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The Epistemological Imperative September 9, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

Extending yesterday’s post on the style employed in Matters of Exchange to a more general historiographical observation, I’d like to suggest that historians of science feel a sort of epistemological imperative in writing. That is, there is a sort of obligation to address general properties of “science” or “knowledge” by means of an analysis of whatever subject happens to be at hand.  Matters of Exchange is ostensibly about the relationship between science, medicine, and trade in early modern The Netherlands; but in a sense it’s really about the emergence of science from a culture of commerce, and is set up to argue the “commerce thesis” rather than anything specific about the The Netherlands in particular.

Meanwhile, Michael Robinson reviewed Graham Burnett’s Trying Leviathan over at Time to Eat the Dogs, which is about a lawsuit that hinges on whether or not the whale is a fish, and extends out to more general arguments about what kind of knowledge about whales matters to whom (whalers, whale oil sellers, naturalists, etc.)  Robinson points out, though, that the book also launches into an unwarranted and far more general discussion about whether knowledge is social, etc., etc.

The question that concerns me is whether or not the epistemological imperative actually makes a piece of writing say less by trying to say too much. Let’s take another book I brought up yesterday, William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis.  This book also has a broad sweeping argument spanning the “frontier thesis”, theories of center-periphery, and the constructed nature of nature.  But those arguments are rarely so well remembered as the book’s detailed explication of the history of Chicago and America’s northwest expansion in terms of a confluence of geography, technology, and economy.  Whether or not the book was supposed to be more about its broad arguments or about Chicago is not clear.  What is clear is that his broad arguments boost his argument about Chicago to the point that the Chicago argument is vastly superior to whatever broad points Cronon might have wanted to make.  And that’s OK, because Chicago and northwest expansion is an incredibly important topic that needed his particular perspective and that everybody ought to be interested in.

Similarly, the Dutch culture of medicine, learning, and trade is extremely important, as is America’s 19th century whale economy and its requisite knowledge.  So, why not stop there, and make these books (and many, many others) about the subject matter rather than force the subject matter to make a more general epistemological point?  I offer three possibilities:

1) We don’t actually see ourselves as historians, and historical arguments, no matter how important to however many people, don’t hold water compared to theories about epistemology.  We all want to be Wittgenstein (or whoever) or Wittgenstein’s foot soldiers.

2) We worry our professional audience won’t identify with local arguments outside of one’s specialty (except insofar as they reinforce the “everything is local thesis”), so we try and gussy the argument up with a more profound methodological point.

3) We aspire to write more popular history that smuggles science studies insights to a wider public beneath entertaining case studies.

I don’t think our writing is effective no matter which of those possibilities we might subscribe to.  I don’t think our books communicate science studies to broad audiences very well, and I think we professionals will feel more comfortable with than enlightened by the methodological points usually presented.  However, as an audience, we do need to be more curious about the historical details of areas outside our specialties, thereby freeing historians to address arguments to audiences about these details rather than about general epistemological points (science is constructed, science is tied to its (Imperialist, modern, Enlightenment, x, y, or z) context, technology is not deterministic, etc.)

None of this would be of concern to me if I didn’t feel that the topics addressed, examples presented, narratives reconstructed, and argumentative styles deployed didn’t systematically downplay historical argumentation in favor of ostensibly ambitious—but actually quite mundane—epistemological points that now are at the very methodological core of our profession, and that the general public may well never (and possibly should never) worry about.  A lot of good historical work is being done right now, and more can be picked out of existing books in the epistemological imperative tradition in spite of themselves.  But I believe a focused, specifically historical methodology would yield dividends for our work out of all proportion to what we now see.  I think a lot of the requisite research is being done, but its full potential is too often hidden by an adherence to the epistemological imperative.


1. darwinsbulldog - September 9, 2008
2. Michael Robinson - September 9, 2008

I take your point Will. I’ve read a lot of books which boil down to new case studies used to prove well established (or at least well liked) theories about the role of science in society. In fact we could simplify even further and say that most work in the history of science (for the last thirty years or so) is keen to prove the embeddedness of science in culture.

Still, I think that the tensions you point out in HoS monographs extends more broadly to other disciplines too. And I don’t see any problem in trying to work local and extrapolate big (if you can carry it off). Still I think we bog down our projects by losing sight of the beauty of historical dramas. As much as historians of science try to speak broadly, we all to often seem to be speaking to each other – and then acting surprised when no one reads our books.

3. Will Thomas - September 9, 2008

Indeed. I should clarify, incidentally, that following an epistemological imperative does not necessarily lead to trouble. It can absolutely be pulled off. I think Cook’s book works reasonably well. Its style can be frustrating for the reasons I lay out, but that wouldn’t prevent me from considering it canonical on its subject matter. Likewise, your review of Burnett leads me to believe that it’s pretty informative on the history of the whale trade.

But I am continually baffled by an unwillingness to do what Galison has called “mesoscopic” history in Image and Logic (an exemplar of the genre; see p. 61 for his definition). Historical dramas (by which I think you mean something similar to mesoscopic history, or what I think of as historical methodology) can not only be beautiful, but can help preserve historiographical gains as well as lead to new macroscopic insights.

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