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What happens when historians stop being polite… January 14, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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…and start getting REAL! It’s a nice question, and a theoretical one, since historians of science, at least, tend to be a very polite lot who rarely question one another’s approach. Instead, we throw around words like “fascinating” and “suggestive”, and then go do our own thing. This is the great thing about the history of science, in that it’s a sort of meeting ground for a lot of different fields, and it’s very easy to choose what group you want to engage with. So it’s also sort of like a high school lunchroom (or MTV’s The Real World), I guess. Of course, the history of science isn’t a huge field to begin with, so further fracturing can make your intellectual circle very small indeed, and that bothers me.

The reason for this situation seems to be, go figure, deeply embedded in the history of the field (the quirks of which are well explored in John Zammito’s A Nice Derangement of Epistemes, which should really be required reading for science studies grad students). I was a history major as an undergrad, and so I basically expected the history of science to be similar. False presumption. The history of science is a field stemming from the philosophy and sociology of science, and has not typically reflected a traditional historical methodology. History, rather, has been a tool that has been used to get at the nature of science–which is a line of thought stemming from the work of the Vienna Circle and other positivists (see Zammito).

Now, motivations for getting at the nature of science have been varied. The British history of science school back in the ’60s was heavily influenced by Marxist thought filtered through the communist crystallographer J. D. Bernal, and his circle. They saw the progress of science as inevitably tied to social priorities, and wanted to reform scientific institutions to suit their Marxist agenda. Followers of this school were appalled by the rise of the Edinburgh School and SSK, which sought a more detached perspective on how science is done, without the political concerns of the Marxists. However, fresher generations of critical theorists saw tight links between the “social constructionism” preached by the SSK’ers and the critiques of French theorists like Foucault. They used the history of science to demonstrate how science as a font of legitimizing authority reinforced dominant social notions. (This clearly links to my earlier point about the Cold War historiography, and I would be remiss at least not to mention Paul Edwards’ The Closed World at some point–we can talk about that later, though).

Learning about this history has made it much easier for me to understand the books that I am reading, and reinforces why it is so important to go back to the originals to see what they have to say–because their point of view is usually a lot more nuanced than they are in the straw man form given to them by later critics. I always feel bad for Tom Kuhn, because the guy had some good insights on the development of ideas, but his original motivations have not been so important to the people who implicate him in some of these other agendas. (I link to Steve Fuller here, but one should also mention Al Gore, whose PR work on climate change is admirable–but the inspiration he draws from Kuhn is pretty bizarre).

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