Looking twice at the history of science

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Critical thoughts on Hasok Chang's ICHSTM keynote address

Yesterday morning nearly 2000 historians of science gathered in a vertiginous lecture hall at the University of Manchester, UK. Hasok Chang, the keynote speaker, told them that they could benefit from studying the technical content of science. Not a very controversial claim, you might think. After all, science does have technical content, just as it has journals, military contracts, and priority disputes. The fact that the talk was controversial—and the initial reaction on twitter suggests that it was—shows just how sensitive historians of science still are to what was once called the internal/external debate. Having written about this debate before on this blog, I can’t help commenting on the talk. I agreed with much of Chang's talk, but not all of it. I think that in some respects he went too far in defending internal history of science, and that in other respects he did not go far enough. Expand post.


  1. Thanks for the post, Michael. After seeing the Tweets following Chang's talk, I was hoping someone would say a bit more. As usual, I find we're largely in agreement, in that "internalism" is too often treated as a pathological worldview--something that threatens to spread like contagion, and can only be contained by writing continually in a hybridized mode--and less as simply a genre of historical writing in which we can selectively participate.

    I saw some mention on Twitter that Chang made mention of art history. Was this in explicit reference to Ken Alder's recent article (which I discussed here), or did it, at least, engage with its arguments in some way?

    1. I'm glad you agree!

      No, Chang did not mention Alder's article. His reference to art history came in a quote he displayed from Peter Winch's "The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy." The gist of the quote was that art historians cannot do their job properly unless they have a good appreciation--preferably through first-hand experience--of the process of making art. Chang's point was that the same applies to the history of science.

      I like your summary of internal history as "a genre of historical writing in which we can selectively participate." I hesitate to use the term "genre" though. It does capture the idea that the decision to write internal history is driven by taste and personal preference and not by some deep philosophical conviction or bracing political agenda. But the term "genre" may still overstate the difference between internal and non-internal history, since it suggests that there is a difference of style or technique--that the two might be as disparate as novel-writing and short-story writing, or as painting from sculpture. I like to think that the only difference is in the subject-matter. They differ as the history of eighteenth-century science differs from the history of nineteenth-century science, not as micro-history differs from macro-history or quantitative history differs from narrative history. For this reason I tend to refer to internal history rather vaguely as a "mode" or "brand" or "kind" of history of science.

    2. The Winch passage can be found at 15:50 on the online video of Chang's talk:

  2. Michael, while I agree with pretty much everything you say, I find the internalist/externalist distinction unhelpful. My hunch is that the meaning of internalism has itself changed.

    A biography of a scientist written in the 1980s was probably called internalist, if it did not mention political or social context. But that does not mean that the author really had a deep understanding of technicalities that is now called "internalist." It may just bee a poor history, poor in scientific understanding and in social context.

    Likewise, a scientist turned historian writing a retrospective will think of himself as in the know of scientific technicalities, but he may nevertheless remain a complete outsider to the past, because he lacks the knowledge of past contexts that gave different meanings to the technical concepts he takes for granted in a whiggish and presentist manner.

    That is, the internalist history of 1985 may not at all have any "internalist" understanding of technical issues. Secondly, that "internalist" understanding of scientific issues may remain a complete outsider to the past understanding of said issues, because of a lack of past contexts.

    The latter is tantamount, IMHO, to leading the internalist/externalist distinction ad absurdum. "Internalist" understanding sensu Chang requires knowledge of past contexts. Admittedly, some of these past contexts will have been internal to science, but some will also have been external to science.

    1. Thanks for your comment Joachim. I think you are right that the standards of internalist history of science have changed, and hopefully improved, over time. And one of the improvements is the one you mention, namely that internalists try to understand the technical content of science "in its context."

      However I disagree with your conclusion that the need for internalists to pay attention to "context" shows that the internal/external distinction is incoherent. One of my reasons is the one mention, and that Chang also emphasised, namely that the technical content of science is part of the "context" that helps us to understand any given element of that technical content.

