Looking twice at the history of science

Friday, November 30, 2012

A manifesto for internal history of science

The premise of the last three posts is that anachronism is back in fashion. By contrast, there is nothing but mustiness about the labels “internal” or “internalism.” Roughly speaking, internalist historians are interested in ideas and evidence rather than politics and institutions. A single article, let alone a single blog post, can't make internal history fashionable again. But at least it can say what a viable defense of internal history of science might look like. Here goes... Expand post.


  1. Without internalism there is no externalism

  2. Mike gets at the key point when he discusses "hybridity". The function of "old" internalism-externalism debates is to claim to have transcended them. This doesn't rule any sort of genre out-of-bounds, so much as it establishes a set of historiographical imperatives. Writing in a "hybrid" vein is prized because it demonstrates the futility of a firm distinction, as well as the Lakatosian resolution to their intertwining (giving primacy to the internal). Writing in a purely external vein is encouraged, too, because rather than being seen as endorsing a "vulgar Marxist" view of epistemology, it is still (somehow) regarded as simply a corrective to a prior -- possibly mythical -- era of internalist primacy.

    Accordingly, to write in an internalist mode is not illegitimate, per se, so much as it is fails to be historiographically prioritized because it contributes to no outstanding professional project. Perhaps at a subconscious level, authors also risk being seen as adhering to a naive conception of science, if they write in the internalist genre. This is why the work-worker distinction is so important, because the style of work may well be taken to reflect not on the choices the author has made in a particular instance, but upon their acumen as a scholar. (This issue is not helped by the fact that our profession has no reliable mechanism -- except perhaps the obituary! -- for considering an author's work in the context of their own oeuvre).

    The main trouble with all of this, though, is that it impoverishes our concepts of historiographical value. We have not developed any means of determining what sort of an internalist study has strong historiographical worth. We don't know which internalist studies should be regarded as of narrow interest (as indeed many are), and which ones should be advertised to the community at-large. Because internalism is on the wrong side of our professional history, this effectively means that no internal history is regarded as having general value.

    Similarly, we have no means of establishing what hybrid or external histories have general value. But, because hybridity and externalism are part of an outstanding professional project, it is rarely expected that scholars further justify their work, at least not in any detailed way, if they write in this genre. Indeed, it is still common to see 30-year-old works referred to as "recent" scholarship.

    This is an important point to attend to, because the situation may be changing with respect to internalist scholarship. For example, in addition to alchemy, early-modern philosophy seems to be back on the menu. And even so general a journal as BJHS seems to publishing more internal histories. But, this shouldn't be about balance, so much as it should be about being able to integrate our scholarship, which will remain difficult so long as we don't have more detailed criteria for judging the value of any given piece of scholarship, internalist and externalist.

    By the way, I'm very much enjoying these recent posts. I am particularly grateful for the introduction to Nick Jardine's ideas.

  3. thonyc -- thanks for your comment, which I agree with. However it only works as an argument for internalism if one begins with the assumption that there is such a thing as viable *external* history of science. And I think lots of critics of internalism would reject this assumption.

    Will -- thanks for drawing attention to the bigger issue of how individual works of history can contribute to an overall historiographical project, whatever their genre. I think you're right that internalist works are unfashionable partly because there does not seem to be any overarching internalist project that they contribute to--especially if we reject the old internalist project of chronicling the progress of science.

    There *are* some viable internalist projects--perhaps not "big picture" projects but certainly projects that have brought together a variety of scholars. You mention two *topics*, alchemy and early-modern philosophy. Two *themes* that come to mind are the study of experiment à la Lawrence Holmes and the recovery of "lost" knowledge à la Hasok Chang. But I suspect that this kind of theme is not really what you have in mind as a unified historiographical project.

    I like your point that "the style of work may well be taken to reflect not on the choices the author has made in a particular instance, but upon their acumen as a scholar." This also links up to the "present value not past associations" point in the above post. That is, we should avoid supposing that any given internalist author has the same motivations as the anti-Marxist internalists of the past (and I'm pretty sure that this was a motivation for at least some past internalists). The fact that lots of "internalists" are happy to write non-internalist works suggests that their internalist works are not driven by ideology. I would put Thomas Kuhn in this camp, although that is not a claim I can defend here.

  4. To begin, let me say that I am sympathetic to your program. I do think some leg work needs to be done to bring conceptual history into a closer synthesis with the rest of the history of science. But I'm somewhat uncomfortable with a few of your premises.

    First, I would object to the suggestion, implicit in your conclusion, that anyone seriously measures works according to where they stand with respect to the internal/external distinction these days. From where I sit, the distinction has been passé for about a decade. If the goal is to articulate a new relevance for conceptual history of science, I would instead suggest pointedly ignoring this (false) dichotomy. I wholeheartedly agree that that the field exhibits a mélange of approaches, each of which can contribute constructively to our historical understanding of science. Taking that view more firmly and consistently would also frees you from making the internal/non-internal distinction, which comes with normative force that makes me uncomfortable. With that in mind the challenge for conceptual historians is to be willing to engage with other approaches and to make their work tractable to a larger community. Engagement, I should add, does not imply hybridization, but rather a willingness to promote scholarly dialogue across approaches and specialties. This leads into my second concern...

