Dictionnaire d'histoire et de philosophie des sciences [Dictionary of the History and Philosophy of the Sciences]. Ed. Dominique Lecourt and Thomas Bourgeois. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999. xxi, 1,032 p. 25 cm. ISBN 2-130-49992-9: FF 990.00
Intended for a broad audience of those interested in the natural sciences, including researchers, physicians, teachers, engineers, and students, this one-volume encyclopedic dictionary includes over 600 signed articles treating the larger philosophical and historical concepts of scientific thought. Not surprisingly, in the context of the "information explosion," the majority of articles address 19th- and 20th-century topics, though Classical and Renaissance scientific thought is well represented. The alphabetical arrangement de-emphasizes "history of science" as a chronological progression, and Lecourt sets herself the task of demonstrating the "extraordinary intellectual adventure" of science as inspiration for the movement of thought in many directions, including into some philosophically or historically important "dead ends." As the entry "Génération Spontanée" [Spontaneous Generation] makes clear, discredited concepts often remain important as catalysts for new thought and are, at later stages of the "intellectual adventure," revived and reinterpreted.
Topics and individuals included in the dictionary reflect a clear emphasis on Western thought, with several entries for Arabic physicians and mathematicians whose thinking was incorporated into the European scientific tradition, but there is no discussion of the philosophical and historical underpinnings of traditional Chinese scientific thought. Readers looking for information about the conceptual foundations of acupuncture or Chinese herbal medicine will be disappointed, but will find an excellent English-language resource in Helaine Selin's Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures (Dordrecht; Boston, 1997). Given the constraints of the single-volume format, the Eurocentric focus is perhaps unavoidable and, once understood, does not detract from the value of the work.
The dictionary is unequivocally French, despite its rather generic title. For example, there is an excellent, three-page entry for the "Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle" [National Museum of Natural History] in Paris, but no articles describing other national museums of natural history. Within this entry we read about the founding of the Museum and its gardens, about major scientific figures who were affiliated in one way or another with the Museum, and about the collecting philosophies at various periods of time. Mention is made of artists and writers who were inspired by the collections and the general ambiance of the building and grounds. The article describes the influence of colonialism on Museum practices and the challenges facing the Museum as it moves into the 21st century.
The French perspective is one of the strengths of this dictionary, particularly for American readers unaware of their own cultural and historical bias. The entry "Progrès" [Progress] includes an interesting discussion of the distinction between the English sense of "development" as "advancement" and the French nuance of "development" as "maturation." The comprehensive name index allows the reader to move from a known writer, such as Jürgen Habermas, to the French term for a concept, "Scientisme," for which there is no direct English translation.
The scope of the dictionary is impressive. Lengthy subject entries range from "Analyse Complexe [Mathématiques]" [Complex Mathematical Analysis] to "Marx et Darwin" [Marx and Darwin] and include extremely current topics such as "Bioéthique" [Bioethics] and "Clonage" [Cloning]. These "concept" articles are by far the most significant as well as numerous entries in the book. Included also are well over 100 short biographies, with French thinkers being strongly represented. This volume does not claim to be a biographical dictionary and should not be depended upon as such. There are a few general entries for scientific academies and scientific societies, as well as for the previously mentioned Museum and the Royal Society. All entries include brief bibliographies and a short list of related topics. Bibliographies include references in several languages, though French and English predominate.
The several indexes are excellent. A table of contents lists all entries in alphabetical order and gives the authors' names as well. The name index includes names of over 700 individuals mentioned in the various articles and uses an asterisk to indicate the approximately 125 biographical entries. The subject index is equally comprehensive and uses the asterisk to distinguish entries from cross-references. Because many of the authors contributed several entries, an author index would have been a useful supplement to the list of contributors.
In the United States, many potential readers of this important dictionary will struggle with the French. Language barriers notwithstanding, this reference book would make an important addition to most university and large public libraries. Similar titles in English include Paul T. Durbin's Dictionary of Concepts in the Philosophy of Science (New York, 1988) and W. F. Bynum's Dictionary of the History of Science (Princeton, 1981), but while linguistically more accessible, neither of these dictionaries has the currency, scope, or intellectual depth of Lecourt's work. Lecourt's dictionary belongs in any serious collection of materials on the history and philosophy of science.
Pamela Ploeger (formerly of Dartmouth College)
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Last update: August 27, 2002 [GC]
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