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Sociology, History, Normativity, and Theodicy August 9, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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“For my part I see no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but much literature in the social history of science has less of a connection with the sociology of knowledge than many apparently traditional exercises in the history of ideas.”

“Finally, there is a marked lack of rigour in much social history of science; work is often thought to be completed when it can be concluded that ‘science is not autonomous’, or that ‘science is an integral part of culture’, or even that there are interesting parallels or homologies between scientific thought and social structures.  But these are not conclusions; they are starting points for more searching analyses of scientific knowledge as a social product.”

—Steven Shapin, 1982

To my mind, Shapin’s “History of Science and Its Sociological Reconstructions,” (History of Science 20 (1982): 157-211) is perhaps one of the best articulations of how sociological methodology could augment historiography.  It is a manifesto for the sociology of knowledge program against critics (Joseph Ben-David, Rupert Hall, and Larry Laudan are specified).  It’s also an argument against more sterile sociology-based historiographical methods—the “social history of science”.  As pointed out in the quotes above, these methods draw no substantive connections between sociology and the intellectual production of knowledge: society is simply something that imprints itself on scientific institution-building, practice, and claims.

To put it another way, Shapin ought to be understood as an epistemological sociologist, one who in 1982 was apparently fighting against many of the same problems that bedevil us today.  No one, to my mind, better articulated how integral things like proper institution-building and proper etiquette have always been to ensuring the construction of proper knowledge, and how these things do not raise science above surrounding culture: surrounding culture provides these things as epistemological resources for the scientific figure.

How, then, can it be that Shapin and others in his cohort such as Latour have been so widely read and cited, without their emphasis on the subject matter and methodology of scientific argumentation being widely recognized as essential components of their program?  If it is the case that Shapin and Latour ultimately lost their battles after a brief day in the sun, have they continued to be cited as simple licenses to continue work in the very same vein of “social history of science” that they were trying to combat?  Do we need to look elsewhere to find the still deeper intellectual roots of what constitutes proper and productive history of science today?

Partially, for sure.  If Shapin and Latour actively fought against many of the same trends we might associate with them, then we have to look elsewhere to find the origins of these trends.  Nevertheless, I do think there is an important link between the new internalist methodology we now see so often and the strategies of their movement.

The program of the sociologists of knowledge was not simply a program for historiographical reform.  Sociologists did not intend to be the servants of historians; they wanted to construct a new and better language for talking about the relationship between knowledge and society.

While observing, for instance, that the normative claims of scientists and philosophers of science could not be practically distinguished by outsiders from the normative claims of other privileged arbiters of correct knowledge (theologians, gurus, etc….), their claims to develop a better descriptive language concerning these issues did have a normative component.  Specifically, the very need for a new language implied that the use of the old language embodied a naiveté concerning knowledge-society relationships, which created the normative imperative that the new language be adopted.

The sociologists of knowledge understood this, and, in a propaganda move worthy of the Enlightenment savants, adopted a historiographical theodicy that showed how the old language was created, demonstrated the failures and dangers presented by its naiveté (the struggle against pseudo-science, and the loss of faith in experts, especially), and offered the prospect for a safer, more mature way forward freed from the mythology of the old language.

Here is Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump (p. 344):

We have written about a period in which the nature of knowledge, the nature of polity, and the nature of the relationships between them were matters for wide-ranging and practical debate.  A new social order emerged together with the rejection of an old intellectual order.  In the late twentieth century that settlement is, in turn, being called into serious question.  Neither our scientific knowledge, nor the constitution of our society, nor traditional statements about the connections between our society and our knowledge are taken for granted any longer.  As we come to recognize the conventional and artifactual status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realize that it is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know.  Knowledge, as much as the state, is the product of human actions.

Here is Bruno Latour in The Pasteurization of France (p. 5):

…we have created, in a single movement, politics on one side and science or technoscience on the other (Shapin and Schaffer: 1985).  The Enlightenment is about extending these clearings until they cover the world….  Within these enlightened clearings we have seen developing the whole arsenal of argumentation, violence, and politics.  Instead of diminishing, this arsenal has been vastly enlarged.  Wars of science, coming on top of wars of religion, are now the rage….  Few people still believe in the advent of the Enlightenment, but nobody has yet recovered from this loss of faith.  Not to believe in it is to feel that we have been thrown back into the Dark Ages.

In addition to the narrative of theodicy, which explains the instabilities and evils of our world, note also the migration to broader society of the naiveté present in scholarly accounts of the construction of knowledge in the philosophy of science and the Whig history of ideas.  Mature ideas about science and society, being a product of the sociology of knowledge, could never be recovered from the historical record (except maybe if you read old defeated Hobbes).  Rather, the historical record will provide evidence of their absence in all the ad hoc maneuvers and “negotiations” necessary to finesse the non-existent science-society boundary.  That telltale first-person plural would proliferate, so useful was it in justifying historiography that distinguished itself primarily against the expectations of views that depended on the old, naive, official, dangerous philosophy-based historiography of science.

To end this post, I want to reflect on the double-edged impact of the sociology of knowledge.  Shapin was right: it had a lot to offer historiography, and he was likewise correct that what it offered augmented; it did not replace prior epistemologically-focused work.  (To see Shapin defending traditional historiography against those who would reform it entirely, see his rebuke to Nigel Gilbert and Michael Mulkay: “Talking History: Reflections on Discourse Analysis”, Isis 75 (1984): 125-128.)

