Rupture and Nurture: Textbook Science and the 'Invention' of Physics

By Josep Simon

Institut de Recherches Philosophiques, Université Paris Ouest


In this paper I propose new ways of writing the history of the making of physics as a discipline, by focusing on textbook physics. I argue that, the wide circulation of certain physics textbooks across educational, cultural, social and national boundaries and the maturation of the textbook genre in parallel to the systematic introduction of physics in formal education make textbooks a key resource to write the history of physics.

Rudolf Stichweh described the standard historiography of the making of physics as a discipline, as postulating its 'invention' in order to make the contingency of its origin an object of debate at the core of its historicization. This strategy has provided the standard history of physics with a periodization, national distribution and conceptual framework. It has located a fundamental rupture in the last decades of the nineteenth century and conceptualized the process of disciplinary formation as a succession of national wave fronts producing progressive ruptures with the eighteenth-century natural philosophical tradition.

In spite of the value of this synthesis, I argue that it is afflicted by a shortage in cross-national and comparative research, by a teleological attitude, and by the dismissal of a relevant tradition: textbook physics. A different picture emerges when this tradition is examined. This picture contains ruptures, but also important continuities with the eighteenth-century, and it offers alternative explanations to the emergence of physics as a discipline. This is the purpose of this paper, which uses as core sources a set of nineteenth-century canonical physics textbooks.