Kuukkanen on the Philosophical Foundations of the Historiography of Science October 13, 2012Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
Tags: Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, Leopold von Ranke, Lorraine Daston, Martin Rudwick, Peter Novick, Simon Schaffer, Steve Woolgar, Thomas Kuhn, Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis
The Twitterverse has brought to my attention a new article by philosopher of history Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen of Leiden University: “The Missing Narrativist Turn in the Historiography of Science,” History and Theory 51 (2012): 340-363 (paywall).
Like Lorraine Daston’s 2009 article in Critical Inquiry (with which Kuukkanen does not engage), Kuukkanen’s piece covers the oft-plowed ground of the relationship between the social studies of science and the historiography of science. Recall that Daston takes the rather unorthodox view that historians have exhausted the insights of the social studies of science, and have therefore turned to the mainstream history discipline, which she believes explains our present surfeit of disconnected microhistorical case studies. Kuukkanen takes a more traditional view in that he believes that present historiography remains a fairly direct product of science-studies thinking. However, he also peculiarly believes that, due to this influence, we historians have not embraced the “narrativist turn” taken by other historians, which is to say, we believe the way we write about our subject matter is the way to write about it, and so we myopically fail to open ourselves to the possibility of alternatives.
I think the first thing to keep in mind in reading Kuukkanen’s piece is that he is approaching the historiography of science as a philosopher of historiography. He cites very few examples of historical writing (exceptions being Martin Rudwick’s Great Devonian Controversy, Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions, and Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis’s Unifying Biology: The Evolutionary Synthesis and Evolutionary Biology), engaging instead with the methodological reflections written by historians and science-studies scholars. Thus, Kuukkanen never really says whether he feels the individual histories we write, or the body of literature we collectively produce, are establishing a good portrait of the past.
He does, however, make the very cutting point that we are not ourselves evaluating the quality of our portraits. Our relationship to science studies has caused us to push “historiographical reflection into a secondary role.” Instead of concentrating on how we can develop better pictures of history, we dedicate our energies to achieving a more “accurate understanding of the nature of science” (341, Kuukkanen’s emphasis).
Indeed, according to Kuukkanen, we believe we have already achieved a proper method of understanding and portraying science by rejecting “grand aprioristic schemes” (341) — basically meaning teleological, philosophy-based histories — and settling on a vision of science as “narratively constructed” (344), which I gather is to say that science is a series of claims about nature on which scientific figures have been able to forge agreement using whatever resources are at their disposal. (Ironically, according to Kuukkanen, we cast the same eye on science that we should be casting on ourselves.)
We believe the best means of accessing this most proper view of science is through “anthropological studies of science” (348), which historians are able to approximate through careful use of archival material. According to Kuukkanen, “the idea is that the traces left in the form of laboratory notebooks, letters, and other texts enable a historian to be some kind of temporally conditioned anthropologist of science” (353).
He further argues that the methodological core of this anthropological approach is an uncompromising empiricism. Because our commitment to sociological symmetry prohibits us from invoking disembodied ideas (i.e. “truth”) as a causal force in history, we focus instead “on historical micro subjects and on explicitly observable traces and objects of study” (348). We have turned our attention to “texts, inscriptions, ink on paper, instruments, and tacit knowledge manifested in people’s practices, meeting places, technological devices, test animals, and so on,” because these things “can be easily identified and their existence verified” (349).
Kuukkanen identifies a commitment to empiricism in the remarks of Thomas Kuhn, but sees its rise in the wake of the sociology of scientific knowledge. He points, for instance, to Rudwick, who called for “empirical studies of science in the making” (353). But the commitment found its apotheosis with Bruno Latour, who pioneered the anthropological method in his Laboratory Life (1979, with Steve Woolgar), and then, in Science in Action (1987), urged “readers just to follow scientists around in order to understand the nature of technoscience” (351). In Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT), we can even find a supposedly gold-standard descriptive metaphysics, which will inform any successful, empirically-based analysis of science, or knowledge more generally.
Provocatively and cleverly, Kuukkanen argues that our belief in the empirical integrity of our portraits corresponds to a renewal of the spirit of Leopold von Ranke’s (1795-1886) goal of reassembling the documentary evidence of the past so as to portray it “wie es eigentlich gewesen” (as it actually was). He asserts we think of our methodology as “a borderline science” (341). He astutely quotes the Interlude in Latour’s Reassembling the Social (2005), wherein “the ANT professor … identifies himself as not only ‘the objectivist type’ of sociologist but also ‘in the end, a naive realist, a positivist’” (351).
