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Holmes, Part 3: Does Nature Matter? April 18, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Comparing what I’ve (poorly) called the historical arc vs. the historical reality models of writing history, Holmes goes on to discuss some of the relevant literature. Probably his main target here is Robert Kohler’s (1982, now out of print) From Medical Chemistry to Biochemistry: The Making of a Biomedical Discipline, the first chapter of which explores how “physiological chemistry” was caught in a sort of professional limbo between physiology and organic chemistry in the German university system–hence this gap between first major calls for a cell-oriented chemistry ca. 1850, and the eventual instantiation of a full-blown biochemistry ca. 1900.

Now, things get complicated here, so all this is all too-fast, too-rough recapitulation, but, long story short, Kohler’s book focuses almost exclusively on the non-scientific politics of disciplinary formation. One of Holmes’ big points is to bring the science back into the picture. “If we are to understand scientific innovation and change comprehensively, then we need studies at all levels of organization, from the individual investigator [which he goes on to defend vigorously] and the local research school to the international field; and on time scales ranging from daily experimental operations to the several decades or even much longer that are often required for scientific problems to evolve and for major domains of scientific knowledge to be acquired.” He had previously discussed Mulkay and Edge, but he’s also clearly addressing the points made by Kohler and Latour: “A research field is more than a network of communication and ties of professional interest.”

In some sense, this boils down to the usual, “but nature matters!” argument deployed against the “spin up” interpretation of sociology. Rudwick (see the last post) certainly agrees (see the latest HSS newsletter). Kohler seems to as well, and actually, in his 1982 book, seems to lament the politics of the German university that prevented biochemistry from emerging. Although Holmes gets into it, repeatedly, with the sociologists’ “spin up” arguments throughout the lectures, I get the feeling his main concern is not with proving that nature matters, but, rather, that he has his own, very historiographical agenda. He wants to know how we get down to telling histories that reveal what mattered, and thus why his approach to history is best in this case, as opposed to an approach like that used in, say, Great Devonian Controversy or From Medical Chemistry to Biochemistry.

By embracing both long time spans (unlike a case study approach like Rudwick’s), and by embracing laboratory-level practice (unlike Kohler’s approach to a similar topic), Holmes aims to show how the formation of a field like biochemistry is not simply a matter of willing it into existence provided there are no political barriers, but that nature and the evolution of ideas about nature matter in determining what is deemed worth investigation. Most of his lectures are centered around constructing a narrative in which such points are pertinent. In other words, he shows how a more sociologist-friendly book like Kohler’s is actually more Whiggish than his approach, because it presumes that a field like biochemistry ought to exist, and that it was necessary for the emergence of biochemical knowledge (as Kohler himself seems to confirm). This could all be a big misinterpretation of the historiographical argument taking place, on both Holmes’ and Kohler’s parts–I read this stuff quickly–but it’s what I took away from it.

Next time: Holmes responds to some criticisms in his epilogue.

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