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Newton at the Crossroads

Newton at the Crossroads
Simon Schaffer
‘The label on a system of ideas is distinguished from
that on other articles, amongst other things, by the
fact that it deceives not only the buyer, but often
the seller as well.’

(Marx, Capital, Volume II)
Soris Hessen and his audience

In this essay I attempt a re-evaluation of a remarkable text
published in London in 1931: Boris Hessen’s ‘The social and
economic roots of Newton’s Principia’ . Hessen was a
member of the high-powered Soviet delegation, headed by
Nikolai Bukharin, which attended the International Congress
of the History of Science and Technology held at the
Science Museum in July 1931. Both the genesis and the
reception of Hessen’s paper, and the volume in which it
was published, Science at the cross-roads, have been analysed elsewhere, notably by Gary Werskey . Here I connect Hessen’s arguments with the contexts of left critiques
of science and of developed Newtonian scholarship in order
to illuminate some important themes in the practice of history of science. Specifically, I concentrate on two central
themes which Hessen raised in his own paper and which
have played a major role in historians’ understanding of
scientific work since then: the celebration of the heroic
genius in science, and the relation between scientific work
and its social context.

Left scientists who responded to Hessen’s essay report
the considerable impact which it had upon them in the
1930s, transforming contemporary radical understanding of
the interpretation of science and its history. Furthermore,
even those writers who displayed little overt sympathy for
Hessen’s political intervention nevertheless seem to have
been deeply affected by the direction of the programme he
proposed: Clark’s Science and social welfare in the age of
Newton (1937) and Merton’s Science, technology and
society in seventeenth century England (1938) both emerged
as detailed responses to Hessen’s arguments. Clark was a
speaker at the 1931 congress, and was attacked directly by
members of the Soviet delegation for his views. Merton’s
essay used many of Hessen’s arguments to display the
socio-economic connections of seventeenth-century science.

At the same time, Merton was encouraged to pursue this
project by his patron, the Russian sociologist Pitirim
Sorokin. Sorokin had worked in the Soviet Union in the
1920s, composing a favourable review of Bukharin’s Historical Materialism (1922), on which much of Hessen’s work
was based. The works of Clark and of Merton may stand as
representative of the patterns which orthodox history of
science in Britain and America was to develop after 1945

Some current historians, however, argue against any
attempt to evaluate the status of science. They argue for a
‘naturalism’ which ‘closes no evaluative or political options;
it merely ejects them from historical practice’. They also
contrast this naturalism with the 1930s context, when ‘both

sides of the great debates ••• recognised that sustaining
their discourse were opposed methods of evaluating science
and opposed policies towards it’ . Hessen and his audience were very clear on this point. Hessen displayed
Newton’s greatest achievement as a response to the technical needs of the bourgeoisie, and as conditioned by the
ideological conflicts of the revolutions of the midseventeenth century. He went on to couple this analysis
with enthusiastic advocacy of Soviet science policy, and of
the promise offered by socialism for scientific development:

‘only in socialist society will science become the genuine
possession of all mankind’. Hessen’s critics, such as the
members of Michael Polanyi’s Society for Freedom in
Science, established during the Cold War, .were equally
convinced that ‘the movement against pure science and
against freedom in science was first brought to Great
Britain by the Soviet delegation in 1931’ . Any assessment of Hessen’s work, therefore, must also confront the
claims of contemporary historiography, which now disavows
any such concern for purity, freedom, or socialism.

Such a confrontation is ironic. Hessen’s paper was seen
as an argument for the supreme political importance of
research in history of science. History of science has developed by denying any such political significance. Yet many
of Hessen’s claims turn out to be just those which ‘naturalistic’ historians also make now. Notably, Hessen criticised
the use of genius and free enquiry as explanatory principles
in the history of science. He also pointed out the way in
which conflicts of ideological interest affect the form in
which cosmologies are expressed. These are now familiar
features of historiography: Hessen differs from our contemporaries, however, in giving such features a profoundly
evaluative role in his own analysis.

Hessen’s audience was aware of such concerns: he
‘showed that a knowledge of the history of science was not
only of entertaining antiquarian interest, but was essential
for the solution of contemporary social problems, due to
the unorganised growth of a technological society’ .

Desmond Bernal, leading communist scientist, wrote in 1939
that ‘we did not understand all they said, in fact, I now
suspect they did not understand it entirely themselves, but
we did recognise that there was something new and with
immense possibilities of thought’ . The embryologist and
historian Joseph Needham was amongst those influenced by
Hessen. In 1938 he collaborated with WaIter Pagel in the
establishment of a history of science committee at
Cambridge University.

Needham and Pagel, following
Hessen, argued that ‘historians of science have tended too
much to fall into mere antiquarianism’. History of science
could only be reformed if ‘it will but accept the support

now willingly offered by historians and scientists alike, and
go forward to present the history of scientific thought
always in relation to the social and economic background
of the time’ . This programme linked fully contextual,
and potentially materialist history of science with an explicit vision of the spcial function and policy implications of
that study. This reading of Hessen’s paper was profoundly
influenced by the scientists’ perceptions of the crisis of
the 1930s and its causes. In that sense, evaluative history
was a crucial resource in the political work of the period.

