A question from the Librarything discussion boards:

Early Modern Science - 17th century - is fairly easy to label. But when did science become “modern”? And is there such a thing as “post-modern” science either to sociologists or scientists, or both? Latour has written a bit on this, I guess, but I’m not sure if many practising scientists would see themselves as practising constructivism rather than scientific objectivity.

This was my response:

Breaking things into “modern” and “post-modern” is always difficult. If I were to break out the cusps of science, I would put them as:

  • Formalized logic (the Greeks)
  • Formalized logic and scientific methodology rediscovered (15-17th century depending on how rigorous you want to be)
  • scientific tools that augmented our senses (like the microscope): 17th century
  • application of “science” to human society itself (sociology, scientific management, eugenics): late 19th century
  • automated scientific tools (computers, DNA sequencers, etc.) and logic machines: mid-late 20th century

If I were to pick a “modern” science moment, I would probably pick Carl Friedrich Gauss during the mid-late 18th century. More than anyone, I think Gauss really got the idea that he understood both the power and limits of science (he could be “critical” of science, which I think is the defining part of modernity): “There are problems to whose solution I would attach an infinitely greater importance than to those of mathematics, for example touching ethics, or our relation to God, or concerning our destiny and our future; but their solution lies wholly beyond us and completely outside the province of science.”

As for post-modern science, I would place that somewhere in the mid-1950s (or maybe 1960s with the radical technology movement) with the realization that we now have the power to destroy ourselves (or reinvent ourselves with genetic alteration). I would add the development of environmental science, systems thinking (cybernetics) and the creation of logical machines to that, too. The defining piece of post-modernism is to integrate the critique into the process. This has seen positive social aspects: environmental science (especially ecosystem science) and systems thinking that seek to balance scientific knowledge with its technological application. And the negative: techno-utopianism that seeks to divorce information from biology (pushing people towards acting like rational machines rather than humans)

I’m not perfectly happy with my response: instead of “criticism” as the defining part of modernity I should have written “self-criticism” (or “self-consciousness”).  Also, talking about science is always difficult since it’s not clear whether it’s the philosophy, the process, the practice, or the artifacts (technology) being referred to.