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Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact by Ludwik Fleck; Thaddeus J. Trenn; Robert K.
Merton; Fred Bradley
Review by: Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz
Isis, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Mar., 1981), pp. 96-99
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society
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72: 1 : 261 (1981)

Ref lecktions
Ludwik Fleck. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Edited by Thaddeus J. Trenn and Robert K. Merton, translated by Fred Bradley and Thaddeus
J. Trenn, foreword by Thomas S. Kuhn. xxviii + 203 pp., 5 illus., bibl., index.
Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979. $17.50.
Just as the publication of a cherished manuscript evokes the pangs and joys of
birth, translating the text into another language and editing it for republication
releases some of the fervor characteristic of the "born again." So this English
language edition of Ludwik Fleck's Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache: Einfuhrung in die Lehre vom Denkstil und Denkkollektiv
(1935) now appears with a full complement of distinguished admirers heralding
the event. The monograph deserves attention both because of intrinsic interest
and because of its fate.
Although the editors of this publication describe the author as "an unusual
man, a humanist with an encyclopedic knowledge" (p. 149), he may be more
significant as a representative man. Ludwik Fleck was a Jew born in the city of
Lemberg or Lvov, where Austrian and Pole contested intellectual and political
sovereignty until 1918 and German remained the language of most educated
people. After completing a medical education at the University of Lvov in 1922,
Fleck began work as a clinical bacteriologist. In the formal sense his work was
unremarkable: for most of his life he labored in a public health laboratory. Yet
the reality of this work is better conveyed when we know that Fleck worked in
Lvov between the two wars, in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and
Buchenwald after Nazi occupation replaced Soviet troops, in Lublin and
Warsaw after the war, and finally in Israel, where he died in 1961 just before his
sixty-fifth birthday.
The book was written during one of the rare periods in Fleck's life when he
was free to reflect on the characteristics of scientific work and knowledge that
interested him deeply. It is probably impossible for us to comprehend the
limitations to this freedom. The manuscript was completed in 1934, when Fleck
was director of the bacteriology laboratory of the Social Sick Fund (Kasa
Chorych) of Lvov. The book was published the next year in Switzerland because
"political conditions . . . did not permit a Jew to publish in Germany" (p. 150),
and in the same year Fleck was fired from his job because a government agency
in Poland would not retain a Jew in a position of visible authority. The monograph affords a glimpse of the intellectual fortitude and creativity that resisted
extinction under these threatening circumstances, which were merely a preview
of the next decade.
Fleck examines the relationship between thought and experience in the
construction of scientific facts in order to clarify the origins and development of
scientific knowledge. He turns to a subject for which both common knowledge
and his expert knowledge permit him to use analogy and inference effectively:
the successive reformulations of the concept of syphilis over five hundred years,
during which socially and medically accepted criteria for diagnosis of venereal
disease interacted. Structurally his study is twofold, for historical accounts
alternate throughout with interpretations drawn from philosophy, sociology,
and psychology. Thus the first chapter, on the origins of the modern concept of
syphilis from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, is followed by a
chapter of "epistemological conclusions"; and the third chapter, which begins
with a lucid rendition of "the rite of initiation into the field of the Wasserman
reaction according to the German ritual" (p. 54) and treats the emergence of

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diagnostic serology in the twentieth century as a refinement of the disease