As I have indicated, two insights of importance for
work in history of science are articulated in Hessen’s analysis. Significantly, neither of these insights is recognised
in the criticisms to which Hessen was subjected after 1931.

As an analyst of historical change, Hessen did not appeal
to the heroic biography of his subject, nor did he offer the
so-called ‘vulgar’ Marxist account of the relation between
economic base and scientific work which is so often ascribed to such arguments. Bernal pointed this out in 1953:

the ‘picture that the ideas arose entirely out of the operations of economic law is nowhere seriously maintained,
though it still serves the professional anti-Marxists as a
convenient Aunt Sally’ . The first sections of Hessen’s
paper chart the technical demands of the emergent capitalist mode of production in mining, navigation, warfare and
trade, and correlate these demands with the topics treated
in the Principia in mechanics and astronomy. Here Hessen
draws on arguments of Engels and of Plekhanov: for
example, in a letter to Starkenburg of 1894 Engels insisted
‘science depends far more on the state and the
requirements of technique… If society has a
technical need, that helps science forward more
than ten universities. The whole of hydrostatics
(Torricelli etc.) was called forth by the necessity
for regulating mountain streams of Italy in the
16th and 17th centuries…. But unfortunately it
has become the custom ••• to write the history of
the sciences as if they had fallen from the skies.’

This letter is also cited by Merton in his own analysis of
the relation between technique and science . For
Hessen, it provided a fundamental insight into the conditions of Newton’s work. Nevertheless, he repeatedly denies
that this analysis constitutes a complete account of that
work and its genesis. ‘It would be incorrect to limit the
analysis of the contents of the Principia to determining its
intrinsic connection with the economics and technology of
the epoch which served the needs of the rising bourgeoisie’. Hessen claimed that ‘it would be too greatly simplifying and even vulgarizing our object’ to treat ‘the economic factor’ as ‘the sole determining factor’. Hessen catalogued ‘the various superstructures’ which, he held, determined the content and form of Newton’s utterances: ‘political forms of class war, and the results of the reflection of
these wars on the minds of the participants; political, juridical philosophic theories, religious beliefs and the subsequent development into dogmatic systems’ .

Hessen picked out two aspects of the form of Newton’s
Principia which acted as obstacles to a materialist analysis
of its production. Firstly, Newton as author of the
Principia wrote as a natural philosopher. Hessen recognised
the constraints of this role. Newton’s text inevitably concealed its own “‘low” sources of inspiration’. A specific
reading of the Principia would be determined by stipulations of authorial intention and of audience. Hessen drew
an analogy here with Newton’s own claim that the geometrical form of the Principia concealed the genuine analytic method by which the discoveries were made . In
fact Newton’s claim is not substantiated: we must see this
picture of a ‘hidden’ analytic core as a significant move in
the priority dispute with Leibniz over the invention of calculus. Newton wrote in 1716-1718 that ‘I was writing for
scientists (ad Philosophos) steeped in geometry and putting
down geometrically demonstrated bases for natural philosophy’, while noting that ‘the analytical method through

which we found these propositions shines out everywhere’.

In the same way, Hessen argued, the ‘earthy core’ of
Newton’s programme was necessarily invisible in a text
which set up a demarcation round the ‘high’ practice of
natural philosophy. ‘We should seek in vain for an exposition by Newton himself of the connection between the
problems which he sets and solves, with the technical
demands out of which they arose’. Thus, to locate the
social and technical interests at work in the Principia, it
was necessary to analyse the complex of social practices’ in
which Newton was situated, rather than offer a simplistic
exposi tion of the overt text itself .

Secondly, the Principia was constructed as a coherent
and potentially universal system, in whch an ‘encyclopaedic
survey’ integrated isolated technical problems into what
appeared to be a manifesto for a new science. Hessen
argued for the specific ideological function of such an
image: the Newtonian project was ‘equivalent to the creation of a harmonious structure of theoretical mechanics
which would supply general methods of resolving the tasks
of the mechanics of earth and sky’ . The perception of
an apparently unrelated set of problems as components of a
single dominant scientific programme handed control over
those problems to the practitioners of that programme.

Once again, therefore, the local connections between tech-

nique and theory were likely to be obscured. Simultaneously, those connections could only be displayed by concentrating on the political and economic structures within
which seventeenth century natural philosophy worked. In
both these cases, therefore, apparent obstacles to Hessen’s
materialist analysis were to be transformed into excellent
instances of social determination of science.

