Having done a fair amount of work in philosophy of science generally, and of specific "sciences"—for instance, psychology, biology, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology—I decided to look into the questions of bibliography as a science, and bibliography and science.

            What immediately became clear from a perusal of the literature was that there was, in many cases, a general failure to define terms, as is so often the case.  I was able to glance through several articles, read five completely, and read the early parts of McKenzie.  In the articles I read, terms were generally well defined.  Bowers did a wonderful job of distinguishing analytic bibliography and textual criticism, and also what he meant by science and scientific.  McKenzie does a fine job of differentiating inductive versus deductive inference in the opening stages of his paper.  The later papers are generally critiques of others who have not defined their terms well, who have misrepresented or misunderstood what others had said previously, or who have focused the discussion too narrowly or too broadly.  Some of these later papers do effectively explicate their terms, and well they should, because that is a large part of their critique of intermediate authors.  But often, they are just talking around or past each other as they are using their terms differently.

      Another thing made clear by the articles I read was that much of this argument centered on analytic bibliography versus textual bibliography or textual criticism.  I am not sure why the discussion mostly avoided historical bibliography, but I will address it later.

      I do not want to be guilty of the same crime that these authors accuse others of, so I will define my terms at the outset.  The Oxford American Dictionary defines "science" in various ways from the most strenuous to the least:

1 a branch of knowledge conducted on objective principles involving the systematized observation of and experiment with phenomena, esp. concerned with the material and functions of the physical universe.  2 a systematic and formulated knowledge, esp. of a specified type or on a specified subject (political science).  b the pursuit or principles of this.  3 an organized body of knowledge on a subject (the science of philology).  4 skillful technique rather than strength or natural ability.  5 archaic knowledge of any kind.

      The adjective "scientific" is defined as:

1 a (of an investigation, etc.) according to rules laid down in exact science for performing observations and testing the soundness of conclusions.  b systematic; accurate.  2 used in, engaged in, or relating to (esp. natural) science (scientific discoveries; scientific terminology).  3 assisted by expert knowledge.

      Bowers defines "analytic bibliography" as

"the investigation and explanation of a book as a material object" (38), and as the "field in which all our accumulated knowledge of printing practice and history is devoted to the examination of individual or related books as material objects, with a view to determining the facts of their production" (38-39).

      Bowers states that "textual criticism," at least that based primarily on printed books, concerns itself with three main lines of endeavor (43):

"the authorship, origin, and characteristics of the lost manuscript behind a printed book both in whole and in part;" concern "with the critical analysis of texts in known manuscripts or printed exampla;" and "the orderly bringing together of all this information in an editorial capacity, and the consequent evolution of a modern text designed to represent the intentions of the author more faithfully than any single preserved manuscript or printed copy" (43-44).

      I would like to state my conclusions at the outset, but before I do so I would like to say that they match the middle-of-the-road conclusions of Tanselle and Barlow. 

When I observed a few years ago, "All that 'scientific' can mean when applied to bibliographical analysis and textual study is 'systematic,' 'methodical,' and 'scholarly'," I was only repeating what a number of others have said and what many others believe. It seems obvious that the word "scientific," when used to describe bibliography—as it has been off and on for more than a century—does not mean the same thing as when it is applied to physics, say, or chemistry (Tanselle, 55).

      If we take the first Oxford American definition of science at its strictest, then clearly, no form of bibliography is a science.  Bibliography deals with man-made materials, artifacts of civilization, and not with natural phenomena.  Neither can bibliography be scientific, based on the most stringent sense of scientific, for much the same reasoning.  But, seeing as I personally would also rule out many other clearly accepted 'sciences,' say particle physics as currently practiced, as being science based on that definition and a further explication of 'observation,' that does not get us anywhere useful.  On this point, see also Tanselle footnote 76 where he points out what Ernest Nagel says about debates about the “scientific” basis of the social sciences; that “the requirements for being a genuine science tacitly assumed in most of the challenges lead to the unenlightening result that apparently none but a few branches of physical inquiry merit the honorific designation” (fn 76).

      If we go to the opposite end of the scale and consider bibliography as a science and as scientific based on the fact that it is knowledge of some kind, and that it is assisted by expert knowledge, then a vast number of things, to include most fine arts, become science and scientific.  For the purposes of this paper, I am going to leave aside the vast issues surrounding the use of the term 'knowledge.' 

      So, is bibliography, or even any portion of it, science?  The simplest answer is no, it is not, not at least in the sense of reserving the term for something more meaningful than simply being used to refer to any organized body of knowledge.  Is it then scientific?  The simple answer is a qualified yes.  Portions of bibliography are, in fact, scientific.  Without being an expert on all, or for that matter, any, fields of bibliography, I would rank them from least to most scientific as: Enumerative, textual, historical, and analytical.  I may actually be overstepping my own boundaries in my use of scientific as applied to bibliography, but I will stick by it for now.  What I am, in fact, stating, is that many of the procedures and methods used in the various arenas of bibliography are scientific.  That may not be the same thing as bibliography being scientific, but I will let it stand for now.

