Toulmin on Cosmology and the “Theology of Nature” December 4, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
Tags: Charles Darwin, Francis Bacon, Friedrich Hayek, Galileo Galilei, Geoffrey Cantor, Hannah Arendt, Immanuel Kant, Isaac Newton, Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Priestley, Karl Popper, Lorraine Daston, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Mary Douglas, Max Weber, Michael Faraday, Nicolaus Copernicus, Noam Chomsky, Peter Galison, Rene Descartes, Simon Schaffer, Stephen Toulmin, Steven Shapin, William Paley, William Whewell
In April I finished up a series of posts on the anthropological concept of “cosmology” (meaning a coherent system of thought), and the relationships historians of the 1980s were able to draw between it and the historical practice and fate of natural philosophy — including scientific cosmology — in the 18th and 19th centuries. (See especially Simon Schaffer’s clear 1980 argument on this point.)
In my last post in that series, I noted that in seeking to ground Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) physical convictions in his Sandemanian religious beliefs, Geoffrey Cantor used the term “theology of nature” to distinguish ideas implicit in Faraday’s thought from a contemporaneous, but more explicitly reasoned “natural theology”. To quote the subtitle to William Paley’s (1743-1805) 1802 book, Natural Theology, natural theology sought “evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity” in the study of nature. For Faraday, though, only the certain revelation of the Bible could produce knowledge of God, making it necessary for historians to excavate his personal theology of nature.
Some time later, it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to chase down this “theology of nature” term, which led me directly to Stephen Toulmin’s 1982 essay collection, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature. Aha. Since today marks the first anniversary of Toulmin’s death, I thought it might be a good time to try to type something up that helps put Toulmin, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, into our history of the history of science of the 1980s.
Boundaries, Interests, and Traditions in the Management Thereof September 12, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: David Edgerton, John Wilkins, Max Weber, Robert K. Merton, Steven Shapin
When I posted on boundary studies in the history of science earlier this summer, I had in mind narratives focusing on epochal conflicts between groups, and the likelihood that we will learn little from the conflict that will help us understand the groups themselves. In reaction to that, Amy Fisher (a PhD student from the University of Minnesota who has been doing some work for us at the AIP History Center) told me that for her the most interesting boundary problems were “on a smaller scale, as it connects to issues of identity.” This was a good point, and I have had to go through a number of other posts before I felt I had my thoughts in order enough to address it adequately.
These smaller-scale boundary problems usually deal with individuals attempting to build lives, careers, or ideas, and having to situate their actions and beliefs within the strains of competing interests. Natural philosophers might have had to reconcile their arguments about nature with their beliefs about religion. Museum exhibitors might have to reconcile their desire to educate the public about certain kinds of scientific knowledge with the interests and expectations of that same public. In the twentieth century, physicists might have had to reconcile their desire to pursue their research interests with their ability to acquire funding by appealing to military, government, or industrial patrons. Etc.
My response here is that in these cases the most relevant boundaries are not necessarily well-portrayed by the historiography. Historians will typically portray actors as having to “negotiate” a compromise position on their own through a sort of an ad hoc process. I would argue that it is here where historians’ aversion to reconstructing various long-term traditions is damaging, because it does not take into account established patterns of identity development and institution-building, which become models for a successful and legitimate resolution to the many many situations in which conflicts of interest arise.
Invisibility, Underdocumentation, and Positive Portraiture September 6, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
Tags: Bruno Latour, David Edgerton, E. P. Thompson, Melissa Smith, Steven Shapin
1 comment so far
In historiographical discussions, a key concern is whether certain problematics prejudice historical portraiture. By “problematics” I mean the dialectical process that determines what topics are researched, how they are investigated, and how the results of investigations are presented. By “portraiture” I mean the sum total availability of information about the various aspects of history, apart from any analytical statements made about it and from our ability to navigate within the resulting historiography. In other words, how do the questions we want to ask about the historical record both expand and limit our summary and publication of the record’s contents?
For at least a half a century, one way that professional history of science (and history more generally) has consistently attempted to distinguish itself is by pointing to its ability to recognize and correct for earlier historians’ and non-professionals’ prejudicial limitations in their portraiture. Hagiographic biographies discount major historical actors’ flaws. Positivistic accumulations of scientific contributions discount scientific “wrong turns” and the importance of theoretical frameworks. Intellectual histories of science discount the culture of science. Philosophical accounts of the historical establishment of claims discount the sociological work necessary to secure assent around them.
