Science as an Institution

Lecture 11.  September 25 and October 1.

Afterthoughts.  The question that we considered in today’s lecture — the “civilizational question” of why the Scientific Revolution took place only in Europe — is part of a larger picture concerned with seeing science as an institution.  When we think of science and scientists we tend to think of laboratories and researchers, but, as Weber observed in “Science as a vocation,” science is something much larger, a social institution composed not just of scientists, professional societies, and universities, but as a way of thinking with implications far outside the bounds of scientific investigation as such.

In this lecture, we looked at the the birth of science as an institution, and learned that it could not have been created without a variegated set of pre-existing values, practices, ideas, concepts, and institutions, many of which, such as corporations, had little or nothing to do with science to begin with.  The story exemplified the New History of Science I discussed in the first week of class.  

  • We saw that the spirit of certain times and places made the invention of science likely or unlikely.
  • We saw that the invention of science was not a thought out plan, but represented the coming together of numerous social, economic, and philosophical developments that coalesced in a remarkably creative way — almost a miracle and certainly unforeseeable.
  • We saw that the Scientific Revolution was not an inevitable step leading to modernity, but depended critically upon contingent historical processes that could have come out differently.
  • We saw that understanding the origin and course of the Scientific Revolution requires looking outside the technical problems addressed by early modern scientists such as Galileo and Newton to external factors such as Christianity’s recognition of the power of reason to at least partly grasp truth unaided by revelation.

The important lesson is that science is not, as scientists themselves sometimes seem to think, a uniquely rational enterprise that is (or, perhaps, ought to be) radically independent from everything else, but is an institution whose existence is interwoven with a network of other institutions which gave it life and continue to sustain it.

Forethoughts.  And as Weber observed, once science becomes part of this network of institutions, it begins to affect them.  In coming lectures we will look at psychology in light of these two insights.  We will see how the origin and nature of different psychologies were conditioned by the social institutions in which they originated.  For example, the psychology of consciousness was born in the (then) uniquely German new model universities that embodied a  certain values, such as pure research undertaken for its own sake, while in Britain and America the psychology of adaptation had no firm, yet defining, home, and developed in an atmosphere pervaded by different values, in which practical application of science was taken for granted.  We will then see (especially in the case of psychoanalysis) how psychological concepts were not only shaped by, but began powerfully to shape, peoples’ understanding of themselves in their innermost being and in their relation to others and to society.


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