Nineteenth century scientific ethics was all about ‘vices and virtues’

19 February 2018

Why did nineteenth-century scientists like talking about dedication, diligence and hard work so much? Often, such scientific virtues used to be brushed aside as naïve ideals. But, with a grant from NWO’s Talent Scheme (Vidi), historian Herman Paul has discovered that they formed the basis for scientific ethics avant la lettre.

Sir Isaac Newton, sculpted by Roublliac in 1755, Trinity College, Cambridge University. Photo: Shutterstock / Tony BaggettSir Isaac Newton, sculpted by Roublliac in 1755, Trinity College, Cambridge University. Photo: Shutterstock / Tony Baggett

Herman Paul has written a book about this entitled De deugden van een wetenschapper: karakter en toewijding in de geesteswetenschappen, 1840-1940 [A scientist’s virtues: character and dedication in the humanities, 1840-1940] published by Amsterdam University Press on Monday 19 February. In a book designed to appeal to a broad audience, Paul argues that cultivating a scientific attitude in all sorts of areas, both inside and outside the humanities, was considered important in those days.

'In an age in which disciplines were emerging which we would recognise today, it was important to specify what would identify a good scientist,' according to Paul. 'That was why the historian Robert Fruin (1823-1899) devoted his oration to impartiality and why the biblical scholar Abraham Kuenen (1828-1891) called on his students to always love truth. You come across the same type of language in reviews, polemic, letters of recommendation and obituaries. The theme of scientific vices and virtues is therefore supremely suitable for a cross-disciplinary history of science.'

‘What does success do to you?’

Paul’s book, illustrated with many more examples from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, also holds a nineteenth-century mirror to modern scientists. Can we learn something from individuals such as Fruin and Kuenen, with respect to scientific integrity, for example? The answer is yes. 'Obviously we don’t have to start talking in terms of vices and virtues. And we mustn’t trivialise the extent to which science has changed since 1900. But the nice thing about these vices and virtues is that they make scientific ethics very personal – close to home for ordinary scientists. What motivates you, what does success do to you, which corners do you cut if you are in a hurry or under pressure?'

Herman Paul’s Vidi research produced even more remarkable insights. He found evidence that nineteenth-century scientists often talked about roughly the same virtues, but the importance they attributed to them varied greatly. Accuracy was important for people who were consulting mediaeval documents in far-away archives. But scientists who mainly focused on the wider public, or played the role of ‘political professor’ with a seat in parliament, preferred to put a different virtue at the top of their list.

Paul: 'What I didn’t know was how often vices and virtues referred to ideal models of what a scholar should be. These might be nineteenth-century scholars such as Georg Waltz (1813-1886) and Heinrich von Sybel (1817-1895), whose names became a symbol for different ways of writing history. But vices and virtues were also projected onto idols of a bygone age, such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727).'

Further information

Professor Herman Paul (1978) is Assistant Professor of Historiography and Historical Theory at Leiden University, Professor Extraordinarius in Secularization Studies at the University of Groningen and a member of The Young Academy (KNAW). He is currently working on the project ‘The Scholarly Self: Character, Habit and Virtue in the Humanities, 1860-1930’ with funding from the NWO Talent Scheme (Vidi). He previously published books entitled ‘Key Issues in Historical Theory’ (2015) and ‘Hayden White: The Historical Imagination(2011).


Source: NWO