Dear defines emergence of science

The latest installment in the PSU Honors Program’s Visiting Scholars Lectures was held Monday, featuring Cornell professor of history Peter Dear.

Dear is the author of numerous works in the history of science, and his lecture Monday shared this focus.

“Science was born a hybrid … of two endeavors,” Dear said, discussing how natural philosophy and science began as two separate vocations, and slowly formed into the institution known as modern science.

Dear is working on a book for a general audience on the topic discussed at Monday’s lecture.

According to Dear, intelligibility was a key concern of natural philosophers who were interested in the why of things, while scientists tended to be content if something worked, not concerning themselves with questions of why it did.

Using this device he showed the rift between natural philosophers and scientists of the 18th century. When natural philosophers would object to Isaac Newton’s writings they would do so because he was not explaining himself in terms that were intelligible to them.

Dear proposed that certain terms are second-nature, that they need no further explanation. Each person or set of persons has a set of these, particular to them. When an idea is explained using the terms appropriate for a particular group, it is said to be intelligible, and that group accepts the explanation as reasonable. When terms outside the groups accepted set are used, then the explanation is unintelligible, and no amount of convincing will overcome this fundamental rift.

Natural philosophers and scientists then, according to Dear would often speak over each other in this way, not accepting the other’s work as useful because it was unintelligible, even when their work was in the same field.

As time passed, the work of these natural philosophers and scientists became the foundation of modern science, and their distinctions as natural philosophers or scientists was often lost to the term “proto-scientist” or just “scientist.”

While many scholars have said that natural philosophy was replaced by science, this view isn’t entirely accurate, according to Dear.

Instead he proposes that the two have formed into one, and that modern science has both the science and natural philosophy of the 18th century as major component elements.

Dear used common views of scientists as evidence, think of the Einstein and relativity or Stephen Hawking conceptualizing the universe, then in contrast think of the experimental scientist in a lab coat mixing chemicals.

Both these are representations of “scientists” but the former more closely resembles a natural philosopher while the latter a scientist.

Dear’s “Discipline and Experience: the Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution” received the Ludwik Fleck (best book) Award from the Society for Social Studies of Science in 1998.

Since 1976 the Honors Program at PSU has in conjunction with the Rose Tucker Foundation undertaken the Visiting Scholars’ Lectures Series. Scholars from around the world are invited to PSU to give a public lecture and work with the students and faculty of the Honors Program.

The scholars’ visits and the upper-division honors seminars are closely-connected, offering students an opportunity to work with those at the forefront of their fields of interest.

The Visiting Scholars’ Lectures Series has brought more than 300 visitors to PSU. Last year, Mary Poovey NYU professor of English spoke. Guests from previous years include Page duBois, professor of classics and comparative literature, University of California, San Diego and Mario Biagioli, Professor of History of Science, Harvard University.

For more information on future lectures in the series, students should visit the Honors Program’s Web site at