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Science in the History of Science: An Opposing Perspective August 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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A couple of weeks ago, I approved of outgoing HSS president Jane Maienschein’s desire to put more science back into the history of science, while suggesting that the difficulties in doing so were more deep-seated than is perhaps generally appreciated.  I thought it was odd to have to defend the idea that scientific ideas should be at the core of the history of science profession, but there are indeed opposing views.  Darin Hayton at PACHSmörgåsbord, the blog of the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science, offers one here.

Hayton’s position seems to be that because science is a cultural activity, and because “science” can only be defined epistemologically, a history focused around the history of “science” can only be defined around retrospective constructs of what properly constitutes scientific topics.  By insisting that science is culture, the knowledge of properly scientific cultures becomes just one kind of knowledge among many.  Thus, by including other cultures arbitrarily excluded in philosophical definitions of science, the discipline can be opened up to include such historically important but epistemologically unvalidated topics as astrology, demonology, and witchcraft.

I would like to respond with three observations.

First, Hayton seems most exercised by the possibility that advocacy for intellectual aspects of history has consequences for valid subject matters of historical inquiry.  He therefore supports a definition of the history of science that opens the field up to practically any topic whatsoever.  In addition to natural magic in earlier periods, in more recent times one might include political maneuvering, economic policy, or sports strategy (it would be elitist to exclude a history of the forward pass from our profession).

Deciding which topics to include in the history of “science” is problematic, but it is not entirely arbitrary.  I agree: science is a culture (indeed, a collection of interrelated cultures), but the question is not how to limit or expand our work to cover a sufficient definition of subject matter, but to determine which cultures most benefit from being included.  Possible costs of inclusion include poor contextualization through the application of analytical tools inappropriate to studying a specific culture.  Simon Schaffer has argued that natural philosophy obeyed its own grammar distinct from later disciplined science, and therefore requires a distinct analytical toolkit.  Applying a toolkit appropriate to late-19th-century physics to natural philosophical cosmologies obscures why the construction of natural philosophical systems made sense.

Natural magic might suffer from being in the same division as 20th-century physics (merely on account of both being identified as having to do with highly anachronistic conceptions of the “natural”).  Though natural magic was heretical, its grammar was surely more akin to contemporary Catholic theology and ritual.  Yet, it has been demonstrated that natural magic and natural philosophy were closely akin to each other, so if natural philosophy is on board, natural magic should fit in comfortably as well, as should astrology, demonology, and other related realms of lore (including Catholic theology, though I strangely don’t see a lot of it in the literature). Personally, I’m glad to have them in the same field as me.

Second, once it has been settled which traditions of practice benefit from inclusion within the history of science division of history, all fields deserve equivalent disciplinary status.  It is here where the intellectual content of the “sciences” can be argued to form a disciplinary core.  If intellectual content cannot be surgically removed from social and cultural features of scientific culture, it can be abstracted from it.  This is evidenced by the fact that social and cultural content can be separated from intellectual content in certain phenomenological portrayals.  Such portrayals approximate the views of outsiders to the culture’s intellectual life, which is a useful method to adopt only when analyzing outsiders’ historical views of insider activity, not as a tool of universal historiographical analysis.

Following Jan Golinski, Jonathan Topham, and, now, Chris Renwick, the intellectual life constitutes a key element of scientific practice that cannot be neglected if one wishes to maintain a coherent interpretation of the historical record.  It seems reasonable to take these central features of a culture as the core of disciplinary work, interrelating it to socio-cultural questions visible to outsiders as necessary or desirable.  This assertion of centrality of the intellectual applies to astrology as much as astrophysics.  It does not mean that intellectual content must be a component of every study, but a healthy historiography of it should always be maintained.

Finally, I note that Hayton appears to be highly mistrustful of non-cultural history.  In any methodological discussion not adhering to a suitably postmodern vagueness, he seems to be wary that the government is coming to take away his witchcraft.  Indeed, Hayton expressed similar concerns on this blog back in February when I argued that an aspect of historiographical method is a comparison between rhetoric and real conditions.  He was worried that such a perspective would denigrate the historical study of topics not validated as referring to “real” phenomena.

The perspective seems to be closely related to 30-year-old arguments surrounding the rise of non-traditional topics in the history of science, which are closely related to the Great Escape and the “theodicy” of the sociology of knowledge.  Traditional historians, philosophers of science, and scientists are imagined to be engaged in a well-meaning-but-ultimately-dangerous conspiracy to privilege validated science as being somehow above culture, and to excise the histories of unvalidated topics.

Hayton divines my secret (and possibly subconscious) participation in this agenda by noting that I work on a topic respected by scientists, and by dissecting the codes of my rhetoric: I noted that historians who do write about intellectual topics in the history of science “cover their rears” by going out of their way to express their respect for the social and cultural aspects and contexts of science so as to avoid accusations of internalism.  This was, of course, taken as a sure sign of disrespect for these aspects and contexts, as a commitment to internalism, and as a desire to suppress philosophically unvalidated pseudo-scientific topics.

In such an atmosphere of mistrust, one cannot claim that the intellectual history of the sciences is in danger without implicating oneself in the conspiracy.  Cultural historians and historians of non-traditional topics (that are actually by now quite traditional) who might take this view will evidently not feel safe until either intellectual history has disappeared, or at least until historians interested in intellectual history have ceased to protest its erosion (leading, of course, to its disappearance or relegation to isolated pockets of scholarship).

To equate methodological analysis—even analysis of the possibility of analyzing the historically “real”—and historiographical advocacy with an existential threat to others’ positions is not only an uncharitable reading of the analysis and advocacy, but a moral argument against the possibility that there can be good intentions in that analysis and advocacy.  This is deleterious to constructive debate.

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