Natural Science Is Dependent on History

"But I submit that if nature is a thing that depends for its existence on something else, this dependence is a thing that must be taken into account when we try to understand what nature is; and that if natural science is a form of thought that depends for its existence upon some other form of thought, we cannot adequately reflect upon what natural science tells us without taking into account the form of thought upon which it depends.

"What is this other form of thought? I answer, 'History'. Natural science (I assume for the moment that the positivistic account of it is at least correct so far as it goes) consists of facts and theories. A scientific fact is an event in the world of nature. A scientific theory is an hypothesis about that event, which further events verify or disprove. An event in the world of nature becomes important for the natural scientist only on condition that it is observed. 'The fact that the event has happened' is a phrase in the vocabulary of natural science which means 'the fact that the event has been observed'. That is to say, has been observed by someone at some time under some conditions; the observer must be a trustworthy observer and the conditions must be of such a kind as to permit trustworthy observations to be made. And lastly, but not least, the observer must have recorded his observation in such a way that knowledge of what he has observed is public property. The scientist who wishes to know that such an event has taken place in the world of nature can know this only by consulting the record left by the observer and interpreting it, subject to certain rules, in such a way as to satisfy himself that the man whose work it records really did observe what he professes to have observed. This consultation and interpretation of records is the characteristic feature of historical work. Every scientist who says that Newton observed the effect of a prism on sunlight, or that Adams saw Neptune, or that Pasteur observed that grape-juice played upon by air raised to a certain temperature underwent no fermentation, is talking history. The facts first observed by Newton, Adams, and Pasteur have since then been observed by others; but every scientist who says that light is split up by the prism or that Neptune exists or that fermentation is prevented by a certain degree of heat is still talking history: he is talking about the whole class of historical facts which are occasions on which someone has made these observations. Thus a 'scientific fact' is a class of historical facts; and no one can understand what a scientific fact is unless he understands enough about the theory of history to understand what an historical fact is.

"The same is true of theories. A scientific theory not only rests on certain historical facts and is verified or disproved by certain other historical facts; it is itself an historical fact, namely, the fact that someone has propounded or accepted verified or disproved, that theory. If we want to know, for example, what the classical theory of gravitation is, we must look into the records of Newton's thinking and interpret them: and this is historical research.

"I conclude that natural science as a form of thought exists and always has existed in a context of history, and depends on historical thought for its existence. From this I venture to infer that no one can understand natural science unless he understands history: and that no one can answer the question what nature is unless he knows what history is." -- R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature, pp. 176-177


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