Why there weren’t any scientists before the late nineteenth century.

It has become common practice for historians of science to admonish people who use the term scientist when applied to people who lived before the nineteenth century. They point out, correctly, that the word was first coined by Cambridge polymath William Whewell in 1833 at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Cambridge and first used in print by him a year later in his review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connection of the physical sciences. As Melinda Baldwin has shown in her guest post, The History of ‘scientists’ the term didn’t really become established until late in the nineteenth century or even early in the twentieth. On being thus admonished many people react negatively and ask pointedly whether historians of science mean that there was no science before 1833. On being told that this is not the case they argue that if people were doing science then it is perfectly acceptable to call them scientists. If they are doing science then they are scientists, end of story!

Unfortunately it is not as easy as that, because terms have connotations, which extend well beyond their simple denotations. For those readers who are not up on the jargon of linguistics or the philosophy of language I will try to explain the terms denotation and connotation with a simple example. Expert linguists and philosophers of language should look the other way for a minute or two. The name Sascha denotes the dog whose picture you can see in the top right-hand corner of this blog. The name Sascha connotes, for me, all of the things that I experienced with him throughout the ten years that we shared our lives, a wild mixture of a thousand different emotions. Returning to the term scientists, it denotes quite simply someone who does science (whatever that may be, a can of worms I don’t intend to open today). To the distress of real life scientists, cartoonists, playwrights, film directors and others often present a sort of cardboard cut-out generic figure as a scientist: white, male, bearded, wearing glasses and a white lab coat. Even the sexy female scientist presented in more up to date TV series is usually given the glasses and the white lab coat to establish their professional identity. This clichéd list of characteristics is the superficial connotation that is generated in their minds and often in that of their readers and viewers by the term scientist.

Image result for scientist collage

On a less superficial level the word scientists, as used since the beginning of the twentieth century, has a very strong set of characteristics, its connotation, that spring to the reader’s or listener’s mind when confronted with the term. This list of characteristic’s are usually centered around the scientist’s education, training and professional experience; the clue here lies in the word professional. The scientist is an expert who has undergone a lengthy and extensive specialist education and training to qualify them for their profession and who has enough experience in that profession to justify their being called a scientist. This set of characteristics for the scientist is something that only came into being, rather gradually, over the course of the nineteenth century. If we go back before that time the set of characteristics that we find associated with people doing what we would recognize as science is very different and in fact changed over the centuries, since science began to emerge in Europe in the High Middle Ages. In what follows I shall restrict my remarks to Europe and the period between about twelve hundred CE and eighteen hundred CE. The problems of using the term scientist for earlier periods and other cultures are even greater than those I will outline here.

In the high Middle Ages most of the sciences, as we now know them, simply didn’t exist. Alchemy/chemistry, including much that we would now call applied or industrial chemistry, was regarded as an art practiced by artisans. Where art here means technique or technology or even handcraft. Whilst its practitioners might regard themselves as seekers after or even possessors of knowledge their image was not even remotely like that of our image invoked by the word scientist. Mathematicus, astrologus, astronomus were all synonyms for the same profession, again the practitioner of an art, artisans. Mostly employed outside of the universities, often in the courts of rulers, these ‘mathematicians’ were usually principally employed as astrologers but their full job description included many other functions. Astronomer, horologist (that is designer and maker of sundials), hydraulic engineer in charge of designing water features in ornamental gardens and a whole host of other activities we would normally associate with a technician or engineer. Their social status was that of a craftsman, albeit an upper grade one, rather than that of an academic, also far from out image of the scientist.Image result for all scientists in one picture

Physics belonged in the universities, practiced by philosophers, but this was the physics of Aristotle, the study of nature and contained much that is foreign to our concept of physics. Also this was mostly a qualitative descriptive study and not a quantitative empirical one. Although some of its practitioners, such as for example Robert Grosseteste of Roger Bacon, espoused ideas similar to our concept of the scientific method in their writings their actually their actually practice bears little resemblance to that of modern scientists. Although bearing the same name, their institutions, the medieval universities, have very little in common with our modern institutes of higher educations.

There is very little change in this state of affairs up to the sixteenth century, as the demand for the use of mathematics in astronomy for cartography and navigation as well as astrology in medicine began to change the status of its practitioners. It is first in the seventeenth century when the work of people such as Kepler, a court mathematicus, and Galileo, a university teacher of astrology for medical students, began to intrude into the traditional domain of the philosophers and redefine the nature and subject matter of physics that quantitative empirical research began to make inroads into the universities. In this context it is highly relevant that when Galileo left the university for the Medici court in Florence he insisted on the title philosophicus as well as mathematicus because of the lowly status of the latter in comparison to the former, These practitioners became known not as scientists but as natural philosophers and their career profiles and public image were still substantially different to that of modern scientists. The seventeenth century also saw the gradual emergence of geology, zoology, biology and botany as separate disciplines with expert practitioners from the philosophers’ earlier domain of natural history. Chemistry didn’t make its way into the universities until the eighteenth century and then only as a handmaiden to medicine, only gaining recognition as a discipline in its own right in the nineteenth century.

Let us pause for a while and look at the career profiles of the most well-known figures, who contributed to the evolution of the mathematical sciences in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Copernicus was a canon of the cathedral chapter of Frombork and basically an administrator or civil servant of the prince-bishopric of Ermland (Warmia). Astronomy was so to speak his hobby. His life has nothing in common with our concept of a scientist. Tycho Brahe was a Danish aristocrat, who set up a research institute for astronomy and Paracelsian medicine on a Scandinavian island in something resembling a castle and which included a court jester and a pet elk, which got drunk and broke its neck falling down some stairs. Tycho’s life was about as far removed from the twenty-first century idea of a scientist as you can get. As already mentioned Johannes Kepler was a schoolteacher and district mathematicus, meaning amongst other things astrologer, who went on to become a court mathematicus, meaning principally astrologer; once again almost nothing in common with a modern scientist. Galileo was actually a university professor for mathematics but his principle activity would have been teaching astrology to medical students. He later became a court philosopher, basically an intellectual court jester. Descartes was a mercenary or soldier of fortune, who then retired to the live of a gentleman of leisure, alternating with periods of being a court philosopher with the same function as Galileo. None of these people had any real formal education or training as a ‘scientist’. There were no white coats and with the exception of Tycho nothing even remotely resembling a laboratory. Neither Copernicus nor Kepler even had an observatory. Today, we would tend to regard Newton as a physicist but he was actually a professor of mathematics in Cambridge. However a professor, who had almost no students and whose lectures appear to have been very scantily attended. He abandoned academia to become Warden and then Master of the Mint a post with little to do with his scientific activities. None of these figures who are leading lights in the pantheon of scientific heroes even remotely fulfills our connotations of a scientist.

The term physics was first used in the way we use it at the beginning of the second decade of the eighteenth century and didn’t become common usage in this sense until the nineteenth century. The term physicist was first coined even later than the term scientist. It really was first in the nineteenth century that the people doing science first began to fulfil the connotations that we have when we hear or read the word scientist, so it really is for the best if we refrain from using the term for researchers who lived in earlier periods.

The above excerpt is a masterpiece by ThonyC. Be sure to check out thonyc.wordpress.com .


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