The Engine of Modernity

Tuesday, May 2, 2017 - Wednesday, May 3, 2017 Second Floor Common Room

The Engine of Modernity: Construing Science as the Driving Force of History in the First Half of the Twentieth Century


Science has long been associated with modernity, but the belief that it was its engine, that the modern world owed its existence to modern science, only rose after the beginning of the twentieth century. Pioneered by followers of Edmund Husserl (like Alexandre Koyré), and developed in various places in and outside Europe and the United States, the engine thesis became a widespread article of faith, a commonplace even, with far-reaching academic and political consequences.

Academically, the notion animated the emergence of a number of new disciplines. If science had created the modern condition, then one could only hope to understand modern society (and live in it, and lead it) if one understood science – as a phenomenon. On this principle, Herbert Butterfield helped launch the history of science, arguing that modernity was born in the Scientific Revolution. Robert Merton started the sociology of science, associating the modern democratic order with a scientific ethos. And in philosophy, Karl Popper coupled scientific rationality to the “Open Society” that science required. Many of these scholars developed theories of society in tandem with theories of science. Others started to teach understanding science, most influentially James B. Conant, who offered “Case Histories” in chemistry and physics to all Harvard undergraduates.

But the study of science as the engine of modernity was never a purely academic exercise. At the same time that the above disciplines were created, science came to be taken as the key to economic growth and the basis of modernization – views intimately tied up with the establishment of “science policy” as a function of the state, and “development” as a political aim around the world. Belief in the universality of science reinforced the notion of a single path to modernity. But while such “modernization theory” is mainly known from its American manifestations, similar (and sometimes rival) approaches developed in Asia, the Middle East, and the burgeoning European Union. Science became a subject of study also in Latin America and the Soviet Union. Paradoxically, the belief in universal science proved itself rather diverse. Some of this came out in early UNESCO, which placed science at the heart of its conception of modern culture, and made it the basis for relentless forms of modernization that were not globally welcomed.

In this workshop we want to examine the meanings and implications of the science-as-modernity’s-engine thesis. Where did the notion come from? What did its advocates try to achieve? And how were science and modernity themselves reconfigured in the launch of the science studies disciplines? At the same time, we want to explore the links between academia and action. How was the centrality of science related to views of science policy and development? How did these perspectives vary with what modernization meant in different places? And how did the various ensembles of scholarly activity, discipline formation, and policy design relate to the great upheavals of the time: the devastations of the First and Second World War, the crisis of Europe and its empires, the ascendancy of the United States and the USSR. If this is what modernity looked like, then how was science construed as its originator?


  • Participants

    Geert Somsen

    Senior Lecturer

    Maastricht University

  • Marwa Elshakry

    Associate Professor of History

    Columbia University

  • Eugenia Lean

    Associate Professor of East Asian Language-Culture

    Columbia University

  • Lorraine Daston


    Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

  • Alex Csiszar

    Assistant Professor of the History of Science

    Harvard University

  • Andrew Jewett

    Assistant Professor of History and of Social Studies

    Harvard University

  • Elena Aronova

    Assistant Professor

    University of California Santa Barbara

  • Elise Aurières

    Ph.D Student

    Université Paris 1 - Panthéon-Sorbonn

  • Nick Jardine

    Emeritus Professor

    University of Cambridge

  • Steve Fuller

    Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology

    University of Warwick

  • Adriana Feld

    Professor of Secondary and Higher Education

    National Council of Scientific and Technical Research, Buenos Aires

  • Thomas Mougey

    PhD Candidate, Department of History

    Maastricht University

  • Jahnavi Phalkey

    Senior Lecturer in History of Science and Technology

    Kings College London

  • Małgorzata Mazurek

    Associate Professor of Polish Studies

    Columbia University

  • George Reisch

    Independent Scholar

  • Gabriela Soto Laveaga

    Professor of the History of Science

    Harvard university


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