At the beginning of January 2017, nineteen PhD candidates gathered in the ‘youth village’ De Glind (Gelderland, the Netherlands). This gathering continued the biannual Promovendicongres Wetenschapsgeschiedenis, which brings together young Dutch and (in earlier editions) Belgian historians of knowledge, and which previously met at Rolduc in Kerkrade. The conference programme reflected the move from a Catholic abbey to a twentieth-century social welfare village: many speakers were concerned with the societal engagement and ethical responsibility of recent science. The event was organized by Ivan Flis, Léjon Saarloos and Didi van Trijp, while support was provided by the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities (Utrecht University), Huizinga Institute (Research Institute and Graduate School of Cultural History), and Vossius Center for History of Science and Humanities (University of Amsterdam). The conference’s diverse programme more than matched the range indicated by the namesakes of the three sponsoring institutes.

This review attempts to grasp the variety of topics, approaches, and methods presented at De Glind, and to embed the Dutch future of history of science in historiographical discussions. In that respect, I echo the questions raised by Noortje Jacobs (Maastricht University), one of the participants, in a recent ‘Focus’ section of Isis on the agenda-setting History Manifesto: ‘One challenge posed (…) is how to integrate [a] plurality of viewpoints into causally complex but nevertheless singular narratives’ and ‘where do we historians of science stand on this?’1 The projects pursued by the PhD candidates, on the one hand, reflected recent methodological improvements for transcending academic compartmentalization and the locality of microlevel studies. On the other hand, the ‘projectification’ of historical research frustrated possibilities for more inclusive and general reflections on knowledge. The first point will be emphasized throughout this review, while I will come back to the last point in the concluding sections.

Participants of the ‘De Glind’ conference, 12–13 January 2017.

Knowing Selves and Society

The scientific persona as thematic focus is one way to move beyond microlevel casestudies. In this way, one lecture about a Galilean controversy could speak directly to papers dealing with twentieth-century science. Anna-Luna Post (Utrecht University) discussed the ‘mechanics of reputation’ and the ‘dynamics of plagiarism’ with respect to the 1607 controversy between Galileo Galilei and his former student Baldassare Capra. She demonstrated that the Florentine natural philosopher, who had not yet risen to fame, strategically attacked Capra for plagiarizing his Le Operazioni del Compasso Geometrico e Militare, by translating it into Latin without any reference to the original. To claim credit, Galileo did not keep the affair private, as Capra might have hoped in a scholarly exchange. Instead he made it public, by following the legal route to the end and mobilizing allies to speak in his name. From the discussion, it emerged that a historical approach to the construction of scholarly reputation, as scientific virtue and moral basis for public credibility, has a clear relevance.2

This feature connected the paper on early-modern Italy to a series of papers about the scholarly persona in other eras and fields. In a thick and networked way the persona approach to history of science is in vogue, because the perspective transcends divisions between society, disciplines, and times.3 Christiaan Engberts (Leiden University) discussed the construction of reputation through mutual evaluation in private correspondence between late nineteenth-century oriental scholars.4 Although many shared a ‘judicial self-representation’ of the ideal scholar, it remained controversial what precisely made a good scholarly judge. Engberts highlighted how, in contrast to Galileo’s public approach, Professor of Arabic M. J. de Goeje from Leiden preferred private and constructive judgements of other scholars to public condemnation.5

The series of papers on scholarly personae all transcended the case study by highlighting transdisciplinary themes like the relation of science to society, or the body. Thrilling examples were presented by Léjon Saarloos (Leiden University) and Chaokang Tai (University of Amsterdam). Through the virtue of desire in late Victorian Britain, Saarloos was able to connect the bodies of men of science to abstract ideals of science. Heroic stories of scientific explorations that put the existence of the body at risk were told over and over to illustrate the deep connection with the progress of science as a whole: they were prepared to devote their whole life to it.6 Tai attempted to relate the astronomer Anton Pannekoek to early twentieth-century European society. Pannekoek is well known as a prominent Marxist, but this conviction was in principle separated from his astronomical science. His writings on science – obituaries, correspondence, autobiography, and history of science – offer us a glimpse of societal virtues of the scientific persona such as austerity, simplicity, and humanity.7

