depend upon our ability to evoke the genius - everything else however much there may be of it being subordinated to this - to evoke its growth, its struggles, its fulfillment, its influence; it will depend also upon our success in making other people realize the mystery involved. It is clear that all else is relatively indifferent, in as much as we are interested in this man because of his mathematical genius. To be sure our curiosity is not restricted to the mathematical side of him - if we are sufficiently interested in his genius our curiosity is properly insatiable- but that side is the essential, every other, auxiliary. A biography which would be focused, let us say, on the account of his diseases, or of his loves or hatreds, might be entertaining, it might obtain the favour of superficial readers, but it would be false.
The case of mankind is not essentially different from that of a single man, though it is infinitely more complex. To begin with, the main direction is not so easy to discover, for there are many. Which is the purpose of mankind? Is such a question too ambitious? Is it at all possible to answer it? I believe it is. Without venturing into metaphysics, we may safely assume that the main purpose of any creature is indicated by its specific function. What can man do which other animals cannot? His purely physiological functions he shares with many of them; it cannot be that he lives only to live and reproduce his kind. Indeed if we look back we see that the men who came before us have not simply perpetuated their own flesh, but produced a quantity of things, material and immaterial, which constitute the best part of our inheritance. The totality of these things we call civilization. They include such material objects as buildings, statues, paintings, furniture; instruments and tools of every description, and such immaterial things as artistic and scientific methods, ideals, hopes, fears and prejudices. They represent the creative activity of man, his net creations above and beyond those which had no aim but to make his net creations above and beyond those which had no aim but to make his life possible, or to lighten it, make it more agreeable, and insure its prosperity and continuation. Is it not as daylight that if we want to write the history of man it is this creative activity, specified to him, which must provide us with our Leitmotiv? Everything which pertains to that activity must be in the foreground of our picture; everything else, however interesting, in the background.
To put it briefly we might say that, as far as we can discern, the main purpose of man is to create such intangible values as beauty, justice, truth. I trust that the reader will not require any definition of these terms; that he can distinguish order from chaos, beauty from ugliness, justice from injustice, truth from untruth. It is not necessary that he be able to distinguish them in each and every case; there will always be enough ambiguous cases to rejoice the heart of casuists, but we shall not allow the latter to sidetrack us. It will suffice to recognize that there have been in all times at least some men who were obsessed by the idea of creating beautiful things, of improving social conditions, of discovering and publishing the truth. The fact that they were not free from illusions, that their experiments were not always successful, that even the best of them made mistakes, does not affect the general statement. Considered as a body these men were those who fulfilled the distinctive mission of mankind, and to them we owe most of the privileges and of the pleasures of our lives, the nobility of our minds, and the grace of our hearts ."
As I have said before, over and above certain pet ideas he had, Sarton's main concern was to establish the history of science as an independent academic discipline. Independent, especially in the sense that historians of science should have the chance and opportunity, through their special training, of forming and shaping their views concerning science and its place in human life and thought primarily on the basis of the facts to be gleaned from the history of science itself and should not therefore be over inclined to use the history of science for the support and defense of ideologies introduced and borrowed from fields outside of the history of science. For presumably this would make the history of science more useful as a contributing factor and constituent element of our sagacity in making value judgments in matters pertaining to intellectual culture and science itself. This is a very important concern, a cardinal matter for consideration. Yet Sarton thought of this scheme of training historians of science as one that should be predominant but not necessarily exclusive and one not stereotyped but preferably leaving room for variations and adaptations to special conditions and needs.
Such lack of rigidness should, in my opinion, in no way be interpreted as indecision or vacillation, or as paradoxical. Sarton had very fine personality traits. He was extremely democratic and liberal, and, in my understanding, he was entirely free from superstitions such as racial or religious discriminations and other human weaknesses verging on bigotry and intolerance. He was also exemplary in his sincerity and earnestness.
After the start of World War II when it became certain that Isis could no more continue to be published in Belgium. Sarton got in touch with local printing presses in Boston. He was speaking with a representative of such a printer or publisher, and Dr. Alexander Pogo, who was in the contiguous room and could overhear the talks, did gering nervous fear that the man was going to put over on Sarton certain unreasonable ideas and at times he made gestures of interfering with the conversation. Sarton, however, closed the door separating the suite of rooms and let the man speak to him in greater privacy. There was occasion to refer to Pogo's concern after the man had gone, and Sarton explained that although he appreciated Pogo's concern in the matter, he wished the man to be satisfied with the bargain and that, after all, as businessman, it was the man's duty to prove shrewder than Sarton as customer and to extract from him certain advantages in their deal and bargain.
As I have explained before, in his self-assigned calling as a pioneer for the promotion of the cultivation of the history of science and even in his main concern to establish the history of science as an independent academic discipline Sarton was not dogmatic or overenthusiastic although unswerving in his ideal mode of training historians of science. But all this was due to his broadmindedness and his unwillingness to unduly interfere in the affairs of others. And, moreover, in his ideal program or scheme for training historians of science he was realistic and reasonable; he was not trying to have his candidates for advanced degrees in the history of science accomplish the impossible as it is sometimes asserted, apparently with perfectly good intentions or simple credulity, even by otherwise well-informed circles.
As a discipline builder, Sarton may have had some exaggerated schemes in mind concerning the training of historians of science, before say 1936, or 1932, but in that case he must have toned down his plans to somewhat more moderate dimensions when he officially began to put his ideas into practice. It is of course impossible to be specialized or well-competent in Chinese astronomy, Mesopotamian medicine, Greek mathematics, alchemy in medieval Islam, and 19th century physics, just as it is impossible for one and the same person to be a brain surgeon, a specialist on the diseases of the respiratory organs, and a paediatrician. This does not make it unreasonable though to think that the history of science should be an independent academic discipline and that science historians should be expected to have a rough acquaintance with the whole field of the history of science just as it actually is in the more or less parallel case of the field of medicine, or in mathematics, physics, psychology, literature, philosophy, or in any comprehensive field of study, for that matter.
 Arnold Thackray and Robert K. Merton, "On Discipline Building: The Paradoxes of George Sarton", Isis, vol. 63, 1972, pp. 475-476. See also, A. Thackray and R. K. Merton, "Sarton", Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 12, 1975, p. 109 and pp. 107-114.
 History of Science and the New Humanism, 1931, pp. 36-37.
 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Essential Tension, 1977, p. 109.
 See, op. cit., p. 10.
 George Sarton, the History of Science and the New Humanism, 1931, pp. 21-24.
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by: FSTC, Mon 04 August, 2008