The other major insight in Hessen’s account was his
critique of the appeal to heroic genius as the source of
scientific change. Joseph Needham has pointed out that this
critique made a considerable impact on the audience in
1931: the choice of Newton as target ‘was a great inspiration to the younger socially conscious British scientists of
the time’, but ‘to the older British his tor ians of science it
seemed almost like sacrilege or at least lese-majeste’. In an
essay of 1935, Needham insisted that ‘the history of
science is not a mere succession of inexplicable geniuses,
direct Promethean ambassadors to man from heaven’. He
hoped that ‘further historical research will enable us to do
for the great embryologists what has been well done by


Hessen for Isaac Newton’ . As in his account of the
function of technical needs in scientific development,
Hessen drew on Plekhanov’s work, notably The role of the
individual in history. Plekhanov had argued that ‘a great
man is great not because his personal qualities give individual features to great historical events, but because he possesses qualities which make him most capable of serving
the great social needs of his time’. Plekhanov pointed to
the solution of scientific problems as an instance of the primacy of social needs. In the same way, Hessen insisted that
‘the historical development of productive forces and production relationships’ rather than ‘the kindness of divine
providence’ should provide the basis of an assessment of
Newton’s achievement . Hessen rejected any account in
which scientific work was portrayed as an autonomous
theoretical enterprise. He also rejected the claims of historians such as G.N. Clark, for whom the only important
social constraint on science was the establishment of such
autonomous institutions. In principle, these institutions
were identified with the universities. In 1931, Clark had
argued for the integration of history of scientific ideas
into historical study. Soviet delegates at the congress
attacked this view, since it would lead to a reinforcement
of the heroic mode of historiography.

In 1937, Clark amplified this view in his essay on
Newton as a direct response to Hessen. Clark made some
concessions to Hessen’s argument: he agreed that it might
be possible to show Newton, Locke and Boyle as ‘bourgeois’

thinkers; he acknowledged that experimental technique was
drawn from mechanical crafts and that scientific style
might be derived from the exigencies of merchant accounting. But Clark’s main concern was the celebration of the
universities as an isolated environment for free theoretical
endeavour. ‘The pursuit of knowledge in universities is a
self-perpetuating tradition,’ Clark insisted. ‘It was the
social function of the universities to set free from the
pressure of other motives men who had the desire to know.’

Just as ‘Newton’s mind was in close communication with
many minds, of various classes and countries and centuries’,
so ‘the universities had their own laws of growth. At their
heart was the disinterested love of truth’ . It was this
form of history which Hessen explicitly rejected. Echoing
Engels, Hessen satirised the universities as bastions of
obscurantism: such institutions ‘struggled against the new
science with a strength equal to that exerted by the dying
feudal relationships against the new progressive methods of
production’. Thus, the critique of pure idealism was intimately connected with a critique of typical institutions of
idealist theory . In fact, Clark’s arguments came to
typify much of post-war historiography. Insofar as he was
prepared to countenance Hessen’s ‘provocative essay’,
Merton was soon branded with the label of ‘externalism’. In
his influential essay against Merton, A.R. Hall wrote in
1963 that Merton had used Hessen as ‘his most uncompromising example of the “externalist” historiography’, and that
historians now realised that ‘social forms do not dominate
mind; rather, in the long run, mind determines social forms’


The response to Hessen amongst historians of science
was dominated by the political conjuncture in which that
paper appeared, and the perceptions of foul intent which
historians detected behind Hessen’s materialism. Exactly
because Hessen gave such a high place to history of
science in the provision of political policy, idealist historians retreated to an ever-increasing insistence on the insulation of scientific work. Thus in 1981 J.R. Ravetz and P.S.

Westfall both commented on the failure of Hessen’s intervention to stimulate more than Robert Merton’s and
Desmond Bernal’s efforts in social history of science. For
Ravetz, the villainous idealist was Alexandre Koyre, whose
anti-Marxism led him to a ‘totally superficial interpretation
of the Scientific Revolution’. Ravetz wrote that Hessen’s
work was ‘naive and simplistic’ but at least it threw ‘speculative bridges across the gap between science and
society’ •

Westfall defended Koyre against Ravetz’s charges, and
announced that ‘much of the modern world appears to me
as so many epiphenomena to the growth of science’ .

Such views have explicit methodological and political implications. The appeal to genius closes down a wide range of
historical problems, depriving them of interest. With such
an idealism firmly established at the heart of history of
science, certain terms come to acquire an important place
in historians’ explanatory schemes: the discovery and its
author. Typically, such history searches for the underlying
consistency and unity in a given scientist’s thought, assuming axiomatically that the structure of that thought would
hold the key to apparently diverse practices, and, at the
same time, arguing that texts in the historical archive
spoke unambiguously with the authorial voice. Thus, in his
magisterial biography of Newton, published in 1980, Westfall found that Newton’s genius remained untouched and
inexplicable behind all possible historical analysis; ‘he has
become for me wholly other ••• a man not finally reducible
to the criteria by which we comprehend our fellow human
beings’ .

