Looking twice at the history of science

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Jonathan Rée on the vanity of historicism

Jonathan Rée
I should have known that it would be a tall order to get married and maintain a bilingual blog over the same summer. But I'm pleased to say that after a few months of inactivity posting will now resume on this blog. I regret to add that it will no longer be bilingual. The reasons for this are the obvious one that translation is time-consuming, and the less-obvious one that the bilingualism so far practiced on this blog has already done its job of improving my French. At least a bit.


I have some things to say on the much-discussed topic of Whiggism, but as a warm-up here are some remarks on an intriguing paper from two decades ago: Jonathan Rée, "The Vanity of Historicism," New Literary History, 1991, 22(4), 961-983 (paywall).

The paper is intriguing for three reasons. Firstly, it presents an outsider's perspective of the history of science--Rée was a professor in philosophy when he wrote the article, and is now better known as a freelance writer and historian. Secondly, Rée endorses a thesis that is part of Will's picture, namely that recent historians of science tend to suffer delusions of novelty. Thirdly, Rée gives a general and plausible explanation of why those delusions exist. I'll say what Rée's views are and then say what I think of them, in general and with respect to the discipline of the history of science. Expand post.

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