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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 2: The Weltphilosophie of Historical Epistemology February 16, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Rheinberger's history of historical epistemology

Rheinberger’s history of historical epistemology

The program of “historical epistemology” represents one of the more ambitious and thoughtful projects espoused by historians of science in recent years.  The self-conscious efforts of people like Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Lorraine Daston, and Peter Galison to renew interest in epistemological questions among historians is laudable.  And their point that epistemology is something that is invented rather than transcendental—and thus historically variable in its content—is surely a correct observation, at least from a historiographical standpoint.

That said, I have never been fully comfortable with the history produced by historical epistemology.  To date, the program has received the most intensive scrutiny from philosophers.  A good example is Martin Kusch’s 2010 paper, “Hacking’s Historical Epistemology: A Critique of Styles of Reasoning”.*  My own interest in the subject has less to do with the integrity of historical epistemology as epistemology (a subject I am happy to leave to philosophers), as it does with its Weltphilosophie and its conception of the history-philosophy relationship.

Historical epistemology is similar to social constructionism in that it rejects the utility of traditional philosophy of science on account of its failure to conform to the historical reality of science.  Also, like social constructionists, proponents of historical epistemology are apt to privilege accounts of scientific practice exhibiting internal-external hybridity. For example, they might stress the existence of a moral imperative (e.g., self-abnegation) that guides notions of proper scientific practice, but is also prominent in a surrounding culture.

At the same time, though, proponents of historical epistemology are less apt to invoke the professional, political, or cultural implications of a scientific result in accounting for the existence of that result—typically, they place a higher emphasis on the real force of professional integrity.  Relatedly, they are less apt than social constructionists to suppose that theorization and the interpretation of observations are prone to radical contingency and “negotiation”.  For them scientific epistemology may be historicizable, but it nevertheless exhibits substantial homogeneity and stability.  In this limited sense, the proponents tend to have a more “internalist” conception of science than a social constructionist would.  (However, that said, some social constructionists—I would point to David Bloor, Harry Collins, and early Trevor Pinch—often focus on the internal in their analyses as well, and much of their presentation and even interpretation is indistinguishable from what would be produced by historians working in an internalist vein.)

A major component of historical epistemology (generally associated with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin) is the self-conscious continuation of the historiography of implicit (rather than intellectual) concepts, which draws a line through Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) historicization of morals, Gaston Bachelard’s (1884-1962) psychoanalytical histories of science, Georges Canguilhem’s (1904-1995) inquiry into the “normal” and the “pathological”, and, of course, Michel Foucault’s (1926-1984) archaeology of “epistemes”.

The content’s not really relevant, but here’s a cool old French interview with an older Bachelard:

Historical epistemology often focuses its attention on concepts with some particular “epistemic” connotation.  Daston, notably, began her work with an investigation (following and alongside Ian Hacking) on the probable, before moving on to other concepts such as objectivityobservation, and the rational. Sometimes these studies discuss historical scientists’ and philosophers’ explicit treatment of such concepts, but more often they are read into practices and “epistemic objects”.

Galison’s work has rather different roots.  In the 1980s, Galison was part of a more general set of historians and philosophers inquiring into the epistemology of experiment, which also included (again) Ian Hacking (esp. Representing and Intervening, 1983), David Gooding, and Allan Franklin (esp. The Neglect of Experiment, 1986), among others.  In How Experiments End (1987), Galison argued expressly against theory-centric philosophical accounts of experimental interpretation, which either supposed that theories emerged inductively from observations, or that observations were theory-laden.  Instead, Galison supposed that interpretations were generally based upon specialist interpretive practices fostered by experimenters, and constrained in certain ways that could only be uncovered through intensive historical research.

At that time, Galison’s view contrasted to that of social-constructionist Andrew Pickering.  Galison objected to Pickering’s presentation of the discovery of the J/ψ particle in Constructing Quarks (1984), which suggested that the experiment had been “tuned” to affirm the discovery.  By his view, the particle was detected through practices and standards specific to experimenters, in which the notion of such tuning made little sense.  More generally, Galison posited, contra Pickering, that experimentation was a more tightly constrained activity than constructionists allowed.  I would suggest one way of interpreting the disagreement was that where Pickering posited, as a matter of socio-epistemic principle, that constraints were not necessarily constraining, Galison’s position derived from the point that, as a matter of historical fact, they are nevertheless not so flexible.

