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Comments, Queries, and Debate: Whiggism in the History of Science and the Study of the Life and Work of Charles Babbage Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129639D
Original Publication Date: 1990-Dec-31
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-06
Document File: 8 page(s) / 35K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

R. Anthony Hyman: AUTHOR [+2]


38a Downshire Hill London NW3 INV England

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Copyright ©; 1990 by the American Federation of Information Processing Societies, Inc. Used with permission.

Comments, Queries, and Debate: Whiggism in the History of Science and the Study of the Life and Work of Charles Babbage

R. Anthony Hyman

38a Downshire Hill London NW3 INV England

In a recent article in the Annals of the History of Computing (Vol. 10,1988, p 17 1) I. Bernard Cohen raised the question of Whiggism in the study of the life and work of Charles Babbage. Although the question of Whiggism is of the greatest interest to the history of science more generally, it has hardly been discussed at all in connection with the history of computing. For 20th century computing Whiggism is perhaps a matter of less urgent concern, though it should be said that there has been comparatively little attempt to study modern computing against a more general historical background. When we turn to the 19th century, and particularly to Charles Babbage, the question of Whiggism insistently demands attention. Many articles and -- one is tempted to say -- most comments about Babbage go widely astray because of their profoundly Whiggish approach.

By their very nature problems of Whiggishness can not be solved in general. They require, besides detailed study, the setting of each problem in its proper and many-sided historical context. Thus what one hopes to achieve in a general article is primarily to help in stating the problem.

First I consider what Whiggism is, then I have chosen some general historical questions to illustrate the subject. This seems essential because if specific questions relating directly to Babbage were posed in the first instance, consideration of the general problems would become inextricably involved with matters of detail. For reasons which I hope to make clear, Whiggism not only poses difficult conceptual problems, it also raises serious difficulties in connection with vested intellectual interests. For general discussion I have chosen questions which are still controversial. To have taken a well established case, such as the 19th century idea that Giordano Bruno was an early scientist, would hardly have sufficed. This is because dealing with Whiggism involves altering the whole way of looking at some subject, and it is one of Whiggism's curious features that once a new mode of thinking about some subject is established the old approach often comes to seem so absurd that one pauses to wonder how it was possible to hold such views. Nowadays no one would seriously think of Bruno, who was a hermeticist of the deepest Egyptian hue, as the prototype of a scientist; though he certainly had an important part in the history of science. By taking currently controversial questions I hope to illustrate how very difficult removing Whiggism can be.

The Whig interpretation of history was given its classic form by Lord Macaulay and other 19th century English historians...