The Unsustainable Progress Narrative: Jan Golinski’s Making Natural Knowledge

Jan Golinski. Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science (revised edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 236 pp. $35.00. ISBN 0-226-30231-8.

Jan Golinski’s Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science originally appeared in 1998 and has been a go-to work for history of science classes ever since. Golinski offers a sweeping historiographical review of the history of science that focuses on a key concept, constructivism. Golinski defines constructivism as a way of seeing that “regards scientific knowledge primarily as a human product, made with locally situated cultural and material resources.”[1] Rather than a narrative history of science, Making Natural Knowledge is about how ideas within the historiography of the history of science changed in the past few decades. Instead of going through each theme of Making Natural Knowledge in detail, my review will focus on my favorite aspect of the book, which is Golinski’s discussion of the progress narrative and what it means for the history of science.

Making Natural Knowledge is well written and engaging. Golinski offers a corrective to traditional history of science narratives, which tend to focus on “great men” who are usually portrayed as pushing science (and by extension, society), into modernity. Golinksi sides with constructivist historians by flat out rejecting this narrative of progress as outmoded, celebratory, and inaccurate. This mirrors developments in other areas of the historical profession during the twentieth century. According to Golinski, the progress narrative is “unsustainable” and while derided by most professional historians, it still reigns supreme in the popular imagination. All one has to do is discuss the history of science on an online forum or visit a science museum to see that the progress narrative is alive and well outside of the academy. I would argue that this is due to the progress narrative providing a comforting, triumphant tale that places our current level of civilization as the pinnacle of human achievement and because it offers a simple, uncomplicated narrative that does not require critical thinking on the part of an audience. It allows one to brush aside doubt and continue along the tried and true path to a bright future.

For Golinski, these “macro-narratives” of progress decline after Thomas Kuhn’s theories on paradigm shifts and the history of science gained traction. He argues that these big-picture narratives served a political and moral purpose: “The story of the steady onward progress of knowledge conveyed a lesson about how knowledge was constituted in the mind, and about the conditions of personal character and social setting that were conducive to this.”[2] This essentially paints a picture where science and technology are not value-neutral tools, but are good in and of themselves. Progressive narratives of the history of science end up as laudatory and self-congratulatory; they mirror nationalist narratives of progress in other areas of history.

The progress narrative poses particular problems for public historians and museum professionals. Golinksi argues that while professional historiography has abandoned the “unsustainable” tried-and-true progress narrative, audiences expect to hear the same comforting tales of achievement and can-do success that they have been accustomed to. This disconnect between the narratives historians write and the narratives that audiences expect, particularly in a public setting, is a problem that new public historians should be more aware of.

Golinski structures his argument around key themes in constructivist thinking including the social construction of scientific knowledge, material culture, narrative, the laboratory, discipline, and culture. Golinski has a strong theoretical base for his argument. He uses Foucauldian theory extensively, including Foucault’s work on discipline and the panopticon. Golinski cites a wide range of modern philosophy, sociology, and cultural theory throughout the book including figures like Martin Heidegger, Clifford Geertz, Jürgen Habermas, and Hayden White. Golinski’s demonstration of a wide range of theoretical knowledge is impressive and enviable. He manages to use it in a way that avoids getting mired in jargon that would confuse those new to the field or unfamiliar with this wide range of thinkers. Other historians, especially those just entering the field, would do well to incorporate theory in the manner done so in this book.

Although Making Natural Knowledge is a fine introduction to history of science historiography, it is not without problems. Although Golinski discusses the decline of the progress narrative and uses theory in a clear and engaging manner, he neglects some key developments in the field. Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism and work on the Columbian Exchange remain absent from this historiography, which is puzzling considering the long shadow Crosby casts over histories of science and empire. Historiography surrounding empire, race, and gender do not figure prominently in this work. Golinski touches on these topics briefly, but they do not occupy nearly as much attention in this work as their current historiographical prominence suggests that they should. However, this may also be due to the fact that this work was originally published in 1998.

Outside of these gaps in the historiography, Golinksi’s Making Natural Knowledge is a decent introduction to the historiography of the history of science for graduate students or advanced undergraduates. It should definitely be supplemented with readings on the digital turn, gender, race, and empire. I may not have enjoyed it as much as J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires, but this is still a solid work that does what it sets out to do.


[1] Golinski, ix.

[2] Golinski, 187.

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