Onderzoeksprogramma (2004)

Korte presentatie van het onderzoeksprogramma van de landelijke werkgroep wetenschapsgeschiedenis, Maastricht, 5 november 2004

Bert Theunissen en Lissa Roberts

“The Netherlands as a historical laboratory, a national research programme on the circulation of scientific knowledge and practice, 1600-2000”.

Welcome, on behalf of the Dutch Society for the History of Science, to the conference ‘Science in Europe. Europe in Science’.

For almost a year now, Lissa and I have been working with our Dutch colleagues to set up a national research programme. Even though we are at an early stage of our planning, we decided that we should seize the opportunity to announce our programme at this conference. Why? Before I give you the answer, I should first explain a few things about the present state of the history of science in the Netherlands.

The history of science in the Netherlands, I’m sorry to say, is a discipline in distress. For more than twenty years now, Dutch higher education has been in a state of permanent reorganisation. To make a long and disheartening story short, the science departments of our universities have been forced to concentrate more and more on what has ominously come to be called their core business. Since our history of science units are for the greater part embedded in these science departments, – a situation that is typical for many European universities – and since such units are not typically considered to form part of that core business, we have fallen on hard times. One example must suffice to illustrate this point. At this moment, there is not a single full-time ordinary professorship in the history of science left in our country. And it is quite possible that we’ll have to make do with only one part-time position by the end of this academic year. I for one cannot help worrying that our field may in the near future be wiped out by mere drift.

In terms of external funding, the situation of the history of science in the Netherlands has always been a difficult one. At our national science foundation, the same lines of division obtain as at our universities. The historian of science has to obtain his or her research grants from either the science committee or the humanities committee, but it has proven to be quite difficult to coax either into giving a high priority to such proposals. What is more, themes from the history of science have never been among the areas of special interest that the funding agency occasionally defines to help boost a field of study.

Confronted with this gloomy perspective, we realised that we had to join forces and get organised. Our plan was to formulate a research programme that would be eligible as one of those privileged areas of interest designated by the national funding agency. In this way, we hoped to be able to muster sufficient mass and focus (the latest science policy buzz words) to make our discipline less dependent on the benevolence of our university departments.
And we’ve made quite some progress by now. Reactions to our initiative have been unanimously positive, and slowly but surely a national research programme is materialising.

How did we go about in choosing a programme theme? The first professional Dutch historians of science such as Dijksterhuis and Hooykaas took the international development of modern science in general as their field of study. Their successors however began to pay special attention to the work of Dutch scientists, particularly in the seventeenth and late-nineteenth century, when the Dutch played a significant role on the international stage.

This new focus was partly inspired by an interest in the question as to whether the development of science, though an international enterprise, might not, on a more local level, be characterised by national styles. Later on, as more contextual approaches gained prominence, the tendency to focus on Dutch science was reinforced, since such an approach made us increasingly aware that scientific knowledge is not universal in and of itself. To understand the production of knowledge, our initial perspective must be local. The subsequent decontextualization of knowledge is then, no less than its local production, a matter of empirical investigation.

At present, analyses of the social and cultural development of science and practice in the Netherlands still account for a fair share of the work of Dutch historians of science. This was a fact that we had to take into account when we began to devise our plan for a collective research programme. At the same time, however, we realized that the growing presence of a broader, European perspective in all areas of the humanities suggested a fruitful way to add a new dimension to our work. Put shortly, we decided to take the circulation of knowledge as our research theme, and to consider the Netherlands as an historical laboratory, so to speak, to investigate it.
It is no coincidence that we thus came up with a research theme that is related to the theme of this conference. For one thing, the people with whom we worked together also helped devise the programme for ‘Science in Europe, Europe in science’. But our theme also grew organically out of more long-term discussions with our colleagues. And it fits well with more international trends, as historians of science generally seek to bridge the historiographical gap that has emerged over time between studies of local practice and seemingly universal knowledge. One strength of our programme, then, is that it is simultaneously national and international in orientation, inviting cooperation at both levels.

So far by way of background information. Lissa Roberts will now give more details on the theme of our programme.


The Netherlands is justly famous for the historical role it has played in the circulation of goods and ideas throughout Europe and the world. Focussing on the economic facets of this claim, the historians Jan de Vries and Ad van der Woude have gone so far as to label the Netherlands “the first modern economy.” Others have pointed to the roles the Netherlands has played as transitland for Cartesianism, Newtonianism and philosophical novelty more generally thanks to the relative openness of its universities, publication business and book trade. In all these cases, the term ‘entrepot’ comes easily to mind – the Netherlands as a welcome harbour through which material and intellectual resources flow.

