AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVII, No. 2, Fall 1995


Work Begins at the New Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science

by Jürgen Renn

In 1993 the German Max-Planck-Gesellschaft decided to create an institute to research the history of science; it started its work in March 1994. The original board of directors, as envisaged by the Max Planck Society, consisted of Lorraine Daston, Lorenz Krüger, and Jürgen Renn. Due to health problems, Lorenz Krüger was unable to accept his call, but nevertheless took part intensively in the initial phase of planning the Institute. His death in September 1994 was a great loss to the Institute.

The Institute will consist of three research groups. A first group, directed by Renn, began its work in March 1994, focusing mainly on the understanding of the historical process of structural changes in systems of knowledge. A second group, directed by Daston, also started work in 1994 but did not begin full until mid- 1995. The work of this group is directed toward a historical epistemology understood as the history of the categories that structure scientific thought, pattern arguments and proofs, and certify standards of explanation. A third group will be built up in the near future. Also set up during the year were the two Service Units of the Institute, the Library and Documentation Unit, and the Computing Services Unit, as well as the Institute's Administration.

The Institute for the History of Science is devoted to the development of a theoretically oriented history of science which studies scientific thinking and knowledge acquisition in their historical development and their interaction with the cultural, technical, and social contexts of science. While mathematics and the natural sciences form the principal objects of research at the Institute, the methodologies applied are rooted in the humanities, and in particular in studies of human culture and cognition. The development of "historical epistemology" is a central research goal. It should comprise a historical understanding of the development of fundamental categories of scientific thinking, such as "number," "force," "casuality," "experiment," "deductivity," "objectivity," "determinism," and "probabilism." The study of such overarching notions, based on detailed studies in disciplinary histories, grounds generalizations, and comparative analyses beyond the conclusions which can be achieved by disciplinary histories alone.

In order to further this interdisciplinary approach by broadening its empirical basis, the Institute will also explore new ways of making the sources of the history of science accessible, in particular by using the new media of information storage and retrieval. For example, a working environment for the transcription, editing, and translation of documents in the history of science is currently being applied to the preparation of an electronic edition of Galileo's manuscripts on mechanics.

For information address Jürgen Renn, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, WilhelmstraBe 44, D-10117 Berlin, Germany; phone (+4930) 22 667-0 or -101.

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