The histories of science and capitalism have always been bound up together. As far back as the 17th century, if not before, precise and detailed empirical knowledge has been valued by those seeking commercial gain. It is therefore no surprise that modern scholars have taken a keen interest in tracing the connections between the production of natural knowledge and development of commercial networks, between matters of fact and matters of exchange. Since Max Weber’s polemical account of the protestant work ethic, Boris Hessen’s materialist take on Newton’s Principia, and Robert K. Merton’s doctoral thesis on the culture of knowledge production in Puritan England (published as the fourth issue of Osiris), the evolving relationship between science and capitalism has been a central concern of science studies.
Moreover, scholarly interest in the way science and capitalism interact has not diminished with time. In today’s world of patented gene sequences, spinoff biotech companies, and technology transfer offices, the question of how personal self-interest coexists with the ideal of science as the disinterested pursuit of objective truth has only grown in importance. Not only that, but the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath has prompted a much broader interest in the history and development of modern capitalism across the academy. At the heart of this “new” history of capitalism has been a desire to denaturalize markets: to understand capitalism not as an abstract force or inevitable stage in economic development, but as a constellation of institutions, beliefs, and relationships created by particular people with specific motivations informed by their local circumstances. Recent work on the history of capitalism therefore resembles many of the most exciting contributions to the history of science in that it is a history of practices, from the managerial control procedures employed by slave-owning capitalists in the Antebellum American South to the peculiar affective experiences of traders in modern finance.
Given these synergies between recent work on the history of science and capitalism, we are now in an opportune moment to step back, look around, and take a stock of the mutual entanglements between these two cultural institutions. What role have profit motives and commercial self-interest played in the knowledge-making enterprises of science, and, conversely, how have the practices and prestige of science contributed to the profit-making enterprises of capitalism? With this in mind, we propose a volume of Osiris that revisits and reframes some of the foundational questions that energized science studies scholarship in the 20th century while posing new agendas for 21st-century research.
In preparation for this volume, we will be holding a workshop for contributors to discuss draft papers. We encourage interested scholars from Columbia and the New York area to join the conversation. Pre-registration is required.