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Depicting Science in Context April 21, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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.



1. Michael Bycroft - March 14, 2011

“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.”

This describes very well my own experience of studying a noted second-tier scientist in the 18C. Most post-1980 historians who write about him argue in one way or another that their predecessors have done a botched job by failing to place his scientific work (a bunch of experimental treatises) in context. This is all to the good, and generates some rich themes for thinking about the treatises. But one does not have to read very far in the treatises before realising that the contextualisations are imperfect — sometimes to the extent that they do more harm than good to our understanding of the contents of the treatises.

The effect is especially striking in my case because a) this is a second-tier scientist, so even old-style historians have not studied the treatises in much detail, meaning that the contextualisations rely on a partial view of the texts and b) the old-style historian is a fine scholar. The result is that as far as the treatises are concerned the old-style account is actually better than the new-style accounts. The irony is that the old-style account is “better” in just the way that the contextualising accounts are *supposed* to be better: more nuanced and detailed and more in tune with the scientist’s intentions in the treatises. The old-style account tells us more about the actor’s own projects and experiences even as it tells us about his errors, his anticipations of present-day science, and the painstaking thoroughness of his method that led him to an important new discovery about his topic.

From this episode I have concluded that–when it comes to understanding a text–a lot of text with no context is better than a bit of text with a lot of context.

I am also tempted to conclude that, in the case of the 18C at least, the “great texts by great men” approach is basically sound. The approach is warranted by the simple fact that (in the early 18C at least) texts and men form pretty robust historical units–at least as robust as “communities”, “epistemes”, “knowledge practices” or “schools of natural philosophy.” This why my old-style historian can go a long way towards understanding the scientist and his treatises without relying on information from their “context.”

2. Will Thomas - March 14, 2011

What on earth are you doing back here in 2008, Michael? I don’t even really remember writing this stuff. Glad you’re enjoying the archives, though.

On this particular post, I’m interested to see that it is basically an early draft of my most recent post! It also seems pretty relevant to a paper I’ve just finished a good draft of, wherein I’m basically trying to develop and rework some ideas of Galison’s about how to put together a coherent intellectual history of particle detection. It’s also akin to a point (of which I was unaware at the time, but which a reader, Tawrin, later pointed out) made by Bill Newman about alchemy, which is that it was assumed that we knew everything we needed to know about it intellectually, and that what was needed was to place it in a social context.

Anyway, I think your experience further shows the need to keep intellectual history healthy at all times. And, yes, this history is mainly about people responding to each others’ ideas and criticisms. If we lose sight of that, we lose sight of the subject matter. (This is a point taken up rather strenuously by Martin Rudwick in his recent, massive, two-volume overview of the early history of geology.)

The problem of historiographical craft is this issue of “losing sight”. At what point does, say, a contextualization (and even old-school historians like Charles Gillispie contextualize 18th-century work) stop being an addendum to an evolving intellectual history, and start having to take responsibility for standing on its own? When does the intellectual history get thrown into archive alongside the primary texts?

This is an issue that interests me greatly, since I do have an amateur interest in natural philosophy in this period, and have found that at least major portions the recent historiography seems to have forgotten that speculative writing was a major thing in this period, though it was all the rage 30 years ago.

I think I’m going to take a pass on your other comment on the companion post from May ’08. I’m too far removed from my brief dalliance with a theory of context!

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