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Essay: Shapin and the Historiographic Life January 30, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Today I would like to use Steven Shapin’s account of the history of ideas relating to the moral qualities of scientists—Chapters 2 and 3, “From Calling to Job: Nature, Truth, Method, and Vocation from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries” and “The Moral Equivalence of the Scientist: A History of the Very Idea”, from The Scientific Life—to consider the difficulties committed historians may experience in using the insights of essayists in historiographically beneficial ways.  I have previously suggested that Shapin is best understood as an essayist, someone who explores the consequences of possible interpretations of a topic.

To call Shapin an essayist rather than a committed historian is not an accusation or a radical suggestion, but simply an exploration of the consequences of my own interpretation of Shapin’s stated comments concerning what he is doing (hence the title of this “essay”).  Shapin begins the preface of The Scientific Life by observing that his earlier application of his studies of seventeenth-century natural philosophy to the present was taken by “some of my historian-friends” as “further proof that my commitment to the purity and particularity of history was wanting” (my emphasis).  He responds: “They were right.”  Here the committed historian might suppose Shapin intends to rectify past wrongs, but I believe this is a mistaken reading, which presumes that he recognizes historiographically virtuous readings to be the most valuable.  The observant reader will note that throughout his preface and his first chapter, he deploys a series of postures explicitly designed to dismiss his work from the responsibility—though not the possibility—of serving any historiographical utility.

Let me offer four examples of these postures.  On the very first page of the preface he disavows disciplinary allegiance to both history and sociology, and deploys a Rashomon posture to profess his intention to use history to inform current thinking.  On the next page he supposes the poverty of prior historiography to provide himself with a fresh canvas.  He is a humble-but-intrepid intellectual explorer: “here I start with a sketch of some issues involved in describing aspects of how we live now” (his emphasis).  On page 18 he accepts: “It is the normal fate of books to be misunderstood, or at least to evoke understandings in readers at some angle from those the author intended.”

Shapin deploys this last posture to emphasize that he intends neither to celebrate nor criticize the current configuration of scientific life.  Those familiar with the 1980s vintage of science studies culture—note, not “history of science” culture (the full merger would not come until about 1990 or so)—will recognize the move as reminiscent of the old Edinburgh School’s belief that the study of the social structure of science would provide more accurate descriptions of scientific practice than the philosophy of science had, without (unlike Marxist scholars) commenting on the acceptability of those practices.

Considering Shapin’s heritage in this culture, I believe it is best to think of his “history” as following in an unusual science studies strategy, which is to write history from within a self-imposed methodological strait-jacket.  (Latour’s Pasteurization of France, for example, works within the strait-jacket of ANT)  In this case, I believe what Shapin is doing is trying to write a socio-intellectual history by seeing history as a cascade of moral imperatives, which is actually pretty clever.

Shapin’s approach (if this is his approach) is better understood if one takes a quick look at his review of the Atkins and South Beach diet books (contemporary dietetics) in the London Review of Books.  To summarize, Shapin observes how the ingestion of food follows certain moral habits concerning belief in the nature of the food.  Some foods (those denoted “high carb”) are “bad”.  Eating all one wants is considered “good”.  If one avoids the bad, one is free to pursue the good.  Thus “high carb foods” and “eating all one wants” form central elements of the moral and material “cosmology” of contemporary dietetics.  This perspective divorces moral imperatives from the expressed rationales for said moral life, which is a pretty clear extrapolation from the longstanding sociology of science concern that social action is based on trust in experts (or friends)—not on any firm foundation of actual knowledge and experience.  (See last year’s Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans for some of the most recent concerns in this line of thought.)

The idea behind viewing history from a methodological strait-jacket is to derive new insights, new things that “require explanation” which is an admirable goal for the committed historian.  Nevertheless, committed historians must beware presumptions informing the essayist’s approach.  The essayist always presumes a certain naiveté on the part of the audience, which the essayist aims to amend.  As I mentioned earlier, Shapin claims that scholars lack the accurate conceptual understanding of industrial research they need to analyze it properly.  This accusation hinges on his reading of the history of ideas concerning the moral identity of the scientist, and not on any thorough review of the narrow-but-extant historiography of industrial research.

