Acceptance Speech – Bern, 18.11.1997


Charles Coulston Gillispie

1997 Balzan Prize for History and Philosophy of Science

For the extraordinary contribution he has made to the history and philosophy of science by his intellectually vigorous, precise works, as well as his editing of a great reference work.

To be associated with the memory of Eugenio Balzan is an honor on a scale not to have been imagined. Since receipt of the news, my sentiments have been a somewhat incoherent mixture of gratitude, pride, and humility over being included in such company. It is no false modesty to acknowledge that, if called on to make a nomination for a prize in History and Philosophy of Science, I would have thought of a number of colleagues whose contributions seem, especially now, far deeper and more original than do mine.

Further considerations leave me still more abashed. Among the eminent names on the Balzan roster are two that touch me particularly. One is that of Samuel Eliot Morison, whom I greatly admired as a graduate student at Harvard, and who gave me the lowest grade in his course on the American Revolution that I ever received there — justly so. The second is that of Otto Neugebauer, whose background was in mathematics and classical philology, and whose erudition in history of science has never been equalled. Though not to be compared in other respects, I too am a historian and not a philosopher.

The precedent reassures me in accepting the award. For my knowledge of the philosophy of science is not at all analytical in the modern sense. From the time of Plato until the 2Oth century, philosophy has figured historically in the formation and criticism of scientific knowledge. That aspect I have tried to understand, in partial emulation of one whom a number of us doing history regard as our maître, Alexandre Koyré. There are, it is true, scholars today in whose work philosophical and historical analysis of science figures in a reciprocal fashion. My late colleague and close friend, Thomas Kuhn, was a cardinal instance. Nevertheless, the two modes of scrutinizing science are not one and the same, but rather are subdisciplines of history and philosophy respectively. Philosophy of science has a long and distinguished lineage, extending back beyond Mach, Duhem, Peirce, and Mill to Auguste Comte and Kant, even (it could be said) to Leibniz. It took modern form in the Vienna circle of logical positivism at the beginning of this century. In all that time, bygone science served philosophers as a repository of historically unexamined examples with which to make epistemological points. The past has also attracted the interest of certain scientists, usually in their old age, who composed histories of their own disciplines, often in an antiquarian mode. These are not genres to be deplored, but neither are they historical.

The problems of historians are different. The question is not simply with logic or system in science, nor with what it has been in the eyes of its own practitioners, past and present. Historians need to know those things, but their inquiries concern how science has come to be in time and circumstance, and what difference it has made in civilization and society generally. History of science proper is a relative newcomer on the scholarly scene, Only in the generation to which I have the privilege of belonging did it become a subject its own in right studied by persons whose professional identity it defines and whose whole concern it is.

The experience of the second World War was certainly what brought home the importance of considering the role of science as a force and factor in history. So it happened that, both in the United States and Europe, a number of ten young people who had had a technical education turned their thought from science to its history. Starting quite independently for the most part, and with no formal guidance, we quickly came to know one another and to share in launching the subject. The world of learning was receptive, so much so that in the 1970s it proved possible to enlist the cooperation of over a thousand contributors, scientists as well as historians in all countries, in preparation of the work to which the terms of the award so kindly allude.

To have been part of such a scholarly cause is a great reward. No less gratifying has been the hospitality to those efforts of Princeton University, which has made possible my career, and of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, where I have also taught. The stimulation of fine students in both institutions has given rise to investigations that would never have started without them and to thoughts that would otherwise have remained mere soliloquies.

I trust it may not seem presumptuous to accept with great gratitude the award of the Balzan prize as a tribute to the colleagues and students who have joined in bringing to pass truly historical consideration of the scientific enterprise. It is, finally, the greatest of joys that my dear wife is present. Her participation enhances and humanizes everything I touch.

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