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Holmes, Part 2: Historical Realities vs. Historical Arcs April 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In the previous post I pointed out that Frederic Holmes was dealing with the problem of predecessor science. At the beginning of his lectures (1990), Holmes sets up an interesting comparison, saying that one can focus on “conceptually defined problems that appear to unify the contributions of several or many scientists.” He points to Jed Buchwald’s The Rise of the Wave Theory of Light, Alan Rocke’s Chemical atomism in the nineteenth century, and, lo and behold, John Heilbron’s Electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries. They key here is “appear to unify”–even though we’re looking at scientists with diverse perspectives, they fall into a collective conversation. So, this tends to exclude arguments along the lines of “this guy in India had this same idea in the 8th century” or the perennial favorite, “this really all goes back to Descartes”. This is important for Holmes, because it demands that if he’s going to trace his topic of metabolic chemistry back to the pre-1850 era, the burden’s on him to indicate that the 1850’ers and the 1930’ers were having the same conversation in a more-or-less continuous tradition.

But what’s really interesting to me is a second trend of argumentation exemplified, according to Holmes, by Martin Rudwick’s Great Devonian Controversy. Rudwick’s book (1985) is one of the key texts in the study of resolution of scientific controversies, which shows how artificial their closure seems to be. According to Holmes, Rudwick’s work, in comparison to the others, “is a more tightly bounded, densely recounted episode that Rudwick employed in his effort to transcend ‘the individual scientist’ in order to see how ‘a specific scientific problem… brought together some group of individuals in an interacting network of exchange.”

Holmes goes on from here with little comment, but the timing of his lectures, five years after Leviathan and Rudwick, comes at a critical juncture. These works still represent fresh, productive approaches that compete with a slightly older style represented by guys like Buchwald and Heilbron. For Holmes they are two possible models that do two different kinds of work, but there’s no need to comment on their historiographical place, because they’re two accepted approaches.

Now, in my mind, Rudwick is prototypical of the case study tradition. It sets out to demonstrate by means of example, rather than to trace a history. It functions both as an illustration of a moment of “science in action”, and as an exemplar of a long-term historical reality (episteme?) (i.e., social structures in which controversies can be resolved in a gentlemanly fashion). Whereas the three works mentioned above chart out more of a medium-term historical arc. I would claim that somehow the Rudwick model came to dominate historical writing in subsequent years, but it’s not the model that Holmes chooses for his discussion of the 1840s to 1930s historical arc.

For now, I’d just like to muse about functional differences between these two models. The Rudwick model seems like sort of a one trick pony–if we don’t appreciate (and it’s debatable whether historians did) that the settlement of controversy can proceed independent of scientific arguments, Rudwick serves as a slap in the face. But, like a joke, the more you tell the story, the less illuminating each new case study becomes. Whereas, inquiries into historical arcs, while perhaps less earth-shattering, I think, ultimately gives us something to argue over, and, if we choose the right trends (or invent new narratives altogether–excitement!), this is probably the most continually productive route.

I think this choice of models is really one of these stylistic/economy-of-writing issues. It’s not a question of correctness, but how much argumentative work you can make history do for you.

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