Politically, too, the rejection of and hostility to any
such programme as that proposed by Hessen produces an
extreme reaction amongst historians of science. The history
of science in Britain and America in the period 1950-1970
affirmed the isolation of scientific work from social pressure, giving that pressure at most a negative function. This
reinforced a model of pure scientific inquiry, guiltless and
progressive, which could be contrasted with the pathologies
of planned science (L ysenkoism was often cited here) and
with the unfortunate errors of free theory (which would
always be attributed to the perversion of research by some
extraneous social factor). Merton’s own move from the investigation of the social factors at work in scientific development to the investigation of the open and liberal norms
of scientific inquiry typified this change. In a recent
attempt to defend Merton’s original essay from its interpreters, Abraham has stipulated that Merton’s intentions
always referred to science as a value rath~r than as practice; that ‘the theoretical tradition with which the Merton
thesis should be identified’ is explicitly opposed to any
attempt to incorporate ‘grosser or more tractable human
needs such as the provision of economic want’. So for his
contemporary apologists, Merton’s work itself stands as a
smoothly consistent attempt to distance sociological analysis of science from materialism, thus making the heroic
pattern quite secure. ‘Individual contribution’ to scientific
work for Abraham is emphatically ‘an independent force’


In this way, even the mildly contextual approaches developed in the 1930s can be purged of any danger to the
autonomy of science. Merton himself now denies that his
essay should be read in a ‘simplistic’ manner as affirming
the total economic determination of science. In the 1970
preface to a re-issue of this essay, Merton explained that
‘during the Great Depression vulgar Marxism was just about
the only variety of Marxism that was being expounded on
the periphery of American academic circles’. He also pointed out ‘the reversion to this practice among some American academic youth today’ . Much orthodox sociology of
science which takes its inspiration from Merton’s work
since the 194-0s has reinforced a boundary between the
content of science, which is invulnerable to social analysis,
and the extrinsic factors working on science, to which province sociology should be confined. Furthermore, his work
of the 1930s is seen as some kind of an ticipa tion of this
great division. We are instructed against reading Merton’s
essay as a suggestion of a more profound sociology, and
also against using Hessen’s work as anything but an awful
warning of the excesses of vulgar Marxism. Thus, mature
social history of science now finds itself divorced from the
valuable resources which the insights of Hessen presented,
and which value-free sociology condemns. As I have indicated, some of Hessen’s insights now re-emerge as commonplaces of contemporary social analysis. It is fruitful to con-


sider these commonplaces in their political and practical
context. In so doing, it is hoped that the really evaluative
structure of some contemporary historiography will become

The Newton industry and its social problems

Two recent developments in the study of science in history
have made Hessen’s essay an increasingly important resource. On the one hand, the period since the 1960s has
seen the development of a ‘Newton Industry’: works of massive scholarship have brought considerable quantities of
hitherto unavailable material into the public domain. The
motives and interests at play in Newton’s achievement have
been debated in some detail. On the other hand, the same
period has seen the emergence of a group of socialist
writers concerned with the history of science and its social

Monuments of this industry include editions of the
mathematical papers and of the correspondence, a variorum
edi tion of the Principia, and a re-assessment of the mass of
alchemical and theological manuscripts in the Newtonian
archive. Some attempts have also been made to broaden the
explanatory base of historical analysis. The more spectacular examples include Frank Manuel’s Freudian psychobiography and M.C. Jacob’s series of studies which explore
the reception of Newtonian cosmology by groups of Anglican churchmen . Occasionally such studies glance at the
work of the early 1930s, normally to contrast the new
sophistication of the history of science with the alleged
crudities of those early texts. Thus in the final volume of
his edition of Newton’s mathematical papers. D.T. Whiteside
castigates a modern historian working in the DDR for the
unsupportable claim that ‘Newton was primarily a physicist’, and notes that ‘for all its patent absurdities and the
much in it that is badly outdated’ there is nevertheless ‘a
hard core in Boris Hessen’s celebrated essay ••• which we
should at least consider with respect, even though we may
not accept its past reality’ . This ‘hard core’ might
well refer to the picture of practical technique which
Hessen displayed. Here it is precisely the reductionist component of Hessen’s which has most appeal.

This appeal is to be contrasted with the approach of
social historians such as M.C. Jacob who have been more
concerned to distance themselves from the economism
which Merton and Hessen are held to have developed. J.R.

Jacob and M.C. Jacob argue that ‘Merton did not address
himself to the connections between Puritanism and scientific theory, but only to those between Puritanism and
scientific practice’. Inevitably, those who wish to display
Merton’s work as itself confined to the level of social
values have argued that this reading represents a ‘plain
misunderstanding’ of Merton’s intentions.

Jacob has insisted that ‘it is only on the level of the former connections between religious ideology and matter
theory that we can trace the social genesis of the conceptual revolution that culminated in the Newtonian synthesis’

. A paradox: it would now be an ‘internalist’ strategy
to show how Newton’s science responded to the technical
demands of the 17th century (since allegedly this would
confirm the purely instrumental function of theory) and
‘externalist’ to concentrate on the purely theoretical implications of his cosmology (since this would show the deeply
political import of such cosmology). The link which Hessen
forged between practice and theory has come unstuck once
again. It is not clear how historians who argue for a purely
theoretical connection between political and natural philosophical cosmologies might treat the practical work of natural philosophers in context. However, we shall see that
the vicissitudes of the Newton industry do suggest a way in
which scientific practice might be recaptured for social
history. But first we must examine the equally difficult
career of current socialist analyses of such problems.

