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I was taught in grade school "Columbus discovered America", "Captain Cook discovered Hawaii" etc, and I imagine many of us were taught the same.

Obviously the term "discovered" here is problematic: The people living in the Americas and Hawaii knew they were there, and knew their homeland was there, so nothing was "discovered" for them - we might even say that the inhabitants of Hispaniola "discovered Europe" when Columbus arrived. We also know that others before Columbus had been to the Americas and probably returned, the Vikings being the most notable example. So who discovered what, and when?

I suppose the answer to this question is that from a Western/Euro-Centric point of view, those places were indeed "discovered" - i.e. the Western World became aware of those places for the first time - through the voyages of Columbus, Cook, etc., and could then "put them on the map."

My question is this: Obviously the voyages and explorations of Columbus, Cook, et al had huge historical impact - but is "discovery" in the "grade school sense" a valid term for the modern historian - one who is aware of, and examining history, in the modern global sense? Do historians still use this term? How might we otherwise describe Columbus's "discoveries"? What's the best, most accurate term for historians to use when describing "discoveries" like those of Columbus or Cook, in our modern, global context?

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Columbus wasn't even the first European to visit the Americas, see @T.E.D. answer here – Louis Rhys Aug 29 '13 at 7:27
@LouisRhys - it is important to read the question before commenting... :-) – user2590 Aug 29 '13 at 7:34
Sounds like a question tailor-made for Samuel Russell! – Eugene Seidel Aug 29 '13 at 11:13
I think that Cook visiting Tahiti made the same discovery of this island as Tahitians made discovering Cook and his men. – Voitcus Aug 29 '13 at 19:33
The traditional definition of "discover" in the western historical sense is: "Bring a flag and a gun". – Lennart Regebro Aug 31 '13 at 8:20
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Dictionary.com is good for Discoveries.

to see, get knowledge of, learn of, find, or find out; gain sight or knowledge of (something previously unseen or unknown):

So, yes people make discoveries every day no matter how large or small they are. To make a discovery the person making the discovery must not know that it already exists. That's why when Cook discovered Hawaii, Europe hadn't known it was there. That is why it is a discovery.

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In a more pedantic sense, Cook hadn't known it was there, so it was certainly a discovery for him. – T.E.D. Aug 29 '13 at 13:08
@T.E.D. To carry that even further, "Cook discovered Hawaii" and "Columbus discovered America" really don't tell us much. A more full account would tell us who that discovery impacted and how it impacted them, which then addresses the very problem raised to begin with. – called2voyage Aug 29 '13 at 13:24
@Vector You said:My question is this: Obviously the voyages and explorations of Columbus, Cook, et al had huge historical impact - but is "discovery" in the "grade school sense" a valid term for the modern historian? The answer is yes. Discoveries are happening every day and IS the proper term "in the grade school sense". – Young Guilo Aug 30 '13 at 17:10
@YoungGuilo - I am accepting your answer, although I am not sure it is correct, because you are only one to have made the effort to answer it appropriately. Keep studying History! Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it. This quote has been attributed to many people. IMO the most noteworthy of them is Edmund Burke, an important 18th English politician and philosopher. – user2590 Aug 30 '13 at 21:42
In this sense, Columbus did not discover America, as he died still not knowing it was there. He thought he reached India. – Lennart Regebro Aug 31 '13 at 8:21

I'm thinking the standard account at the level of economic exchange that was subsumed under "discovery" is of an integration of world systems. "Columbus discovered America" meaning "Europeans started economically exploiting America" is actually discussed as a research problem of the integration of European and pre-Columbian American economies and societies. "Contact" perhaps. But over a long period.

As far as the "science" of the voyages of Cook, the results were important for European science and proto-science, and Cook's social impacts are contextualised through the trade relations that had preceded or rapidly followed Cook. "Discovery" in this sense of "production of new knowledge" is heavily complicated last time I heard a paper on whether individuals could be said to discover anything.

I think "discovery" was always a "lies for children" shorthand to conceal real complexity, and it has been correctly discarded in favour of more complex accounts.

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