Helene Metzger: The history of science between the study of mentalities and total history

Chimisso, Cristina (2001). Helene Metzger: The history of science between the study of mentalities and total history. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 32(2) pp. 203–241.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0039-3681(01)00006-1


In this article, I examine the historiographical ideas of the historian of chemistry Helene Metzger (1886-1944) against the background of the ideas of the members of the groups and institutions in which she worked, including Alexandre Koyre, Gaston Bachelard, Abel Rey, Henri Berr and Lucien Febvre. This article is on two interdependent levels: that of particular institutions and groups in which she worked (the Centre de Synthese, the International Committee for History of Science, the Institut d'Histoire des Sciences et Techniques (Sorbonne) and the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes) and that of historiographical ideas. I individuate two particualar aspirations pursued by the historians in Metzger's milieu: the ideal of total history and the study of the human mind. These two objectives were seen by Metzger and many others as implicating each other. Moreover, Metzger and other historians wanted to integrate the practice of commentary of texts in the realisation of those ideas. I argue, however, that these objectives proved very difficult to realise at the same time. One tradition which stemmed out of these discussions, exemplified by Bachelard, Canguilhem and Foucault, focused on the mind and knowledge, and renounced commentary of texts and total history as it was understood by the historians of the Centre de Synthese. The latter, however, did not really pursue the study of the mind. Moreover, historians like Metzger and Koyre who practised an attentive analysis of texts could not realise total history.

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