Depicting Science in Context April 21, 2008Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Frederic Holmes, Paul Erickson, Philip Mirowski
First: Jenny’s been away from Paris, but will be back this week, and, so far as I know, her online debate is still on. The plan is to use Google Talk Messaging, which requires either a special download, available here, or just a gmail account. If you’d like to participate or just watch, you can contact one of us on our gmail accounts: gwilliamthomas or jennifer.ferng and we’ll be sure to send you an invite. I expect it will be in the evening Paris time, so afternoon in America, on the 23rd. If you’d like to suggest possible points to discuss (really anything goes, but the idea is historiography, not even necessarily of science), leave a comment here.
Now, I wanted to discuss strategies for talking about scientific culture, which is influenced by my recent reading of Holmes, Mirowski’s More Heat Than Light (which I’m using for ideas for my lecture on economics tomorrow), and some recent emails with Paul Erickson concerning his work on game theory (which everyone interested in 20th century science should have a look at when it come out).
Here’s the historiographical problem: how do we talk about events “in their own terms”? First runs through a history tend (maybe inevitably?) to be Whiggish–how does the past presage some later understanding? The historian’s major response seems to be “to situate B within the contemporary context of X” or to show “B as a product/reflection of X”; which tends to read the history of B only inasmuch as it relates to X. Now, this in no way precludes reading B as a product of Y or Z, either, but it also doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding B “in its own terms”. This is definitively not to say that B is independent of everything else, but I do think it prevents us from taking B seriously, even as we take its cousins at the end of the alphabet entirely too seriously. Why are X, Y, and Z allowed to take on a solid meaning, and not B?
Take Mirowski–his big argument in MHTL is that 19th century economics was forged in relation to the perception of what physics was accomplishing, with neoclassical economics being a direct copy of energetics. He’s certainly right about the existence of the connections, but I rarely feel like I’m understanding the economics on its own terms, despite his valiant efforts to dispel the Whiggishness of the history of pre-neoclassical economics as striving towards some sort of obviously true neoclassical understanding. The mathematical moves the economists make might appear to mimic physics in some ways, but is there a different epistemology at work? Did the economists really think they were doing the same thing as the physicists, even if the equations are copied directly? I would tend to think not, given that their main tradition was one of political philosophy rather than mathematical physics, so I would think that the mathematics would be reinterpreted within the historically dominant tradition. A conversation for another day….
Anyway, Mirowski aside, my main trouble with “in the context of X/Y/Z” is that it presumes we have a solid understanding of X/Y/Z, when what is really meant is a simple shorthand. Take “science X in the context of the Cold War”; what is usually meant is that said science “has an aroma of paranoia about it”, “benefits the military”, and/or “is expensive”–detailed understanding of Cold War historical dynamics will typically not figure. As for science X, it’s usually implicit that the science itself is understood well enough “in its own terms” and that, therefore, additional light will be shed on it by situating it within its context. But, what strikes me is that the science is usually not well understood, either because it hasn’t ever been recapitulated in a coherent narrative, or that whatever recapitulation does exist is all within the inadequate Whiggish old school/practitioner/pop historiography, which few historians in the audience will actually read (for good reasons), thus limiting the informativeness of the exercise.
So, in my mind, it’s best to go back and retell the original story, maybe in a different way, paying attention to different things, or assigning different weights to different parts of the narrative “in light of” what we know about the context. So, we still acknowledge that the thing we are studying is actually an entity in and of itself, and is not merely an artifact bearing the marks of overlapping themes and discourses. This is why I like Holmes so well–he really tries to get back to the original material and understand its intellectual project without abandoning the context. This inevitably makes for a really convoluted history, but the attempt to unravel it is, in my experience, where the really good historical arguments take place. Next time, as promised, Holmes’ epilogue.