Boris Hessen and externalism

We met a very interesting figure in the study of the history of science in class today: the Russian physicist Boris Hessen. Hessen is famous for a 1931 paper entitled The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia, in which he suggested that Newton’s monumental work was created to cater to the goals and desires of 17th century industry and society in England. In other words, Hessen argued that Newton’s work was not the disinterested study of the natural world, but was motivated by an attempt to solve the problems of society of the day.

Boris Hessen (1893-1936)

Modern scholarship has revealed that Hessen’s motives were not completely academic. In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the work of Albert Einstein was under attack by Communist Party philosophers, as they saw it as a concern of the bourgeoisie. Hessen was a strong supporter of Einstein’s theories and his study of Newton was intended to show that scientific validity could exist whatever the motivations were for undertaking it. Sadly, he was executed by the NKVD in 1936.

Hessen’s focus on the relationship between society and science was quite novel at the time and became very influential. It was a challenge to the tacit notion that the story of science is a story of independent genius in action. The assertion of a connection between the growth of knowledge and society at large was viewed with keen interest, not least because of the prospect of another war in Europe. Previous views of science as separate from the mundane aspects of life were becoming less plausible than a view of scientists embedded in the world in which they worked.

This view of the history of science  i.e. looking at the manner in which science and scientists are affected by society, is now known as externalism. It is the opposite view to internalism , a view that sees the acquisition of scientific knowledge as a process that can occur at any place and time given the right human actors. Internalist histories of science tend to focus on the development of ideas wholly within the scientific world, and emphasize the norms of modern science such as disinterestedness and universalism.

Which is the “correct” view for a historian of science? This is not an easy question to answer because the differences between internalism and externalism are closely related to basic problems in the philosophy of science we have met before. What is the relationship between the producers and consumers of scientific knowledge? What does objectivity really mean in a scientific context? All of which quickly leads us back to familiar questions such as what is the nature of scientific truth?

The historian and sociologist of science Robert K. Merton produced many famous works in reaction to Hessen’s thesis. Merton accepted the influence of external factors on science but differed from Hessen in his interpretation: Merton maintained that while researchers may be inspired by problems suggested by extra-scientific factors, ultimately the researcher’s interests are driven by the internal history of the science in question. Indeed, Merton sought to delineate externalism and internalism along disciplinary boundaries, with context studied by the sociologist of science and content by the historian.


Filed under History and philosophy of science

5 responses to “Boris Hessen and externalism

  1. “Sadly, he was executed by the NKVD in 1936.”

    This statement came as a shock when I read this entry. How easy it is to forget the courage Soviet scientists had to display if they wanted to discuss even the nature and basis of the scientific enterprise. It is, happily, much easier and safer for us today, following in their footsteps.

    There is also a rather bitter irony to the debate of the role of society in the work of a scientist when discussing a scientist who was, in fact, executed.

  2. cormac

    Absolutely right, Micheal. In fact, there is a very sad poignant of the Russian delegation to a London conference where Hessen gave his paper; over half of them were executed within a few years. It really brings home just ho repressive that regime was

  3. zeynel

    Thanks for this reference. His paper about Newton was new to me and I just read it quickly and I will study it later; it contains a wealth of historical information. I recently commented about Newton’s Principia and its relation to the social order of his day rather on an intuitive level:

    My one criticism is that apparently Hessen did not study the Principia critically and in depth. He is following Newton’s advice on how to read the Principia which is the way physicists have been reading it for a long time. As I explained here and elsewhere in my blog, Newton’s philosophical and scholastic speculations in the first few chapters of the Principia and his alleged laws are independent of his astronomical calculations in the third book. So when Hessen writes “(Newton
    deduced the motion of the planets from these laws in the third book.)” he is repeating Newton’s own propaganda. Newton used Kepler’s Rule to compute orbits.

    In any case, the paper is a new angle for me and I thank you again for writing about it.

  4. Michael M. Anthony

    Have you every considered that the absence of information is information?
    Before the Big Bang, there was Nouniverse with Nomatter and Nospacetime. Then its opposite came into being.
    Could you believe that I solve the Riemann Hypothesis? I am publishing a 1000 page book on all these issues.

  5. michael

    check out the Principles of causal Conspiracy books 1 and 2 for a complete theoretical treatment of the Riemann Hypothesis, the Big bang and how they are related! Tate Publishing and on Barnes and Noble