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History of History April 4, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , ,

I’ve noticed lately that my meanderings have been delving a lot into the history of the history of science lately. I think we need to study the history of our profession for the same reason that it’s useful to know about the history of science: because practices have deep roots in argumentative traditions. So, I made the claim that we claim to get a lot out of the sociology of science (like our close focus on practice) that we could have probably also gotten from elsewhere, like mainstream cultural history, without all of sociology’s hangups about understanding actual scientific results.

Could this have happened? It’s an interesting question, because the history of science profession (at least in America) is rooted not in mainstream history, but in a close tie to the philosophy of science, the value of which the sociologists questioned, because what the philosophers (and “Wave One” sociologists) said happened in science was not actually evident “on the ground”–Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life was supposed to be a bit of a bombshell for this reason (if I understand my metahistory right). According to this story, so hung up were we on narratives emphasizing 1) the march of theories, 2) the growth of theories from crucial experiments, or 3) the continual interplay of theory and experiment, that we failed to pay any attention to what actually happens in science.

According to this narrative, we would not have thought to incorporate the insights of cultural history and Skinner, etc., into our work, because of our insistence on the special, algorithmic nature of science, predicated on our roots in philosophy. The ordinary rules of historical investigation would not have been thought to apply without the insights of the strong program. I think this probably mischaracterizes the historical work being done in the late ’70s. But another reason for studying history is so that we can better learn how to escape it. If I am right in saying that we justify case studies, simply because they demonstrate how 1), 2), and 3) above are not how science works (“I choose, D, None of the Above”), then we may have bound ourselves up more than we’ve released ourselves. A further review of the “old” history, like what I was doing with Heilbron, may be in order.


1. Anonymous - April 4, 2008

Counterfactual metahistory?

2. Will Thomas - April 4, 2008

Yes, I like it!

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