George Sarton

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George Sarton (31 August 1884 – 22 March 1956) was a Belgian-American chemist and historian who is widely considered to be the founder of the discipline of history of science. Sarton had a diverse education in both Chemistry and Mathematics, and during the First World War moved to the United States and joined the faculty of Harvard University, where he began his studies in the History of Science, and where he played a crucial role in the creation of the History of Science as a discipline that was autonomous and had recognition on an institutional level in universities and also with the publication of his journal Isis, which continues to this day.

Sarton also occupies a unique place in the philosophy of science, especially in his views of scientific change, since he prefigured many of the distinctions, sometimes contradictory, that would become central in later history and philosophy of science (see the section on Criticisms). In particular, in his historiography, he emphasized both the progressive and cumulative nature of scientific change, while also acknowledging the locality of scientific rationality and it dependence on circumstances, sometimes outside science itself.

Sarton himself had a unique, though idiosyncratic, theory of scientific change, especially with regard to the interaction between science and broader societal change throughout human history. He held that Science, together with the rest of mankind and indeed all of nature, was “one”, and therefore to understand changes in science involves a holistic perspective beyond the scope of scientific belief and practice. He also equated the growth of scientific (“positive”) knowledge with the cumulative growth of science with the broader growth and progression of human civilization.

Historical Context

Because Sarton saw no significant difference between the process of change in science and the growth of core aspects of human society, the historical context that influenced the creation of his own views included scientific, philosophical, and broadly societal aspects.

Of the first, the increasing specialization of science that had arisen during the nineteenth century can be seen as motivating Sarton’s turn to the history of science to preserve what he believed to be its unity1p. 307.

Sarton was forced by World War I to emigrate to the United States. In many ways, the turn of the twentieth century saw the refutation of many nineteenth century dreams of a progressive society. Through all of this, the progress of science seemed uniquely progressive, and transcended the local differences of race and nation2p. 291. Sarton’s humanistic views therefore saw the history of science as a way to confirm both the progressive nature of human society and the essential unity of mankind. He explicitly set these views at the foundation of his work in the history of science.

Finally, Tannery and Comte were among the central philosophical influences on Sarton’s thinking. Through both, Sarton inherits an integrated view of scientific knowledge, interacting with many social and epistemic forces1p. 309. This was crucial in his establishment of the history of science as a discipline principally focused on the way general trends in the growth of “positive knowledge” is embodied in the history of its disciplines and their connections with broader aspects of society (see the section below). These thinkers gave Sarton a way to address two polarizing trends in thought about scientific change that made Sarton’s program difficult: (1) The idea that scientific change had to be addressed in a local way, where the conclusions of certain investigations were known so that the efforts of scientists could be placed within the context of the broader ‘truth’3p. 91, and (2) the idea that the forces of change that shaped the history of science were distinct from all others in cultural development, having a direct and unique avenue to truth2p. 292. These were clearly remnants of the Nineteenth Century view of science and scientific change. The question here was not so much to undermine faith in science (which Sarton shared), but to understand the growth of scientific knowledge in general, without complete knowledge of all its interconnections or the ultimate truths of its referents.

Major Contributions

The way the work of George Sarton has influenced views of scientific change mainly involve the way scientific change is conceptualized in its essential elements and the general patterns that scientific change embodies. These are succinctly encapsulated in the “three principles” Sarton lays out in one of his main philosophical works, “The New Humanism”:

(1) Human Knowledge is essentially a function of the advance of positive knowledge4p. 9. (2) The progress of each branch of science is essentially a function of the progress of all other branches. – This second principle expresses the unity of knowledge4p. 10. (3) The progress of science is not due to the isolated efforts of a single people but the combined efforts of all peoples. – This third principle expresses the essential unity of mankind4p. 11. The way that these principles are in general related to the views of scientific change Sarton held throughout his life are described below.

