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Historical Traditions June 10, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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I was looking through some of the other entries in Isis‘ focus section on new directions in the History and Philosophy of Science, and one of the historically-interested philosophers, Michael Friedman, made a point that accords nicely with the approach that I developed in my class and am thinking more about now.

First, some background. I’ve talked a lot here about the ways our writing emphasizes the science-society relationship in very specific ways; and I’ve written a little (especially since I’ve gotten into Galison’s questions) on the ways that other topics of broad interest to historians of science tend to revolve around science’s and scientists’ addressing of philosophical questions: the mind-body problem, the nature of space (from Kant to Einstein), the relationship between perception, cognition, expression, and reality, etc… In most cases, there is little interest on the content and “character” of science itself, taken broadly, i.e. what science is “all about” in various times and places. I’ll deal with the successes of notable exceptions when I get into the problem of the canon, but that’s the background of this excerpt of my reading of Friedman’s piece:

Following a long discussion of the history of philosophy, Friedman suddenly shifts gears, and, connecting up to Galison’s 7th and 8th questions on locality and globality, he writes,

“I want to suggest that the old-fashioned notion of tradition should, once again, be seen as central to historical inquiry. History should be seen, in particular, as the birth, unfolding, evolution, transformation, and (perhaps most important) mutual interaction and entanglement of a very large number of traditions constituting the extraordinarily complex and ever-changing fabric of human culture. Naturally, as a professional philosopher of science, the traditions in which I myself am primarily interested, and with which I am most familiar, are traditions of thought (both scientific and philosophical), but it is of paramount importance to realize that these traditions, too, are only a part of a much larger cultural whole comprehending religious, political, artistic, technological, instrumental, institutional, and many other traditions within a vast and intricately interconnected web. Just as a particular philosophical or scientific idea has the meaning it does only as a part of this larger whole, a given temporal slice or historical episode (as studied within contemporary microhistory, for example) has the meaning it does only in the context of a number of temporally extended traditions that intersect, as it were, at precisely this focal point.”

This neatly encapsulates my perspective on what it means to do the history of science. In itself, Friedman is not saying anything controversial here. To demonstrate that this is what history is, is not the task of the historian. That’s a starting point, not an ending point. The task of the historian is to chart and to argue about the importance and interaction of all kinds of traditions. This means that it is important for the community, as a whole, to write about all of these traditions, and, again, for the community as a whole, to take an interest in all of these different traditions. So, yes, we should be art historians, architectural historians (Jenny promises more posts soon!), and historians of philosophy, but that doesn’t excuse us from actually being historians of more specifically scientific traditions, as well. There are, of course, lots of historians who are interested in nitty-gritty issues of science without worrying about imagery or philosophy or anything (and who probably know the key traditions intuitively), but very few who assert themselves with respect to traditions, or who feel that a detailed understanding of them, in all their multiple strands, is important for students to pick up. That’s too bad, because the more I learn about various traditions, the more I feel I actually understand the history of science. Seeing a philosopher, of all people, point this out is very encouraging.

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