Initially, criticisms of prejudicial portraiture emphasized that important constituencies have been rendered invisible through various forms of bias. Social history in the vein of E. P. Thompson emphasized bias against histories of common people in favor of interest in political figures, cultural leaders, and other heroic or otherwise individually influential figures identified through what we might think of as a problematic that emphasizes concerted action. Along these lines, portraiture of disempowered and marginal constituencies has flourished (although sometimes these retain a concerted-action problematic, choosing to emphasize actors who are on the fringe but who, within the confines of their particular sphere, are influential nonetheless). Historians who discover new classes of invisible things stand to gain significant cachet.
Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 3: Fragmentation and Consensus August 29, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Arnold Thackray, Arthur Lovejoy, Barry Barnes, Casper Hakfoort, Charles Rosenberg, Crosbie Smith, David Kaiser, Geoffrey Cantor, Jack Morrell, James Secord, Jan Golinski, Jed Buchwald, Lorraine Daston, Martin Rudwick, Mary Douglas, Norton Wise, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin
This is the third and final part of a look at two of Simon Schaffer’s 1993 works, 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”, and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”. In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and now here in Pt. 3, the focus is on the papers’ mode of argumentation and this mode’s significance within the historiographical culture of the early 1990s.
In these papers, a historiographical malignancy is identified: an insistence on seeing a rise of reasoned polity and society, and of spaces of free inquiry; this rise is attended by a decline of false belief. This is considered a malignancy because it ignores the extensive and persistent controversies over various beliefs. The remedy, thus, is taken to be what I call “insultography”: a charting of commonalities in the polemics used to secure the boundaries of belief about what exists, or at least what is plausible. Historical “polemical work” consistently references widely acknowledged sources of credit-worthiness and discredit (in Pt. 1 these pervasive opinions are referred to as “grand cultural ideas”): religious piety, superstition, the vulgar crowds, the emotional manipulation and illusion of the theater, courtly society, bourgeois society, investment schemes, the legacy of Isaac Newton… Historians’ failure to acknowledge the historical importance of this polemical work as they chart the history of knowledge is taken to stem from their own selective credulity toward of these same polemics.
The current goal is to understand why the identified historiographical issue is considered an important malignancy and why the remedy is considered apt. As suggested in Pt. 2, portraying historiographical issues as malignancies could be used to explain a gnawing problem of historiographical craft: fragmentation. In his (free, and well worth reading) 2005 Isis article on this fragmentation phenomenon in the historiography of science, David Kaiser traced complaints about it as far back as a 1987 article by Charles Rosenberg in Isis, a 1991 Casper Hakfoort article in History of Science, and a 1993 James Secord article in BJHS. Kaiser suggested that the fragmentation was akin to specialization that occurred within the natural sciences as they expanded in the 20th century, pointing to similar patterns of growth in the recent history of the history of science discipline. (more…)
Tags: Adrian Wilson, Allon White, G. M. Trevelyan, Gaston Bachelard, Ian Watt, Joseph Ben-David, Karl Popper, Peter Burke, Peter Stallybrass, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin, Terry Eagleton
1 comment so far
Pt. 1 of this post began a discussion that stems from (but extends well beyond) two works of Simon Schaffer: 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”; and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”. These works identified misleading narratives within a broader social and cultural historiography: a rise of reasoned polity and culture, and a decline of superstition and enchantment. I suggested that in critiquing these narratives Schaffer had taken to the hustings to show how these narrative faults could be remedied by making use of then-recent insights in the historiography of science. According to Schaffer, in order for all historical beliefs (scientific or superstitious) to survive and proliferate, their proponents had to engage in polemics that portrayed the beliefs as beneficial — and opposed beliefs as dangerous — to the social order.
In a sense, Schaffer was playing a role that is quite similar to the people he was writing about. As he wrote in (1), “Representations about nature were stabilized … because … natural philosophers made their representations grip key interests within culture.” His diagnosis of a historiographical ill and offer of a remedy from the historiography of science should invite us to consider why the diagnosis and remedy were deemed apt by the critic, and why he thought it would be received as apt by his intended audience. Also, as Aaron suggested in the comments to Pt. 1, we should likewise be open to questioning who this audience really was. (more…)
Life at the Boundary June 29, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Bruno Latour, Harry Collins, James Griesemer, Jed Buchwald, Paul Forman, Peter Galison, Robert K. Merton, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin, Susan Leigh Star, Thomas Gieryn, Thomas Kuhn
For decades now, historians of science and their allies in science studies have had an enduring fondness for boundary studies. The “boundaries” in question are taken to be places where agreements that define what constitutes a legitimate claim no longer clearly apply. In Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the “paradigm” (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962), arguments across paradigms cannot be decided based upon evidence, because the standards of interpretation that would allow a decision to be made differ.
