The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

Aurora, Nemesis and Clio

J. R. R. Christiea1

a1 Division of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT.

This essay offers some preliminary and general considerations of big picture historiography of science, attempting an introductory specification of the topic by means of narratological analysis. It takes no strong, substantive position either pro or contra big pictures themselves, preferring an approach which is more diagnostic and heuristic in nature. After considering what may be meant by a term such as ‘big picture’ and its cognates, it interrogates the kind of desire which could lie behind the wish expressed by the conference title ‘Getting the Big Picture’: namely, that a big picture may be worth getting. It proceeds by way of a limited enquiry into what seems to be felt as a relative absence of big picture works in contemporary historiography, criticizing one very general historicocultural thesis which accounts for such an absence, advancing instead evolving features of the professional history of science community over the last thirty years as reasons for this relative absence. Concludingly, it turns the issues raised thus far on their head, in some measure at least. In trying for a more precise specification of the contemporary historiographical formation, we will discover eventually a situation not so much of relative absence of big pictures, rather one where there exists both frame and title for the picture, together with some distinguished painters' names; but where the canvas is only minimally marked, a partial and shadowy sketch, stylistically disjoined. Although this sounds paradoxical, a concrete paradox is not intended. The existence of frame and title enclosing mainly empty canvas indicates only the limitations of the pictorial metaphor for describing complex and developing sets of historiographical practice. What is instanced concludingly is less a theoretical paradox than an intelligible sequence and form of development which issues in a potential problem of practice.