Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Founded in 1994, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin is one of the more than eighty research institutes administered by the Max Planck Society in the sciences and humanities.

Guidelines of Research

Since its inception, the institute has approached the fundamental questions of the history of knowledge from the Neolithic era to the present day. Researchers at the institute pursue an historical epistemology in their study of how new categories of thought, proof, and experience have emerged in interactions between the sciences and their ambient cultures.

The institute’s research projects span all eras of human history, as well as all cultures north, south, east, and west. The institute’s projects canvass an array of scientific areas, ranging from the origins of continuity systems in Mesopotamia to present-day neuroscience, Renaissance natural history, and the origins of quantum mechanics.

MPIWG researchers explore the changing meaning of fundamental scientific concepts (for example number, force, heredity, space) as well as how cultural developments shape fundamental scientific practices (for example argument, proof, experiment, classification). They examine how bodies of knowledge originally devised to address specific local problems became universalized.

The work of MPIWG scholars forms the basis of a theoretically oriented history of science which considers scientific thinking from a variety of methodological and interdisciplinary perspectives. The institute draws on the reflective potential of the history of science to address current challenges in scientific scholarship. More

Research Departments

The three departments of the MPIWG approach questions of historical epistemology in different ways. The departments are organized neither along disciplinary lines nor according to historical periods. Their work encompasses numerous scientific disciplines and large historical timescales.

Department I, directed since 1994 by Jürgen Renn, focuses on structural changes in systems of knowledge and investigates long-term processes of change in scientific knowledge.

Department II, directed since 1995 by Lorraine Daston, investigates the history of the ideals and practices of rationality, including fundamental practices such as objectivity, observation, and data.

Department III, directed from 1997 to 2014 by Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, studied experimental systems and spaces of knowledge with a special emphasis on the history of the modern life sciences and the epistemology of experiments.

As of August 1, 2013, Dagmar Schäfer directs the work of Department III and build up its research program, which will deal with the history of knowledge and action.

The MPIWG hosts seven smaller, variously funded independent research groups, which are led by Sabine Arnaud, Jochen Büttner, Vincenzo De Risi, Sven Dupré, Elaine Leong, Veronika Lipphardt, and Viktoria Tkaczyk.

Their topics range from the history of biodiversity in the twentieth century to artistic knowledge in premodern Europe and the production of acoustic knowledge in the transition to the modern period. Since 2011, Glenn W. Most (Scuola Normale, Pisa, Italy; University of Chicago, USA) has served as the elected External Member of the MPIWG. More

Researchers and Project Structures

At any given moment, there are approximately 75 scholars working at the MPIWG, from pre- and post-doctoral fellows to senior visiting scholars. Their backgrounds are multidisciplinary and international. Although many are working on individual projects (a dissertation, an article, or a monograph), all are part of the larger thematic research projects. Since its inception, the MPIWG has encouraged collective research and publications in the humanities in the form of working groups that combine the expertise of many specialties and encourage sustained discussions on topics that cut across continents, centuries, and disciplines.

Open Access to Scholarly Knowledge

The MPIWG is an advocate of open access to scholarly knowledge and supports the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. The institute aims to make historic documents accessible (see search portal), to provide new electronic research tools, and to establish new forms of publication.

In the “Preprint” series, the MPIWG provides a forum for preliminary research results in the history of science, which can also be accessed through this website. Every six to eight weeks, a new “research topic” is published introducing one of the institute’s most recent research projects. New publications can be found here and in the institute’s comprehensive bibliography. Every two to three years, the annual report provides information on the work of the institute and its departments.

Cooperation Worldwide

The MPIWG maintains close research connections with a number of institutes in various fields. Many researchers visit the MPIWG, and the institute is part of an international network of research institutions and researchers in the history of science.

Close working relationships traditionally exist with universities in Berlin where the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge takes shape. The MPIWG is a partner institution in Excellence Clusters such as TOPOI and “Bild Wissen Gestaltung” and in Collaborative Research Centres (“Sonderforschungsbereiche”) such as “Transformations of Antiquity” and “Episteme in Motion.” Collaborative efforts include digitalization of historical data, the development of research tools, conferences, transnational research groups, and book projects. For an overview, click here.