Kuhn’s point spoke to a potential philosophical irreconcilability, but sociologists would adopt the basic idea to discuss the importance of social coalition-building in knowledge-building, which could be hidden beneath an apparent epistemological smoothness where arguments were well-accepted, but which became visible in instances of controversy along coalition boundaries.
Harry Collins wrote in 1981, “In most cases the salience of alternative interpretations of evidence, which typifies controversies, has acted as a level to elicit the essentially cultural nature of the local boundaries of scientific legitimacy—normally elusive and concealed” (“Introduction” to a special issue of Social Studies of Science 11 (1981): 3-10). Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer wrote in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985): “Another advantage afforded by studying controversy is that historical actors [...] attempt to deconstruct the taken-for-granted quality of their antagonists’ preferred beliefs and practices, and they do this by trying to display the artifactual and conventional status of those beliefs and practices” (p. 7).
Tags: Alan Chalmers, Deborah Harkness, Harold Cook, Robert Boyle, Steven Shapin, Thomas Kuhn, William Newman
Pt. 1 of this post discussed the latest entries in a dispute, which appear in the current and upcoming issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. The papers are by Alan Chalmers and Bill Newman, and they argue over whether Robert Boyle’s “chymistry” could have proceeded without being framed within his mechanical philosophy. The immediate issue, the nature of Boyle’s work, seems ultimately to turn on fairly subtle points about how, in the 17th century, experiment was understood to relate to natural philosophy, and how knowledge of chemical phenomena related to natural philosophy and other orders of knowledge. As I understand this issue, one would not have thought at that time that one could understand “chemistry” to be a self-contained body of knowledge, a fundamental way of looking at nature. While one certainly could develop a practical understanding of chemical transformations at that time, such a knowledge would not have been thought relevant to the higher natural philosophical questions that most concerned Boyle.
Outside of this main historical issue, Newman stresses the importance of reading Chalmers’ particular claims in light of his “larger agenda … concerning the nature of scientific knowledge as a whole, an agenda I do not share.” Chalmers is primarily interested in the ability to demarcate “science”, which founds knowledge on an experimental basis, from “philosophy”, which accommodates experiment into its theoretical schemes. While Newman waxes skeptical about the philosophical project’s validity for even the most recent period of history, in his response (entitled “How Not to Integrate the History and Philosophy of Science”), he concentrates on the ways this philosophical lens affects historiography, claiming it narrows the scope of possible questions to those that can be framed within the structure of the central demarcationist concern. Chalmers’ approach is “binary,” a “dualist methodology”, a “toggle-switch model” of history: if a historical event cannot be classified as proper “science”, it is of no further historical concern. This methodology “allows for no gradual development or nuance over the course of history”, it “does not give sufficient credence to reorientations in scientific reasoning and experimental practice that laid the groundwork for later fruitful developments,” and it does not “allow for any significant heuristic application of theory”. Chalmers’ evaluative rubric allows “little room indeed for disinterested analysis of arguments, determination of the real issues at stake, or the tracing of sources and intellectual traditions, which I view as the historian’s primary responsibilities.”
Tags: Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Geoffrey Cantor, Imre Lakatos, Mary Douglas, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin
First off, apologies if some of the themes and arguments of this post have become repetitive. I find that in trying to arrive at a synthesis, it is useful to go over and over the points, making sure to try and modify a bit each time through. Ordinarily this process takes place in private, usually in notebooks, but part of the idea of this blog is to open the process to public scrutiny for whatever benefits it might produce. Readers can tune in or out as they see fit.
The natural philosophy problem appears to have remained a topic of serious historiographical conversation through the course of the 1980s. One big problem is that natural philosophy is a vague term: it applied to aspects of Peripatetic philosophy, but in the twentieth century Harvard physicist Percy Bridgman (1882-1961) still held a chair in mathematics and natural philosophy and was in fact a well-known writer in the philosophy of science. Some natural philosophy chairs even still exist today (Bertrand Halperin now holds Bridgman’s old chair, and they apparently still officially spell “mathematicks” with a “k”!).
Obviously, all these “natural philosophers” are doing rather different things, so historians would be ill-advised to try and look for a single definition of natural philosophy, even within delimited time periods, or to try and locate a “real” natural philosophy. One promising tactic is to apply ahistorical analytical criteria to different aspects of natural philosophical work, while allowing that natural philosophers might not have perceived the distinctions between these “aspects”.
