Lorraine Daston says that historians who write with the present in mind are misguided and old-fashioned. By contrast, Nick Tosh says they are post-modern. He compares them to contemporary novelists who draw attention to themselves, and to the process of writing novels, in the course of their novels. Against Daston, I said that it is not what you know about present-day science that matters, but how you use that knowledge. Against Tosh, I say that present-centredness is not post-modern because it does not leap from the fictional world to the real world but only from the present and the past. And very often it does not even do that. Don’t get me wrong about Tosh. His discussion of history of science as literature is sharp and original. It appears at the end of his article ‘Science, Truth and History, Part I: Historiography, Relativism and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge,’ Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 37:4 (2006): 675-701 (paywall). He starts by distinguishing two kinds of reader:
A work of history is written for members of one language game about members of another. To read such a work is not literally to jump to an alien language game, of course, any more than to ‘feel another’s pain’ is to jump to an alien consciousness, but good history writing can sometimes induce illusions along those lines. It is obviously crucial that the reader bear in mind the artificiality of such experiences. Genuine historical understanding requires more than a passive talent for empathy: it requires an active appreciation of the logical gap separating us from a past culture, and of the historian’s role with respect to that gap. We can draw an analogy with fiction here. A naïve novel reader is simply someone who can lose himself, on demand, in a make-believe world spun by the novelist. A sophisticated reader (also) understands something about the process of creative writing (as an activity in the real world), and about the kinds of interactions that take place between author, characters and reader. The aesthetics of fiction are not just about pleasing the first sort of reader.That should be clear enough. Tosh goes on to say that post-modern novels target the sophisticated reader:
‘Post-modern’ novels can be seen as emphasising their own artificiality. Consider, for example, this authorial intrusion one-quarter of the way through Martin Amis’s Money: I was just sitting there, not stirring, not even breathing, like the pub’s pet reptile, when who should sit down opposite me but that guy Martin Amis, the writer. He had a glass of wine, and a cigarette—also a book, a paperback. It looked quite serious. So did he, in a way. What Goffman called ‘breaking frame’ and the Russian formalists ‘exposing the device’ is not supposed to cheapen the reader’s appreciation of a particular novel; it is supposed to deepen his understanding of fiction in general. If one can’t escape the contrived nature of the novel-reading experience, then, as an author, one might as well stop trying to and instead make artistic points about (and through) it.Next Tosh returns to the history of science, pointing out a striking inconsistency between theories of history and literature:
So we can distinguish two basic authorial responses to the gap between fantasy and reality: pretend, for aesthetic reasons, that it doesn’t exist, or stress, for different aesthetic reasons, that it does. Traditional novelistic etiquette emphasises the former tactic; post-modern novelists have often plumped for the latter. It is perhaps rather odd, then, that while an analogous pair of conventions exists for history writing, the cultural connotations are almost exactly reversed [my italics, not Tosh's]. ‘Breaking frame’ is such old news in the history business that it hasn’t even got a flash name. It is the absence of authorial intrusion (that is, the absence of modern moral or epistemic judgements) that is likely to get a work of history labelled ‘post-modern’ or ‘relativist’. While their philosophically-inclined colleagues theorise endlessly about cultural separation and the historical ‘Other’, post-modern historians of science do their best to keep the present out of their narratives—to make separation and otherness invisible. Actors’ categories history, like the traditional novel, is a genre that seeks to hide its own artificiality; it seeks to cooperate with the reader’s attempt to suspend disbelief...Tosh ends with a remarkable prediction:
I will end this coda by hazarding a prediction, inspired by the history of the novel but grounded upon the above argument. The aesthetic bias that lies behind cultural history’s methodology (and, arguably, SSK’s philosophy) may not in fact be a very long-lived one. Future historians may read our cultural histories, including our histories of science, rather as we read the great classics of Victorian fiction: marvellous achievements in their own way, but ultimately limited by the strict literary form to which they adhered.*** Tosh may be right that cultural histories, with their lush reconstructions of past beliefs, will soon be replaced by a more knowing kind of history. But if the replacement is truly post-modern, it will not be present-centred history as we know it. One reason is that historians write about the world we all live in whereas novelists write about a different, imaginary world. This means that the ‘authorial intrusions’ of the historian as less jarring than those of the novelist. When Martin Amis put himself in his novel, he stepped from the real world to the fictional world. When Mary Boas-Hall criticised Thomas Hobbes, she stepped from the twentieth century into the seventeenth. The former jump is (we might say) metaphysical, whereas the latter is merely chronological. Only the former jump has an air of paradox that invites the label ‘post-modern.’ Fiction does not work unless the reader believes, at some level, that the events being described really happened. The effect of the ‘authorial intrusions’ that Tosh associates with post-modern novels is to remind the reader that the events didn’t actually happen. There is no equivalent paradox for history. It is true that history only works if the reader believes that the events being described happened in the past. It is also true that, when the historian refers to himself in the course of a book, he reminds the reader that the book was written in the present. But there is no paradox here. The reader is not asked to believe that certain events both did and did not happen. He is asked only to believe that historians can find out about the past. My other objection to Tosh is that, despite its name, present-centred history does not necessarily involve chronological jumps. Suppose a historian writes: ‘the mercury in Hobbes’ barometer was held in place by the pressure of atmospheric air, not by nature’s aversion to vacuums.’ The event being described here, the motion of the mercury, is an event in the seventeenth century, not in the twentieth. The statement does not require a chronological leap any more than the statement ‘Boyle was a devout Christian’ requires such a leap. Granted, we can easily introduce a chronological leap, for example by prefacing the sentence with ‘As we now know,’ or ‘In my opinion.’ But the critics of present-centred history of science do not make such nice distinctions—they would criticise the statement even without the prefatory phrase, calling it anachronistic. The statement does make a leap, but it is one of narrative perspective rather than chronology. A historian who makes that statement has departed from Hobbes’ perspective, since the statement contains an explanation that Hobbes rejected. Which perspective has the historian adopted, if not Hobbes’? We could say that he has adopted Boyle’s perspective. But that would raise the question of why he has favoured Boyle over Hobbes. Worse, in many cases there will not be a Boyle waiting in the wings to serve as spokesperson for present-day theories. It looks like we are forced to say that the historian as adopted his own perspective, which suggests that he really has made a chronological leap. But there is another option. We can borrow a phrase from literary criticism and say that the historian has adopted the perspective of the omniscient narrator, the voice that speaks for no-one but is aware of everything. In fiction, the omniscient narrator often describes events that none of the characters in the story will ever be aware of. To pick a random but vivid example, there is a passage in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that describes the gradual decay of a house abandoned by share-croppers. The whole process is witnessed only by pigeons and stray cats. Yet there does not seem to be anything jarring or post-modern about this passage. It is completely different from the Amis passage that Tosh quotes. The ‘authorical intrusions’ of present-centred history are more like the Steinbeck passage than the Amis one. If the statement about Hobbes’ barometer is not post-modern, what would count as post-modern history of science? Well, what makes the passage from Amis post-modern? Tosh highlights the following two features. Firstly, Amis refers not just to himself but also to process of writing novels. Secondly, this reference draws attention to the ‘artificiality’ and ‘contrived nature’ of novels. So we are looking for histories of science that refer to the process by which the histories were researched and written (not just to the beliefs of the author). We are also looking for histories that draw attention to the weakness or partiality of our knowledge of past science (which is not the same as drawing attention to differences between past and present science). Perhaps there are histories that meet both of these criteria, but I do not know of any. What I do know is that histories of this kind would be quite different from the present-centred histories of Whewell or Sarton or Weinberg. Expand post.