Yet, the fickle commitment of the sociologists of knowledge to conscientious historiography ultimately resulted in a bit of an “et tu, Brute” situation.  For example, by 1993, Latour had turned the theodicy of the sociology of knowledge into a full-blown critique of what he decided to label “modernity”.  Some went along with it, while others were less than amused.  Here is philosopher Martin Kusch on Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1993) in the British Journal for the History of Science:

We Have Never Been Modern is unlikely to appeal to readers of this journal….  The book is aimed at readers whose appetite for sweeping simplifications, violent strawmen-bashing and vague promises outweighs their interest in detailed arguments and careful scholarship.  Take for example Latour’s main claim, that there has never been a modern world.  That sounds dramatic and impressive; after all, it contradicts the work of numerous social scientists, philosophers and historians.  But note how this dramatic effect is achieved: Latour has simply redefined the term, and fails to explain how his notion of modernity relates to others, and why his is to be preferred.

In the next post in this series, I will speculate why many, or even most, historians didn’t really seem to mind.

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1. Will Thomas - August 11, 2009

Shapin’s quote-marks around “history of science losing its science” turns out to be an interesting reference to a brief written by William Broad in Science (25 January 1980) to a talk given by Charles Gillispie at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, warning about just this. Gillispie’s opinion was that a predilection for scandal, moralizing, and social history detracted from a history of science grounded in a good understanding of the content of the science being discussed. Gillispie urged scientists to keep a vigilant eye on what historians were saying about them (this precedes the “science wars” by 15 years….).

Gillispie (followed by Shapin, see above) had a point, but he also walked into a trap. “Another trend, [Gillispie] said, is that scholars focus on the personal and anecdotal: Newton on alchemy rather than motion, Kekule’s snake dance rather than the benzene ring, Darwin’s neurosis rather than his marshaling of evidence. Some so-called scholars focus on scandal. Did Mendel really falsify his data? Did Hale really hate his wife? ‘These scholars,’ says Gillispie, ‘have a lust for just the sort of thing most rigidly ruled out of court in the science we do now—the irrational, the personal.”

On 29 Februrary, Gillispie was forced to qualify a number of points, including: “I did not intend to leave the impression that personality has no place in the history of science. My view is the contrary, and I believe I observed that even scientists, when they take any interest at all in the history of science, are likely to fasten on minor matters of gossip or scandal instead of on content.”

Robert Kohler chimed in in the same issue, insisting, “the history of science is in a period of intellectual excitement and growth unmatched since the 1930’s…. the past decade has been one of enormous intellectual refreshment and progress. The history of science is flourishing in an otherwise depressed academic market.”

He goes on castigating Gillispie for indicating that there was a decline in standards. This is “an old trick”, also used by defenders of compulsory education in Greek “to prevent the invasion of college curricula by the experimental sciences.”

Here comes the really interesting bit, which speaks to the roots of the history of science’s “theodicy”, my emphasis throughout: “Gillispie warns that the new historians of science are undermining authority and public support of science by talking about scientist-entrepreneurs and scientist-politicians. I think the real danger is misplaced idealism. Can we really doubt in 1980 that the health of science depends on scientists’ entrepreneurial skills? Is it wise to base public support for science on a false image of scientists as apolitical, isolated intellects and truth-seekers? To do so is to court disaster, for when the inevitable disillusionment comes it will indeed breed disrespect and cynicism. Historians and sociologists of science must contribute to an honest and realistic picture of the scientific enterprise as a social institution, not different in any fundamental way from other economic, cultural, or political institutions.

Wow! Gillispie’s apparent advocacy for only paying attention to the clearly progressive contributions of scientists, for abstracting the history of science to those things that scientists have not ruled “out of court” does indeed ring false to the modern historiographical ear—Newton’s alchemy turned out to be pretty important. Nevertheless, Kohler takes what I take to be a legitimate concern about proper contextualization and nuance in argument, and makes it into advocacy for an implausibly naive and socially irresponsible methodology and world outlook.

I do think that the 1980s turned out to be a very good decade for the history of science, and that the very best work has come since. Built on top of decades of solid intellectual work, that decade fleshed out that work in extremely productive ways that I hope to discuss in further detail soon. Nevertheless, I believe that Gillispie’s concerns turned out to be well-warranted, and that the subsequent fracturing of the discipline meant that the prior historiography that provided the 1980s with a solid framework on which to build has been largely lost to recent scholarship, and the gains of that decade turned out to be mainly ephemeral, because discussion surrounding the best work of the decade was never maintained in its full complexity.

To reiterate what is above, the historical social-political import ascribed to the methodological gains of the decade have been used to perpetuate a scholarship dedicated to illustrating the basic claims Shapin sniffed at as lacking rigor.

2. Thony C. - August 13, 2009

Will, I think your comment on your own post is even more interesting than the post itself, which was in fact very good. I find it slightly ironic that it should be Gillispie who is complaining about the extremes of externalism given the fact that he is editor of the DSB.

There is a quote that I read somewhere but I can’t remember where, it dates from the early days of externalism versus internalism and is I think from Marie Boas Hall in which she complains that externalism would destroy the nicely ordered logical structure of the progress of science that internalism had created!

3. Will Thomas - August 13, 2009

Yeah, I know about Lakatos’ rational reconstruction, but there seems to have been more support for hard core internalist history of the logical progress of science than initially meets the eye. It’d be worthwhile to do a bit of digging to see just how influential the program was that it could function so effectively as a bête noire.


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