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Historiographic Atavism and the Dilemma of Science Studies February 4, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Methods.

Historiographic atavism has the following features. As a way of introducing arguments, an atavistic chain of reasoning takes minimal consideration of the prior formulations or the prior solutions to a specific problematic. Every argument is fundamentally a novel one by virtue of its complexity or its departure from a frame of conceptualization. An atavistic claim can exist only if it reduces a prior body or school of scholarship either to a bare methodology or to a bare summary. This robs previous historiography of the conceptual rigor it rightfully possesses. Historiographic claims, while competing in reality, exist as exemplum in the atavistic narrative. Historiographic atavism is then the instrumental use of previous scholarship, particularly a recovered or hereto underutilized methodology, to underscore the novelty and the complexity of endless and non-reducible particulars. This allows every account to remain particular, correct, locally valid, and non-confrontational. All atavistic arguments present themselves as the most open of all methodologies to critique. The endless nature of the critique and this seeming freedom impedes the formulation of positions, claims, and disciplinary progress.

Historiographic atavism develops from a critical suspension of synthetic narrative. Its antithesis is the “canon.” Its historical subject is the locality. Universality or “synthesis”  is only achieved through the interconnection of  localities. These particulars, interconnected on some level to a defined ‘whole,’ are endlessly (re)producible through the work of textual or material analysis. This analysis produces particular historical subjects that are nonetheless incapable of becoming complementary or subsumable elements through an act of induction into a meaningful synthesis. Every locality rhetorically relates to the ‘whole’ but is incommiserate with it.  Every particular work of scholarship remains incongruous, but nonetheless applicable, to the previous work of scholars.  Such is the paradox of atavistic scholarship.

The second paradox of atavistic scholarship is the degree to which as a  cumulative enterprise it assumes, antithetically against its stated intentions, an evolving and definitive expertise on the part of its reader.  If narrative and synthetic judgment is ultimately absent from the text itself, and the crucial act of synthesis is left to the reader, that reader must be within the community of experts on the subject in order to understand the topic at hand and to discern its significance.  Atavistic scholarship is  suitable for the most discerning and informed of experts, but this goes against science studies’ self-professed desire to engage with a public beyond itself.

A reconciliation of perspectives into a coherent scholarly world-view is possible.   Due to the methodological aversion to the consolidation of gains as well as to the assumption of an dialogue of equality with the reader,  thought to be a public but, who is, in fact, an expert, the specific analytic richness of a specific work generated by the atavistic scholarship is appreciable only through an  external methodological narrative and an external taxonomy imposed through the reader’s subjective expertise.

Atavistic scholarship, due to these two paradoxes, even when not pursuing fictions produced by its own methodology, mistakes craft and complexity for the suspension of judgment.  By beginning  matters  philosophically and with the totality of the argument described through the invocation of particulars, the entirety of the historical project becomes meaningless.  The historical, which should unfold as a densely packed series of causal narratives central to arguments,  becomes, as an exemplar,  a consequence or a byproduct of a process of change over time.  The exemplar does nothing to demonstrate or to narrate how this change actually occurs, only that it does as illustrated by the exemplar.

The ‘case-study’ is, in many instances, not  an example of proper historicist reasoning, but  actualized methodology, the illustration of a black box decisionism on the part of the author to present the best evidence of a theory. Such decisionism is perfectly appropriate in a court of law, when one is pleading a case.  Historians are neither lawyers or rhetoricians, as they see themselves.  The presentation of a case in a court of law depends upon the rebuttal from the opposing side, thus the presentation of the best evidence to the exclusion of evidence to the contrary is an acceptable presentation of argument.  Science studies literature finds its rebuttal in the testimony of the expert reader and thus a court of understanding is established between the local study and the community of experts who will most likely read the text. Nowhere however is the significance of the project found within the text.


1. Michael Bycroft - March 21, 2011

Hi Chris,

I just came across this post and am pleased to have done so since it chimes so well with my experience of reading both new-ish and old-ish work on the history of science.

One thing I like about this post is that you link the shift towards local histories with a shift in historian’s habits of citation and summary of past historical work. I think the first shift is by now pretty widely recognised in the profession. But I don’t think the second shift is widely recognised at all. Indeed, people who note the first shift tend to associate it (rather vaguely) with an *improvement* rather than a *deterioration* of bread-and-butter historiographical duties. But the duties they usually note in this respect are either use of footnotes, use of archival material, or both. The neglects-of-duty that you describe at the start of the post — “reduc[ing] a prior body or school of scholarship either to a bare methodology or to a bare summary…[robbing] previous historiography of the conceptual rigor it rightfully possesses” — are not often pointed out, and to my mind they are (insofar as they occur) just as grave as threadbare footnotes or neglect of archival material.

2. Christopher Donohue - March 23, 2011

Thanks for the comment. My focus more recently on blog, when of course, I can surmount the scourge of over-commitment and actually write something on here, has been the deconstruction of narrative shibboleths, namely labeling someone a “determinist” economic, environmental, or otherwise. The point of all of these posts is similar to this one, namely that “determinists” are very useful for historians’ and their narratives, but when one actually examines the texts in question, they are nowhere to be found. Determinism is a form of atavism, a reduction of historical complexity, which rather than drawing on the expertise of the reader, actually plays on his ignorance.

My next post is on nineteenth and twentieth century accounts of reductionism, particularly in the works of sociologists and anthropologists. After that I will produce a rousing discussion about how recent general works on capitalism and banking are explanations of the collapse of 2008 or historical explorations of the virtues of Schumpeterian creative destruction and entrepreneurship.


3. Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (1/2) | Zilsel - February 23, 2015

[…] secluded, even though this controversy engaged the community beyond what Christopher calls a “court of understanding”. What’s your opinion on these […]

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