Get to know the field

History of Science and Ideas at the University of Oulu

Why do we think the way we do? Why is today’ s thinking different from the past? Or is it? These seemingly simple questions fascinate historians of ideas or intellectual historians, as they are nowadays called. When intellectual historians seek answers to these questions by examining ideas of thinkers, scientists and men and women of letters, they tell us new things about human nature and its historicity.  

Here in Oulu, just like in Swedish universities, history of science and history of ideas go together – they are not considered separate fields. This continuity from the world of ideas to the world of science reminds us that there are often surprising connections between scientific and non-scientific forms of thinking. Darwin’s theory of natural selection, for example, inspired not only biologists but also thinkers across the political spectrum, including social radicals, reformers and conservatives.  

Historians of science examine changes in human thinking – what is considered scientific and what is not, and on what grounds. For a long time, history of science focused on medicine and the natural sciences, but for the past 30-40 years there has been a growing interest in the history of the social and behavioural sciences. This can be seen in Oulu, where there is on-going research in the history of medicine, but also in the history of psychology, psychiatry and evolutionary theories. History of science is not restricted to scientific theories or disciplines, for it is preoccupied with the ways in which scientific knowledge is discovered, acquired and produced.

Also, what is now considered unscientific may have been legitimate science in earlier times, and it is the job of historians to understand science in its historical context. Scholars may focus on a particular research problem or methodological approach, or they may specialize themselves in specific historical periods, disciplines or technologies. For example, it took only half a century from the first discovery of radioactivity to the nuclear bomb and the tragedy of Hiroshima – how did this happen? It is the historians’ duty to give an informative account of the developments leading from one phenomenon to another; and sometimes not leading anywhere, or leading to totally unpredictable paths.

When we turn to intellectual history, we can notice that it is related to the philosophy of history; both are studying ideas of past thinkers. But they are also different. In philosophy, the main objective is to analyze and assess the validity, coherence and logic of reasoning and argumentation, while intellectual historians try to find out what ideas tell us about the intellectual climate, society and world view of the past thinkers. Therefore, intellectual historians pay attention not only to the “great geniuses” but also to the more mediocre thinkers, who represent the great majority in the intellectual world. To every Hume or Kant there are thousands of thinkers whose ideas are anything but immortal or genial, but who represent the way of thinking and believing that was typical and prevalent in their own time. By studying their ideas we can better understand the beliefs, fears and hopes that animated the thinking of past people. 

In short, intellectual historians are fascinated by ideas, big and small, ugly and beautiful, because they believe that ideas and their scientific, political, religious and technological applications do make a difference. Human destinies are governed not only by material needs but also by ideas – what we think and how we think. Anyone who pays attention to the power of nationalism, religious beliefs or human rights thinking, cannot help but acknowledge that ideas, no less than economy or technology, drive the world. 

In Oulu, research in the history of science and idea is now focusing on the following areas:

  • history of medicine and the human sciences, especially psychology, psychiatry and sociology
  • history of the evolutionary theories
  • the Enlightenment and its legacy in Europe and the United States
  • scientific “revolutions”, debates and discontinuities
  • Utopian thought and Apocalyptic beliefs
  • social engineering and scientific management of citizens in the industrial age

Last updated: 14.3.2014