An issue raised by these biographical case studies, from Galileo to Pannekoek, is where the private sphere ends and the public domain begins.8 This point, raised by Usman Ahmedani (University of Amsterdam), draws attention to a philosophical issue that invites comparative study by historians of science, between disciplines, nations, and ages. Related to this is the following question: why should we be interested in the virtues of scientific persons in particular?9 This connects to a tradition started by Daston and Galison’s Objectivity to relate the scientific self with the epistemic conduct of science.10

Making Knowledge Visible

In such historical epistemological studies especially techniques and criteria of visualization have received serious attention. Robbert Striekwold (Leiden University) presented the interactions which the Leiden naturalist Hermann Schegel cultivated with artists in the construction of ‘realistic’ illustrations. Striekwold demonstrated how Schlegel’s influential text on pictorial conventions in natural history placed scientific interests above aesthetic considerations: the artist was made to serve the naturalist. In line with scientific developments – nomenclatural types came to replace the type-specimen – this contributed to the standardization of naturalistic illustration in the nineteenth century.11 Commentator Andrea van Leerdam (Utrecht University) correctly suggested that concepts of realism were just as important in art, literature – and nowadays – videogames as in science, and that the solution to the limit of representation (it is never a replacement) is different in each culture and age.12

Van Leerdam’s own presentation on woodcuts as reading aids in the early sixteenth century was a case in point. Presentational features of Dutch books about nature were central, she claimed, in the vernacular reader’s experience, expectation, and interpretation. Beyond the images and illustrations themselves, she reoriented attention to the materiality of the visual and its crucial role in knowledge transfer. The production and recycling of woodcuts suggest much about intended audiences and publishers’ interests. The relation of the image to the text and material traces left by users can reveal in what way knowledge was transferred to this audience.

Networked Knowing

Knowledge transfer has been a contested concept for its linearity and imperialism for a while now. Jim Secord’s suggestion to speak about ‘circulation of knowledge’ as overarching theme for history of science was a recurring subject of debate at De Glind.13 Very different case studies centred on networks in knowledge production and dissemination, using the concept of circulation to its full potential. Didi van Trijp (Leiden University) offered an insight into the networks of scholars, fishermen, and fish on which the early modern fishbook of John Ray relied.14 Together with the above mentioned Striekwold, Van Trijp is part of the NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) project New History of Fishes.15 Her move beyond a social network of correspondence between scholars illustrates a direction in history of science that became manifest in various discussions: the equal inclusion of more and more ‘non-scientists’, be they epistemic objects, material carriers, family members, skilled workers, artists, et cetera.16 It reflects the idea that knowledge is doing much more than merely contemplation.17 Van Trijp made visible the network of practices and people that expanded the definition of ‘expert’ in early modern Europe. The skills and knowledge of fishermen and fishmongers counted as trustworthy observation, and were thus central to the rise of empirical science and the discipline of ichthyology.

Lucie Bastiaens (Maastricht University) also focused on expertise and networks, but her starting point was much less scholarly and much more recent. The development of social psychiatry in Maastricht between 1880 and 1965 demonstrates the power of social networks of expertise. Until World War II public healthcare was the business of philanthropic organisations from various religious and ideological backgrounds. Through committees these organizations tied a variety of experts (psychologists, psychiatrists, priests, politicians) to their cause, to help people with ‘mental instability’. After 1945 the field of social psychiatry professionalized and broadened its scope from individuals to society as a whole. The construction of a special neighbourhood in Maastricht to re-educate ‘problem citizens’ under the daily supervision of a team of experts, was the epitome of this development. The discussion following both papers was rewarding, for example stressing the innovative importance of ‘weak ties’ and relating the scientific developments to other practices like law and history.18

Planning Progress

A notable trend at De Glind was the attention for Dutch governance of science in the post-war period. Three talks on policy concerned with science, typically developed in the 1960s–1980s, tackled the social-democratic impulse to plan, deliberate, and evaluate the ‘maakbare’ (malleable) society.