      At this point, I would recommend that anyone interested in this question read either, or both, Barlow and Tanselle.  Barlow's "Bibliography and Bibliophily," given as the outgoing president of the Bibliographical Society of America in 1996, is a wonderful layman's introduction to the topic at hand.  He immediately addresses the fact that the meanings of both science and bibliography have varied considerably, including the penchant of the nineteenth century "for attaching the term science to anything involving a process of thought" (141).  Citing chemistry (Carter and Pollard), astronomy (Hinman Collator's use of blink comparators), beta-radiography, use of the cyclotron, and even future computer collation, he points out, simply but elegantly, that "borrowing from other sciences does not make bibliography itself a science either, although other sciences have contributed much to bibliography" (144).  He goes on to state that bibliographers "have not borrowed enough from science or even from other, less scientific disciplines" (145).  As an example he cites statistics.  This is a wonderful, short, non-technical paper that provides a loving critique of the field, and gives several suggestions for progress.  For a longer, more technical view, one should turn to Tanselle.

      I was devastated when I finished Tanselle's "Bibliography and Science" the other morning.  He had addressed bibliography as a science, bibliography and science, philosophy of science, philosophy of history, and historiography, among other topics near to my heart, and I agreed with him.  It was the first piece I had read and I felt that there was simply nothing left to say.  In a stroke of amazingly good fortune, I had already selected and printed the Bowers, Davison, and McKenzie pieces for this paper.  Without any real planning on my part I had lucked into the ‘conversation.’  Tanselle makes good use of these three articles, among many others.  He seems to pretty much agree with Bowers, while showing that McKenzie and Davidson, while making some good points, generally just serve to further muddy the waters.

      Tanselle's main thrust is to address the "scientific analogy," which he uses "as a convenient shorthand to refer to any linking of "bibliography" (in any sense) with "science" (in any sense)" (57, fn5).  He points out that the use of the term "science" has gone through two phases in analytic bibliography.  First, was "the enthusiastic," or rhetorical phase.  This use of the analogy served to "help them advertise the fact that their field was a serious and systematic study, not a dilettante pursuit" (72).  Implications were not examined; and "exaggeration was probably inevitable" (72).  Next, came a critical phase.  This involved the pointing out of differences and similarities, with the balance sheet remaining fairly balanced.  Throughout both phases, "the issue has been complicated by shifting terms, with one person talking about a different kind of "bibliography" from another, or using "science" in a different sense" (72).  Tanselle points out that the point of the analogy was presumably to define bibliography.  Definition by analogy, though, often obscures as much as it clarifies.  "Whether bibliography can be defined as a "science," or as something else is of less importance than understanding, in a direct way, what in fact it does, what its methods of procedure are, what its strengths and weaknesses may be" (73).  Tanselle's main thrust throughout this wonderful, and brilliantly lucid, paper is to show how the various versions of the "scientific analogy" have only served to obscure these matters of import.  I highly recommended this paper to anyone interested in the questions of bibliography and science.

      Davison relies heavily on Kuhn's concept of paradigms in his paper.  He speaks of paradigm rejection and wonders about "the possibility that the current paradigm in bibliographic studies is no longer acceptable" (15).  The first problem is that he has not actually shown that there is a bibliographic paradigm to be rejected.  Secondly, he is primarily concerned with the world of textual criticism as bibliography.  I have previously stated that this is one of the least scientific areas of bibliography.  Davison's evidence for crisis in the field is, just as Tanselle points out, "dissatisfaction with the usual concepts of "author" and "text," and with the stemmatic approach to textual criticism" (Tanselle, 81).  I wish I had time to delve into the discussion of stemmatics for this paper, but alas, it is not to be.  Let me state that with all of the various human factors that go into the writing, revision, and copying of manuscripts, and then all of the human-influenced factors involved in the various stages of printing multiple variants, editions, and so on, of a text, except for in the simplest of cases, for which one would then not require stemmatics at all, I do not consider it to be in the least bit scientific.  Certainly it is no more scientific than astrology.  The level of probability of the truth of the inferences made on the basis of so many blind assumptions is just not worth considering.  Contamination, or horizontal transmission, seems to be the term which represents the main issue.  Davison goes on to say that, "There seems little doubt that contamination was extensive in classical, Biblical, and medieval texts" (21).  In the end, Davison says that bibliographers (textual critics) "ought not to be afraid of irrationality and infinite coincidence. Or, to put it more conventionally, imagination and taste." (27-28).  I could not agree with him more on that count, and while imagination, but not the others, has its place in science, it is not what drives paradigm rejection. 

      In the end, I feel that Davison is just one of the thousands of social scientists and folks in many other disciplines who made use of Kuhn without ever really engaging with The Structure of Scientific Revolutions on its own merits.  There was a whole industry of people misusing Kuhn for their own, sometimes nefarious, purposes, and usually with little understanding of him, in the 1960s and 1970s.  Kuhn is probably only second to Darwin in the amount of misuse made of his ideas by people who have never actually read him, or taken the time to critically consider his ideas.