concept itself, is followed by a final chapter of epistemological considerations.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the inclusive language of humoral
medicine associated the symptoms of what we now consider discrete diseases.
Almost at the same time that these clusters of disease symptoms were linked to
venereal transmission this identity was modified when treatment with mercurics
relieved some symptoms and left others untouched. "The two points of view
developed side by side, together, often at odds with each other: (1) an ethicalmystical disease entity of 'carnal scourge,' and (2) an empirical-therapeutic
disease entity. Neither of these points of view was adhered to consistently.
Although mutually contradictory, they eventually became amalgamated. Theoretical and practical elements, the a priori and purely empirical mingled with
one another according to the rules not of logic but of psychology" (p. 5).
Attributes of syphilis were peeled off and discarded like an onion skin by the
"experimental-pathological" thrust of medicine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Syphilis was distinguished from other venereal diseases when
the three stages of syphilitic pathology and the specific microbial etiology of the
disease became the criteria for identification.
This historical account is congruent with the conventional story of a progressive succession of ever more parsimonious and more stringent logical claims, but
Fleck finds the latter inadequate in two respects. First, despite paying lip service
to "cultural-historical dependence," the conventional story gives a poor account
of "epistemological choice." "Sixteenth-century physicians were by no means at
liberty to replace the mystical-ethical concept of syphilis with one based on natural science and pathogenesis. A stylistic bond exists between many, if not all,
concepts of a period, based on their mutual influence." Second, the narrative
fails to yield any principles of historical development, and Fleck proposes that
"we can find specific historical laws governing the development of ideas, that is,
characteristic general phenomena concerning the history of knowledge, which
become evident to anyone who examines the development of ideas. For instance, many theories pass through two periods: a classical one during which
everything is in striking agreement, followed by a second period during which
exceptions begin to come to the fore" (p. 9).
Rather than revising the historical narrative and establishing a richer context
for these transformations, at this point Fleck begins to outline a sociology of
knowledge. His analysis has common roots with the renunciation of crude
positivism that characterizes the work and thought of many Central European
physical scientists between the two world wars.' For Fleck, the tension distinguishing historical and scientific evidence is at times mediated through a
rather unsophisticated relativism. He observes: "In the history of scientific
knowledge, no formal relation of logic exists between conceptions and evidence.
Evidence conforms to conceptions just as often as conceptions conform to


all, conceptions

are not logical systems.

. .

. Analogously


social structures, every age has its own dominant conceptions as well as remnants of past ones and rudiments of those of the future" (pp. 27-28). In other
instances Fleck uses examples from the history of science and social anthro'For a commanding interpretation of this position, see Paul Forman, "Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a
Hostile Intellectual Environment," Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, 1971, 3:1-115. My
thanks to Dr. Forman also for calling my attention to Fleck's "Zur Krise der 'Wirklichkeit,"'
Naturwissenschaften, June 1929, 17:425-430. My colleague Gerald Holton helped me to appreciate further the tenor and orchestration of this article, and made the sensible suggestion that
regular acquaintance with the journal kept Fleck in touch with intellectual currents despite his
geographic and professional isolation.

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72: 1: 261 (1981)

pology to show that "Cognition is the most socially-conditioned activity of man,

and knowledge is the paramount creation [Gebilde]" (p. 42). It is as though
Fleck uncovered the archeological remains of the foundation for his concepts of
"thought collective" and "thought style" that in turn provide both the community and the scaffolding to support his final chapter.
Returning to the historical reconstruction of syphilis in Chapter 3, Fleck
neatly blueprints the environment in which scientific discovery is launched. He
analyzes the events surrounding the "invention" and standardization of the
technique now known as complement-fixation, to demonstrate how the Wasserman reaction (based on this procedure) exacted another significant concession from the hitherto prevailing concept of syphilis. The characteristic of
"Wasserman positive" became a dominant attribute of the disease, perforce
eliminating or modifying the weight of other criteria. Then he compares his
memory of the rocky road to the discovery of the Wasserman reaction with the
royal route of purposive and systematic hypothesis-formation and confirming
experiment which the memory and pride of the discoverers rolled out. Fleck is
caustic in describing this self-deception, and while his indignation leads to somewhat unfortunate simplifications, he is aware that he cannot adequately explain
the discovery in terms that merely strip bare the vision of self-correcting science.
The Wasserman reaction cannot "be reconstructed in its objective entirety
simply from historical factors along with those of individual and collective
psychology. Something inevitable, steadfast, and inexplicable by historical
development is always left out of such attempts" (p. 79). The final chapter
bravely attempts to work out this difficulty, with limited success.
Fleck's daily experience and intuition led him to examine the social and
cognitive conditions in which scientific facts are generated and nourished.
Though he was frequently isolated and impoverished, he had a passion to grasp
those dimensions of scientific communication that were obscured once the
unruliness of laboratory research was cleaned up and reified as Truth, and he
locates the "thought collective" and "thought style" as the functional structures
worth detailed observation. His spirited commitment to working out a fresh
understanding of science in the modern world leads to vivid illustrations and
several provocative suggestions on how to look at scientific enterprises so as to
clarify the connections between cognitive and social structures. From the grab
bag of laboratory life, Fleck draws insights that are not always logically compatible and that frequently scrape only the surface of historical and contemporary evidence, but they are nonetheless redolent of those links that tie our
time to his.
This sense of familiarity is heightened by Fleck's expressive style and by his
skillful extrapolations from the development of contemporary serology. The
translation succeeds admirably in preserving both the sense and the sensibility of
the original text, no small accomplishment. Less justifiably, the editor credits
Fleck with "prescience" because first Hans Reichenbach and later Thomas
Kuhn found some of Fleck's formulations congenial to their own. The editor
suggests that the original "modest reception" for the book was the consequence
of Fleck's advanced views (p. xviii). Fleck is better appreciated when his own
modesty and specific objectives are remembered and intentions are not ascribed
to him that diminish his actual achievement. Just before the final summary he
writes: "As I select out of an abundance of data these few phenomena concerning the communication of ideas, I am fully aware of the fragmentary nature
of my presentation. But they may suffice to demonstrate to science-oriented
theoreticians, in particular, that even the simple communication of an item of
knowledge can by no means be compared with the translocation of a rigid body
in Euclidean space" (p. 111). Fleck's circumstances were such that we cannot

