Historiographical notes: Towards a broader constituency for the history of neuroscience

Hannah Landecker1 and Rachael Rosner2
1Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and 2York University

This paper has as its central concern the society's mission to improve communication between all groups who do the history of the neurosciences. It will try to understand the dynamics that have helped to increase the interest among scientist-historians (as one constituency represented by ISHN) but that have not been as successful in attracting another constituency currently doing history of neuroscience work, academic historians. The paper argues that one of the problems has been the very different assumptions and methods that both groups bring to their research. These assumptions have remained until now implicit, rather than explicit, in the society's historical "conversation". The paper undertakes a critical historiography of the assumptions embedded within the scientist-historian practice of history as a fruitful first step toward understanding how different styles of history of neuroscience might productively coexist within ISHN. The paper discusses two roughly schematized groups that are conducting research in the history of the neurosciences: scientist-historians and academic-historians of science. Each group brings different types of questions, interests and agendas to their use of history. Scientist historians share a common interest in the material practice on the brain and nervous system; and their historical investigations are often delimited by the "forever posed" questions of the relation of matter to disease and normalcy, of the relation between them and the concept of mind, and of the ways in which scientists in the past have grappled with such problems. In this way their methodological imperative has several components: 1) to help illuminate, extend and enrich the scientific ideas that define their material practice and 2) to both celebrate and reflect on the contents of the disciplinary "collective memory". History, it could be argued, is another way of gaining access to the scientific questions with which the scientist-historians have been concerned in the laboratory and clinic. Academic historians, themselves part of the larger community of historians of science and medicine, are often interested in writing histories that extend beyond the laboratory. They strive to link scientific practice and thought with larger cultural and intellectual movements; they query the boundaries of current scientific categories. Academic historians of science, then, share a common interest in contextualizing science. Their methodological imperative has its own components: 1) to examine why contemporary (and historical) scientific models and practices gained particular currency within their historical context and 2) to provide an alternative theoretical dialogue about science, its practice, and its value. In addition to examining the historiographical assumptions embedded within the scientist-historian model, the paper also has a programmatic focus. It will begin the process of seeking ways to foster the development of a multi-disciplinary community of historians within ISHN.


Symposium: The Historiography of the Neurosciences
Saturday, 21 June 1997, 10.45 - 11.15

Second Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and 6th Meeting of the European Club on the History of Neurology (ECHN)

Leiden, The Netherlands