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Philosophy, Literary Studies, and History February 23, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Welcome Jenny! Also, welcome to all the people showing up on our map. Looks like we’ve got some interested readers from all over the place, even some international visitors. Excellent!

I just thought I’d say a few more words about what I mean about philosophy/literature vs. history; since these are probably some overly coarse categories. When I talk about philosophy, I mean the use of history to illustrate transhistorical questions (or at least long-term questions) of “how disciplines develop”, “how experiments end”, “how facts are constructed” and that sort of thing, so I’d throw the sociologists of science into this philosophy category as well (which I know can be like putting cats and dogs together in the same box, but, to an historian, they can appear to have similar uses for history). What I mean by literature, I tend to mean Foucauldian archeology type questions, like tracing “how objectivity is considered”, “how the body is represented”, “how the notion of space evolves”. I see the categories as blending when narratives are constructed, say, about “how the social construction of facts differed in 17th century England versus in 19th century France as represented in the language of etiquette in scientific texts”.

I’m not so interested in these questions. They’re important, but, as someone coming straight from history, I want to know “what was Warren Weaver thinking when he wrote ‘Comments on a General Theory of Air Combat’ and how does that relate to his partnership to Claude Shannon?” or “What happened to physics in the twentieth century?” The philosophical/literary questions can have a lot of impact on these more directly historical kinds of questions–our historiography has become much more effective because of their development over the last 20-30 years–but to arrive at satisfactory answers, we also need more concrete narratives filled with specific events and individual motivations. That’s the sort of history I like to write, and that I think is the most relevant to outsiders. I see the philosophy/literature angle as more of a means to an end than an end in and of itself. Others disagree.

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