Another key element of Galison’s thinking on specialist interpretive practices is that they can be heterogeneous, where different experimenters possess different predilections for what kinds of evidence they find “persuasive”.  As I point out in my recent “Strategies of Detection” paper, Galison’s original articulation of this point in a 1982 paper on the discovery of the muon was developed for the purpose of problematizing the concept of a moment of discovery.  This came amid a flurry of philosophical and sociological meditation on the problem, including the reprinting of Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 paper “The Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery” in his 1977 The Essential Tension volume, Steve Woolgar’s 1976 paper “Writing an Intellectual History of Scientific Development: The Use of Discovery Accounts”, and Augustine Brannigan’s 1981 book The Social Basis of Scientific Discoveries.  The issue would show up in Simon Schaffer’s 1986 piece, “Discovery and the End of Natural Philosophy” as well.  (Michael Bycroft recently called my attention to a 1980 piece by Larry Laudan on the prior abandonment of consideration of the “logic of discovery”, which seems to be part of a related but distinct philosophical discourse.)

Galison and Stump, DisunityIn How Experiments End, Galison developed a socio-epistemological hybrid model of discovery as an expanding “circle” or overlapping “circles” of “belief”.  In papers leading up to 1997′s Image and Logic, Galison developed this model of discovery into both a history and epistemology of a scientific enterprise characterized by its “disunity”.  According to Galison, scientific figures are personally persuaded by evidence conforming to one or another epistemological ideal type.  For much of the twentieth century, particle detection was divided into “image” and “logic” traditions of instrumentation, which were associated with ideal forms of evidence—the demonstrative image versus the rigorous logical proof. However, the division between ideals does not cripple the advance of science. Rather, scientists collaborate through “trading zones” where stripped-down languages permit theorists and experimenters, scientists and engineers, and, of course, experimenters abiding by different ideals to fruitfully collaborate. Further, the tandem hybridization of practices and ideals provides an important source of dynamism and change in the scientific enterprise.

Holton, Thematic OriginsIt is Galison’s interest in epistemological ideals that brings his work into alignment with that of the concept historians.  Like concepts, epistemological ideals boast “mesoscopic” periodizations, which historians can elucidate.  Further, they bear strongly upon a highly personal, aestheticized, non-negotiable conception of what is “known”. This Weltphilosophie of individuals continually striving to produce results that conform to personal ideals seems to owe a great deal to what in the 1970s Gerald Holton called the “thematic” element of scientific theorization, which was effectively non-rational, and stood apart from science’s “empirical and analytical content”.

How are we meant to interpret this ideal-centric conception of scientific work and thought?  Is it merely meant to suggest that the aesthetic has a role to play, or is the point actually more forceful than that?  The recent and strongest—and, I would stress, most radical—expression of this Weltphilosophie appears in Daston and Galison’s 2007 book Objectivity, wherein the concept of “objectivity” is wedded to Galison’s epistemological idealism, and is so elevated to emotionally charged, identity-defining status of an “epistemic virtue” which informs how images are produced in characteristic ways in certain periods across a large number of sciences.

Within this Weltphilosophie science is essentially reduced to an image-producing enterprise apparently devoid of argumentation (or, at least, argumentation is confined to those who adhere to the virtue of “structural” objectivity).  In one sense, Daston and Galison seem to cast the epistemological integrity of knowledge as a phenomenon that emerges from essentially non-rational ideal-seeking behaviors.  Evidently aware that this would not really be a sustainable portrait of scientific thought, they hedge their claims: epistemic virtues accumulate rather than displace each other, and so overlap in scientific practice.  Further, objectivity is but one of many epistemic virtues and concepts that are to be chronicled.

