I just discovered the book The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument: Historical Studies, edited by Peter Dear (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991). To me, that seems like an oxymoron: how can scientific arguments be literary?

Is this just someone doing weird things, or is there actually an argument for treating scientific arguments as literary texts?

  • 1
    What does the book say? Titles can often just be enticements to read the book. That could answer your question.
    – Chenmunka
    Jul 11, 2018 at 15:21
  • 4
    Scientific arguments still need to be accepted by readers, and for readers to accept them, they have to be able to understand them, which calls for good word use, sentence arrangement, and rhetorical structure, which is literary structure. Also, in my experience, arguments in many natural sciences (zoology, paleontology, anthropology) and social sciences (economics, psychology, linguistics) have a strong element of the author's interpretation and intuition. This was even more true in the 17th - 19th Centuries, which is the period the book covers.
    – Torisuda
    Jul 11, 2018 at 16:09
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    The book is available from Project MUSE, if anyone here is from an institution with a subscription. Jul 11, 2018 at 20:30

1 Answer 1


It is perfectly possible to analyse a scientific text such as a journal article from a literary point of view. This implies looking at aspects such as word choice, the description of the research method, authorial presence and other stylistic aspects. When one compares scientific articles from the seventeenth century from articles from today, it is obvious that the style of scientific publicatiois has changed significantly. Joseph E. Harmon cites two examples in his paper Understanding Scientific Communication: A Collaboration with Alan G. Gross (Poroi, 2014). First, the seventeenth-century biologist Martin Lister:

The 21 st of April, 1665, about eight in the morning, I bored a hole in the body of a fair and large Birch, and put in a Cork with a Quill in the middle; after a Moment or two it [a sap] began to drop, but yet very softly: Some three Hours after I returned ̧ and it had filled a Pint Glass, and then it droped exceeding fast, viz. every Pulse a Drop: This Liquor is not unpleasant to the Taste, and not thick or troubled; yet it looks as though some few drops of Milk were split in a Bason of Fountain Water.

Compare this with the style in "Tormation of a DNA-soluble RNA Hybrid and Its Relation to the Origin, Evolution, and Degeneracy of Soluble RNA" (1962) by H. M. Goodman and A. Rich:

A plateau appears as a mass ratio of sRNA to DNA of 0.025 per cent. Thus, only a very small portion of the DNA is able to accept an sRNA molecule in hybrid formation. Furthermore, these results show that the preparation does not contain ribosomal RNA, since DNA-ribosomal RNA hybrids contain six times more RNA.

There have been several studies on this topic, such as Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science by Charles Bazerman (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988) and A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse (University of South Carolina Press, 1989).

This type of research is associated with the linguistic turn:

A change in emphasis in the discourse of the humanities and social sciences reflecting a recognition (beyond the bounds of linguistics itself) of the importance of language in human meaning-making. The linguistic turn in the humanities came in the 1970s.

However, see also the rhetorical turn:

A change in emphasis in the discourse of the humanities and social sciences reflecting a recognition (outside the academic field of rhetoric itself) that rhetorical forms are deeply and unavoidably involved in the shaping of realities. Form and content are inseparable; language is not a neutral medium and our choice of words matters.

Scientific texts can be seen as a way of "human meaning-making" (see "linguistic turn") and as text that use rhetorical forms, so nothing stands in the way of studying them from these points of view.

The Literary Study of Scientific Argument: Historical Studies (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991) does not simply look at literary aspects but also at the interplay between literary aspects on the one hand and social and historical forces on the other.

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