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An Equmenical Approach

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

By Dhruv Raina
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 232, Rs. 545.00


What is the history of science a history of? The answer to this question is not as self evident as might appear. The answer that it is a history of “science” simply invites the further question: what is science? How are its boundaries to be demarcated? By whose authority are certain practices to be designated as “scientific?” Can the history of science be really independent of a philosophy of science, independent that is of assumptions about what science is? But is the philosophy of science itself a descriptive or normative enterprise? Does it simply reveal the assumptions that lie behind a certain kind of activity, or does it prescribe authoritative norms for that activity? What is the purpose of the history of science? Is it to describe the presence and growth of certain cognitive practices, or is it an attempt to explain them? If it is an explanatory enterprise, what would count as a successful explanation? Is scientific activity to be explained in terms of the unfolding of certain ideas? Is it to be explained by social causes? Is it to be explained by the diffusion of institutional forms?   If these questions were not complicated enough, try adding another layer of puzzles. What would the history of a history of science be a history of? If “science” is a contested term, “history” is even more so. What is a proper historical narrative? Can history itself be written without some normative standpoint rooted in theories of progress? Why do the terms historians use like “nation” and so forth carry authoritative weight? Add to these questions the striking fact that often contests over the meaning of history and science take place in the context of relations of power. Colonialism for example used the lack of “science” as a sign of India’s backwardness; nationalists by contrast treated acquisition of a certain kind of science as a sign of modernity. The terrain of science was the terrain over which battles over the hierarchies of cultures and ways of life was fought.   Images and Contexts, by the eminent historian and philosopher of science, Dhruv Raina, has the singular virtue of taking on all these complicated questions on board. The book collects nine of his essays, some previously published, and taken together they subtly tackle a wide range of questions relating to the historiography of science in India. The book is erudite and interesting and ...

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