A recurring theme over at Ether Wave Propaganda is what Will Thomas has called “professional theodicy” (see this post for a summary). This phrase refers to a multitude of sins, but mainly to the tendency of recent historians of science to distort the work of their predecessors in a way that amplifies their own insights. I share Will Thomas' impression that this tendency is quite widespread. But I want to draw attention to a striking counter-example, namely the papers by Nick Jardine discussed in my previous two posts. In these papers Jardine couples awareness of past historiography with a down-to-earth suspicion of radical novelty. Let me begin at the end of Jardine's paper “Etics and Emics,” where he issues a complaint that could have come from a post like this one by Will Thomas:
...historians of science have been all too ready to apply to their own discipline that simplistic model of linear progress whose application to the sciences they call in question—in the beginning was the age of triumphal narratives of progress, then the various sociological turns of the 'seventies and 'eighties, and now the all-conquering new cultural microhistories! (274)Earlier in the same article Jardine describes what looks like an example of the kind of historiographical amnesia that exercises Will Thomas. Jardine wonders why cultural historians...
...present past institutions almost entirely in terms of past agents' conceptions and perceptions, surprisingly little attention being paid to the nuts-and-bolts aspects of those institutions—their physical layouts, their memberships, their financial arrangements, etc.He then suggests—and here's the rub—that “there is a tendency to adopt a condescending attitude to the products of 'old-fashioned' studies of institutions, whilst making free use of their fruits” (269). In other words, old-style histories are dismissed with one hand and pilfered with the other. A related point is that historians' recent stress on the perils of anachronism is of a piece with the bias in favour of ideas instead of actions. As Jardine puts it, “the obsession with actors' categories is a hangover from an historiography of scientific ideas based on texts and doctrines” (261). One irony of this claim is that it traces a practice that has been much praised in recent years (sensitivity to actors' categories) to a practice that has been much maligned in the same period (over-emphasis on ideas as opposed to actions and materials). A second irony is that, in Jardine's view, one way to advance beyond our “obsession with actors' categories” is to look backwards—that is, to pay attention to the kind of institutional data that was once collected by our “positivistic” forebears (the term “positivistic” is Jardine's). Empirical data-gathering is not the only “old-fashioned” practice that Jardine hopes to revive. Another is the progress narrative:
...I suggest that historians of science should feel free to return to the long-spurned task of spelling out and explaining the progress of the sciences... Against the objection that such an approach commits anachronism of selection to the extent that it picks out scenes, agendas and doctrines ancestral to those of our sciences, the proper response is surely: so be it! The very existence of history of science as a discipline depends upon such selective anachronism, and there is nothing historically improper in attending to the causal processes that have given rise to our sciences (274) .Jardine has an eye not only for the good habits of past authors but also for the bad habits of more recent ones. Consider his remarks on...
...the dismal 'cultural studies' pick'n'mix style, which jumbles up emic categories with currently fashionable etic theoretical terminology--'habitus' from Bourdieu, 'episteme' from Foucault, 'figuration' from Elias, etc. In so doing, it gets the worst of both the emic and the etic worlds. As isolated anachronisms the words militate against emic interpretation and insight. But there is no payoff: plucked from their theories the etic terms lack the power to analyse or explain anything.Jardine also recognises that dead positivist historians were not the only ones who imposed an unsuitable theoretical framework on aspects of past science. The newer and trendier frameworks are prone to the same error:
We should not expect analytic and explanatory frameworks designed for the sciences of one period to be applicable to those of others. Why should interest theory, with its own historical roots in the era of political economy, be applicable to earlier sciences? Why should actor-network theory, with its paradigmatic applications to colonial science, be appropriate for analysing early-modern science? (“Uses and Abuses,” 263).Finally, Jardine reminds us that we are not the first to wring our hands over historiographical issues like anachronism. Ever since scholars began interpreting texts they have been worrying about whether or not they've done justice to the author's point of view. Jardine's example, drawn from a text published in 1697, is a good way to end this series of posts on anachronism in the history of science:
So we must be aware of lending our notions to the Ancients and then judging their discourse on the basis of these notions, as often happens. If we wish their thought to be understood, our opinions should be as if forgotten... We should not compare their sayings with the nature of the things about which they speak, so as to be able to say that their knowledge of them is greater or less than ours, but should as far as possible interpret them from their very words . Jardine's source here is a paper by Tosh, Nick. “Anachronism and Retrospective Explanation: In Defence of a Present-Centred History of Science,” Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 34, no. 3 (2003): 647–659. I hope to write a post on this interesting paper some time in the New Year.  Daniel Le Clerc, Ars critica (Amsterdam, 1697). Expand post.