Looking twice at the history of science

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What do I think of Will's picture? Part II

version française -----------------------------------------------
This is my last post on Will's picture, but by no means the least. My aim here is to identify gaps or inconsistencies in Will's picture, with a view to exploring these issues on this blog in the future. This post ends with a list of ten questions for future posts. Expand post.


  1. Michael, sorry it's taken me so long to put together a response to this last post -- the last part of the summer has been very busy for me. First off, I'm glad that these criticisms seem to be mainly "around the edges," concerning incompleteness and inconsistency, rather than the core assumptions of my picture.

    Pointing to the "Kuhnian" school is, I think, an important thing to do. There are very long traditions discussing the relations between scientific ideas and broader cultural issues, scientific institutions, the less formalized aspects of scientific thought (Polanyi's "tacit dimension", Holton's "themata" etc.). I look forward to your take on the Cambridge School's influence. There is lots of empirical work to be done in sorting out where the "real gains" came from, and when they appeared.

    I also think your emphasis on thematic versus methodological gains is on target. The confusion seems to arise from the need to put new themes at the heart of epistemology (you can't have scientific knowledge if you don't control the spaces in which it's conducted...). As you say, the implication becomes that not attending to new themes becomes conflated with doing "bad history".

    Questioning the papering-over of the internal-external divide is a bold undertaking, given that believing in an internal-external divide has become a sign of profound naiveté. But I suspect you are right to do so. The issue was properly opened up by historians of early-modern natural philosophy, who correctly emphasized the links between natural, moral, and political philosophy. In later times, there is no doubt that there are many points of cross-over, particularly in the human sciences, but, at the same time, I don't think there's much doubt that there is some sort of divide being crossed.

    On terminology, I think it is the case that philosophy is often conflated with intellectual history, simply because the latter was thrown to the margins of science studies alongside the former, but I do think there is a proper separation. Intellectual history is a nice term, because it handles cases of "cross-over" fairly seamlessly, while still making clear that one is talking about arguments and not things like tacit ideologies inhabiting practices. Histories of ideas are like intellectual history, but are perhaps more abstract. An "idea" might represent a common argumentative move in intellectual history, but it could also be something more tacit inhabiting practices.

    I think "internal" history is legitimate, but this is a point that needs to be fought for. There is a tradition that seems to say if your history seems to be a straightforward internal history, then you must be naively missing the interesting, external bit. But I think this confuses perceptions of what is "interesting" with what is "legitimate", and that most historians would, if pressed, admit the legitimacy of internalist histories, just so long as it was clear that this didn't mean that science is always and everywhere internal -- as though that were a battle that needs to be fought constantly and continuously.

    to be continued....

  2. ....continued

    I still think we can ignore SSK and related programs without losing too much. It's helpful, insofar as it elucidates the sources of current historiographical imperatives (I've just submitted a paper doing just this). However, after reading a bit of SSK, I'm not sure it ever said anything definitive about the nature of science, so much as it was concerned with developing what it says "on the tin" -- a sociological body of knowledge. It was heavily implied that this would transform the face of the history of science, and many historians were certainly inspired by it to redirect their efforts into certain channels. But, if everyone agrees that sociology doesn't prescribe how to write history, and is, in fact, just a criticism of particular sins of portraiture, then, now that we are long-since past those sins, the question of how to write history constructively remains to be addressed, and we need no longer bother with the particular debates surrounding social constructionism. (Although I do find the pre-1983 debates, before historians became heavily involved, instructive.)

    On the remaining points:

    I think the Buchwald-Franklin vs. Daston-Galison thing comes down to the particulars of what is being argued. In the case of B-F, what they are saying is that it is possible to use abstracted ideas about kinds of arguments to compare temporally and spatially separated arguments, if they are comparable. I think my point about D-G is that argumentative forms were being compared and contrasted, despite the fact that the arguments were made in the service of different audiences, goals, and so forth. So cross-comparability is possible, but its validity is open to question, it cannot be assumed based on first appearances.

    Finally, on the last point, I think what is remarkable about the history of science (and much other history) is that the arguments are repetitive in spite of the diversity of perspectives brought to bear. Histories can deal with the portrayal of science in literature or with laboratory procedure, they can deal with Cold War politics or with medical facilities in the British Empire, and the argumentative form will nevertheless be predictable, dealing in invisibility, tacit ideologies, and the other elements I've tried to sketch out.

    The "Rashomon posture" point is somewhat different, dealing with the failure to reconcile different studies of similar subjects. Thus, we can study Darwin's arguments, his public persona, his private life, his material practices, and so on, but if one study treating only one of these aspects doesn't mesh with another study, authors don't really feel compelled to reconcile the portraits. I don't have any particular studies of Darwin in mind here -- I'm just using it as a generic example.

