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HSS Highlights, Pt. 2 December 7, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Continuing part 1 of my recap of the good stuff I took away from this year’s HSS meeting in Pittsburgh….

There was a good session dedicated to “Science and Spectacle in the 18th Century” with papers by Mi Gyung Kim and Michael Lynn on ballooning, and Simon Werrett on the links between thinking on fireworks and electrical performance and philosophy.  There was also very good commentary by Jan Golinski, who pointed to Simon Schaffer’s paper, “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century” as the key work initiating this line of scholarship.  Werrett’s paper, in particular, was right out of Schaffer’s playbook (he even sounds a lot like him).  It’s interesting to see the issue of natural philosophical spectacle gain a finer texture, although it’s a little weird that we’re still puzzling out the taxonomy of practices of spectacle and philosophical demonstration a quarter of a century after the fact.  In any case, I enjoyed the fact that my blog-related reading paid off for me, and am hoping we’re on the upswing of interest in the problems of 18th century inquiry, ideas, and knowledge.

I also went to a couple of nice talks of more personal interest.  I don’t suspect that Alan Richardson’s work on American “experimentalist” philosophy of science will spark too much immediate interest, but the work of Edgar Singer, West Churchman, and Russ Ackoff (the latter two are better known in the management science/operations research world) was quite novel and had some interesting insights at the border of economics and epistemology.  I advise keeping an eye out.  Also, the economist and historian Judy Klein gave a talk on economics, mathematics, and policy science at Carnegie Tech that was very interesting.  She’s still plugging away at her Protocols of War book, which will be important, but, again, I suspect, it won’t have much of a natural audience in the history of science community.  Hopefully historians of economics will pick up on it.

Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin

The distinguished lecture this year was given by Steven Shapin, whose influence on history of science writing and thinking has been enormous—a point we will be discussing on this blog over the next couple of months or so.  Shapin, of course, was co-author of Leviathan and the Air Pump and author of The Social History of Truth.  I would say his central contribution has been his articulation of the idea that an understanding of what kinds of claims can be made by whom, and in what form is absolutely central to any understanding of the history of science.

As Shapin points out at the beginning of his new book, The Scientific Life, he is not exactly a historian or a sociologist, though his work contains elements of both.  He logged time as part of the highly influential Science Studies Unit at Edinburgh University, before moving to the sociology department at UCSD, before alighting at Harvard’s History of Science Department several years ago.  That’s where I got to know him a little bit when I was a grad student there.  I took his class on the Sociology of Science in History (or whatever he called it to get it accepted as a “history” class), which really brought to light for me how important the bizarre history of our profession is to understanding the way we now do business.

As I discussed a little bit when talking about Harry Collins and the Bath School of sociology (which competed/conversed with Edinburgh), disciplinary clarity can be a good thing, because it helps structure what kinds of scholarly claims one is in a position to make.  Collins is largely a sociologist who is interested in defining and answering the kinds of questions a sociological perspective might answer.  Similarly, I would say that Simon Schaffer is pretty clearly a historian.  Keeping these notions in mind can make reading these authors a more satisfying experience.  Shapin’s defiance of disciplinary categories troubles me a bit, and so I think it’s important to put a little thought into how to take him, since he is obviously someone worth paying attention to.  Lately, I’ve tended to peg him as an astute commentator and essayist, interested more in looking at history and picking out revealing perspectives or tacit assumptions in a literature, than in assembling a satisfying historical account or coherent theory.  A little like George Orwell, maybe.  When you approach Shapin, it’s just sort of a “let’s talk about science” experience.

This approach was out in force in Shapin’s lecture, “Lowering the Tone in the History of Science: A Noble Calling”, which revolved around his own experiences in the science studies disciplines.  Whether or not science represented some “special” process, removed from ordinary power politics, providing a Method yielding Truth, are highly charged issues that have surrounded Shapin’s career (the blow-by-blow can be found in John Zammito’s essential Nice Derangement of Epistemes).  Shapin talked about how his work in science studies, and those conversations, have sought to remove the tendency to discuss science in disembodied astral terms, to “lower the tone”.

My big question is whether Shapin and his science studies cohort have actually helped keep the tone inflated simply by bringing up the question of “tone” again and again.  By drafting their questions in provocative terms, have they sowed controversy where there was always plenty of room for agreement?  When you find a scholarly deployment of the epistemic imperative in the literature, you very often find a footnote to Social History of Truth staring back at you.  Has Shapin accomplished his goals, or scored an own goal?  Has he buried some problems by illuminating others?  Has he eclipsed some scholarship by spotlighting what he wants to spotlight?  We’ll come back to these questions.

I find Shapin tends to be realistic and honest about his methods in that his commentary tends to be evasive about what its goals are or how seriously it should be taken.  That, it seems, is our responsibility.  If we in the history of science have taken his and others’ scholarship as license to bury certain problems or to eclipse a certain branch of scholarship, that’s our fault.  If we want to take up his ideas—and we should—we are ultimately obligated to enter into the conversations he has initiated.  In my mind, the trick is not getting trapped in his formulation of the terms of the conversation, taking his insights for what they’re worth and getting back to our own work.  That’s what will get us to lower the tone for good.

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