How damaging are labels, actually?

I find lots of labels on 19th century natural history. I refer of “Baconian science”, “Humboldtian science”, “utilitarian science”, or even “pre-darwinian natural history”. To me, these labels constrain our understanding of natural history instead of guiding us through the changes it underwent. The naturalists of the period (think of our own heroes, Reinwardt, Temminck, the Sarasin’s or the members of the Natuurkundige Commissie) defy these “one-size-fits-all” categories. I’m not even sure Humboldt would have liked the term “Humboldtian science” (as Susan Faye Cannon defined it in 1978). Even the practices we label as “field science” and “museum science” are connected and intertwined, often combined in a single naturalist who probably never thought in these terms himself.

So here’s one for you: does it help history of science to categorize these different practices (and therefore, to establish limits around them) according to how (“Humboldtian”) and where (“field”) science was being carried out, or should we focus on more on disciplines? By “disciplines” I mean the what that science was interested in. In the case of zoology, for example, I’m thinking of describing and classifying (taxonomy), studying structure (anatomy), understanding processes (physiology), understanding geographical patterns (biogeography), and so on. This are modern terms, I know, but it seems to me that every one of our heroes had a very clear idea about which of these disciplines belonged to his kingdom, and which did not. These “disciplines” were forming from the end of the 18th century on, and were defined around the 1840’s.

You might want to read this for a discussion: http://science.jrank.org/pages/49151/Humboldtian-science.html

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2 Responses to “How damaging are labels, actually?”

  1. Andreas Weber Says:

    And another perspective: My opinion would be that either sort of labeling (disciplines and labels such as ‘humboldtian science’) are generalizations created in later historical, poltical, and social contexts. Labels are thus important as heuristic tools to approach a certain area, but in the end, they remain always unsharp. Only the careful examination of the scientific practices and rhetoric of an individual, group or institution can unravel the different modes of investigating nature in the decades around 1800. Another interesting article on this theme is Kai Torsten Kanz, “Biologie: die Wissenschaft vom Leben? – Vom Ursprung des Begriffs zum System biologischer Disziplinen (17. bis 20. Jahrhundert).” Unfortunately the article is written in German. In this article Kanz traces the origins of the term ‘biology’ in publications by Treviranus, Lamarck, Lawrence, etc. Central outcome of the article is that the term is continously redefined by its practitioners.

    Here is the full reference of the book in which the article is published: Ekkehard Höxtermann / Hartmut H. Hilger (eds.), Lebenswissen. Eine Einführung in die Geschichte der Biologie. Rangsdorf: Natur&Text 2007. The mentioned article can be found on the pages 101-122.

  2. Robert-Jan Wille Says:

    The article by Laitko and Guntau in the same book is interesting as well! It treats the concept, history and conceptual history (!) of ‘discipline’.

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