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The History of Science as Oxymoron: From Scientific Exceptionalism to Episcience

Ken Alder
Vol. 104, No. 1 (March 2013), pp. 88-101
DOI: 10.1086/669889
Stable URL:
Page Count: 14
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The History of Science as Oxymoron: From Scientific Exceptionalism to Episcience
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ABSTRACTThis essay argues that historians of science who seek to embody our oxymoronic self-description must confront both contradictory terms that define our common enterprise—that is, both “history” and “science.” On the history/methods side, it suggests that we embrace the heterogeneity of our institutional arrangements and repudiate the homogeneous disciplinary model sometimes advocated by Thomas Kuhn and followed by art history. This implies that rather than treating the history of science as an end in itself, we consider it a means to a variety of historical ends, think of ourselves as a tool-making community, and jettison moralistic assertions of scientific exceptionalism. To do so, this essay argues—on the science/subject side—that we rebrand the subject of our historical inquiry as “episcience,” a neologism that stands in relation to “science” as the new field of epigenetics does to the old genetics. Episcience encompasses both the material activities of the relevant sciences and their “surround” (environment, milieu, Umgebung) to reframe knowledge making to include the material processes that put science “in play” and make its findings matter beyond science. The essay concludes that “the history of science” is an oxymoron that makes sense to the extent that its practitioners acknowledge that the history of science is important not just because science is important, but because its history is.