Pierre Duhem: Historian of the Christian origin of science

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In this article for Contemporary Review, published in 1994, P. E. Hogsdon discusses the life and work of Pierre Duhem, French scientist and historian of science. Hogsdon writes:

It is still possible to find histories of science that describe the achievements of the ancient Greeks and then pass immediately to the Renaissance, with perhaps a brief remark about the absence of any developments worth mentioning in the intervening period. That such slighting of the contributions of the medieval philosophers is no longer acceptable in any work with pretensions to scholarship is mainly due to the work of one man, the French physicist Pierre Duhem….

Duhem’s studies of medieval science showed him that there was a continuous development that led eventually to the great flowering in the Renaissance. Furthermore, that development was made possible by the Christian theology of the creation of all things out of nothing by God. This tells us that matter is good and ordered and rational, presuppositions that are essential foundations of science….

The work of Duhem is of great relevance today, for it shows clearly the Christian roots of modern science, thus decisively refuting the alleged incompatibility of science and Christianity still propagated by the secularist establishment. Science is an integral part of Christian culture, a lesson still to be learned even within the Christian Church. From this follows the importance of detailed and accurate scientific studies of many aspects of modern life before any moral judgements are made.

Duhem’s work on the Christian origin of science has been deliberately neglected because it is unwelcome both to the heirs of the French Enlightenment and to the heirs of the Reformation. For different reasons they both wish to paint the Middle Ages as darkly as possible. His career was caught up in the battle between the secularists who fought against Christian rationality and realism and the Christians whose energies were fatally dissipated by the conflicts between liberals and conservatives. Then, as now, these two groups of Christians had at least one thing in common: they both ignored the growing importance of science in moulding our civilization and thus failed to realise the vital importance of the work of Duhem.

On a more personal level, the life of Duhem is an example of Christian fortitude in the face of many setbacks and sorrows. The professional enmity that kept him from Paris has already been mentioned, and his work as a historian of science was ignored because his conclusions were uncongenial to the secularist-dominated establishment. In addition he suffered the loss of his wife and second daughter after less than two years of happy married life. His health was never strong, and yet he kept working and by the time of his death had written forty books and over four hundred articles. He also found time to visit and help the sick and the poor. He was a devoted father, popular with his students and the children of his friends. It is appropriate that after his unexpected death in his ancestral village of Cabrespine his funeral was attended not by university dignitaries but by a throng of simple folk led by his friend the cure.

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