Socialist writers on science and its social relations

have recently returned to Hessen and his contemporaries in
order to understand the historical career of materialist
analyses of science. Hessen has not emerged unscathed
from this process. Indeed, it has now become routine to
interpret his essay as a classic of the vulgar Marxism from
which contemporaries wish to distance themselves. I have
already indicated that this is by no means the only reading
available. But the construction of Hessen’s argument as the
ideal type of reductionist analysis is legitimated by the
political contexts in which it was produced and the purposes to which attacks on Hessen are now put. Most
importantly, perhaps, Hessen is now read as a precursor of
Bernalism. Bernal moved from enthusiasm for Hessen’s arguments to the claim that ‘in the long run the constructive
rather than the destructive use of science is bound to prevail’, and that rational planning of scientific development,
bolstered by a committed historiography of science, could
guarantee this successful future. The tension which exists
in Hessen’s analysis of Newton, between the heroic solution
of technical problems and the obstacles of ideological pressures, also exists in Bernal. This is nowhere better illustrated than in Bernal’s account of the work of Pasteur, whom
Bernal credits with the foundation of developed crystallography and also with the solution of problems of ‘immediate
economic interest’. Bernal saw the mixture of motives here
as ‘one of glory of science and benefit to society’ .

These are by no means the common concerns of radical
writers on science now. So most left interpretations of
Hessen’s paper have come to involve declarations of rival
attitudes to the career of science policy and planning since
the 1930s, and, more directly, to Soviet attitudes to
science as either purely superstructural, or else as a
neutral relation of production.

Two areas of interest emerge from these disputes:

first, we are given rival chronologies of the emergence of
Soviet attitudes to science, and thus rival versions of the
role of the historian of science in successful or disastrous
science planning. Secondly, we are given rival accounts of
the style of historiography which Hessen .typified, and thus
differing recommendations for the goal of sophisticated historical work. It is clear, for example, that the date of the
1931 Congress coincided with massive changes in Soviet
attitudes to science. The period of the late 1920s, ini tiating the ‘Great Break’, had direct consequences for the politics of science. These included increasing political investigation and, ultimately, suspicion of allegedly ‘neutral’

technical experts and expertise. Bukharin himself, although
under severe political pressure from the CPSU Central
Committee, became director of research of the Supreme
Economic Council and dominated the ideological reconstruction of the Academy of Sciences . As Werskey has
pointed out, Bukharin had presided over the only meeting
of the Conference on Science Planning in the April before
the London meeting, and thus his own concerns with the
relation between economic transformation and scientific
change were acutely focused at this moment. At the same
time, however, very few members of the Soviet delegation
were committed supporters of the programme initiated at
this point. So the image which British witnesses received of
a coherent Soviet Marxist position was itself illusory. This
is made very clear both by Marxist critiques of Hessen and
Bukharin, and also by the efforts of the British CP to impose a standard version of the import of their 1931 contributions upon communist scientists in Britain .

Such responses to Science at the cross-roads and its
Soviet background show how any methodological prescriptions for historical work always imply political evaluations
of the place of science in society. One of the first – and
certainly one of the most considered – responses to this
book was that of Gramsci. In his ‘Critical Notes’ on
Bukharin’s Historical Materialism, Gramsci cites the 1931
volume and argues for a mature history of ‘experimental
method’ and scientific instrumentation which would avoid
and also destroy the crudities of any attempt to display
science as ‘metamorphoses of the technical instrument’.

Gramsci shoped how economism, an ‘infantile deviation’ of
Marxism, was ‘generated by the baroque conviction that
the more one goes back to “material” objects the more
orthodox one must be’. Here Gramsci offered some direct
recommendations for history of science: natural objects
could only enter such a history when ‘socially and historically organised for production’. A contrast was to be drawn
between a history of science which reduced all scientific
practice to the utilisation of instruments of ‘production and
work’, and a totally different history in which ‘the ensemble of social relations’ was treated, and in which it
could be shown that ‘the principal instruments of science
are of an intellectual (and even political) and methodological order’. This latter historiography also licensed a
different politics of science, in which scientists took their
place as mental workers within a comprehensible social
totality, and not in the false position of technological administrators. Once again, Gramsci’s original response to the
arguments of Science at the cross-roads itself has come to
be used as a resource for creative re-interpretation. Certainly, his attack on Bukharin and Hessen has profoundly

affected contemporary socialist SuspicIOns of their own
approach to the politics of science . Socialist critiques
of science now either make pure theory the sole site of
political influence, or else rigorously separate the theoretical level from any such influence. In either case, the
task of the self-respecting social (or socialist) historian is
to concentrate on the theoretical construction of science
alone. In the former case, this self-denying ordinance
allows the historian to distance analysis from the crudities
of economism. In the latter case, it allows the historian to
present such analysis as a contribution to the theory of
scientific socialism.