Demarcation. As written by Charles and Dorothea Singer: “The key to Sarton’s thought is that knowledge is a unity, and that to divide it into categories – scientific, literary, religious, aesthetic, etc. – for any practical purpose, is to mistake its purpose”1p. 309. This belief, which informs Sarton’s work in many ways, has striking consequences for how one should understand the process of scientific change: Firstly, an immediate consequence of this belief is that disciplinary boundaries, or indeed any boundaries between domains of knowledge, cannot have any real status in a fundamental theory of scientific change. Because domains of human knowledge are fundamentally united, the forces between them that can influence change cannot depend on what is perceived to mark their differences in any way that would survive deep understanding of their nature. In the context of historical investigations of science, this means that historical inference can, in principle, relate any two aspects of scientific or societal change in the course of explanation, unbounded by any ‘superficial’ distinction between their domains. In the context of theories about scientific change, the consequence of this belief means that the fundamental ontology of such a theory must be cast in terms that reference deeper entities and processes of change than can be captured in a theory of institutional, communal, or disciplinary dynamics.

Second, Sarton develops a mode of explanation for certain properties of scientific change that supports this view and show how it can be implemented in a general theory. He cites the fact that many fundamental discoveries in science are often made by more than one researcher at once. He says: “The simultaneity of scientific discoveries implies also an internal congruency… it has happened so often that the probability of these occurrences being due to hazard is infinitely small, and we can draw no conclusion but this: Science is one”2p. 295. Not only is every change in science a confirming instance of the unity of nature, but this unity of all things must (Here, the necessity follows from Sarton’s use of the word “only”) be invoked if we are to truly understand the patterns we discern in the changes on the surface of science and scientific practice. In this, we can see Sarton’s belief in the “oneness” of science as a kind of proto-theory of scientific change, which he used to draw explanatory inferences about the patterns that emerge in the historical investigation of this change.

Third, Sarton makes use of this perspective to draw powerful inferences about the significance of scientific change for the broader development of human civilization. In his view, what this unity signifies, joined with the uniquely progressive character of progress in science, is that any theory of scientific change is in reality a theory of the central and enduring progression of human civilization2p. 292. Not only does this have consequences for what evidence must be relevant for understanding the fundamental causes of this change (namely, no restriction on evidence that follows from the superficial boundaries between nation or discipline should be considered valid or well-founded), but also the explanatory range of such a theory, and therefore its fundamental domain of inquiry.

Theory Acceptance for Historical Study. Sarton, in his sensitivity for the institutional and practical forms of scientific knowledge, can be seen as imbuing the history of science with an early conception of what kind of knowledge can count as emblematic of the knowledge of the scientific community, rather than some idiosyncratic subpart. He says: “when we speak of history of science, what must be understood is the history of science become classic, the science which is taught in the high schools and in the encyclopedic course of the university, and which constitutes, or ought to constitute, the intellectual baggage of every cultivated man”3p. 91.

Methodology. Many of Sarton’s insights into the way science changes through history is contained in his views on how a proper study of the history of science should be carried out. In this, Sarton’s main achievement was perhaps to separate the history of the sciences from the history of science. Whereas the former is concerned with histories of particular sciences or specific aspects of science, Sarton’s focus on the history of science is a focus on the “common histories of the sciences,” concerned with “their origin, the general laws of their development, the reason for their analogies and relationships, the cause of the preponderance of one of them in some particular epoch”3p. 91. In this effort Sarton can be credited with advocating, at the outset of the history of science and a discipline, the view that such study must avoid any kind of “whiggishness,” which is defined by one historian of science as the use of the history of science as a vindication of current beliefs3p. 93, presumably by tacitly assuming the truth of present theories and using them to explain the findings of past scientists. Acknowledging this historiographical percept is the solution that Sarton found to the problem of how to write a history of science that could discover the “general laws of development” of the sciences, all while being in ignorance of their fundamental basis as reflected in the fundamental structure of nature. This was no small achievement, it may be speculated that, without Sarton providing this context for the field that Thomas Kuhn was eventually to work in, his own achievements would never have been possible.

This methodological principle is clearly relevant for any understanding of scientific change, saying that any conception of such change must make reference only to (what could be called) local aspects, and must take seriously the limitations that exist in any particular scientific community. These limitations are not just errors that can be factored out of the progress of science, as a more simplistic view of scientific change might believe, but have substantive epistemic consequences and can be identified as a major determining factor in the shape of scientific knowledge at a given point in time. Understanding scientific change therefore means understanding the relationship between these local limitations and the knowledge that is attained under their influence.