To my mind, this hedging one’s way to reality causes long-term problems for the historical-epistemological Weltphilosophie.  On the one hand, concepts and epistemic virtues are taken to be so absolutely central to scientists’ sense of “self” that they pursue them all the time.  On the other hand, the multiplicity of virtues seems to suggest that scientists must navigate a multi-dimensional terrain of virtues, any one or more of which might be at play at any given time, meaning that scientists must deploy them in complex ways.  Is this deployment haphazard and effectively schizophrenic, or does is it tend to follow rational principles?  If it is rational, does this not open the door back up to old-fashioned philosophers of science to describe those principles?

I would propose that it does open such a door, and, in doing so, it suggests that the historical-epistemological Weltphilosophie, as it is currently conceived, is, in spite of being an attempt to reconcile epistemology with the historical record, in danger of becoming the basic elements of an abstract metaphysics that is simply asserted, without a satisfactory account of its mechanisms, to generate the complexities of observed reality.**

Galison’s particular conception of the relations between epistemology and history has been questioned by historically minded philosophers.  After Image and Logic appeared, a special issue of Perspectives on Science was dedicated to the book, and two of the essays suggested problems with the Weltphilosophie Galison evidently followed there.  In Establishing Commensurability: Intercalation, Global Meaning and the Unity of Science” (pdf), philosopher Alfred Nordmann suggested that the apparent epistemic incommensurability between ideal-oriented traditions was overcome not only in local trading zones and in spite of scientists’ disparate ideals, but though the “idea of a unified science,” which functioned “as a regulative ideal” that actively prompted scientists to come to terms with each others’ perspectives.

Staley, Kent

Kent Staley

Moreover, in his paper, “Golden Events and Statistics: What’s Wrong with Galison’s Image/Logic Distinction” (pdf), the philosopher Kent Staley more radically suggested that behind Galison’s “image” and “logic” ideals stood a single, statistically defined logic of argumentation, which hinted that science might possess an underlying argumentative “unity” after all.

Now, Staley is not an armchair philosopher.  He has written the detailed historical account, Evidence for the Top Quark: Objectivity and Bias in Collaborative Experimentation (2004).  Further, Allan Franklin (like Galison, a student of the special epistemology of experiment), has championed Staley’s views in his 2002 book, Selectivity and Discord: Two Problems of Experiment.  These are points of view that proponents of historical epistemology, and historians more generally, can fruitfully reckon with.

In Pt. 3, I will examine the tensions between Staley’s and Galison’s points of view, and I will relate them to fundamentally differing conceptions of the history-philosophy relationship, and also to my own history-centered (rather than epistemology-centered) perspective in my “Strategies of Detection” paper.

*Addendum (17 February 2013): A better example might be Kusch’s “Reflexivity, Relativism, Microhistory: Three Desiderata for Historical Epistemologies” (2011)

**Stray observation: the troubled issue of reducing complex phenomena to the interplay of basic metaphysical principles seems to go back a long way—it came up in my post on David Hume’s criticism of the “Hobbist” philosophy of sentiments—and this may be an issue worth further reflection, from either or both a philosophical and historical point of view.

Comments»

1. Michael Bycroft - February 19, 2013

Sorry for the length of this comment — I hope it’s informative.

I like your broad distinctions between social constructivism, Dastonian historical epistemology, and Galisonian historical epistemology.

I would add that the Daston/Galison distinction is sharpened by two other factors:

Factor 1: Galison’s “How Experiments End” says little or nothing about what Galison would later called “different standards of demonstration,” and what Hacking calls “styles of thinking.” What Galison’s first book owes to Hacking is a unifying rather than a disunifying idea, viz. that scientists ramp up the “solidity” of their results by deriving them from a variety of different techniques or data-sets. If I remember rightly, Galison saw this (at least in 1987) as a generalisation of Hacking’s “argument from coincidence”–the idea, put forward by Hacking in his “Representing and Intervening,” that an observation cannot possibly be false if it is derived from two kinds microscope (to take Hacking’s example) that rely on two different “chunks of physics.”

Disunity does enter “How Experiments End,” especially in Galison’s claim that post-WWII particle physics saw an explosion of interest in the “analysis” stage of experiments.

But even this novelty is assimilated to the idea of solidity-through-robustness: to Galison in 1987, data-analysis was just another thing that physicists vary in order to make their results more robust.

