The Bulletin of the History of Medicine put out a special issue in the winter of 2012 that focused on the resilience and evolution of the “airs, waters, places tradition.” (It was edited by Alison Bashford and Sarah Tracey — the latter is on my MA committee!!!)
Though the contributors are for the most part concerned with the 20th century, the introduction to the issue contains some historiographical information about studies on climate that are incredibly helpful for getting my feet wet.
First off, it looks like historians studying climatology have been arguing for some time that the traditional signposts of modern medicine — germ theory and bacteriology — did not alter the way that laypeople, physicians, or scientists understood wellness and disease. Rather, “…microorganisms continued to be understood in relation to an environmentally shaped human physiology…[and]…[m]edical men continued to gather and assess meteorological data in minute detail long after microorganisms were known to be necessary and sufficient to cause disease.” (504)
A Holistic Approach to Making Sense of the Modern World
While science has been an important avenue through which humans have attempted to explore and understand their surroundings since the time of the Greeks, it was not until the late nineteenth-century that its methods, across the increasingly specialized and defined scientific disciplines, began to take on a single, well-defined appearance. The mechanical worldview — I use the world worldview here because, as this essay will examine, its basic components began to appear in more and more aspects of human life — is characterized by attempts to reduce and simplify the universe into quantitative units, and then to analyze and use those units to understand and manipulate nature (and later, people) in ways previously impossible. The method’s success in the “harder” sciences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — physics, chemistry, and some aspects of biology — led many scientists to attempt to apply it also to other areas of human inquiry. As the twenty first-century approached, however, the mechanistic outlook’s inability to deal with the complex problems of the life and social sciences became increasingly apparent.
In this essay, I want to examine the mechanistic methodology’s entrance into the softer sciences, and I want to discuss the problems inherent in such a reductionist approach to the complicated questions life and social sciences attempt to answer. How did it influence the types of questions that scientists asked, and what would alternative questions (with a more holistic basis) have looked like? And finally, I want to end with a brief discussion of how humanity is still firmly in the grip of the mechanistic worldview, and how it continues to shape the way we understand our surroundings and ourselves. The questions that scientists ask, I want to argue, are influenced by the methods (and philosophical understandings of those methods) to which they ascribe, and the implications of this association for the kind of science being done affects far more than just the scientific community.