      Although Davison relies far too much on Kuhn, and keeping in mind that his main focus is textual criticism, he does do a wonderful job of showing that while bibliography, in his sense, is not scientific, "it is not inferior because of that: but it is different" (10).  "In practice editors, or those acting in that capacity, have to provide answers even if the evidence is insufficient or contradictory" (13). 

The bibliographer and the editor have to realise that their kind of scholarship lies not solely in the collection and arrangement of information (vitally important though that obviously is), nor even in the scientific demonstration and proof of what they have decided (desirable though that is) but in the resolution of problems that are humanistic, not scientific or enumerative (25, emphasis mine).

      Barlow, as I mentioned previously, suggested the use of statistics as another possible tool for bibliographers.  He asks, “Why not ask a statistician whether our convictions can be reduced to mathematical levels of confidence” (145)?  Davison also speaks of “probabilistic theory” in the dealing with texts (14).  Tanselle’s last footnote pointed me to an article by Shaw, that was “published after the present article was written, [that] comes to the same conclusion [same as Tanselle’s overall conclusion] (fn79). 

      Shaw uses sampling theory to work out how many copies of a text are needed to provide a statistically significant body of evidence.  While I agree that this tool should be used to help justify inferences made in textual bibliography, it too suffers from the major deficiency of needing to make what will often amount to unwarranted assumptions of its own.  “The method above clearly depends on successfully estimating the underlying probability of the feature one is interested in” (314).  What use is a technique that requires one to know the percentage of the feature one is trying to use sampling theory to tell one how many copies one needs to look at to discover the percentage of that feature?  Another problem arises when one has a very large edition size; that being the number of copies that will need to be inspected is far too great to be undertaken, assuming that they are even available.  On the other hand, if the edition size is small then “the statistical methods used become less certain” (fn 15).  Shaw states that, “Whatever system of reasoning one uses or thinks one is using, due caution is a most scholarly virtue” (316).  He then places his caution in the hands of degrees of significance.  Unfortunately, that concept could itself easily be the subject of a paper this size.  Shaw states, “Significance of this order provides a satisfactory basis for attempting to speculate about the printing of the book” (317).  Why?  Who decides it is a satisfactory basis?  When one considers the underlying assumptions already made just to get started with this “scientific” methodology, how does it constitute a “satisfactory basis?”  In some cases, where the assumptions are few, due to much information being known for certain already, then, yes, it will.  But often the situation is far less rosy.  Shaw himself mentions other factors that would greatly complicate the use of the sampling methods he advocates, such as a “geographical bias in the distribution of copies of an edition” (318).  Statistics can be one of many useful tools in the arsenal of the bibliographer, but she must also be aware of its limitations.

      As I mentioned in my introduction, historical bibliography seemed to be avoided in most of the discussion regarding bibliography and science.  I do not know why that is, except that possibly the authors I read, and the ones they cited, seemed to be split across the analytic and textual lines of bibliography.  Nonetheless, Tanselle did spend the last five to six pages of his article commenting on the basically historical nature of bibliography.  To save himself from walking into another minefield, he usefully points out that the “question of whether history is a science has been more widely debated than the question of bibliography’s scientific status . . .” (85).  He shows that historical, analytic, and descriptive bibliography are all history.  And although textual criticism deals “with questions of meaning in texts which can frequently be resolved only by literary sensitivity,” it too can be defined as a form of history, “and to debate the matter would be as fruitless as to debate whether they are a form of science” (88).  He continues, that to

regard bibliography as principally historical is not to settle anything, since the status of history is also in question; but it places the debate about the scientific nature of bibliography in the context of a larger debate, about which much more has already been written, and it associates bibliography with other pursuits that concentrate on unique past events, thus providing a more immediately acceptable analogue (if indeed it is not a tautology) (88-89).

      Thus, after having examined the nature of bibliography as science, and bibliography and  science, I have come to the conclusion that no field of bibliography is science, but that they all, in varying degrees, employ various methods of science, along with varying degrees of art.

Works Cited

Barlow, Wm. P., Jr. "Bibliography and Bibliophily." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 90, no. 2 (1996): 139-50.

Bowers, Fredson. "Some Relations of Bibliography to Editorial Problems." Studies in Bibliography 3 (1950-1951): 37-62.

Davison, Peter. "Science, Method, and the Textual Critic." Studies in Bibliography 25 (1972): 1-28.

McKenzie, D.F. "Printers of the Mind: Some Notes on Bibliographical Theories and Printing-House Practices." Studies in Bibliography 22 (1969): 1-75.

"Science." Abate, Frank R., ed. The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

"Scientific." Abate, Frank R., ed. The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Shaw, David. "A Sampling Theory for Bibliographical Research." The Library (Transactions of the Bibliographical Society) 5th ser. XXVII, no. 4 (1972): 310-19.

Tanselle, G. Thomas. "Bibliography and Science." Studies in Bibliography 27 (1974): 26-91.

This paper licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license by Mark R. Lindner