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The Ultimate in Empiricism February 10, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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For those who don’t check in with the Pauling Blog, the Oregon State Special Collections has launched Linus Pauling Day-by-Day.

As our regular readers have probably gathered, I’m not very keen on the “gallery of practices” mode of historical scholarship, wherein the theory-trained scholar dives into the archive and just starts pointing out all the epistemological assumptions and practices, cultural contexts, and negotiated knowledge claims they can find in there so as to add another image to the gallery.  To consolidate gains and to synthesize history, it is necessary to gain a wide empirical knowledge of the historical terrain—a point I hope to discuss much further in the future.

Pauling Day-by-Day represents an ultimate extension of empiricism.  I’ve often thought as I’ve attempted to make sense of a historical terrain that it would be very nice if I could just throw all the correspondence and memoranda and everything into chronological order to make better sense of it.  Pauling Day-by-Day does precisely this.

Scholars who work in the biography industry will be familiar with similar efforts to figure out what Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein was doing on pretty much every day of their lives, and very good scholars in these industries will start to become familiar with these details, and why these details can matter.  Detailed chronologies—even beyond biographies (perhaps especially beyond biographies)—are particularly important to understanding what a statement or a phrase would have meant to given actors at a given point in time.

Historians who have worked within a particular historical terrain where details matter will realize that some details matter more than others.  The challenge in working with archivists and other people who put together wonderful projects like Pauling Day-by-Day is to determine where these kinds of efforts will be most useful, since they take tons of time and effort.  Pauling is a very important figure in multiple areas (he won Nobel Prizes in Peace and Chemistry), but already we’re moving away from the recognized pantheon of Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and their ilk.  Pauling is a good empirical project, I think, but if we venture too far returns will diminish, and empiricism will become fetishism.

I don’t think it would be too radical to describe the history of science as going through a crisis of empiricism, where the details seem to matter less and less for historical explanation, because illustrating variations on and themes within theoretical constructs—like Imperssionism or Modernism in art—becomes its own end.  But empiricism is also not an end in itself.  It is unglamorous and time-consuming, and we will need to achieve economy in our efforts.  Those of us who are committed to empiricism ought to have extensive and rapid conversations about what empirical projects need to be undertaken, and what we hope they will tell us.

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