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Inverted Whiggism January 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I guess I’d better fess up at this point and admit to a strong David Edgerton influence, before it becomes too obvious from repeated reference. David seems to be mostly known for challenging “declinist” views of 20th century British history, and for his more recent insistence, in his new book Shock of the Old, that historians of technology need to look at technology in history as much as, if not more than, the historical ramifications (or the process of establishment) of new technologies. What I think is less well appreciated is David’s perspective on the art of historiography that informs his better-known views.

Today I’d like to talk about David’s concept of “inverted Whiggism”. Any historian worth their salt tries to avoid Whiggism, in which they read history as a process leading up to later (or present) developments. What David claims is that many critical histories, which vigorously challenge optimistic narratives, repeat contemporary critiques. These unchallenged critiques are then, themselves, repeated by subsequent historians to the extent that they become historiographical clichés that become accepted as representative of the actual historical situation.

David usually works within the British case where the idea has persisted that institutional leaders and administrators, schooled in the humanities, did not take science seriously (C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” argument is key to this tradition), and so did not harness science and technology properly (this was at least related to the view of Bernal and those influenced by him–see Monday’s post). To back up these claims, historical actors and, in turn, historians unfurl a tremendous pile of examples of resultant failure, to the extent that it became difficult to evaluate the place of science in British society based on academic science commentary and history of science literature (though “historiography from below”–to be discussed later–often tells a different tale).

Intriguingly, compare David’s disdain for “inverted Whiggism” with Steve Fuller’s call for “Tory” history (see the link to his book on Kuhn in Monday’s post), which essentially calls for more critique of past science. Fuller claims that because Kuhn’s influential paradigm-oriented view of science validates all past science as simply operating within a different paradigm, it is therefore often given a pass from rigorous critique (I’m not at all sure about how on earth he came to see this as an historiographical trend, but it clearly has something to do with a “Cold War” insistence that military-funded science was OK! See how it all fits together?).

Anyway, Edgerton’s “inverted Whiggism” seems to be close to what Fuller means by “Tory” history, but Fuller wants more, and Edgerton wants less. Fuller wants history to be an activist exercise; Edgerton, I think, would say that we can partake in better activism if we actually try and understand the past in a more rigorous way (Shock of the Old, for instance, makes a point of showing that technology in poor countries is too often ignored because it is not new). In the end, I find Edgerton’s perspective more constructive.

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