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fully account for the personal resources he summoned to resolve the conflict
between "objectivity" and "subjectivity" in observation, of "active" and "passive" elements in experiment.
In most respects Fleck is an unlikely intellectual companion to Planck, Bohr,
Schrodinger, and other physicists and mathematicians who felt compelled to
reexamine the relationship between their science and lebensphilosophie in the
1920s and 1930s. Yet Fleck was most likely directly influenced by their publications and plagued by the same intellectual and social dilemmas. A more precise
exploration of Fleck's connections than provided in the biographical notes
would no doubt be difficult. Attempting to understand what appear as unexplained gaps in these connections is even harder; presumably Fleck was ignorant
of Kyklos, the journal published by Henry Sigerist and his colleagues at the
Institute for the History of Medicine at Leipzig from 1929 to 1932, although he
does refer to Sigerist's predecessor Karl Sudhoff. Fleck turned instead to
the journal Naturwissenschaften for inspiration and to find his voice. Thus he
may be best understood as a rather distant relative to the Weimar physicists
Paul Forman writes of, one of those biologists "who could most easily adapt
his ideology and values" to the "hostile" intellectual environment.2 Fleck's
intellectual and social isolation blurred the connections, but it is in the pages of
Naturwissenschaften that he expressed his own sentiments most directly. His
short paper "Zur Krise der 'Wirklichkeit"' is in many respects more pithy and
pointed than the later book. Published in 1929, just after Fleck spent a year of
study in Vienna, its enthusiastic outlook is unmistakable. Science is the source
of our understanding about the natural world, and also the reflection of the
social and cultural world men have created. He closes the paper with several
flourishes as witness to his optimism: "Wozu plumpe Metaphysik, wenn die
Physik von Morgen jede Phantasie uberflugeln wird?"

Depairtnietit of Histoyv of Science

Harvard Universitv
C(ambridge, Massaciusetts 02138
2Forman, "Weimar Culture," p. 40.

Fair enough?
Jonathan R. Cole. Fair Science: Women in the Scientific Community. xv +
336 pp., tables, bibl., index. New York: Free Press; London: Collier Macmillan, 1979. $17.95.
Lilli S. Hornig (Chairperson, Committee on the Education and Employment of
Women in Science and Engineering). Climbing the Academic Ladder: Doctoral
Women Scientists in Academe. A Report to the Office of Science and Technology
Policy. xv + 155 pp., tables, bibl., apps. Washington, D.C.: National Academy
of Sciences, 1979. $8.
When the history of women scientists of the 1970s comes to be written, these
two publications will merit some notice, not only because of the data they
present (some dating from the 1950s) and their interpretations of it, but because
of the public reaction to their work-for both books are deliberately "political"
documents, designed to provoke discussion and action. Perhaps that is why both

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