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Projects and Problems as Elements of History April 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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One important theme in the history of science profession is that there is a perceived need for increased methodological sophistication.  “We” (as a profession, and as a society) need to “think about science”, or more broadly, “think about knowledge and practice” in different and exciting new ways in order to really get at the history of science, and the relationship between science, technology, and society, and to avoid being misled by dubious scientific or anti-scientific claims.

Methodological sophistication is important.  It has only been methodological reflection that warns us against, for example, necessarily regarding “religion” as a “constraint” on “science”, when, for example, theological issues might have been a “resource” in a natural philosophical cosmology.  Or, we can now appreciate that the world did not “resist” Einstein’s relativity for some years, but rather that different communities did not understand it as important or germane to their physical projects (following Andrew Warwick on Cambridge physicists, or Peter Galison on Poincaré).

In my opinion, though, methodologically we are generally pretty sound, and have been for at least two decades, if not longer.  To continue to act as though methodology were still our most pressing problem is to ignore the question of how we might attain and retain understanding through better historiographical craft.  In this respect, there are some areas where we are doing very well, which need to be highlighted for those not working in them, and there are areas where we seem to be actually losing knowledge (as a community, anyway).

Rather than go into specific examples in this post, I would like to lay out what I view as the essential problems of good historiographical craft—the charting of the relationship between historical projects, “problems” in those projects, and the proper handling of the nature and role of context.

The historical “project” is what we can view as the thing that our historical actors are motivated to do, and is essentially connected to what ideas historical actors hold.  In their system of ideas there will be certain “problems” that they wish to address, and they will have certain sets of intellectual, physical, and social resources for addressing them.  The attempt to address a problem is a kind of historical event, while the project is the most immediate and important (but not only) context for deciphering their understanding of the problem.

Now, there are also certain philosophical problems that appear in multiple historical projects, and some of which even appear to be transhistorical—the “mind-body” problem, for example.  Traditionally, historians of philosophy have been interested in addressing work on these problems “from Plato to NATO”, as the saying goes.  This has often extended likewise to the history of science—the “problem of the ether”, or “the atom” for example.

Conscientious historians of science have long noted that historical actors have not always addressed these general philosophical and scientific “problems” within the context of the same project (even though actors have sometimes imagined themselves as doing so!), and that the effort to imagine them as such creates an incoherent understanding of history.  What is the central objective of one project might be a side-issue in another project.  To bring in historical actors only as they address the problem we wish to understand their position on robs us of historical understanding.  Importantly, “Whig” history is simply a subset of this larger issue where we wish to understand historical actors only as they address themselves with respect to the knowledge, ideas, and values we hold in the present.

A particularly useful historiography is one that charts historical projects and their relationships with each other.  How do certain problems and resources become transformed when adopted into the context of a different project?  What happens when different projects address the same problem in the same place—do they clash, do they negotiate a solution, or do they agree to disagree (a result that I think is common, but is generally undervalued in a historiography preoccupied by conflict and the resolution of conflict)?  What happens when individuals adhere to multiple projects (e.g., a political one and a scientific one)?

The epistemic and sociological study of these encounters has long been a subject of intense fascination for historians, to the point that the inevitable answer—projects must be reconciled in messy and highly localized ways—has become a staple of scholarship.  A localization-focused historiography insists that the particulars of encounters can only be achieved by analyzing history one brick at a time (albeit in a “quasi-Aristotelian” mode where essential practices taken on “accidental” local valences).

The localism of history may be true in a strict sense, but historians who have studied long-term trends also understand that while particulars are always messy, and history never strictly determined, important insights on historical developments can be achieved by properly characterizing historical projects (or traditions) and the encounters between different projects as they address related problems.

To understand history from this perspective requires not an unusual level of methodological sophistication—merely the patience to survey large groups of actors and their work, and to characterize the subtle differences between contemporaneous or sequential projects, and how different projects deal with common problems, leading to a good historiographical craft.  Such an approach is essential to understanding, for example, Jed Buchwald’s work.

Of course, the rationally motivated project has rightly been the subject of sustained criticism.  From the fatalism of aspects of political economy, to the localism of Tolstoy, to the dialectical materialism and false consciousness of Marxist historiography, to the fetishism and subconscious motivation of Freudian psychology, to structuralist anthropology, and to the post-structural power-knowledge discourses of Foucault, the importance of unmotivated and uncontrolled “projects” (if you will) has been repeatedly emphasized.

Even in very wonky histories such as Buchwald’s, the unmotivated has a place.  Importantly, Buchwald emphasizes the importance of differences in scientific methodologies of which the actors themselves were not fully conscious.  David Brewster, for instance, imagined himself as working in the same project of optics as Fresnel, but did not appreciate that the differences in their methodologies places them on inevitably different projects, which caused them to develop their projects in different ways—one successfully, the other not.

What delineates a craftsman such as Buchwald from historians focusing on overarching epistemic, social, or cultural problems, is that Buchwald closely identifies specific historical developments that he wishes to explain, and concerns himself with actors whose project(s) specifically addressed the topic.  Those concerned with either historicized epistemology or unmotivated epochal narratives, place themselves necessarily in the same position as the Whig historian or the traditional historian of philosophy—ignoring the particularity of the motivated project in an effort to isolate the hidden power of the unmotivated.

The problem for historical craft, of course, is that the unmotivated cannot be isolated.  Like a transhistorical philosophical problem, the unmotivated plays different roles in differently motivated projects.  The unmotivated should be characterized, but it cannot be analyzed in its abstracted state (this would be the analysis of a historiographical “chimera”), let alone lead to an understanding of its history or any other.

These issues will come to the fore when we look at Martin Kusch’s review of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity from the latest Isis.

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