Setting up a discipline: Conflicting agendas of the cambridge history of science committee, 1936-1950

Traditionally the domain of scientists, the history of science became an independent field of inquiry only in the twentieth century and mostly after the Second World War. This process of emancipation was accompanied by a historiographical departure from previous, 'scientistic' practices, a transformation often attributed to influences from sociology, philosophy and history. Similarly, the liberal humanists who controlled the Cambridge History of Science Committee after 1945 emphasized that their contribution lay in the special expertise they, as trained historians, brought to the venture. However, the scientists who had founded the Committee in the 1930s had already advocated a sophisticated contextual approach: innovation in the history of science thus clearly came also from within the ranks of scientists who practised in the field. Moreover, unlike their scientist predecessors on the Cambridge Committee, the liberal humanists supported a positivistic protocol that has since been criticized for its failure to properly contextualize early modern science. Lastly, while celebrating the rise of modern science as an international achievement, the liberal humanists also emphasized the peculiar Englishness of the phenomenon. In this respect, too, their outlook had much in common with the practices from which they attempted to distance their project.
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