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Galison’s Questions, #1: What is Context? May 8, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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In the latest Isis Peter Galison address “Ten Problems in History and Philosophy of Science”. This is the sort of thing where it’s easy to just nod and agree, yeah, these are good questions–and then never worry about it again. The blog format seems to be a good way to respond quickly and publicly. It’d be nice if there was some sort of more widespread way to respond, but, lacking that, I’ve decided to tackle Galison’s questions here, in a new series of posts. So, bust out your copy of Isis, and play along.

Galison’s first question is “What is Context?” He observes that the escape from externalist-internalist debates has resulted in an appeal to context. But, to phrase it in a Seinfeldian way: what’s the deal with context? Does it cause events, does it provide resources, what? Philosophers refer to the context of a work by refering to other works. Historians refer to the non-textual environment surrounding a text we are interested in. “What kind of thing is a candidate for context?” “How does a contextual explanation work?”

It so happens I recently pontificated on this issue, so I’ll just expand on my previous point. Basically, I think context can entail pretty much anything. The trick, in my mind, is to avoid exchanging your subject for its context. Let’s say you’re writing about a science in the context of imperialism, I’ve seen far too many accounts where it is actually irrelevant what science is being talked about, because the paper, ultimately, is about imperialism, not the science. The point of the paper is to show that the science was reflective/a product of its imperialist context. But, using this strategy, we don’t really learn much about the context either, because it basically just uses things everybody already knows about imperialism (or whatever) to illustrate the case in point, almost always: “context matters”.

So, that brings it to the question: how does context matter? Here I think, if we are truly interested in the science in question, we cannot, unequivocally, beyond a doubt, set out to study “Science X as _____”. The word “as” is nice, because it allows us to see things as they do not immediately appear to be, but it’s also one of the most abused crutches in historiography. In my mind, the thing we need to do is get back to studying X in and of itself in light of as many different contexts as seem pertinent, and then discuss the ways in which they matter or do not matter, and maybe even attempt to assign significance to them.

Let’s take, say, a theory to be our example. We might write about a theory in the context of some experiment. The theory is designed to explain the experiment. However, one very nice trend in the historiography has been to not take the theoretical context for granted. Let’s discuss the theory in the context of previous theories. What theory-making tools does the theory in question make use of? Thus we have now started to discuss the history of various theory-making traditions, which is, clearly, at least as important in explaining any given theory’s existence/form/style/whatever, as the experiment that actually provided the impetus for this particular theory.

Context doesn’t always have to be the cliches we already understand (and should probably reconceptualize or even unlearn) from any given historical era. In fact, I think I disagree with Galison. Internalism vs. externalism should not die; we just don’t need to be purists about it. Ultimately, we can call some contexts unequivocally internal and some contexts unequivocally external, and some will be more difficult to define. But, I think we need to defend the attention we pay to certain contexts. We can say Science X would not have looked the same without its imperialist context. Well, sure, and I wouldn’t exist if my mother had never met my father. What’s your point?

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