The irony is that one of the philosophers of science most interested in robustness arguments in high-energy physics is….Kent Staley! See his “Robust Evidence and Secure Evidence Claims,” Philosphy of Science 71 no.4 (2004), 467-488.

Perhaps Galison would say that in “Image and Logic” he has not abandoned robustness but applied it one level up, ie. to “standards of demonstration” rather than to techniques or data-sets.

Factor 2: Even in “Image and Logic” Galison does not argue (correct me if I’m wrong) for the Foucault-style thesis that different standards-of-demonstration succeed each-other in time. Instead he emphasises that they are distributed geographically, across different simultaneous sub-cultures.

Holton, who as you point out was one of Galison’s points of departure, went as far as explicitly insisting on the persistence of his “themata” across the whole history of science. For example, he thought that the analytic/synthetic distinction dated back to antiquity (admittedly my knowledge of Holton’s ideas is limited mainly to his “The Scientific Imagination” of 1978).

On Larry Laudan: actually, Schaffer’s 1986 paper (“Discovery and the End of Natural Philosophy”) makes a number of approving references to Laudan’s work on the decline of logics of discovery in the early 19th century. If discovery is a logical process, Schaffer argues, then there is little room for inspired genius; so the rejection by Whewell and others of logics of discovery went hand-in-hand with their valorisation of the heroic discoverer.

I’ve never seen Laudan called a “historical epistemologist” (he prefers the term “normative naturalist”). This is interesting, since Laudan is one of the authors who has done the most to show how “standards of demonstration” have changed over the course of history. Perhaps he is just too traditional. After all, he uses the old-fashioned term “method” instead of neologisms like “ways of knowing” and “standards of demonstration”; and he has little time for such things as “the aesthetics of epistemology” or “moral economies.”

Another gossipy footnote to your post is that Laudan was one of the earliest and strongest critics of social constructivism. So it his interesting that Schaffer deployed Laudan’s work in the discovery article, which most people would consider an exemplary application of social constructionism to the history of science.

Finally, you might be interested in a debate that is in many ways a precursor to that between Staley and Galison. Laudan claimed that the dispute between the wave and particle theories of light, in the early nineteenth century, was rooted in a methodological dispute (in fact, the dispute over whether there is such a thing as a logic of discovery). The philosopher-historian Peter Achinstein responded, like Staley did to Galison, by arguing that the methodological similarities between the disputants went deeper than their differences. See Laudan’s “Science and Hypothesis” (1981) and Achinstein’s reply in “Particles and Waves” (1991).

Will Thomas - February 19, 2013

As usual, a lot to chew on, plenty of articles to look up! And very informative all around, actually. Some random reactions:

Having just finished publishing a paper where Carl Anderson’s work on the positron and muon is involved, I’ve been most invested in Galison’s work on that case. From the earliest 1982 paper, Galison has invoked epistemic disunity in the resolution of that case (“image and logic” was originally a “West Coast/East Coast” distinction), which shows up in How Experiments End, as well, though I wouldn’t say it’s Galison’s main point. An important factor in his analysis is an interview he did with Curry Street during his PhD research, where Street noted that “anything can happen once” — this quote then keeps showing up in Galison’s later books, and makes two or three separate appearances in I&L as the defining mantra of the logic tradition. Staley, I think, calls it a “slogan” that should be taken with a grain of salt.

I think you’re right that intra-experimental robustness gets repurposed for Galison’s reconciliation of epistemic divisions once those divisions take center stage in I&L (this is what Nordmann called Galison’s solution to the incommensurability problem, though Galison doesn’t like the term). For the record, though, I think Galison’s move to identify separate experimental methods of interpretation is an important historiographical development. (NB. Olivier Darrigol, however, questions in his review of I&L how widely that separation prevails, particularly in earlier eras when theorists and experimentalists were more united cultures.)

Galison does make an argument for the evolution and hybridization of standards. Thus the I-L distinction collapses with the invention of the Time Projection Chamber in the 1970s. One of Staley’s main points is to challenge the significance of the moment (I think Franklin echoes this…). Galison also has some arguments about the evolution of interpretive standards from the days when the cloud chamber was shifting from being a device for meteorological research to ion physics (this evolution has been challenged by historian Richard Staley, no relation to Kent).