Jorrit Smit (Leiden University) discussed the coming into being of the first explicit science policy in the Netherlands and how this led to an ‘identity crisis’ at Leiden University.19 Rather than turning the coordination of science into a political topic, he claimed that the policy depoliticized science. The slow top-down bureaucratic process in which the political vision was cast, made political discussion or democratic accountability a matter of form. The universities, in the meantime, actively presented themselves as ‘open to society’ at various academic ceremonies, to resonate more with the rapidly changing surroundings. The bottom-up activist efforts by researchers were used to this end as well by university governors, while a connection to national science policy was lacking. A similar tension between autonomic expertise and democratic accountability was visible in Noortje Jacobs’ presentation on research ethics committees. These ‘obligatory passage points’ appeared in the 1970s to control human experiments in science: as internal safeguards against atrocities through detachment of scientific practice from state involvement, and as external accountability to society.20 As such, they mediated an expertocratic solution to the role of science in medicine, and a democratic solution to the role of medicine in society.

The relations between science, governance, and activism in the twentieth century were again of significance in a session on animals. Anne van Veen (Utrecht University/RIVM) showed that the 1970s were also a turning point for the development of Dutch legislation on animal testing. While activist opposition towards animal testing was growing, legal structures were formalized. With an exciting post-humanist approach to lab practices, Van Veen hopes to make tangible the ‘choreography of human-animal dyads’ as they interdependently move around the lab in the process of knowledge production. The methodological challenge about how to make embodiment historically visible was raised in the discussion of Van Veen’s paper.21 Steven van der Laan (Utrecht University) explored the emergence of hybrid pig breeding and the relation between agricultural scientists and pig breeders.22 He altered the linear view on scientific expertise by making the contingencies involved visible. The hype for the Duroc pig was not the result of conclusive experimental research, measurement, and quantification by science; rather the experiment was the product of existing practices, interests, and power relations. Ultimately, in the discussion, Van der Laan stressed that even the best intentions of scientists and practitioners can lead to bad decisions and undesirable consequences.

Dealing with Disciplines

The question of disciplinarity of science and its continuation in history of science, took centre-stage in different ways. Four speakers discussed twentieth-century developments in psychometrics, cosmology, psychoanalysis, and pedagogy through different approaches. The notion of discipline in science is therefore still a binding concept in history of science: although the objects of research vary, we can discuss, understand, and compare the social institutionalization and epistemic development of a field.23 Jaco de Swart (University of Amsterdam) explained how ‘dark matter came to matter’ in the 1970s.24 The positivistic assumption that the evidence accumulated and spoke for itself was refuted by De Swart, who instead showed how certain results became regarded as evidence. He pointed to a combination of institutional developments in the post-war American science system and interests of various scientific actors that made cosmology – and the theory of and evidence for dark matter – a binding element and a problem-solving factor.25

Lisa Wijsen (University of Amsterdam) also attentively studied epistemic developments within a field, namely the persisting use of the latent variable in psychometric explanations of the correlation between intelligence (IQ) and test scores. The ontological status of the variable has been controversial in the twentieth century, with a shift from realism to instrumentalism. Wijsen claimed that the observed shift in interpretation had to do with a broader development in the epistemic values in psychology, namely from understanding towards prediction. Interestingly both Wijsen and De Swart conducted interviews to chronicle the history of scientific disciplines in the last century. The use of oral history, widespread in many qualitative social sciences, is still rather underdeveloped in the historical study of science. It might even contribute to a more global history of science as it can make other kinds of interactions visible.26

Concerning psychoanalysis and pedagogy, Ivan Flis and Pieter van Rees looked into journals to make changes visible. Van Rees (University of Groningen) traced changing ideas about citizenship education in the twentieth century by examining Pedagogische Studiën, between 1920 and 1980. This topic combined knowledge from political, biological, and several social sciences, and is a reflection of contemporary societal issues. From its concern with personalism and fascism in the 1930s, citizenship education focused subsequently on democracy (until 1960s), organization of education (1970s), to a preoccupation with experimental statistics (1980s). Van Rees’s qualitative analysis of 60 years of publishing in pedagogy observed a shift from person, patron, and philosophy to politics, specialists, and social sciences. Ivan Flis (Utrecht University) used a ‘big data’ approach to devise co-occurrence maps of the content of psychological journals between 1950 and 1999. With the metadata of 700,000 journal articles, he visualized maps to discern subfields and developments between disciplines. Through this innovative approach, Flis observed that psychoanalysis ‘moved around’ in a conspicuous way in his digital visualization of disciplinary developments. Here a new methodology in a way created a new fact to be explained – assuming it is not merely an artefact of the method. Conclusively, Flis offered several ways of accounting for the observed development, either through existing historiography or seeing it as the demand for new kinds of history.27 Both the qualitative and the digital studies of disciplinary journals raised questions about the concept of discipline itself: is it useful and what are its boundaries?