It is thought to be bad manners to concentrate in any
detail on the social relations of scientific practice, as
opposed to the representation of social relations in scientific theory. R.M. Young wrote in 1973 that Hessen was a
notorious example of ‘those who have attempted to account
for findings in so-called pure science by claiming that they
are direct, un mediated expressions of economic forces in
the period’. Young declared that ‘it is, frankly, difficult to
recover the enthusiasm generated by Hessen’s essay’, and
went on to express his sympathy for historians of science
working during the Cold War who ‘turned to the internal
history of ideas as practised by Koyre and Meyerson with a
sense of relief, excitement and liberation’ . A similar
sentiment was expressed in 1978 from a totally contrasting
perspective by A. Callinicos. Responding to arguments that
Hessen’s work represented a radical intervention in the history of the sciences, Callinicos wrote that a ‘cavalier attitude to the history of science’ was inevitable under
Hessen’s recommendations, since if ‘the sciences passively
reflect what goes on in the economy, then they have no
specific existence of their own, and there is no need to
bother with studying their actual history’ . It is important to treat such celebrations of ‘actual history’ with
deep suspicion, since such actuality always pretends to a
specious intellectual detachment on the part of the historian. The newer insistence that social history of science
must explore the details of technical practice however is
healthy just because it cannot pretend to any detachment

from the politics of science.

Hessen’s political commitments to materialism were
explicitly part of his account of Newtonian cosmology and
Newtonian natural philosophical work. In a remarkable passage in his essay, Hessen displayed the tension in Newton’s
work between insistence on mechanistic causation and
opposition to atheist materialism. Hessen saw Newton’s
work on the action of divine power as part of this problematic. In turn, he saw Newton’s opposition to materialism in
terms of the dual threat of aristocratic deism (identified
with the disciplines of Hobbes and Toland) and of radical
materialism (identified with the sectaries of the Civil War).

Hessen went on to catalogue the instances at which these
struggles became manifest in Newton’s programme: the
Boyle Lectures of the 1690s, the controversy between
Clark and Leibniz, Newton’s accusation of Hobbesian materialism levelled against Locke, and Newton’s analysis of
space as the ‘sensorium of God’ . All this account has
now become a rather celebrated part of the Newton industry, but few modern practitioners would recognise Hessen’s
original formulation of the argument. Instead, the industry
has concentrated upon the construction of an acceptable
inventory of Newton’s true beliefs. As Westfall put it in his
pugnacious review of the ‘changing world of the Newtonian
industry’ in 1976, the image of Newton as ‘mathematical
physicist and solid citizen’ is ‘exactly what has come unglued during the last fifteen years’ .

This process has been accentuated by detailed explorations of theological and alchemical work, by sophisticated
philosophical explorations of the metaphysics of space, time
and matter, and by closer attention to the deployment of
Newton’s claims in the context of the 1690s and early
1700s. Nevertheless, the result of this impressive work has
not been as dramatic as Westfall seemed to expect. On the
contrary, the specific aim of the industry has almost completely saved Newton from decomposition. In particular,
both theological and alchemical excesses have been normalised. We are now to accept that the alchemy which Newton
pursued for a substantial part of his life can be recuperated as a preamble and resource for rational matter theory,
and his Arian heterodoxy was held so privately that its influence was limited to some very close associates and no
further. Indeed, the strength of his heresy can be used to
portray Newton as completely isolated from all concern for
contemporary struggles in church and state. Certainly the
public Newton of Westfall’s recent biography seems just as
much a ‘mathematical physicist and solid citizen’ as we
could desire, and, perhaps, as Hessen might have suspected.

The result has been a sense of scepticism of the possibility
that ‘the depth of the overall vision of Newton’s genius’

could ‘ever be completely fathomed’ .

Hessen’s essay can be seen as an invitation to historians who wish to abandon just this goal. His work challenged the notion of genius as a functional part of historical concern, and it outlined some paths by which the social
construction of science might be explored. We cannot ignore the valuative assumption inherent in this invitation,
however. The heroic character of Newton’s work did play a
vi tal part at all levels of the Newton industry. It bolstered
up an enterprise which sought a single and consistent set
of beliefs which could be safety attributed to the great
man. It dominated the interpretations historians were prepared to offer of Newtonian texts, and allowed them to
argue that only if it could be shown that a particular item
contributed to the Newtonian synthesis could that item be
given any historical significance. Finally, it reinforced the
notion that the key to such a synthesis must lie in some
limited set of methodological and metaphysical propositions
which generated the revolution in science. In this context
it is understandable that some historians might display their
own work as free of all evaluative options. They contrast
such work with that which assumed the success of Newton’s
work, and then only used the historical context when it
was necessary to explain failures to perceive that allegedly
obvious triumph. They might also draw the contrast with a


_–_._-_ .•.._ – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – _ .

tradition which used Newton’s texts as direct expressions
of authorial intention and then attributed varieties of
interpretation to ‘misunderstandings’ of that intention. But
the move away from heroic historiography does take up an
evaluative PQsition. This move involves a symmetrical analysis of ‘true’ and ‘false’ beliefs. It insists on the interested character of all interpretation. This model applies as
much to the understanding of experimental practice as it
does to written texts. Such practice organises and generates assent within the community and is related to the
assent generated to a particular interpretation of some
authoritative text. Such work seems peculiarly appropriate
in Newton’s case, since he was an extraordinarily obsessive
analyst of interpretative dispute and the political ‘corruption’ of belief. Furthermore, there are already considerable
resources available for such work. Studies of the replication of Newton’s optical experiments, his presentation of
ecclesiastical and prophetic history, disputes with rivals
such as Leibniz, his domination of the Royal Society as president, and the origins of eighteenth century natural philosophical practice, all point towards an effective combination of political and technical analysis of the social construction of Newton’s programmes .

