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Sarton, History and Bias

George Sarton was the most powerful figure in the study of the history of science during the early twentieth century. George Sarton's credits includes major works on medieval history and 40 years as editor of Isis, the most prestigious journal on the history of science. His work has left him open to accusations of a negative bias towards Christianity. If this is true it is very important. We can explore this by looking at back issues of Isis from the time Sarton was editor (from 1912-1952).

A scan through the early issues of Isis does present obvious questions. One is the sparse reference to Pierre Duhem [_1_] . Pierre Duhem had written extensively on medieval science and had discovered that there had been important advances in physics during the late middle ages. Pierre Duhem is of more interest to modern historians of science than his contemporaries; including George Sarton [_2_] . Duhem's name was referenced in barely one article per year during Sarton's editorship. Sarton authored several large volumes of work on medieval science. In some of Sarton's works on science in the middle ages Duhem and his work aren't mentioned at all and others he is only very rarely referenced. This raises questions because Duhem's work was both novel and well-researched.

One article that deals specifically with Duhem's work deserves special mention; a 1936 article by a graduate student on Pierre Duhem's work on a medieval scientist, Jordanus Nemorarius. The article attacked both Duhem's work and Duhem personally. He even implied that Pierre Duhem was not fit to understand the physics involved in his historical work [_3_] . George Sarton allowed the article to be published even though he had long known of Duhem's stature as a physicist. At the time he was considered a peer to such great physicists as Poincare. The publication of the article says as much about the editor of the journal as it does the author of the article.

George Sarton did sign an appeal for the publication of Duhem's manuscripts in 1937, but it is thought that this was more out of respect for the widow of Paul Tannery (a noted French historian of science) than for Duhem himself. Helene Duhem had been able to enlist Paul Tannery's widow in her 30 year battle to get her father's final manuscripts published (see The Real daVinci Code).

One oddity in the early issues of Isis is that medieval alchemy assumed more importance than medieval physics. This doesn't make sense. The focus of the discussion of seventeenth century science (sometimes known as the scientific revolution) had always been physics and astronomy. Galileo and Newton are written about more than Robert Boyle.

The limited discussion of medieval physics wasn't because of a lack of source material. Two of the medieval thinkers who proposed important scientific concepts, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine and Father Jean Buridan, were amongst the most famous and respected thinkers during the middle ages. Both had an academic following that spanned centuries and national borders. Thomas Bradwardine was so famous that he had even been mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. In that work he had been placed in league with the greatest philosophers, St. Augustine and Boethius. Bradwardine and a follower of his school, Paul of Venice, had also received the greatest honor possible for a medieval academic, being bestowed with a special surname. Bradwardine had received the honorary title doctor profundus and Paul of Venice had received the name doctor profundissimus. Overlooking these three figures in a treatment of medieval science would be like overlooking Einstein in a treatment of 20th century science.

Medieval physics was downplayed in spite of its direct relevance to later advances. The Calculatores had proposed the mean-speed theorem. This was supposed to be one of Galileo's important contributions to science. Jean Buridan had proposed a theory of impetus very similar to Galileo's own impetus theory. This would eventually be refined by Newton into the theory of inertia.

There was one article (written in German) in Isis devoted to Thomas Bradwardine, an important Calculatore and and none to Jean Buridan. Buridan was mentioned in a 16-page survey of physics that covered all physics over the entire middle ages [_4_] .

The journal's treatment of early modern science poses some problems as well. One scientist from this period was Father Domingo De Soto. He had published the correct law of free fall in the mid-sixteenth century; 75 years before Galileo's important works on mechanics. It is amazing how little interest there was in the first author to publish such an important theorem. This, in spite of the fact that Duhem had discussed his work in the early twentieth century [_5_] .

It is now known that the De Soto's Physics, which outlines the correct law of free fall, was already in its eight edition during Galileo's university days at Pisa. De Soto's Physics was being read and taught! Galileo may even have been told the correct law of free fall. De Soto's work was commonly taught in Jesuit schools in Italy and other parts of Europe before Galileo finally decided on the correct law of free fall in Padua. Galileo is known to have corresponded with Jesuit scientists while at Padua [_6_] .


Copyright Joseph Sant (2016).
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1. JStor, JStor, JStor Search Engine, ,
The JStor search engine is a service available which allows you to search and retrieve a wide variety of academic e-journals. It allows a user to search 11 different journals on the History of Science and Technology including Isis. A search was done for articles in Isis with any reference to Duhem between 1912 to 1952. There was a total of 36 hits. Most of these articles had only cursory mention of his name or work. This averages 1 article referencing his name per year. This for an author whose work was both novel and encyclopedic.
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2. JStor, JStor, JStor Search Engine, ,
The JStor search engine is a service available which allows you to search and retrieve a wide variety of academic e-journals. It allows a user to search 11 different journals on the History of Science and Technology including Isis. A search was done for articles between 1980 and 2005 for the keywords 'duhem', 'sarton', and 'thorndike'; all important historians from the early part of the twentieth century. Duhem was referenced in 204 articles, Sarton 91 and Thorndike 56.
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3. Ginzburg, Benjamin, , Duhem and Jordanus Nemorarius in Isis, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Mar.,1936), , 341-362
Ginzburg uses phrases like 'what shall any scientifically-informed person say of DUHEM's attempt,'par une filiation qui n'a point subi d'interruption,' the principle of TORRICELLI with ALBERT OF SAXONY's speculations on the Aristotelian them of natural places'. This quote is representative of the tone of the entire article. Ginzburg did not go on to make any lasting contributions to the field. In a search of modern articles (issues between 1980 and 2005) from 11 journals on the History of Science and Technology covered by JStor, there was not a single article referencing Ginzburg.
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4. JStor, JStor, JStor Search Engine, ,
A search was done of the Isis E-journal spanning 1913 to 1952 for keywords 'Bradwardine','Bradwardin','Bradwardina' and 'Buridan'. The was one German language article on Thomas Bradwardine written by Edward Stamm,'Tractatus de Continuo von Thomas Bradwardina', in 1936. There was one other German language article which mentioned his name, and one english-language article that lists him amongst many other names but doesn't discuss his work. Buridan's name was mentioned but his work was not discussed in two articles, one a review of a book and another a discussion of the disputed authorship of a manuscript. His only other serious mention in an English-language article was a survey of physics through the entire middle ages published in 1948, 'Some General Aspects of Physics in the Middle Ages' by Marshall Clagett. Buridan was mentioned in a french-language article in 1921.
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5. JStor, JStor, JStor Search Engine, ,
A search was done of the Isis E-journal spanning 1913 to 1952 for articles containing the keywords 'de soto'. The most serious discussion of De Soto's work was a few sentences in a survey of physics through the entire middle ages published in 1948, 'Some General Aspects of Physics in the Middle Ages' by Marshall Clagett. Marshall Clagett, even refers to DeSoto as the 'little-known Spaniard of the sixteenth century'. His was also mentioned in a french-language article in 1920.
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6. Wallace, William, Ashgate, Domingo De Soto and the Early Galileo: Essays on Intellectual History, , 122-125
This book by historian William Wallace discusses De Soto's influence on Galileo and other scientists. De Soto's Physics, which contained the correct law of free fall, was published in 1560. It went through nine editions in the last half of the sixteenth century. He quotes from several original manuscripts showing that the law of free fall was discussed by various scientists across Europe before Galileo had graduated from university. This is a wide-ranging book that includes discussions of the influence of the medieval philosphers who discussed mechanics and forms of inductive reasoning very similar to the modern scientific method on Galileo.
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