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Globality vs. Semi-Globality June 5, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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These are not very descriptive terms, but they make the case well enough. I think we have to admit that we’ve never really given up on Conant’s project to explain science via historical case study. Even if we no longer pursue a philosophy of scientific knowledge, the search for theories thereof has not ceased. All the big historians still are very eager to make some kind of contributions to the big questions. Look at the scope of Galison’s questions–locality, globality, ethics, context. These are not questions about what is within the history of science, but questions that the history of science might address. They are not a path out of case study–they are a recipe for more.

The other pieces in this Isis focus section venture even further in this direction. They are permeated by trying to address the nature of reality, the nature of observation, and so forth. They are historicized, but not around scientific practice, but the philosophers who have explicitly addressed these questions: count the number of times pre-Kantian, Kantian, post-Kantian, and neo-Kantian appear… as if Kant or any other philosopher (let’s not get into the Heidegger fascination) were actually standard bearers who affected directions in scientific practice. It’s true many influential scientists (especially Germans) were influenced by these philosophical discussions. But we study them at the expense of understanding less articulated, more ingrained traditions of practice. Are we even playing a dangerous and somewhat illegitimate game by trying to read global philosophical debates (and historical epochs) onto localized practice?

If we want to be intellectual historians, are we even very good ones? Why, when we talk about the Enlightenment, is there such a fixation on Kant, even though he was a fairly marginal figure in his time? Even a cursory examination of Enlightenment science and philosophy reveals that it was not particularly Kantian. What about Hume? What about the scores of other thinkers that usually don’t make the canon, but were quite influential in their day?

But, big “global” questions aside, why aren’t key “semi-global” questions more hotly debated? The older historiography is extremely useful on certain semi-global problems. Buchwald’s book on the wave nature of light (1989) will surely go in my canon, but the topic would be considered parochial today, since it is not addressed to externalist links or the nature of observation. It would, I imagine, receive a politely glowing review in Isis (and elsewhere) and then be promptly ignored. And there are whole hosts of untapped semi-global issues–the rise of methods of argumentation in economics, the intertwining of science and engineering in the 20th century, the evolution of the concept of radiation and the proliferation of physical-chemical radiation studies, the professionalization of the 19th century laboratory (there’s got to be something on this that I’m not aware of).

All of these are extremely important, key “semi-global” issues that could use penetrating historical treatments, but I simply can’t imagine them being hot topics of conversation in colloquia, seminars, HSS meetings, and so forth. They’re too historical, too internalist, too detail-oriented, and not philosophically/sociologically global, and most definitely not capable of being treated via case study.

PS. When we get around to canon-building in a couple of weeks, I suspect we’ll find that the early modernists and maybe the history of medicine people are way ahead of everyone in addressing the semi-global, but that’s a topic for another day.


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