The Engine of Modernity: Construing Science as the Driving Force of History in the Twentieth Century
Where: Columbia University
116th St. & Broadway
212-854-1754 Price: Free
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The Heyman Center for the Humanities, 2nd floor, Common Room, Columbia University
Science has long been associated with modernity, but the belief that it was its engine, that the modern world owed its existence to modern science, only rose after the beginning of the twentieth century. Pioneered by followers of Edmund Husserl (like Alexandre Koyré), and developed in various places in and outside Europe and the United States, the engine thesis became a widespread article of faith, a commonplace even, with far-reaching academic and political consequences.
Academically, the notion animated the emergence of a number of new disciplines. If science had created the modern condition, then one could only hope to understand modern society (and live in it, and lead it) if one understood science – as a phenomenon. On this principle, Herbert Butterfield helped launch the history of science, arguing that modernity was born in the Scientific Revolution. Robert Merton started the sociology of science, associating the modern democratic order with a scientific ethos. And in philosophy, Karl Popper coupled scientific rationality to the “Open Society” that science required. Many of these scholars developed theories of society in tandem with theories of science. Others started to teach understanding science, most influentially James B. Conant, who offered “Case Histories” in chemistry and physics to all Harvard undergraduates.
But the study of science as the engine of modernity was never a purely academic exercise. At the same time that the above disciplines were created, science came to be taken as the key to economic growth and the basis of modernization – views intimately tied up with the establishment of “science policy” as a function of the state, and “development” as a political aim around the world. Belief in the universality of science reinforced the notion of a single path to modernity. But while such “modernization theory” is mainly known from its American manifestations, similar (and sometimes rival) approaches developed in Asia, the Middle East, and the burgeoning European Union. Science became a subject of study also in Latin America and the Soviet Union. Paradoxically, the belief in universal science proved itself rather diverse. Some of this came out in early UNESCO, which placed science at the heart of its conception of modern culture, and made it the basis for relentless forms of modernization that were not globally welcomed.Buy tickets/get more info now