As we have seen for the eighteenth-century heyday of natural philosophy, Simon Schaffer was keen to analyze natural philosophy in terms of a fully fleshed-out “cosmology” of ideas. Analyzing these universalizing aspects of natural philosophy makes a lot of sense: in many venues natural philosophers (being philosophers) would have been expected to draw upon their general store of learning to discourse on topics ranging from astronomy to epistemology to ethics, and to articulate the connections between these subjects. Through the 1980s, Schaffer argued (especially early on) for embracing the sincerity and importance of the particular questions posed within systems of thought, rather than seeing the cosmology or system as simply some extension of an underlying fundamental commitment or accommodation to a partisan religious, political, or intellectual program, such as atheism, royalism, or “Newtonianism”. Looking at systems of arguments in this way, one could query the underlying intellectual assumptions that governed what made particular features of these systems into coherent arguments, and thus better understand why they were formulated and argued in the particular ways that they were. As in his discussions of early Kant or William Herschel, one could also query what constituted an actual innovation within natural philosophical systematizing without whiggishly relying on later acceptance as a category of analysis. (more…)
Tags: Barry Barnes, Charles Rosenberg, Christopher Lawrence, Harry Collins, Lorraine Daston, Peter Dear, Peter Galison, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin
As I noted in my last post, the notion that we have experienced a historiographic revolution in the history of science has often been predicated on the notion that the key insight of that revolution was a conceptual extension of epistemology into the social. In principle, this insight should support a number of conceptual variations within the general framework. Thus, for instance, the avowed eclecticism of Natural Order (1979), which was supposed to begin a longer process by gathering examples which would accommodate a subsequent historical and philosophical synthesis. In their introduction to the book, Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin warned , “Our predominant concern has [...] been to obtain contributions based in concrete work [i.e., empirical history], and for this reason no unified point of view, or overall framework or theory, will be found consistently used and advocated through the book” (13).
In his 1980 Isis essay review of the collection (pp. 291-295), historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg described the general project as a “laudable task” (295), but worried that the book embraced “a position so tentative and eclectic that it almost approximates the theory-starved practice of a good many historians” (292). This quality lent cover to an undifferentiated treatment of the connections between knowledge and social relations: it concentrated on the fact of the relationship between subject and its socio-cultural context rather than offering any notions about the manner of the relationship, and what the role and importance of various contexts were. “Such facile connection between social location and the form of a particular idea removes the historical actor from that very richness of context in which Barnes and Shapin would have him placed” (ibid) … “the contributors almost never place their protagonists in appropriately detailed social location” (293).
As far as I can discern, the whole point of putting a number of historiographical problems under the single, crucial rubric of social epistemology was that it would prompt a differentiation between different manners of subject-context relations, allowing an explicit formulation of the relationships between differentiated historical phenomena to be forged. The benefit of placing one’s own historiographical project within this rubric was the potential that it could be productively related to others’ historiographical projects. The danger was that one’s own historiographical project, once integrated into the rubric, would fail to be distinguished from those other projects. We return to the “problem of natural philosophy”. (more…)
Anthropological Cosmology and Anti-Demarcationism, Pt. 2 March 18, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
Tags: Barry Barnes, Bruno Latour, Charles Darwin, Christopher Hill, Clifford Truesdell, G. S. Rousseau, Geoffrey Cantor, Harry Collins, Henk Bos, Jacques Roger, Jonathan Miller, Margaret Jacob, Martin Rudwick, Mary Douglas, Paul Forman, Piyo Rattansi, Robert Young, Ruth Cowan, Steven Shapin
In the late-1970s, the applicability of anthropological notions of cosmology to issues in the historiography of science could be understood as evidence of the need for an epistemology that extended into the domain of social relations. This extension entailed the notion that scientific work existed in a cultural and intellectual continuum with the society around it, and thus that attempts to demarcate scientific work and ideas were ill-founded. Society was not simply something to be scrubbed from science; legitimate scientific work was made possible through its establishment in legitimate places within society, and through the selective borrowing from society of cultural and political means of establishing legitimate claims. This, I think, was a good idea, but was it methodologically revolutionary?
The test of the validity of any idea is whether it can change the outcome of a process in some specific way. A scientific idea can help create a successful experiment or an improved technology. The idea of social epistemology could be tested as could much sociology and philosophy of science by running it through the historical record and seeing if it rendered it more coherent. In other words (to use a Latourian formulation), the success of social epistemology was bound up with its ability to forge an alliance with historiography.
The socio-epistemology advocates took no chances on getting lost in the shuffle, and apparently decided to tie the success of their program to a beneficial historiographical sea change. In a 1983 article discussing possible implications for science education, Steven Shapin and Harry Collins even used the title “Experiment, Science Teaching, and the New History and Sociology of Science” (my emphasis; reprinted in Teaching the History of Science (1989), eds. Michael Shortland and Andrew Warwick). However, the existence of this shift as a coherent entity, and the placement of socio-epistemology within it, should not be taken for granted. The idea took years to successfully engineer. (more…)