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Science, Philosophy, Ideas, and Rhetoric December 16, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Moving temporarily away from the methodological discussion on what responsibilities historical works have toward historiography, I would like to discuss some problems related to the similarities and differences between scientific knowledge, philosophy, ideas, and rhetoric in a very preliminary fashion.

The relationship between these categories varies markedly between times and subject matters.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, there was no steady distinction between “science” and “natural philosophy”.  The literature on “humans and nature” sits at a busy intersection between the sciences of biology and ecology, the impact of humans on their environment, the modern environmentalist movement, the history of human ideas about “nature”, and so forth. Many ideas in areas like psychology and medicine have often had a strong correlation with ideas held in society more broadly.  The problem should provide good fodder for posts moving forward.

Today I’ll consider some distinctions based upon the way these things are accepted and travel.  I think that we can say that “ideas” have a literary quality in that they can travel, be picked up, transformed, and deployed relatively liberally.  When I say “literary”, I mean the fact that in literature themes, stock characters, metaphors, turns of phrase, and so forth can be tracked through time and between genres, and that there are no consistent restrictions on the ways this can happen.

Scientific and philosophical ideas, by contrast, operate within communities which accept very certain rules for the ways in which the use of ideas can be considered valid.  Science and philosophy might borrow an operative metaphor from the broader culture, but the validity of the use of the metaphor might be subjected to preexisting rules.  Similarly, science and philosophy might impart ideas to a broader culture, but there should be no expectation that those ideas will retain the “scientific” or “philosophical” constraints on their use.

Now, the analysis of the use of scientific, philosophical, or general ideas can proceed in very similar ways.  For example, the “public” can be said to have their own “economy” of ideas that operates according to certain rules, just as “science” does.  Nevertheless, it is worth keeping in mind that if the public economy of ideas appears to handle the same subject matter as science, say “evolution”, the ideas are sure to operate under a totally unrelated set of rules in each community.  Certainly historians of science can be (and have been) profitably interested in the public reception of evolution.  Nevertheless, the issue strikes me as having a lot more to do with the Pledge of Allegiance than with paleontology, which means historians who venture into this realm should be willing to suspend their instincts as historians of science.  That’s an arguable claim, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

(I’d like to withhold discussing the relationship between science and philosophy for the time being.  My preliminary feeling is that the history of philosophy is going to look more like the history of ideas by virtue of a shared concern with conceptualization, and that to distinguish it from the history of science, we’re going to have to bring the relationship between science and technology into the picture.  But nevermind that.)

I believe the relationship between ideas and rhetoric poses the central challenge to the historian.   If a scientist makes a public statement in all apparent sincerity, we might say that that statement is reflective of the scientist’s ideas.  But this, of course, is problematic for a variety of reasons.

One, if a scientist is talking about their science, you lose their “tacit knowledge” right away; and as you head further out from a core group of colleagues, you shed the constricted set of rules that science must obey to be science, even while the scientist still has their work in mind in all its complexity.  Eventually, you get to the “inspirational” literature on science, which has all kinds of fascinating rules and memes relating to how science is talked about that, once again, have little to do with the original ideas.  (There’s a fantastic example presented at Physics and Physicists.  Also, the Periodic Table of Expertises presented by the SEE program in the sociology of science has some very interesting things to say here.)

There is also the well-known problem of “Whig history”—failing to properly understand the contemporary meaning of words, historians may be inclined to ascribe modern or forward-reaching meaning to scientists’ rhetoric.  Devil begone!

Michel Foucault, idea man

Michel Foucault, idea man

Then there is the possibility that there is a significant disparity between ideas and their articulation, or that the most important ideas might never be articulated.  In his essay, “What is an Author?”, Michael Foucault pointedly warned about locating an individual’s definite ideas in their texts.  Foucault was also, of course, best known for reading ideas in practices rather than in rhetoric: traditions, mores, the architecture of public institutions, the structure and features of arguments, and so forth.  His strategy implies a good definition of an idea: it is something that causes events, decisions, and statements to make sense to the witness of the event or the maker of a decision or statement.

But, of course, we are still interested in what people have had to say.  We can ascribe a more satisfying meaning to actors’ statements if, assuming sincerity, we make them accord with their other statements, their recommendations for action, and their actual actions insofar as those actions can be verified.  (Actions speak louder than words.)  We might find, for instance, that enemies making contradictory statements actually held fairly similar ideas, and that their differences might have been limited to their desire to emphasize certain points or that their anxieties caused them to be suspicious of their enemies’ agenda despite the possibility of a charitable reading of their rhetoric.

If this is the case, it is to the historian’s benefit not only to report on the battles between enemies, but to offer an explication of the sides’ ideas extricated from the distorting effects of the battle (insofar as it is possible).  Occasionally offering a charitable reading to present an “undistorted” view can be controversial, say if the historian finds the position held to be objectionable; nevertheless, I think the professional imperative to uncover ideas as a path to coherent history should trump the possibility of being accused of offering an apologia.

I realize I’m not being very concrete at the moment (and rarely am in these “methods” posts), but this will offer a good reference to refer back to once we have a chance to deploy these ideas in specific situations.

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