The recently launched projects of Sjang ten Hagen and Emma Mojet (University of Amsterdam), reflected conceptually on this issue, by stating that the ‘circulation of knowledge’ approach largely failed to describe interdisciplinary interactions. As part of the larger project The Flow of Cognitive Goods they proposed to look at interchanges of virtues, techniques, language, concepts, and methods between disciplines to achieve a ‘post-disciplinary’ approach in history of science.28 Mojet will look at a field that is interdisciplinary by nature – the cognitive sciences in the twentieth century – while Ten Hagen will focus on the transdisciplinary origin of a classical discipline – theoretical physics and its relation to philology around 1800. The proposal to drop Secord’s focus on communication and the historiographical omnipresence of ‘practices’ in favour of the yet undefined cognitive goods led to heated discussion.29 Especially the assumption that too little work is done on interdisciplinarity in history of science was challenged, as many works trace concepts or methodologies that cross disciplinary borders without mentioning this specifically.

Research as Project

As a whole, the contributions to the conference already surpassed a narrow disciplinary approach. Funding practices appear to play a role here. The earlier mentioned larger NWO projects are typically of an interdisciplinary nature, for example combining historical and biological research, or incorporating history of sciences and humanities.30 Also the NWO programme Promoties in de Geesteswetenschappen has its effect, as it allows individual PhD researchers to translate their diverse interests and (academic) backgrounds into original projects in history of science. The examples of Jacobs, Leerdam, Post, and Smit demonstrate the ensuing range of topics, periods and approaches.

The great importance of funding of history of science research by research councils (the so-called tweede geldstroom, ‘secondary funding’) also streamlines research in less desirable ways. The ‘projectification’ of research leads to an emphasis on practical tenability and a demand for relatively short-term results.31 Subsequently, many case studies focus on the Netherlands or traditional scientific great powers like Germany, France and Britain. Kapil Raj’s demand that historians of science break Eurocentric frames and become aware how knowledge is altered when it travels, therefore, remains largely unanswered.32 All in all, there was little attention for cultures outside of the American-European sphere. Usman Ahmedani’s paper on Romantic nationalism in the late Ottoman Empire came closest to taking account of the political nature of knowledge transfer and ideals of science from a non-Western perspective. Although the mixture of scientism and romanticism in national – Turkish in this case – ideology and identity is a known phenomenon, Ahmedani’s attempt to study appropriations and alterations was an appealing alternative.33

Past & Future

At De Glind one could observe the materialization of previously proposed methodological innovations. Even the resurfacing of relatively old historiographical problems and sources – like the 1985 Leviathan and the Air Pump as most important reference in an unsettled internalism versus externalism debate – is in tune with current historiographical discussions.34 But historians of science could also find new battleground and vocabulary by interacting more closely with other areas of science studies that employ and research concepts as facts, politics, democracy, ontology, and practice.35 Some topics are perennial, however, as each time and scholar has to solve them anew: for example the relation of philosophy to history and the combination of activism and ‘objectivity’. It is hopeful that the new generation is actively confronting the emancipatory narratives of the European post-war period.

To come back to the History Manifesto, and the many issues its writers raised; it appears a serious challenge for historians of science at Dutch universities to organize long-term perspectives and formulate complex singular narratives. This generation of young historians does embody many of the recent approaches that abandon disciplinary, geographical, and societal boundaries. In the same vein they could discard the delimitation history of science: the diversity of topics and approaches is better covered by histories of knowledge.