Shapin’s history of ideas serves his purpose of amending the naiveté of the proposed audience by proposing new conceptualizations of how “we” (whoever this “we” might happen to be—it is, I believe, a self-selecting first-person plural) think and have thought.  Committed historians may have difficulties with the history of ideas Shapin deploys.  Given the way Shapin opens his book, it seems safe to suppose that they may rest well assured that they are not the first to object to his methodology.  Being a committed historian myself, I would like to enumerate some of the dangers to be derived from assuming Shapin’s “moral history” is the same as what a committed historian would consider a responsible “history of ideas”.

First, the history seems to query the historical record about issues to which it cannot offer a coherent response.  Notably, in Chapter 3, Shapin points out that scientists have come to be seen as vocational and “morally equivalent [to average people]” because—contrary to popular notions—they, variously….  are human beings, have emotions, can be emotionally stable, are interested in money, will not sacrifice their family’s well-being for their work, are interested in world affairs, have flaws, are not better people than everyone else, are not so cosmopolitan that they can’t be loyal capitalist citizens, are not moral saviors, have social responsibilities, are not always interested in seeking out pure truth, can be productive members of organizations, are not all geniuses, like to have fun, etc.

Does this culling of decontextualized rhetoric represent a coherent history of “the very idea” of “moral equivalence”?  I would tend to think not.  Let’s say we have a scientist who is morally “peculiar” (Shapin tends to use “superior”, but I think peculiar gets at his meaning better) because he is willing to work for less money than businessmen; said scientist could also prove to be “morally equivalent” because he will not work for free.  Let’s say we have a scientist who is morally peculiar because she has an unusual appreciation of cosmopolitan values; she might also be “morally equivalent” because she is interested in the affairs of the world.  The idea of the moral qualities of the scientist to which I, the speaker, apparently adhere depends upon which way I happen to formulate my rhetoric.

Also, the guises to which Shapin applies the notion “scientist” vary substantially.  There are intellectuals, philosophers of knowledge, natural philosophers, university researchers, industrial researchers, government advisers, and public figures, any of whom might be expected to demonstrate certain qualities different from that of other genres of scientist.  If I, again the speaker, refer to the qualities of scientists, I may be well aware that “scientists” (considered broadly) may divide their labor in different ways, and that I may be commenting on the appropriateness of current or proposed divisions of labor (albeit with clumsy rhetoric).

Let’s take the case of Michael Polanyi (a Hungarian emigre to Britain) and J. D. Bernal (a British Marxist), the dispute between whom Shapin mentions briefly.  We might argue that scientists should not be vocational workers if we, like Polanyi, were concerned that university work was going to be tightly controlled by the state, but it would say nothing of our ideas about how industrial research should be managed.  Likewise, we might say that scientists are just another breed of worker if we, like Bernal, thought scientists needed to take more responsibility for the social uses to which the fruits of their scientific labor were put, but it would say nothing of our attitudes toward epistemology.

Ultimately, we might suppose Polanyi and Bernal espoused different ideas, old and new, about who “the scientist” “should be”, but it’s not clear to me that they actually held radically different views about epistemology or the management of technological development.  Rather, the rhetoric of each was motivated by underlying ideas about the desirability of present and proposed possibilities for the division of British scientific labor.  Polanyi was worried university science was going to be treated like technological development.  Bernal was worried technological development wouldn’t be considered a political issue because of the apolitical reputation of university science.  Each was commenting on the need to preserve or create certain facets of scientific moral life, which contain conflicting statements about who the scientist “should be”.  Which of those statements is expressed is a function of the speaker’s perceptions of which facets of scientific labor and personality require emphasis.

Of course, following Shapin, we might just find it interesting that imperatives about the organization of scientific labor have from time to time been expressed in terms of what kind of person “the scientist” should be.  And maybe we might pan a little gold from the stream.  But I find historical actions and patterns of rhetoric make far more sense if we try and get at the ideas motivating the rhetoric, rather than try and uncover some epochal assumptions embodied in rhetorical forms.  This is my concern, because I am committed to a genuine historical understanding of past ideas.  The constraints of this commitment mean interpreting the 20th-century rhetoric of science requires a detailed understanding of the relationship between past rhetoric and the details of past ideas about the relationship between scientific labor, technological R&D, and business planning that informed that rhetoric.  Shapin’s stated concern, recall, is with the rhetorical devices to be deployed by more recent scholars; therefore rhetorical tics will apparently suffice as representatives of past ideas.

