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Discourse on Style April 2, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Since I eventually rejected Buffon’s “Discourse on Style” as a title for the blog (no clear science reference), here’s a few quick thoughts on what has always seemed to me to be the most important reason for reflecting on “the issues”. That is improvement in style. These thoughts aren’t well refined, so I may post some clarification later.

In his response to me (below), Matt Stanley brings up the important observation (that I haven’t seen too much myself) that popular writing by scholars is often panned by other scholars. Now, I haven’t heard too much criticism of Alder’s Measure of All Things or Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps (except by nitpickers on the history of telegraphy), so I’m not too sure if it’s a universal revulsion (and it’s not the first time I’ve heard calls for bringing our craft to the masses). But I think it also goes to reinforce my point that there seems to be some sort of professional need to guard “our” style against corruption, because apparently we think that our intellectual gains are fragile.

But what’s in style? I was previously a bit mean to Actor-Network Theory and Pickering’s “mangle”, saying that, by contrast, the new SEE may be “worth historians’ time”. This question of worth ought to be clarified. I do not mean that ANT and the mangle (a punk revival band name?) have no worth–I think they’re fine for those who are interested in those kinds of theories. But I think their impact on how we write history is pretty negligible. Even though we all love Latour very much, I don’t see his jargon or even his concepts getting deployed too much in the historical literature. In fact, I’d say that the bulk of the impact of sociology has been avoiding clumsy statements.

Let’s go to the literature. Here are the first three sentences of John Heilbron’s 1979 book Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (which I used for my lecture on “Invention and the Industrial Revolution”): “The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century did not affect the several branches of natural philosophy equally. Some sciences, like astronomy, mechanics and geometrical optics, already far advanced in antiquity, were then transformed into prototypes of modern, quantitative, instrumentalist physics. Other sciences, like chemistry, exchanged one set of unproductive concepts for another.”

Now, all right-thinking historians will cover their ears in pain at some of those statements. Bowler and Morus’ Making Modern Science textbook that I’m using goes out of its way to reject the idea that the “scientific revolution” (whatever that is) came to chemistry late. But here’s the thing: Heilbron’s book is actually pretty damn good, and commits very few Whiggish heresies. Yes, he drops some of these discordant sentences on us, and, yes, the sociology of science has trained us to avoid them, but that’s actually not a very substantive stylistic improvement for the sheer amount of praise showered on sociology. Again, I’m not saying the sociologists are wrong and shouldn’t exist, just that their importance for the writing of history is overstated, especially since we never mention prior historical theorists like Quentin Skinner, who offer many of the same lessons without all the quasi-philosophical hoopla. [edit: “contemporaneous” is probably more accurate than “prior”]

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1. Will Thomas - April 2, 2008

If pressed, I’d like to recant my “bulk of the impact” statement. Sociology is probably directly responsible for a heightened emphasis on practice, which has been enormously productive (and is actually my favorite kind of history). I guess when I write “impact”, I mean impact that we couldn’t have gotten from concurrent trends in mainstream cultural history.

A policy note: I never retract or alter any substantive argument in a post without signaling that I did so with an “edit”. In the spirit of blogging, these are all raw thoughts.


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