Obviously, though, Kuukkanen can’t be right in claiming that we historians of science are a new breed of Rankeans. After all, we have been indoctrinated with the Gospel of Peter Novick, the same as all other historians. At the same time, to see that he at least has a point, you only need to listen to the very first thing Simon Schaffer has to say in his interview in the CBC’s “How to Think about Science” series.
In the end, I think Kuukkanen makes a number of good points. First, I think historians of science do, on the whole, believe that the solution to the problem of epistemology (or, more accurately, epistemology-and-society) is also the solution to the problem of good historiography. Having felt that the epistemology-and-society problem has been solved, we do not feel much need for further historiographical introspection (except for on stylistic matters, as we feel more elegant and engaging prose will allow our ideas to be better received).
Further, I agree with Kuukkanen that we feel our anti-teleological perspective on science is an advanced perspective. That is, I agree that “the antiprogressivism of science studies with regard to the progress of science becomes progressivism with regard to the progress of science studies” (351, Kuukkanen’s emphases; he calls this the “modernism of science studies”). In fact, I have gone further to argue that historians’ sense that they have escaped from past naiveté regarding the nature of science and its place in society has invaded our historical narratives. I have called this a “conflict of interest” between the history of science and STS, and I am presently in the process of arguing that this same self-progressivism — including our commitment to an anthropological perspective — informs our histories of the recent social sciences in a very particular way.
However, I disagree that we have not taken the “narrativist turn”. Indeed, in my post on what I called the “Rashomon posture”, I implicated this turn in our reluctance to synthesize our literature.
Does Kuukkanen believe we need to take a Rashomon-like view toward our work? No, according to his view, narrativists need not commit to nihilism in the selection between narratives, only to avoiding commitment to a single narrative. Narrativists may — and should — “cognitively prioritize different historiographical interpretations” (359). Disappointingly, Kuukkanen does not actually offer many new clues as to how value should be ascribed to any given portrait of the past.
Of course, we historians of science do not offer many clues ourselves. But I do not believe we write the way we do because we hold a Rankean belief that it is the definitive way of writing about our subject. Nor, perhaps, do we truly follow a Rashomon posture by believing that we cannot choose between portraits. Rather, I argue, we do, in fact, implicitly follow evaluative criteria, which validate our particular way of writing as serving a high historiographical priority (over and above historiographical synthesis, even after some two decades of having worked in this way). These criteria are defined by what I call the “cult of invisibility”. That is, we write about topics in such a way that we reveal a critical aspect of the past that would not have been visible without the application of our special skills.
Thus, while I agree historians of science exhibit a strong commitment to archival realism, this commitment does not derive from a commitment to absolute empiricism as the proper foundation of history, but from our belief that realistic portrayals of the past will also reveal invisible components of scientific practice and thought, for example the tacit skills and assumptions involved in successful experimentation, or hidden ideological commitments within scientific arguments. This revelation of the invisible is particularly valued where concrete and seemingly self-evidently legible items are involved, as in the differing symbolic values ascribed to “boundary objects”. Thus many historians’ interest in studying the material aspects of science.
I would further argue that, while we certainly derive some of our sub-projects from the social studies of science (such as the invisible factors underlying contingency in experiment), our commitment to the evaluative scheme of the cult of invisibility is broadly shared with many other sorts of historians, particularly cultural historians, but really including any historian who borrows a sense of historiographical value from the old Marxist project of identifying interests and ideologies underlying actors’ actions, and of championing historically suppressed interests and ideologies.
Finally, a side point to conclude: I do believe Kuukkanen is correct in identifying Bruno Latour’s empiricist commitments. However, I do not think ANT has been “particularly influential,” even in creating a “general historiographical zeitgeist” (348). Although we often cite Latour, use concepts such as “immutable mobile”, and may well believe ourselves to follow his lead, I don’t think our methodology follows what I have called his “semiotic phenomenology of science and society” in any serious way.
See also my post: Foucault, Ginzburg, Latour, and the Gallery