Our purpose in mentioning this is of course not to sing the praises of Dutch nationalism. Rather, we want to use the Netherlands’ commonly recognized position as a point of entry and embarcation to explore a central problem in the history of science: how do we account for the fact that science seems to be simultaneously local and universal? How do we move between the particularities of micro-practices and macro-generalizations? In a word, our answer is ‘circulation’. Science does not begin as a universal set of practices or knowledge claims. But neither is it simply a summing-up of local activities and understandings. Science involves discovery, invention, interpretation and representation – all of which take place at the local level. It also involves communication – a process of translation, conventionalization, standardization and accomodation. Finally, it entails discipline and institutionalization – processes that lend structure and credibility both locally and internationally.

Instruments, ideas, specimens, and procedures move from place to place – either on their own or by way of written, oral or pictoral representation, either as individual phenomena or as part of larger theoretical and practical structures.

As historians we need to be cognizant of three moments in this process. 1] The journey – how are such phenomena packaged, which gives them a particular form for transit and what route do they take, a process that also affects their structure and meaning? 2] The sojourn – once local interest is piqued, how are these phenomena taken up? That is, how are they appropriated for local use? (Note that this is a very different question than asking about the influence or reception of a theory, instrument or practice. The question posed here emphasizes the purpose and meaning such phenomena gain through their active use or rejection by the local context.) 3] The departure – again, how are the phenomena in question packaged for further transit, where and how are they sent? What we encounter during all three of these stages is an ongoing process of re-contextualization. This, we want to argue and explore, is what enables science to be both locally specific and to appear as a set of knowledge and practices that rises above the local to achieve a level of generalization.

With this said, we want to use the Netherlands as an historical laboratory in which to study the circulation of the kinds of knowledge and practice that we have come to associate with science. (Here I leave aside a discussion of the obvious anachronism involved in using the word science.) Our national research programme will allow us to explore what was unique about the history of science within the Netherlands while all the while connecting our research to the broader picture of international scientific development. It will allow us to be as local as need be, provided that we also manage to expose the ways in which local achievements or controversies were translated beyond their original locus. It will also allow us to range across a broad chronographical field, exposing along the way historical developments on the micro-, meso- and macro- level and allowing us to say something about the history of translation and communication as well. Finally, we offer it as an invitation to our colleagues outside the Netherlands to work with us and explore the history of science as a dynamic process of circulation.

To give you a concrete sense of what our programme entails, I offer a few examples of research already under way. A collection of essays on the history of statistics and quantification in the Netherlands during the nineteenth century recently appeared. Some of our colleagues are now working to bring that history forward into the twentieth century. Among the uniquely Dutch phenomena that will command their attention is this country’s Central Planning Bureau – a sort of clearinghouse for the construction and dissemination of quantitatively based models developed and used for measuring the projected effectiveness of national budgets and the like. This bureau represents a level of political rationalization that stands out in comparison with the rest of Europe and is bound to effect the way in which statistical and quantitative models have been constructed, interpreted, used and valued both domestically and abroad.

Part of this story involves the history of scientific expertise and the idea that scientists can stand above the fray to protect society from ideological division. As we will learn momentarily from listening to Geert Somsen’s plenary lecture, an effort is being made to understand what scientific internationalism meant in the Netherlands during the first half of the long twentieth century, what roles Dutch scientists played in the broader movement and how Dutch scientists maneuvred between the claims and demands of internationalism and cultural nationalism. Were Dutch scientific internationalism and cultural nationalism antithetical poles or did they combine such that achieving a mediating role in the world became a matter of national pride in an otherwise small country?

If we return to the eighteenth century, a project is underway to map the various ways in which Newton was appropriated in the Netherlands – that is, an examination of how his work and image were interpretively read and re-contextualized in university lectures, textbooks, poetry, theological polemics, children’s literature and the like. Given that the Netherlands is often seen as a major gateway through which Newtonianism passed to the rest of the European continent, it is crucial that we understand what this passage entailed.

Finally, I want to mention one last example that takes us into the realm of modern popular culture. Based on the idea that playing and experiment lie closer to each other than we might think, another of our colleagues is using the Netherlands to research the relationship between toys and the productive circulation of scientific knowledge during the nineteenth and twentieth century.

What I hoped to show with this extended and diffuse list is the broad range of research possibilities entailed in our approach; the way in which it lends itself to the appreciation of how scientific knowledge and practices can be rooted in local conditions and yet be able to travel and achieve a level of generality; simultaneously, the way in which our approach can further collegial cooperation among historicans of science at the national level; and, finally, how it can serve as an invitation for international cooperation as well. We look forward to your replies.

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