“Discipline & Ontology” vs. “Projects” in Reconstructing Histories of Ideas June 9, 2012Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Carlo Ginzburg, Immanuel Kant, John von Neumann, Lorraine Daston, Marquis de Condorcet, Oskar Morgenstern, Peter Galison, Stefan Collini
I am gearing up to review the recently published Cold War Social Science (2012) volume on this blog, and this post was written with that task in mind. But, before I get to the review, I’d like to sharpen up a critical tool I’ve been working on.*
I propose that within the historiographies of science, technology, and ideas in general — but politically and socially relevant twentieth-century work (be it scientific, engineering, intellectual, architectural, etc…) in particular — we can identify a common interpretive approach. This approach supposes that historical contests between different disciplines over politically and socially significant “ontologies” are important foci for historians’ attention, because society is taken to grant disciplines, particularly “scientific” ones, the intellectual authority to dictate those ontologies’ form and implications. Some important ontologies include: the structure of the just polity and the prosperous economy, modernity, human nature, mind, normality, disease, nature and “the natural”, and aspects of personal identity such as gender, sexuality, and race.
This approach is to be contrasted with another interpretive approach, which seeks to identify distinct but interrelated intellectual and practical “projects” in history, and to characterize the nature of those projects, their ambitions, the scope of their influence, and the relations between them. Some projects (particularly some medical ones) may well have attempted to claim authority over ontologies, including those enumerated above, but whether they have or not is a matter for intensive historical investigation, not presumption.
Here’s an example to make a more concrete case for this critical dictinction:
The critical distinction between “discipline-ontology” versus “project”-oriented interpretive frameworks first began to cohere for me at a 2010 workshop on the “Strangelovean” sciences hosted by Lorraine Daston and Michael Gordin at the MPI for the History of Science in Berlin. One of the the conference’s organizing themes was how in the twentieth century a calculating “rationality” had displaced “reason”.
The idea was that Enlightenment thinkers such as the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had been fully cognizant of concepts of rationality manifested as explicit calculation, but that their theories of mind also incorporated some capacity for unarticulated judgement, i.e. “reason” (or Vernunft or raison), which adjudicated how rational rules were to be applied. By contrast, twentieth-century decision theorists’ concept of mind, exemplified in John von Neumann (1903-1957) and Oskar Morgenstern’s (1902-1977) theory of games, encapsulated only rational calculation. But this comparison made little sense to me, because Condorcet and Kant were clearly engaged in a different project from von Neumann and Morgenstern. If Enlightenment thinkers were indeed seeking an ontology of mind, decision theorists were only really looking to establish a stronger conceptual vocabulary to describe the logical structure of certain kinds of deliberations and behaviors.
<begin tangent — feel free to skip>
If you looked solely to decision theorists’ publications within their project, you would, of course, gain little sense of their understanding of the ways in which their project related to some overall ontology of mind, and, more specifically, how their theories related intellectually and practically to phenomena like unarticulated judgment. I argue in my own work that decision theorists (and those working in related projects like operations research) actually had very clear ideas about this sort of thing, which you can find if you want to and know where to look for it.
Going further along this tangent, I think the discipline-ontology vs. project distinction articulates quite well some differences between my own view and Daston’s “historical epistemology” more generally. If you look to her book with Peter Galison, Objectivity (2007), you find a similar argumentative form at play. Reading that book according to my scheme, “discipline” should be taken quite literally to mean a ritualistic way of disciplining the mind and the senses to conform to one or another “epistemic virtue”. Such virtues, according to Daston and Galison, preferentially determine what constitutes a properly “objective” way of viewing and depicting the world, and thus what constitutes a properly scientific ontology, be it of a plant species, a splashing drop of liquid, a cloud, a snowflake, a nerve cell, or a cosmic ray.
My argument with that book† is that historically there have generally been no singularly proper modes of seeing and depicting, but that different modes have been taken to serve different kinds of argument, different tasks and publications, and different audiences (i.e., different modes of depiction have served different projects).
Getting back to the more general point, then, you can begin to understand the appeal of the discipline-ontology approach if you note the importance of certain historiographical commitments.
First, adhering to a discipline-ontology framework is a good way for historians of scientific or otherwise intellectual ideas to assert a broader significance for their research for political and cultural history. If fixed ontological ideas determine or limit how people react to the world — if knowledge is indeed power — then we can find in disciplinary disputes over these ideas a crucial source of support for scientific doctrines, political power, and social customs, if not their point of origin. For this reason, histories of intellectual disputes over ontology pair quite naturally with histories of policy, popularization, and imagery.
Second, by designating certain historical intellectuals or scientists as authoritative and influential — and others as defeated, weak, or absent‡ — historians establish the importance of their own writing as a contribution to an ongoing, high-stakes intellectual contest at large. Typically, today’s historians of ideas will generally do so not by trying to establish their own ontology, but (in the signature move of the interdisciplinary post-Marxist project) by drawing attention to the contest itself, and the possibility that we could be governed by alternative ontologies than those that have hitherto prevailed. In a sense, historians working in this framework use their labor to try and restore free will to a society apparently robbed of it by ontological hegemons.
I urge the “project”-based framework, not least because it removes some of these conflicts of interest that are baked into the discipline-ontology approach. Also, it puts the historical intellectual figure in a more humble (and, I believe, more realistic) role. It acknowledges that the history of ideas is almost never one of victory and defeat, or even dominance and subordination. Instead, the history of ideas is more like “background noise” to a broader, amorphous, and highly complicated political, social, and cultural history. In that broader history, non-intellectual actors (politicians, doctors, industrial laborers…) mainly act on the basis of precedent and idiosyncratic ideas they hold — this is really just the same point Carlo Ginzburg made with The Cheese and the Worms. In this framework (but unlike with the Inquisition!), few attempt to control ontology; to attempt to do so promises little practical power.
Within this background noise, different intellectual projects may appear to have embraced conflicting ontologies, but since a definitive ontology was not necessarily at stake, or even in dispute, such projects may be understood to have co-existed (peaceably or uncomfortably; think Chomsky vs. Sapir-Whorf, for instance), or even to have complemented each other. When attention is directed away from conflicts over ontology, whole terrains of differing goals, methods, and problems can be more easily mapped.
(Note that historians of natural philosophy and geology have already arrived at something like this view by moving beyond existential conflicts between “catastrophism” and “uniformitarianism”, “vulcanism” and “neptunism”, “mechanism” and “vitalism”, and “science” and “religion” as an organizing historiographical framework.)
If, in the project-oriented framework, the history of intellectual and scientific ideas becomes background noise, does that marginalize our work? I would argue it makes it more realistic and credible. There is still ample room to examine how this background noise can provide some non-intellectual actors with a vocabulary to express themselves, and to determine how vague ideas might apply in specific situations. (Think of a politician using economic ideas to determine how to respond to a proposed trade treaty.) Such uses of ideas can have important, concrete consequences.
*The basic insight here is common enough on this blog, but I had my first crack at articulating it in a two-part post from April 2009 called “Claims, Authority, and Spheres of Practice,” (part 1, part 2). However, those posts are now scarcely intelligible even to me!
†For more on Objectivity, see my posts on it: Pt. 1, Pt. 2a, Pt. 2b, and Pt. 3. Also see “The Historiographical Idea of the Automaton-Scientist”.