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Galison’s Q’s #9: Relentless Historicism June 7, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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Question #9 has got to be my favorite. I hadn’t read this over in detail before putting together my thoughts on #8, but it turns out the reasoning behind this question sums up where I was trying to go with my discussion of globality better than I did. Basically Peter says that we take certain theorists seriously, while historicizing everything else: “more accounts of the development than I can count put Ludwig Wittgenstein on a transhistorical pedestal and use his claims (of family resemblance or of continuing a series) as an unmoved prime mover, wisdom without origin.”

First, let’s address the critique. Galison portrays the tendency to single out thinkers as a sort of oversight in the historicist project, but this is charitable. At our worst, I think we see ourselves in a full-out political battle royale, and historicism is our gun. If we see certain thinkers as “on our side” we will portray other thinkers as “products of their context” to invalidate their claims. Which is just dishonest scholarship.

So how should we treat old ideas? Galison provides two perspectives: we can try to be relentlessly historicist; or we can admit some structuralist means of escape. I think the latter position is inevitable, because in saying what “was done” in the past, the vocabulary we use to describe it constitutes a claim about “what can happen”.

A Marxist or a poststructuralist theorist might ask some motivation-independent question “what political program was asserted?” A Whig historian or a philosopher might ask a Platonic question: “what was accomplished?” A sociologist might ask a skeptic’s question: “what physical action do we believe was taken, never mind the intellectual significance?” All have their own vocabularies “the masculine gaze was applied” or “a theory was confirmed” or “a Type 3F truth claim was made”.

What is the poor historian to do? What vocabulary will we choose, and, thus, what structuralist interpretation of “was done” will we advocate? What will be our fundamental (arbitrary?) historical reality? This is a question for debates and tracts and the like, but it never hurts to blog about it either.

Right now we have a bricolage (if you will) of colloquial language, sociological theory, scientific theory, and philosophical theory. We have a list of “actors’ terms” and we have our modern language, which we must reconcile in making claims (of varying strength) about how they perceived and explained and responded to things that we know to have been physically possible. For example, when they claimed they received a message from God, we might say that “had an idea, and claimed that they received a message from God”.

But when we say “had an idea” and “claimed”, this is a structuralist vocabulary. The question becomes, how well do we use our language? When we say “claimed” this could mean “asserted” or “hyperbolized” or “speculated” or “said” all of which contain sociological/colloquial weight. “To assert” means “to say something in the expectation of disagreement in which event you will defend your statement” whereas “to say” might imply either “to say in the expectation of being believed”. Et cetera.

What does all this boil down to? I’ve been trying to think about this for awhile, and I simply can’t articulate what I’d like to say. “Expectation” is important; so is “demonstration” and “agreement”; so is the vocabulary of likelihood. I’ll just end up by saying this. When I was in high school, I took this (terrible) cultural anthropology class that met right after a philosophy class. I doubt the philosophy class was much better, but for a week or two the question “How precise is your language?” was written up on the board for that class. Damned if that’s not a great question, and damned if Galison’s two-sided question isn’t great as well.

PS. One last point. Maybe the question is actually a little unfair. No one says we can’t both historicize and use theorists. Just because (sometimes) our object of study also happens to be the source of our methodology, doesn’t mean we have to tie ourselves in knots (as I’ve been doing over this question). Like any scholar or scientist, the best we can do is choose a vocabulary and take things into account that seem to explain our subject in a way that answers as many possible questions and provokes as few objections as possible. And I won’t theorize as to why that is!

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