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Professional Theodicy and Synthetic Narrative August 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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The term “theodicy” is getting a lot of exercise here recently, so, to review: a theodicy is a philosophical explanation for why there is evil in the world in spite of the existence of a benevolent deity, as in Leibniz’ Theodicy.  A theodicy almost necessarily draws on problems of free will, the hope of knowledge, and its attendant dangers.  Transforming theodicy into historical narrative, it becomes possible to periodize these themes.  Sometimes this narrative functions as an origin story (as in Genesis and the stories of Prometheus and Pandora’s Box).  Following the Enlightenment and French Revolution—just as geology and cosmology began to acquire temporal elements—more recent human history could be periodized in terms of an overarching balance of knowledge, morality, and wisdom, as in the criticism of Joseph-Marie Maistre.

Since Maistre’s time, historiographical theodicies have frequently used rationalism or scientism as explanations of evil.  Following the rise of the Soviet Union and the Nazi Party, conservative thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper regularly drew connections between the post-French Revolution thought of Saint-Simon and Comte through to Marxism, logical positivism, modernism, and the rise of totalitarian regimes.  Chris Donohue has written about this trend on this blog, and he is responsible for getting me into the topic.

Science studies has imported similar narratives of theodicy linking the philosophy of science (positivistic and otherwise), the historiography of science, and the authority of science in society.  The sociology of knowledge has, in recent years, functioned within this theodicy as a kind of deliverance from evil, restoring a true historiography undistorted by philosophy’s arbitrary elevation of science to a coherently identifiable, objective, uncultural, and therefore privileged activity.  It is the contention of this blog that this theodicy has reduced the scope of historiographical inquiry to ornamentation of socio-epistemic issues privileged by the theodicy’s narrative.  Abandoning a study of ideas for a study of practices consonant with the theodicy, our professional theodicy now deeply inhabits our historiographical synthesis.

Witness Iwan Rhys Morus’ essay review of Patricia Fara’s new book Science: A Four Thousand Year History in the latest History of Science, which he edits.  Historical explanation of evil is present and unusually explicit: “Up until the 1960s, historians of science by and large saw their discipline as the handmaiden of philosophy—and philosophers of science certainly did.  Philosophers offered up accounts of scientific method and historians scoured the historical record looking for examples of those methodologies in action.”

This historiography was consonant with the public privileging of science via method and “popular histories of science” which emphasized the narrative of science as a long, philosophically-coherent “quest”.  Now, though, “professionals” cannot bear to live in this naive “fairytale” world: “Our histories of science are fragmented; tied to particular locations and historical periods.  We think of truth as something that has to be made, remade and argued over at specific times and places, not as an eternal light in the darkness.”

We were baptized professionals by our patron saint: “Writing in this journal over a quarter of a century ago, Steven Shapin in his ‘History of science and its sociological reconstructions'”—(indeed a very nice piece)—“suggested that it was time to stop arguing about the possibility of writing sociological history of science and to start doing it.”  He gave us the Word: “Shapin proceeded to put his money where his pen was and a few years later co-authored Leviathan and the Air-Pump with Simon Schaffer.”

The dark time was followed by deliverance in the form of “the Great Escape” (or should I say Exodus): “Like most other historians, historians of science took the cultural turn during the 1980s.  We started looking at science as a patchwork of competing and complementary practices and institutions.  There was a new attention to the spaces where science was made and promulgated.  We no longer take it for granted that science is self-evidently the superior road to understanding.  We see knowledge as contested territory.”

Historiographical synthesis not only became problematized, but likely impossible: Fara’s synthesis is “the product of a very old-fashioned ambition.” Back in our days of enslavement to the philosophers we, too, were sinners: “Big picture histories of science were possible then because historians and philosophers alike agreed that there was a big story to tell.”

Nevertheless, we must evangelize the Word.  Morus is all for synthesis, but mainly as a sop to the story-loving great unwashed: “If we want the kinds of histories of science that we currently tell”—(our ornaments)—“to reach beyond the academy then we need to find ways of reconnecting with the tradition of grand narrative history that do not require us to sell our souls to the devil in the process.”  (Indeed, so great are the moral dangers of the heathen world of synthesis that it is evidently necessary to recite catechism to ward off evil: I had to explain to my own students why practically every other chapter in Morus’ own textbook with Peter Bowler began with an attack on some devil named Kuhn.)