      My other reason is that your argument, if applied consistently, would discredit *any* attempt by a historian to delimit their subject-matter. For example, consider a historian who wants to write a history of French science in the eighteenth-century. In this case your argument would run: historians of French science must pay attention to context, and the context of French science includes English and German science, so the French/non-French distinction is incoherent, and as a result there is no way of writing a sound history of French science. Most historians would reject this argument in the French/non-French case, and in cases like it, so it would be inconsistent for them to endorse that argument when it comes to the internal/external case. This inconsistency is analogous to the one I identified in my endnote to the above post.

    2. Okay, I guess we can agree on a position that internalism and externalism are perspectives and for good historians the boundary is transparent. That is, a _good_ internalist writes a history from within science but can, if necessary, look at the outside context and see political or social factors relevant to their story. Likewise, a good externalist is positioned outside of science but can, if necessar, explain internal goings on.

      In that sense, any good historian must have technical understanding of the science, whetehr their persepective is internalist or externalist. And in that sense, it is somewhat confusing to relate technical understanding to internalists only and ignaorance of technical knowledge to externlists necessarily.

      P.S.: Recent post of Darin Hayton and John S. Wilkins about Edward Shorter suppose exactly that. While Shorter clearly has an externalist perspective+plus technichal knowledge of psychiatry. Yet, because Shorter derogates historians that think they don't need technical understanding of the science of psychiatry, think he is necessarily an internalist and botch everything up. They just don't get the idea that an externalist may have technical undestandign and demand it of their colleagues.

  3. Thank you for this summary of Chang's talk. I'm not at the Congress, so it's nice to hear what's going on. I think in some ways we have moved past the internal/external dichotomy, but the trend has been towards internalism (broadly defined) and less "technical" history of science. The reasons for this are multiple, but two come to mind immediately. First, the lack of technical knowledge of science among many younger historians of science. Not everyone can simply pick up a work in nineteenth century physics or chemistry without knowing some mathematics or physics in a modern sense. It's much easier to go the non-technical cultural route (Chang's point is correct--technical history, properly put into intellectual context, is cultural).
    Second, historians of science have also actively courted historians (see the last 10 years of Osiris), which requires us to get rid of technical details to make us "real" historians.
    HOS is a pluralistic discipline, founded in history, philosophy and (to a lesser degree) sociology. We cannot write books that will satisfy all of these interests simultaneously. For me, proper history of science is all about context and contingency--how creating knowledge of the natural world is a process that follows a very crooked and convoluted path, fraught with uncertainty and methodological, intellectual, social, and cultural traps. "Internal" history today is practiced at a more sophisticated level than the old versions that are perhaps scorned today.

    1. There may be some truth about the two causes you mention for the trend away from "technical" history of science (I put scare-quotes around "technical" because it makes internal history sound like a dry catalogue of esoteric facts, and because for the moment I can't think of a substitute term).

      I am a bit wary of speculating about those causes, however, because they are hard to demonstrate and because they do not necessarily help to answer what is (at least for me) the more important question of whether internal history of science can be good history.

      Also, I would not want to discourage those who wish to study the history of science but do not know the technical details of the science they wish to study. One of the books I most admire is David Sturdy's "Science and Social Status," an in-depth survey of the members of the Paris Academy of Sciences in the first century of its existence. The book is rich and detailed and erudite, and very useful for historians of French science of the period, despite saying very little about the technical content of that science (although Sturdy probably knew quite a lot about the technical content).

      "Proper history of science is all about context and contingency." I heartily agree with your suggestion that these historiographical ideals (context and contingency) can be realised by internal histories of science. One of the puzzles of the recent past of our discipline is how these ideals came to be so closely associated with non-internal history of science, at the expense of internal history.

      I am less sure whether context and contingency are valuable on their own, in all cases. The aim of the historian of science is to describe past science. If certain parts of past science were not heavily determined by context (whatever that means), or were not particularly contingent, then this should be reflected in the histories we write.

  4. Responding to your request, "[I could not find any such citations when I watched the video of the talk]":

    Kathryn Olesko [4:50], and more indirectly, Kathryn Olesko and Robert Kohler [5:30].

    1. Thanks for this data, which I've incorporated into the above post.

  5. What a lucid post, filled with well-turned phrases!

    Knowing vs. Writing

    I am struck by a slight difference in direction between Chang's talk and your post. Not orthogonal concerns, but not parallel either. Chang starts off contrasting the "disgruntled internalists" vs. "impatient contextualists", each accusing the others of historical malpractice. And the two sides fire poisoned-tipped arrows at each other.