But, more generally, I think the more Foucauldian ruptures comes from the conjoining of his work with Daston’s. In fact, in his Isis review of Objectivity, and his 2011 article, Martin Kusch gives them a hard time for not getting at the factors pushing these shifts (he thinks this is also part of their story being too resolutely internalist and anti-relativist). Having written two co-authored papers now, I know that mushing two authors’ ideas together generally makes for some awkward seams, and in this case it’s not only two studies, but two intellectual projects.

Back to the gossipy side of things, I know Galison was Holton’s student, and I was told by someone else that Daston was as well. And, I believe that Staley was Achinstein’s student. So, there are some threads to follow. Of course, one shouldn’t automatically put a lot of weight on that (after all, I’m Galison’s student, and, while I obviously admire I&L a great deal, I wouldn’t say he ever exercised much control over my thinking).

And I do think gossip helps us explain some of the issues with Laudan, as I have often heard that, whatever else we might detect from the publications, the debates over social constructionism were very acrimonious at a personal level. And yet his ideas often do seem very complementary. I most often see him cited favorably for his rejection of demarcation, but his argument about the abandonment of logics of discovery does jibe with a lot of what Schaffer was writing about genius back at that time, so I guess it’s only somewhat surprising to be reminded that Schaffer cites him.

Anyway, the worst thing about all those disciplinary splits was that things like discovery/justification splits hardly show up in historians’ work, or, when one does see them mentioned, they tend to be in the pile of things that have been “disproved” just like the internal/external distinction, and that we’re now all well beyond that and much more mature now. In fact, though, the abandonment of the distinction ends up losing the conceptual clarity (however imperfect) the terms brought, which means we always have to either reinvent the wheel, or go back and recover this stuff.

Finally, I don’t have any comments, but I enjoyed your post today on Kuhn and broad periodization.

Michael Bycroft - February 20, 2013

1. Thanks for calling me out on the early origins of Galison’s “disunity” thesis. I should have read the 1982 paper before making bold claims about its author’s ideas; I see that he even uses the phrase “style of demonstration” in that paper.

My comments on “How Experiments End” are based mainly on the chapter where he gives a “global analysis” of his case studies, an analysis that seemed pretty “unifying” when I read it. That global analysis is fairly elaborate–”solidity” and “directness” and so-on–and I’ve always wondered what happened to it “Image and Logic.”

There is sometimes a tendency to lump the two books together, whereas in fact–as you imply in the above post–they have quite different targets (very roughly, Pickering for the first book and Kuhn/Carnap for the second).

2. Not surprisingly, I agree with your second-to-last paragraph. I would go so far as to add the notion of a “scientific discovery” to the list of awkward-but-useful concepts that historians have “disproved” but can’t really do without. But that would take another post to justify…

3. Two links between this post and my one on the big picture of Kuhn and Heilbron:

Link 1: Heilbron is another name that, like Laudan, pops up in a semi-unexpected manner in Schaffer’s “Discovery” article. Schaffer invokes Heilbron’s “very useful contrast” (Schaffer’s term) between force as a macroscopic interaction on the one hand, and as an interaction between microscopic particles on the other. It is from Schaffer’s “Natural Philosophy” article that I borrowed the adjective “magisterial” for Heilbron’s big book on electricity.

Of course, viewed from a different angle, Heibron’s work and Schaffer’s seem like chalk and cheese, not least in the “Ferment of Knowledge” volume you discussed a while back (http://etherwave.wordpress.com/2010/02/26/the-natural-philosophy-problem/).

This goes to my point above about discovery. In Heilbron’s hands, the distinction between macroscopic and microscopic seems to *clarify* when and where “Coulomb’s law” was discovered. In Schaffer’s hands, the same historical data lead to the rather different conclusion that discovery events are contested and ambiguous. Cases like this suggest to me that the historian’s decision to deploy or problematize the notion of “discovery” is as much a stylistic preference as an inference based on historical evidence. (This reminds me of your “Discourse on Style,” where Heilbron also features: http://etherwave.wordpress.com/2008/04/02/discourse-on-style/)

Link 2: for me, one of the valuable things about Kuhn’s two-traditions narrative is that it is not a periodisation. Or rather, it is an attempt to build a periodisation on top of a more fundamental distinction between two long-running traditions that interact and converge. In this respect it is more like Galison’s Image/Logic narrative than a Foucault-style succession of epistemes.