Historical Achievements. Beyond the philosophy of scientific change that is contained in Sarton’s reflections on his own work, there is also the contributions he made to our understanding of scientific change through his work understanding the actual progression of science in fact. In this, possibly his greatest contribution was the integration and extension of what was known about the Medieval and Arabic scientific traditions2p. 294.


In the realm of his more abstract views of scientific change, it is somewhat difficult to assess criticisms of George Sarton, because many of his particular contributions were not, and still are not recognized in their subtlety or complete range of consequences.

We can infer some general criticisms that Sarton would fall prey to as the history and philosophy of science developed later into the century. In particular, Kuhn and scholars who followed him who generally acknowledged that incommensurability is a genuine property of the knowledge of different eras of science would obviously criticize the centrality of the idea that scientific change is progressive and unified. One could argue that this criticism does not genuinely represent Sarton’s views, since found it important to bring out the fact that discoveries in science and their applications do not appear in history in the way that a naïvely progressive view would suggest1p. 309. This is related to Sarton’s insistence that the history of science (rather than the ‘sciences’) must take a local approach without imposing knowledge attained from different eras of science on the analysis of some other one (see the section above)3p. 92.

In a related and perhaps more justified way, the emphasis that Sarton placed on the personal and “human” aspects of scientific practice and change would come to be criticized by philosophers who valued more highly that abstract, rational reconstructions that the history of science offered5p. 153. This kind of criticism aimed at Sarton’s work more consciously repudiates the care he took to acknowledge the fact that “the pure and applied science grew together,”5p. 153 eschewing historical detail in favor of the more abstract, epistemic properties embodied in scientific change.

In total, one can see Sarton as occupying a middling place in the eventual distinctions that would become central in the history and philosophy of science as the century wore on: those between micro and macro-histories, those between rational, methodological reconstruction and an appreciation for the diversity of scientific practices, and the focus on the socio-cultural versus the rational forces behind scientific change and knowledge. This should not be surprising, however, for it reflects the central thrust of Sarton’s entire body of work: His wish to develop a “new humanism”, based on the unity of knowledge and cultural experience, reflecting the unity of mankind, and the broader unity of nature2p. 295. This idealist project, in the eyes of more contemporary historians, is appreciatively, though honestly, acknowledged to have been impossible within the context of the history of science3p. 92.


Here are the works of Sarton included in the bibliographic records of this encyclopedia:

