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Galison’s Q’s #3: Technology of Argumentation May 19, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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PhunDay: once again a great time. Good papers; good, deep arguments. Apparently we’ve got some blog readers from Princeton, so here’s a shout out to y’all up in NJ.

To continue on with another PhunDay participant, Peter Galison’s questions, I’ll address Peter’s third question about historical argumentation. He starts out by talking about the boxes of inquiry: physical sciences, biological sciences, earth sciences, etc… which leads to a heavy concentration on certain areas clearly within these boxes (Darwin, quantum measurement, number theory, etc…), but less in cross-cutting areas, though we have a good start in areas like probability, objectivity (cf. his new book with Raine Daston), observation, and model building. So, the question seems to be, where should we go with this?

I guess I have a few reactions. First, it may be too easy to invent or commandeer categories and then to tell their history in our eagerness to find sexy new ways of looking at history. Before commenting conclusively or in depth I have to sit down with the book rather than flip through it, but I have my suspicions about the objectivity argument (Ted Porter wrote a good review on this, too, I think in Isis–I’d have to look it up). Galison and Daston chart attitudes toward objectivity through time. But is objectivity the sort of thing that bears coherent attitudes that change in clear ways? You can tell a history of anything if you cherry pick your evidence, but I always liked Keith Thomas’ Man and the Natural World, which to me serves as a permanent refutation of the notion that the human “attitude to the natural world” is something that actually has much of a history, because there are just too many concurrent–and contradictory–perspectives couched in concerns other than a general outlook on the natural world. (It’s true Thomas focuses on the “man” bit from his title, but arguments that “women” have a coherent attitude to the natural world have always struck me as fiercely reductivist as well). I’d think objectivity is a similar sort of concept–different attitudes toward portraying the “typical” or the “prototypical” or the “unusual” or the “specific specimen” would probably vary depending on concern rather than on grander epistemic shifts, but maybe that’s wrong….

That said, the approach has produced its successes. I think Daston and Park’s charting of attitudes toward wonder was very well done and was a nice way of looking at changing ideas about knowledge without adhering to science/non-science boundaries. Also, I believe the history of 20th century science cannot be told without discussing a constant state of interdisciplinary shifting. These shifts might not be a broad cross-science trend, but they definitely defy a one-field analysis. Also, Peter’s focus on the tools of science is apt. There’s a lot more history left to write on the history of such-and-such a method of arguing, or such-and-such an epistemological sensibility. In fact, these histories probably serve as a sort of guide to interdisciplinary shifts. I’m not sure if I can articulate that any better at this point.

One last observation: historians of science have never seemed to mind stepping outside of boxes. If anything, we’ve become obsessed with accounts that emphasize what is external to the history of our science. Yet, we do seem to harp on the same bits of science, the same stories over and over again, don’t we? I attribute this to a growing lack of concern with the actual history of science, and more toward seeing ourselves as historians of “ways of seeing the world” or something. But this strange disconnect between our desire to go outside the box and our adherence to a very narrow set of episodes or scientific practices is worthy of further thought.

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