Anyway, thanks for the above post, and I look forward to the next one.

2. Michael Bycroft - February 20, 2013

PS. For the benefit of any future readers of this comments thread, here is a link to my post on Kuhn’s big picture, which was referred to in the last two comments: http://www.doublerfraction.blogspot.fr/2013/02/kuhns-big-picture-i-from-harvard-case.html

3. Arcanus - February 26, 2013

Will – another great post. I cannot quite engage on the depth that Michael does, but here are a couple of thoughts.

It seems to ring true that historians of science don’t now have anything like a coherent guiding philosophy – except perhaps for the minority project of historical epistemology. But I guess I find it hard to imagine what it would be like for us to have a pervasive Weltphilosophie these days. I’m largely in sympathy with your picture that the legacy of social constructivism and the smashing of false idols of “how science works” provides a sort of virtuous cloak for the philosophical nakedness underneath. Yet this post left me wondering about the social phenomenon (perhaps more in the US than UK) of the increasing tenancy of historians of science to position themselves as general historians, exchanging commitment to or even much interest in philosophical debates for 1) an adherence to a loose rallying around the idea that history of science is just a variety of cultural history, and 2) a guiding abhorrence of what Daston (in her Critical Inquiry piece) calls “the besetting sin of anachronism” (or alternatively, the self-evident virtue of rigorous historicism). So is the lack of a Weltphilosophie now derived from the fact that general history (having abandoned its own titanic intellectual debates centered around Marxism &c.) isn’t really done with much of a big philosophical commitment anymore – that “there is no king in Israel”, to borrow from Peter Novick? Or – even more broadly – the lack of a coherent theoretical direction across the humanities more generally?

So I’m wondering how far you’d see historical epistemology as part of a general project to move away somewhat from history-of-science-as-general-history, and what’s behind that drive. It brings to mind Daston’s point in the Critical Inquiry piece about the fact that historians of science still haven’t really on the whole been able to persuade general historians to take much notice of what they do – “Demetrius pursuing indifferent Hermia” – and her generalized critique of a too-strong historical professionalism, grounded in deep archival research (and manifested especially in the “swarm of microhistories”). She speaks of how “the texture is fine‐grained, the metaphysics is nominalist, the aesthetic is pointillist”; the second of these points seems especially pertinent for historical epistemology, which seems to explicitly reject nominalism in favor of those slippery “implicit concepts.” And it does seem that the instinctive objection of more than a few historians of science to historical epistemology is that those implicit concepts aren’t coherent actors categories or terms that were explicitly debated at the time – that they aren’t quite “really there” in the past in the sense that historiciseable concepts like “experiment”, “chymistry”, “fossil” &c. are for the periods when those apply.

Will Thomas - February 27, 2013

A very apt and thought-provoking, comment — thanks!

On Weltphilosophie, I take the term to relate specifically to the philosophy of science. If we have abandoned it, it is because we have abandoned accounts of how scientific figures reason and argue. If we were to reintroduce that, we would necessarily adopt a Weltphilosophie of some sort or another (or, more likely, multiple sorts). In doing so, I don’t think we would need to be programmatic about it, just reflective. I definitely think it would be a mistake to suppose there is some underlying philosophy of science structuring or driving the history of science, or that we would need to have an all-pervasive objective.

More likely, the history of science would involve narrating the ad hoc use of strategies and argumentative forms constitutive of a multi-faceted lexicon of science that philosophers and sociologists describe. I think historical epistemology — and Galison in particular — is absolutely right that it is useful to look at the historical development of these sorts of strategies and forms (though that, of course, need not be our sole focus). My “Strategies of Detection” article and this post series are motivated by the sense that, if we do in fact do that, we should probably be clearer about the ways these strategies and forms work in practice. I don’t know what that will look like, I believe it would somehow involve making what historians do jibe with what philosophers do, rather than just replacing philosophers’ whole conceptual apparatus.