  • Sarton (2017): Sarton, George. (2017) Appreciation of Ancient and Medieval Science in the Renaissance (1450-1600). University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Sarton (2011): Sarton, George. (2011) A History of Science: Ancient Science Through the Golden Age of Greece. Dover Publications.
  • Sarton (2007): Sarton, George. (2007) The Life of Science: Essays in the History of Civilization. Slusser Press.
  • Sarton (1987): Sarton, George. (1987) The History of Science and the New Humanism. Routledge.
  • Sarton (1959): Sarton, George. (1959) A History of Science: Hellenistic Science and Culture. Harvard University Press.
  • Sarton (1957a): Sarton, George. (1957) The Study of the History of Mathematics. Dover Publications.
  • Sarton (1957b): Sarton, George. (1957) Six Wings: Men of Science in the Renaissance. University of Indiana Press.
  • Sarton (1955): Sarton, George. (1955) "Historians and Philosophers" of Science. Isis 46 (4), 360-366.
  • Sarton (1954): Sarton, George. (1954) Galen of Pergamon. University of Kansas Press.
  • Sarton (1954b): Sarton, George. (1954) Experiments in Truth by Faraday, Darwin, and Gandhi. Osiris 11, 87-107.
  • Sarton (1952b): Sarton, George. (1952) Auguste Comte, Historian of Science: With a Short Digression on Clotilde de Vaux and Harriet Taylor. Osiris 10, 328-357.
  • Sarton (1952): Sarton, George. (1952) A Guide to the History of Science. Chronica Botanica Company.
  • Sarton (1951): Sarton, George. (1951) The Incubation of Western Culture in the Middle East. Library of Congress.
  • Sarton (1950b): Sarton, George. (1950) Decimal Systems Early and Late. Osiris 9, 581-601.
  • Sarton (1950): Sarton, George. (1950) Boyle and Bayle, the Sceptical Chemist and the Sceptical Historian. Chymia 3, 155-189.
  • Sarton (1947): Sarton, George. (1947) Introduction to the History of Science Volume 3: Science and Learning in the Fourteenth Century. Williams and Wilkins Company.
  • Sarton (1940): Sarton, George. (1940) Remarks on the Study of Babylonian Mathematics. Isis 31 (2), 398-404.
  • Sarton (1938): Sarton, George. (1938) The Tomb of Omar Khayyam. Isis 29 (1), 15-19.
  • Sarton (1937): Sarton, George. (1937) Darwin's Conception of the Theory of Natural Selection. Isis 26 (2), 336-340.
  • Sarton (1936): Sarton, George. (1936) The Study of the History of Science. Harvard University Press.
  • Sarton (1936b): Sarton, George. (1936) Minoan Mathematics. Isis 24 (2), 375-381.
  • Sarton (1935): Sarton, George. (1935) The First Explanation of Decimal Fractions and Measures (1585), Together with a History of the Decimal Idea and a Facsimile (No. XVII) of Stevin's Disme. Isis 23 (1), 153-244.
  • Sarton (1932): Sarton, George. (1932) The Discovery of Conical Refraction by William Rowan Hamilton and Humphrey Lloyd (1833). Isis 17 (1), 154-170.
  • Sarton (1932b): Sarton, George. (1932) The Discovery of the Main Nutation of the Earth's Axis (1748). Isis 17 (2), 333-383.
  • Sarton (1931c): Sarton, George. (1931) The Discovery of the Aberration of Light (1729). Isis 16 (2), 233-265.
  • Sarton (1931): Sarton, George. (1931) Introduction to the History of Science Volume 2: From Rabbi Ben Ezra to Roger Bacon. Williams and Wilkins Company.
  • Sarton (1931b): Sarton, George. (1931) The Discovery of the Electric Cell. Isis 15 (1), 124-157.
  • Sarton (1930): Sarton, George. (1930) Teaching the History of Science. Isis 13 (2), 272-297.
  • Sarton (1930b): Sarton, George. (1930) Aristotle and Phyllis. Isis 14 (1), 8-19.
  • Sarton (1930c): Sarton, George. (1930) The Discovery of the Theory of Natural Selection. Isis 14 (1), 133-154.
  • Sarton (1930d): Sarton, George. (1930) The Discovery of the Dispersion of Light and of the Nature of Colour (1672). Isis 14 (2), 326-341.
  • Sarton (1929): Sarton, George. (1929) The Discovery of the Law of Conservation of Energy. Isis 13 (1), 18-44.
  • Sarton (1927): Sarton, George. (1927) Introduction to the History of Science Volume 1: From Homer to Omar Khayyam. Williams and Wilkins Company.
  • Sarton (1924): Sarton, George. (1924) The New Humanism. Isis 6 (1), 9-42.
  • Sarton (1923): Sarton, George. (1923) Knowledge and Charity. Isis 5 (1), 5-19.
  • Sarton (1916): Sarton, George. (1916) The History of Science. The Monist 26 (3), 321-365.

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  1. a b c d  Singer, Dorothea and Singer, Charles. (1957) George Sarton and the History of Science. Isis 48 (3), 306-310.
  2. a b c d e f  Cohen, Bernard I. (1957) George Sarton. Isis 48 (3), 286-300.
  3. a b c d e f  Dear, Peter. (2009) The History of Science and the History of the Sciences: George Sarton, Isis, and the Two Cultures. Isis 100 (1), 89-93.
  4. a b c  Sarton, George. (1924) The New Humanism. Isis 6 (1), 9-42.
  5. a b  Nickles, Thomas. (1995) Philosophy of Science and History of Science. Osiris 10, 139-163.