What evaluation, then, would such an analysis offer? In
fact, it would challenge a powerful model of the scientist
at work. It has often been pointed out that the orthodox
(and idealist) model of such work is highly functional in the
training of scientists and the defence of support for
research. There is no doubt, therefore, that any historiography of science which concentrates on practices of persuasion and assent, and which therefore inevitably con-







B. Hessen, ‘The social and economic roots of Newton’s Principia’, in N.I. Bukharin et
al., Science at the cross roads (first published 1931, republished London, Frank Cass,
1971), pp. 150-212.

P.G. Werskey, ‘Introduction’, in Science at the cross roads, pp. xi-xxix; The visible
college: a collective biOraphY of British scientists and socialists of the 1930s
(London, Alien Lane, 1978~ pp. 138-49; ‘Making socialists of scientists: whose side is
history on?’, Radical Science Journal, 1975, 2/3, pp. 13-50. See also J.G. Crowther,
Fifty years with science (London, Barrie and Jenkins, 1970), pp. 77-87.

Sir George Clark, Science and social welfare in the age of Newton, 2nd edition
(Oxford, Clarendon, 1949); R.K. Merton, Science technology and society in seventeenth century England, 2nd edition (New York, Harper &: Row, 1970); Werskey, Visible
college, p. 141; P. Sorokin and R.K. Merton, ‘The course of American intellectual development’,~ 1935, 22, pp. 516-24; P. Sorokin, ‘Russian sociology in the 20th century’,
American Sociological Society: Papers and proceedings, 1926, 21,
pp. 57-69.

Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin, Natural order: studies of scientific culture (London,
Sage, 1979), p. 10.

Hessen, p. 212; John Baker and A.G. Tansley, ‘The course of controversy on freedom
in science’, Nature, October 1946, 158, p. 574 (cited in Werskey, ‘Introduction’, p. xj);
P.G. Werskey, ‘The political agenda: then and now’, in J. Rosenhead (ed.),Science at
the crossroads: looking back on 50 years of radical science (London, BSSRS, 1981), pp.


J.G. Crowther, Social relations of science (London, Cresset, 1967), pp. 431-32.

J.D. Bernal, The social function of science (London, Routledge, 1939), cited in Hilary
Rose and Steven Rose, ‘The two Bernals’, in Rosenhead, Science at the crossroads, p.


Joseph Needham and Waiter Pagel, Background to modern stience (Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 1938), p. viii.

J.D. Bernal, Science and industry in the 19th century, 2nd edition (Bloomington, Ind.,
Indiana UP, 1970), pp. 172-76.

Engels to Starkenburg, January 1894, in Selected corresondence (Moscow, Progress,
1943), p. 517; R.K. Merton, Social theory and social structure, 3rd edition (London,
Macmillan, 1968), p. 587; R.M. Young, ‘The historiographic and ideological contexts of
the 19th century debate on man’s place in nature’, in R.M. Young and M. Teich (eds.),
Changing perspectives in the history of science (London, Heinemann, 1973), p. 391.

Hessen, pp. 177 and 183.

Ibid., p. 171.

D.T. Whiteside (ed.), Mathematical papers of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, Cambridge UP,
1967-1981), 8 vols., Vol. 8, pp. 450-51 and n. 27; I.B. Cohen, Introduction to Newton’s
Principia (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1971), pp. 293-94; Hessen, p. 171; J.L. Heilbron,
Elements of early modern physics (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982), p.

3: ‘quantifying physics implied a radical readjustment of the divisions of knowledge’.

Hessen, pp. 170-71.

Joseph Needham, in Rosenhead, Science at the crossroads, p. 3; idem., ‘Limiting factors in the history of science’, in Time the refreshing river (London, Alien and Unwin,
1943), p. 145.

G. Plekhanov, The role of the individual in history (London, Lawrence &: Wishart,
1940), pp. 55-56; Hessen, pp. 151 and 203.

Clark, Science and social welfare, pp. 61 and 86-88.

Hessen, p. 167.

A. Rupert Hall, ‘Merton revisited: or, science and society in the 17th century’, History
of Science, 1963, 2, pp. 1-15.

J.R. Ravetz, ‘Bernal’s Marxist vision of history’ and P.S. West fall, ‘Reflections on

fronts scientific culture as a scene of political struggle,
would automatically subvert such functions.

As Boris
Hessen suggested in 1931, the history of the sciences is
always a powerful resource for, and reflection of, models
of science and social relations. In this respect, A.R. Hall’s
attack on value-free sociology of science was extremely
accurate. Hall wrote that it was fatal ‘to suppose that it is
not worth while to take sides or that the determination of
the historian’s attitude to the issue is not significant’ .

Hall’s argument was that since the development of science
was such a significant element of modern culture, it was
vital to privilege that development, examine its effects on
the derivative category of society, and grant it a highly
positive assessment. For exactly the same reason, an alternative historiography inevitably criticises the so-called
‘textbook tradition’, and also criticises perceptions of the
place of scientific culture.