    To be glib, it seems like you're offering an internal conception of the problem at the expense of an external one. That is, I would say that conceptual history has been marginalized recently less because of how historians conceive of its content or scope and more because of the social dynamics that were the legacy of the science wars. One of the products of the 1990s was, in fact, variety. But mere variety, without dialogue, begets balkanization. The close association between conceptual history and philosophy, for instance, has a great deal to do with the fact that philosophers are the people with whom conceptual historians have been willing to communicate, and vice versa. Internalists who were internal when the distinction still mattered had little interest in communicating with their externalist contemporaries. Bringing conceptual history into closer alignment with the rest of the discipline requires a multilateral decision to be mutually intelligible—to consider representatives of other methodological inflections key members of one's audience.

    Fortunately, from what I've seen, emerging historians of science who skew towards questions of conceptual development strike me as eager to engage in broader dialogue. The core challenge is to convince historians without the background to make sense of fine-grained technical detail that they have something to gain by staying current with the conceptual history of the topics they study. Some of that does require reframing of content in line with prevailing historiographical norms, but the bigger driver, I would argue, is simply the willingness to talk.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment. I disagree with a number of the things you say or imply, but my replies will hopefully help to clarify my position.

      1. A minor but non-negligeable point is that "conceptual history of science" (your phrase) is not the same as "internal history of science" (my phrase). "Conceptual history" has the same idealist connotations as "intellectual history" and "history of ideas." It thereby invites the unfair charge that internal historians are obsessed with ideas and propositions at the expense of experiments, instruments and materials.

      2. "From where I sit, the distinction has been passé for about a decade...I would suggest pointedly ignoring this (false) dichotomy." My point is precisely that the dichotomy is *not* false, with the caveat that we should contrast "internal" with "non-internal" rather than "internal" and "external." For arguments in favour of this distinction, see above under "unity and uniformity," "present value not past associations," "continuity not catastrophe," and "variety not hybridity." Do you have any specific responses to my (admittedly compressed) arguments in the above post?

      3. "[the internal/non-internal distinction] comes with normative force that makes me uncomfortable." In what sense is this distinction any more normative than the distinctions that all historians make when they decide to study a particular topic or theme? Historians of France have to distinguish French from not-French; historians of food tend to priviledge cake and chocolate over grass and plastic; etc.

      Although it is widely believed that there is something "non-naturalistic" about distinguishing the internal from the non-internal, I've not seen any good arguments for this view.

      Moreover, note that I am explicity *not* saying that non-internal history of science and its subject-matter is inferior to internal history of science and *its* subject-matter. As per the above post, I am arguing for parity between different approaches and not for priority of internalism over other approaches.

      4. I take your point that "balkanisation" is a bad thing, and that dialogue is one way to overcome it. I think you're right also that "variety" in the sense of division and misunderstanding was one of the legacies of the 1990s.

      However I would add that "variety" in the sense of a range of semi-autonomous projects in the history of science is not a bad thing. This is the point of my remarks on "variety not hybridity" in the original post. Further, as per point 2. in this comment, we should not insist on collapsing the internal/non-internal distinction just because doing so would facilitate communication between scholars.

      Nor do I think the problem is only one of communication. As your comments about the internal/non-internal distinction attest, there is still a widespread belief that there is something suspect about that distinction. This widespread belief is partly to do with miscommunication but also to do with background beliefs about the nature of science and the practice of history.

      Finally, I would add that communication should be two-way (and I take it from your comment you would agree with this). Sure, internalists may need to "convince historians without the background to make sense of fine-grained technical detail that they have something to gain by staying current with the conceptual history of the topics they study." But if we insist on this, we should also insist that non-internalists show the relevance of their fine-grained cultural or sociological research to the internal history of science.

  5. Interesting posts on your blog! Keep up the good work!

    I was thinking about where is technology in your external/internalism definition; then I saw your reply on 2 dec where you distance your definition of internalist from conceptual history because it "has the same idealist connotations as 'intellectual history' and 'history of ideas.' It thereby invites the unfair charge that internal historians are obsessed with ideas and propositions at the expense of experiments, instruments and materials."

    So, spending your time looking closely at laboratory practices, instrumentation etc could be labelled internalism. But when you look at where these instruments come from and try to analyse how the scientific technologies developed, you sometimes find the scientists and their activities you are studying away from the lab bench or observatory and instead are dealing with industry, projects run by the state or the military.

    I think I would be labelled an internalist historian on some days and an externalist one on other days ...

  6. Thanks for your comment Gustav. I agree with you that the study of experiments, instruments and materials is not solely an internalist's project, and that it can open up interesting questions about the relations between science and society.

    I would just add (perhaps you agree) that it is possible to write good internalist histories that take into account experiments, instruments and materials. The historian of science is under no *obligation* to study in detail the industrial or military origins of the instruments and materials they find in the experimental research of any given scientist. It is important that *some* historians of experiment deal with the external origins of instruments and materials, but there's no value in insisting that they all do.

    I am thinking of works like Lawrence Holmes' book on Lavoisier's experimental programme, "Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life." Holmes doesn't say much in this book about the external origins of Lavoisier's instruments, but I don't consider this a defect of the book.

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