The difference between these perspectives leads to vastly different needs for deployment of pertinent facets of the historical record and past historiography.

Shapin’s chronology of ideas is extremely selective.  For example, in his view, non-strenuous notions of truth, concomitant with a vocational view of science, are a very recent development, as evidenced, for example, by the rise of pragmatist philosophy circa 1900; prior to 1800, the object of science was to obtain “truth” which was a reflection of  the mind of God.  This conception of history ignores various significant points (of which Shapin is surely aware), such as that one of the Royal Society’s first projects was a history of trades, that Benjamin Franklin is a granddaddy of the American predilection for practical knowledge and folk wisdom, that Lavoisier began his textbook on chemistry with a discussion of science as the search for proper language, and that the trend of his chronology is more-or-less an inversion of the chronology offered in Foucault’s epistemic survey of intellectual history The Order of Things (not that I’d trust Foucault’s chronology).

I am willing to accept a certain degree of interpretive intrepidity if there’s any chance that we will come across useful ideas, but those committed to the development of historiography must remain fully aware of Shapin’s methodology at all times.  For example, because I’ve been reading Simon Schaffer’s bibliography for this blog, I happened to take special note of footnote 42 in chapter 2.  Leading up to it, Shapin writes: “The idea of inspired scientific genius was partly secularized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but did not come close to disappearing—Romanticism was compatible with either a Christian or pantheist version of inspired genius—nor is it absent from late modern culture.”  The footnote then leads the reader to Simon Schaffer’s “Genius in Romantic natural philosophy” from Romanticism and the Sciences.

One would be quite mistaken if one were to take it on faith that Shapin has committed himself to representing past historiography faithfully.  In fact, Shapin’s deployment of Schaffer’s authority is highly instrumental, and potentially atavistic if new historiography takes it on faith that Shapin has engaged with Schaffer’s article, because in reality Schaffer’s argument (which complements his argument in “Discovery and the End of Natural Philosophy”) is almost exactly contrary to the history of ideas Shapin is building.

In his 1990 article, Schaffer argued that prior to the nineteenth century the idea of genius was not at all a central part of natural philosophy, being reserved mostly for poets.  Rather, craft, cleverness, and ingenuity were stressed.  Kant and Priestley eventually went so far as to deny that even Newton was more than very intelligent.  Likewise, natural philosophical cosmologies tended to be tentative and logical rather than (contra Shapin) a direct comprehension of the mind of God. It is the Romantics—like Schiller, Davy, and Coleridge—who quite controversially began ascribing some disembodied genius to natural philosophers.  This move was picked up by the keepers of disciplinary sciences to distinguish a scientific elite from lower level scientific laborers.  This is a distinction that, if acknowledged, challenges both Shapin’s conceptualization of ideas and their chronology.

Now, as far as I rightly know, it could be the case that Shapin’s picture is more accurate than Schaffer’s.  But I have no reason to suppose so if I remember that Shapin is professedly not a committed historian.  If, however, committed historians were to accept that Shapin’s history adequately dealt with the implications of prior historiography in its own account of ideas, it would constitute the concealment and destruction of historiographic gains—regardless of the ultimate veracity of those gains—rather than their consolidation and reconciliation.

If committed historians, contra Shapin’s own suggestions, take him to be a committed historian, there is a potential for the erosion of past work in the history of ideas.  We historians of recent science must be very careful about whether we consider ourselves a part of the “we” for whom Shapin writes his book-length essay.  There are plenty of good ideas for historians to adopt from this book, such as Shapin’s fantastic suggestion on p. 232 that it would be good to know why engineers take up university positions.  Nevertheless, those of us who wish to take up the call to study industrial research on its own terms must not take Shapin’s claim that we lack the conceptual tools to describe recent scientific culture at face value.  To absent-mindedly accept Shapin’s history of “our ideas” and to accept Shapin’s new conceptualization as novel would be to fail to take seriously a rather robust set of ideas existing in the historiographies of science, technology, business, professionalization, and the economy.

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