Just because Hessen also saw the construction of
science as an overwhelmingly important part of the historical development of Western society, he too shared these
criticisms. He saw no reason why Newton’s apparently
self-evident triumph obviated the need for its historical
explanation, and he saw an urgent need for a form of
history which could provide such an explanation. So should

‘The founder of this religion will be a man of great
power. The faithful will give him the title of
Captain of the Newtonian Guard.’

(Saint-Simon, Lettres d’un habitant de Geneve a ses
contemporains, 1802)

Ravetz’s essay’, in~ 1981, 72, pp.- 393-405.


21 R.S. Westfall, Never at rest: a biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, Cambridge UP,
1980), p. ix.

22 G.A. Abraham, ‘Misunderstanding the Merton thesis: a boundary dispute between history and sociology’,~ 1983, 74, pp. 368-87.

23 Merton, Science, technology and society, p. xiii.

24 For surveys, see D.T. Whiteside, ‘The expanding world of Newtonian research’, History
of science, 1962, 1, pp. 16-29; I.B. Cohen, ‘Newton in the light of recent scholarship’,
~ 1960, 51, pp. 489-514; R.S. Westfall, ‘The changing world of the Newtonian industry’, Journal of the history of ideas, 1976, 27, pp. 175-84; Westfall, Never at rest, pp.

875-84. ~ee F. Manuel, Portrait of Isaac Newton (London, Muller, 1968); M.C. Jacob,
The Newtonians and the English Revolution (Hassocks, Harvester, 1976).

25 Whiteside, Mathematical papers, Vol. 8, p. xxviii, n. 59·, citing H.J. Treder, ‘Isaac
Newton und die Begriindung der mathematischen Prinzipien der Naturphilosophie’,
Sitzungberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR (1977, No. 12/N, Berlin,
197n, p. 7.


26 J.R. Jacob and M.C. Jacob, ‘The Anglican origins of modern science: the metaphysical
foundations of the White constitution’, ~ 1980, 71, pp. 251-67; Abraham, ‘Misunderstanding the Merton thesis’, p. 385. For other attempts to analyse the ideological
constitution of the Newtonian synthesis, see George Grinnell, ‘Newton’s Principia as
Whig propaganda’, in P. Fritz and D. Williams (eds.), City and society in the 18th cen~ (Toronto, Hakkert, 1973), pp. 181-92 and M. Baridon, ‘Theorie politique et recherche scientifique: la lutte ideologique contre l’absolutisme en Angleterre au dixseptieme siecle’, Pensee, 1978, 199, pp. 58-76.

27 Hessen, p. 201; Bernal, Science and Industry, pp. 85 and 176-77. Compare R.M. Young,
‘The relevance of Bernal’s reasons’, Radical Science Journal, 1980, 10, pp. 85-94;
Rose and Rose, ‘The two Bernals’; Werskey, Visible Colle e pp. 185-211.

28 S.F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution Oxford, Oxford UP, 1980), pp.

350-353; L. Graham, ‘Bukharin and the planning of science’, Russian review (April
1964), pp. 135-148; P.R. Josephson, ‘Science and ideology in the Soviet Union: the
transformation of science into a direct productive force’, Soviet Union, 1981, 8, pp.

159-85; D. Holloway, ‘Scientific truth and political authority in the Soviet Union’,
Government and 0 osition 1970, 5, pp. 345-67; Z. Medvedev, Soviet science (Oxford,
Oxford UP, 1979, Chapter 3. I owe some of these references to Mike Shortland.

29 Werskey, ‘Making socialists of scientists’, pp. 22-40 and ‘Introduction’, pp. xii-xix.

Compare H. and S. Rose, ‘The radicalization of science’, Socialist Register (1972), pp.

105-32, and ‘The incorporation of science’ in The political economy of science
(London, Macmillan, 1976), p. 21.

30 Antonio Gramsci, ‘Critical notes on an attempt at popular sociology’, in Prison Notebooks ed. Quintin Hoare and G.N. Smith (London, Lawrence &: Wishart, 1971), pp.

441-67. For an assessment of the importance of Gramsci’s conception of the history of
science, see Monika Reinfelder, ‘Breaking the spell of technicism’, in Phil Slater (ed.),
Outlines of a critique of technology (London, Ink Links, 1980), p. 27.

31 Young, ‘Man’s place in nature’, pp. 387 and 390-91.

32 Alex Callinicos, ‘Science and socialism’, Socialist Review, 1978, 8, pp. 16-17; see also
Tim Shall ice, ‘Science is not just social relations’, Science for People, 1979, 43/44, pp.


33 Hessen, pp. 182-89.

34 Westfall, ‘Changing world of the Newtonian industry’, p. 177.

35 K. Figala, ‘Newton as alchemist’, History of Science, 1977, 15, pp. 102-37, 128.

36 See the comments in H. Guerlac, Newton on the continent (Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1981),
pp. 117-28; C. Webster, From Paracelsus to Newton (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1982)
and S. Shapin, ‘Of Gods and Kings: the political significance of the Leibniz-Clarke
disputes’,~ 1980, 72, pp. 187-215.

37 A.R. Hall, ‘Merton revisited’; see S. Brush, ‘Should the history of science be rated
X?’, Science, 1974, 183, pp. 1164-72.

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