The history of science is the study of the evolution of scientific knowledge.
Science, as a body of knowledge but also as a way of approaching and understanding the world, has developed gradually over the past few millennia. It is indeed in protohistoric times that intellectual speculations began to develop in order to elucidate the mysteries of the universe. The history of science as a discipline studies the progressive movement of transformation of these speculations, and the accumulation of knowledge that accompanies it. Epistemology does it in a similar way.
The history of science is not the chronicle of a series of scientific discoveries. It is the history of the evolution of a thought, but also of institutions which, in their historical contexts, offer to this thought the means of unfolding, and traditions which come to enrich it.
The history of science is not the history of technology. Both are of course linked, but cannot be identified each other. When man masters fire, cuts flint or invents agriculture, he does not do science. And the knowledge he has accumulated in this case is not scientific knowledge, but traditional craftsmanship.
The history of science is directly useful for the construction of scientific knowledge. It has an epistemological and philosophical role.
History needs and usefulness
Michel Morange gives a first usefulness: “It is easy to show that important discoveries have often resulted from the re-discovery of results and old models”. Example: Pasteur rediscovers the writings of Pliny describing the heating practices used by the Romans to preserve their wines.
Some disciplines need history: astronomers have learned from the ancient observations of Chinese and Greeks. Geologists, ecologists, anthropologists, epidemiologists, etc. have identical recurring needs.
The history of science is pedagogically useful for the teaching of science and general culture, and it brings additional rationality.
“The science historian comes after, he comes from elsewhere.”
It is up to him to dismantle the processes of scientific discovery made of intuitions and questionings, rational strategies, meetings between actors with varied skills and different angles of attack, complex negotiations between them, recursive loops (analysis/synthesis, in-de-abduction/experience, hypothesis/validation, communication/confirmation, deconstruction/reconstruction, etc.) … in a very precise methodological framework. All without time constraints, planning, or funding …
The history of science can give a precise positioning of the influence of personalities having acted on the context of the discovery or the advancement of ideas. For example, Michel Morange recalls that the influence of Erwin Schrödinger with his book What is life? is to seek in the shaping of an informational culture which accompanies the rise of the molecular biology. Emile Duclaux, student and successor of Pasteur which played a considerable role in the diffusion of the Pasteurian discoveries, … and which gave the Institut Pasteur the organization which ensured its scientific productivity.
On the other hand, it allows a better understanding of the origin and the progress of researches which revealed obvious errors, the infertile explored tracks, losses of direct contact with reality.
It reveals the necessity of the necessary comings and goings between the experimental work and the body of knowledge on which it is based and that at the same time it questions permanently.
It allows any researcher to better situate his work within social demands and thus a better dialogue with society.
It eliminates the confusion between rationality and scientificity. The scientific approach, as it exists today, is a particular approach, among all the rational approaches, which gives a major weight to the experience and the facts that it generates.
The scientific research teams now group around interdisciplinary researchers, historians and philosophers of science with a global vision, progressive, community, constructivist Science.