    Thanks again for taking these issues so seriously! I particularly liked your representation of candor as central to my thinking -- I've already incorporated the idea of candid engagement into a paper that will appear soon.

  3. Thanks very much for your point-by-point responses to this post. And apologies for the lateness of this reply -- it's been a busy summer for me too.

    It looks like we agree on thematic versus methodological gains; on the legitimacy of internal history, at least in some of its forms; and about the existence and interest of traditions such as the Kuhnian School and Cambridge School.

    Here are some more detailed replies to some of your points:

    1. One of my aims in my original post was to present the internal/external issue as an intellectual dilemma rather than a clash between two different groups of historians. The dilemma is this. Lots of fine history has been written recently that purports to be blind to the i/e distinction -- indeed, the authors often claim that their history is good *because* it is blind to the i/e distinction. Yet some of us still think that internal history is legitimate history, indeed indispensible. How can we reconcile these two views?

    I expect reconciliation can happen along the lines you mentioned. Firstly, the rejection of internal history is more a matter of taste than of principle (of what is "interesting" rather than what is "legitimate", as you put it). And secondly, those who slight internalism slide between a (reasonable) rejection of internal history as the *only* form of history of science, and an (unreasonable) rejection of internal history as *one legitimate* form of history of science.

    2. In my post there were two concerns behind my remarks about terminology in the i/e debate. One is that internal history is conflated with philosophy (with the implication that internalist historians are committed to an a priori philosophy of science and therefore fail to be "naturalistic"). The other is that internal history is conflated with history of ideas (with the implication that internalist historians only deal with abstract ideas and not with instruments or concrete actions). I think both of those implications contribute to the bad image of internal history, and that both of them are false. I hope to elaborate on this point in a follow-up post.

  4. ...continued.

    3. On SSK I tend to disgree with this claim: "I'm not sure it ever said anything definitive about the nature of science." To take two examples, Harry Collins' "Changing Order" and Bruno Latour's "Science in Action" seem to me to make some strong and specific claims about the nature of science. (Although, as you noted in an early post, when pressed these authors tended to replace their attention-grabbing claims with weaker claims:

    A different question, which you also raise in your comment, is the extent to which current historians of science are "directed" or "inspired" by the picture of science painted by SSK. In the above post I suggested that many historians may still be directed by the tenets of SSK even if they are not aware of it. My suspicion is that many widespread preferences among current historians -- including the preference for non-internal history -- can be traced more or less directly to arguments found in Kuhn or Collins or Latour or related authors. As a result I suspect that historians would write about science differently if they read authors (including many very good recent philosophers of science) who have something critical to say about the authors just listed.

    My evidence for these suspicions is sketchy and anecdotal. I'm also influenced, probably unduly, by something Philip Kitcher wrote. In a 1998 essay "A Plea For Science Studies" he listed four influential arguments about the nature of science, including SSK staples such as "the theory-ladenness of observation" and "the underdetermination of theory by evidence." He concluded: "Anyone who has tried to talk to people who have recently been trained in Science Studies will know that the conclusions of the four arguments I have criticized are treated as axiomatic. There is just no questioning them." If such arguments really are part of the professional lore of historians of science, then they need to be scrutinised.

    These remain disagreements "around the edges", as you put it. If we disagree on whether revisiting old SSK debates is *necessary* for improving present-day history of science, we agree that it is not *sufficient.* Things like building navigable archives, writing about traditions of practice, and compiling informative footnotes are important, overlooked, and have little to do with SSK.

    4. Thanks for your reply regarding Buchwald-Franklin and Daston-Galison. My follow-up questions would be:

    A. Didn't Newton and Ptolemy (the B-F examples) have different "audiences, goals, and so forth"?

    B. In general, how can we decide whether two historical people or periods are sufficiently similar in their "audiences, goals and so forth" that those people or periods can be usefully compared and contrasted?

    "It's up to the judgement of the historian on a case-by-case basis" would be an acceptable answer to the second question, I think. But this places greater weight on giving a detailed answer to the first, case-specific question. I'm not asking for a detailed answer to that second question in this comment-thread. I'm just noting that there is no easy way of showing that B-F are doing legitimate history and D-G doing illegitimate history: it requires arguments from history, not just from historiography.

    5. I'm appeased by your remarks on the Rashomon posture, perspectivism and repetition.

    Finally, I look forward to reading the two papers you mentioned on SSK and on scholarly candour. Plus I'm glad you agree that there is more work to do on defending internal history and coming to grips with "moderate" traditions such as the Cambridge and Kuhnian schools -- look out for posts on these topics on this blog.