The chymistry crowd are really good at this sort of thing, actually, as they spend a lot of time describing and distinguishing what a chemical argument argument looks like when put forward by Paracelsus or Sennert or Boyle, etc., what the similarities and differences between them are, and so forth. The chymistry historians’ work doesn’t really map onto philosophers’, but then it deals with more archaic forms of argument that philosophers perhaps don’t analyze as much (not that I’m well versed in everything philosophers look at, so I could be wrong).

But more to the point of your questions:

Although I agree more with Daston than with Jasanoff & Dear, I don’t think she is quite right about there being a strong turn to “history”. I posted about this when her article first came out. Where Daston identifies the profusion of micro-history with general history, I view it as part of what I like to call the “socio-epistemic imperative” which uses particular cases to examine problematic, or otherwise interesting, instances of knowledge and consensus-building, which stems at least partially from the social studies of science. This imperative is to be contrasted with work that is interested in the various ebbs and flows of history (it is, unfortunately, always necessary to specify that an interest in such synthesis does not constitute an aspiration to “grand narrative”).

That said, the sorts of things studied in the socio-epistemic mode are similar to the sorts of things many sorts of general historians study, which is ideologies (defined broadly) and cultural values – for the sake of simplicity, “ideals”. And on the subject of ideals, I think historians of science can communicate very easily with ordinary historians. Although there might not be a well-expressed theoretical direction to work in this vein, I do think there is a basic attitude that I like to vaguely label “post-Marxist”.

Post-Marxism views ideals as instrumental in shaping how society is structured, what sorts of actions seem rational and ethical, and so forth. It is the responsibility of the post-Marxist historian to articulate and reveal the presence of these ideals where they might be hidden, much as it was the responsibility of the Marxist historian to reveal the workings of class-interests and the propensity of ideologies to conceal them. In post-Marxist historiography it tends to be pretensions to being unideological (i.e., objective, natural, or modern) that are understood to conceal the operation of particular ideals. So historians of science actually play a fairly clear role in the post-Marxist worldview: we must, a) reveal the intermixing of science with ideals, and b) reveal the role of science in setting the meaning of certain cultural ideas (e.g., human nature) we might take to be static or natural. Both, of course, are iconoclastic tasks.

I think we can make a good case that historical epistemology, like the historiography of science surrounding it, is a post-Marxist project (which may be why few people ever talks about HE as a unique project – they don’t notice that it is!). However, to its devotees, I think historical epistemology is driven by the fact that it views itself as different from run-of-the-mill iconoclastic post-Marxism (or, per Daston, “science studies”) in two respects.

1) It is more concerned with epistemology, and the ideals it traces are not external ones, but “epistemic” ones, which may well be appropriated from a broader culture but operate internal to science. Daston makes this point explicitly in her 1995 “Moral Economy of Science” piece.

2) It is interested in developing what Galison calls “mesoscopic” periodizations, which is in explicit reaction to the case-study/micro-history trend.

Finally, I think the nominalism/anachronism point is a bit misleading. I think that sensitivity to actors’ categories is a bit higher now than in the past, which is all to the good, but I don’t think there is any sort of obsession with it that can be linked to the micro-history trend. It may be that, because we just don’t possess a good vocabulary for criticizing each other, we tend to “run home” to stock criticisms like actors’ categories. (Kudos to Mike Bycroft for trying to sort out things like the varieties of “whiggism”.)

Personally, I have no problem with breaking actors’ categories, if it aids in an analysis, but I think the criticism you mention gets at a more general criteria for analytical validity, which is that it breaks the grain of actors’ thought. Daston and Galison explicitly say that these categories of objectivity formed actors’ sense of self; therefore it is perfectly valid to criticize them by claiming that these concepts of objectivity do not well describe how the actors thought, whatever label one might affix to them.

(As an exercise, I think it would be possible to do something crazy like express the epistemology of natural philosophical systems-building in a fully formalized abstract language, and still have it be a valid description of historical thought.)


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