    Chang's impatient contextualist refers to "internalist dinosaurs who don't have a real sense of history". "Historians of science should be first and foremost properly trained historians", so goes his contextualist, thereby implying that the internalist is not properly trained.

    The internalists accuse some contextualists of simply not understanding the science. Actually, Chang's disgruntled internalist doesn't go quite this far, but Edward Shorter does, in an interview discussed recently by Darin Hayton.

    You seem almost entirely concerned with how one writes history. Chang touches, albeit gingerly, on the mutual suspicion that members of other side write bad history because they just don't know enough --- about the historical context, or about the science.

    Chang is a lot more circumspect than Edward Shorter, and he does caution that his disgruntled internalist and impatient contextualist are crude caricatures. Still, his plea that learning the phlogiston theory is a lot easier than learning Latin or Chinese, amounts to an implicit criticism of the contextualists. "Don't be so lazy, it's not that hard to learn!"

    Let me state the (hopefully self-evident) depth principle: one should know a heck of lot more about one's subject matter than one writes, or tells one's students.

    Consider your hypothetical historian of 18.C French science. Can you imagine him saying, "I don't know beans about electricity, but that doesn't matter, since I'm really just interested in the social relations among the French 'electricians', as they called themselves." Or from the other side, would she write, "I know nothing about 18.C French society, art, politics, or literature, but hey, my work is just on the two-fluid and one-fluid theories, so none of that is relevant." Of course not! The historian should write with this background knowledge, even if it doesn't appear explicitly in his/her historiography.

    But since one can never learn everything, this brings us to the key question: how can a historian know when he/she knows enough?

    And I'll leave it there, except for linking to an interesting pair of old posts by Thony: The Ideal Historian of Science, and
    Down a Mineshaft.


    1. Thanks for your compliment at the beginning of your comment, and the interesting discussion in the rest of it.

      I think you are quite right that the writing/knowing distinction is important in the i/e debate. I've been negligent in not mentioning it in my various posts on the debate.

      I would just add the following:

      1. Knowing and writing are not wholly unrelated when it comes to the i/e debate. One could reasonably expect an internal historian of 18C electricians to know something about (say) 18C French politics. But one could not reasonably expect her to know *as much* about 18C French politics as one would expect a historian of 18C French politics to know on that topic. Nor could one expect our internalist to know as much about 18C French politics as a historian of science who wished to give a political explanation of X's views on whether electricity is mono or dual. So those (like me) who say that it is OK to write internal history are also obliged to say that it is OK for the internalist to be less informed about politics (or art, literature, etc.) than historians who take politics (or art, literature, etc.) as their principal topic.

      2. Point 1. may not apply to historians who claim to give a *complete* account of some development in science. To claim (say) that the two-fluid theory was adopted by X for entirely political reasons is to claim, ipso facto, that it was not adopted for any epistemic reasons. To make the latter claim it would be necessary to know an awful lot about the theories and experiments that X had access to--and perhaps as much as an internalist would be obliged to know if she simply wished to explicate X's theory of electricity. The same applies in reverse, of course, to internalists who wish to show that X adopted the two-fluid theory entirely for epistemic reasons.

      3. I don't have a good answer to your question "how can a historian know when he/she knows enough." But whatever the answer is, it should not commit the kind of inconsistency I mentioned in the Endnote to my post. That is, the answer should not include the requirement that historians always know as much about internal factors as about external ones. This would be as arbitrary as requiring that all historians of science know as much about French science as about German science. It would be nice if they did, but there are only so many hours in a day.

  6. Interesting discussion (which I have so far only skimmed) for which I am probably much too late, and I do not have any of the excuses you list, Michael - I just got out of the habit of reading blogs. I was at Hasok's talk and found it very inspiring. What I often wonder though, when faced with the problem discussed here, about there being "only so many hours in the day", or only so much stuff one person can know, is why restrict it to one person? It would be impossible for anyone to carry out single-handedly any experiment in modern physics, and not just because of the manpower required - you need lots and lots of different skills. Why should HoS be any different? Why don't internalist-leaning historians of science collaborate with externalist-leaning historians of science, or indeed, with straight scientists and straight historians too?

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