Almost all professions make up myths about their own history, but there is something highly unsettling about the almost absurdly heroic myth we have made up about ourselves.  We are, after all, supposedly the experts in debunking self-justifying myths.  One of the more interesting consequences has been that we have played down our more specific accomplishments in favor of highlighting a few key insights that can be directed outward to the public.  It is only now that we can speak of: “people, not ideas”, “a robust counterpoint to Eurocentrism” (Babylonians!), attention to the significance of “trade and exchange”, “institutions”, and “instruments”.

But, something’s wrong: Morus observes that Fara’s new-school history looks awfully familiar, with many of the same old characters turning up.  Further, maybe a lot of these grand insights that Shapin is said to have delivered unto us are perhaps not so novel.  It turns out, for example, that Babylonians were included in histories of science “as far back as 1944″.  In truth, “We need to go back a little further to find the Babylonians, Chinese, Egyptians or Indians so cavalierly dismissed”.  Here Morus cites the assumptions of oriental mysticism versus European rationalism present in 1842’s Mirror of literature, amusement, and instruction.

Morus’ assumptions that naive attitudes toward “science” are temporal is entirely consistent with a self-serving theodicy.  But let’s go back a rather long way to Thomas Sprat’s 1666 propaganda piece History of the Royal Society, where we find Sprat was entirely forthright about the links between knowledge and “trade and exchange”, as well in the role played by place and culture, not to mention (obviously) institutions.

The theodicy requires an ascendancy of naiveté, so we round up the usual suspects: “The Victorians”—ah, the Victorians!—“thought that there was something particularly distinctive about their scientific culture that differentiated it from the past quite markedly.”  The 1842 piece is emblematic of the mutually-justifying relationship between science and Victorian culture, which our society inherits.  Historical narrative merges with historiographical theodicy. This only becomes obvious once we attempt to synthesize our safely localized studies into some larger narrative.

But what if we look to one of the arch-devils of Victorian science, the ur-historian-and-philosopher of science, William Whewell, the very man who coined the term “scientist”.  With him we can indeed find a dismissal of past achievements of other cultures, but this has little to do with orientalism.  His self-professed philosophical project sought to characterize and distinguish recent contributions to the sciences from, for example, Arabic contributions, because these contributions were being mischaracterized by other Victorians who wanted to champion them.  Perhaps we can discuss the alignment of philosophy with orientalism to explain the naive view we inherit, but, to do so, we construct an anti-history that eliminates these other Victorians—they have been necessarily subsumed within “the Victorians” so as to service the larger narrative of the theodicy.  Now we get to champion the non-Europeans, and isn’t that generous of us?

And, as in any inverted Whig narrative, we always must arrive at the present so that the act of writing history can retain its cogency.  It is, after all, only recently that sociology has empowered us to express ambivalence about the power of science, which is the great gift of modern history of science to the world.  “But we are, according to Fara, still far away from a happy ending to the scientific story….  Putting a man on the moon might have been the ultimate symbol of twentieth-century scientific hubris”—(a nice example of mobile periodization)—“but it led, in the end, to nothing more than a technological cul de sac.  Scepticism toward scientific authority is by now probably the prevailing sentiment as well as a measure of fear about what science cannot—as well as what it can—deliver.”

Our deliverance from naiveté is a good thing, even if it disturbs us a little, because we are now granted free-will from the non-contingency of philosophical accounts of history.  It is just this interrelationship between science and society that liberates us: “Science, Fara reminds us in the end, has always to some degree or other been bound up with the pursuit of political and economic power.”  Here professional anti-history is at work: this is all post-Shapin; never mind the Marxists.

I don’t know whether Fara’s narrative follows the same trail, because I haven’t read her book, but Morus’ interpretation is classic morality tale.  For all its methodological sophistication, it is designed to manipulate and conflate the history of science and the history of our profession to deliver a novel and unqualified moral message: we have the power to question science, to assert political objectives in the face of allegedly objective knowledge, to use science responsibly.  That is the gift of culture and contingency.

It may be necessary to rough up the philosophers, scientists, and the pop historians a little, but they’ll thank us for it later once they know how excellent it is to have free will.  Morus’ fn. 1: “I am being deliberately rude, of course, but it is a peculiar feature of the sort of history of science that lionizes its protagonists that it tends to deprive them of agency as much as does any heroic fairy story.  Faraday according to these kinds of accounts was as much a prisoner of fate as was Beowulf.”

Morus wants to get beyond the fairytales that pervade general knowledge of history.  I do agree that we need a better synthesis, but if we want to get there any time soon, we have to stop making up fairytales about ourselves and our brave battles against intellectual strawmen.  In our enthusiasm for the history of practices and culture, I’m not sure we realize just how enslaved our narratives are to the ideas that we have so cavalierly shoved aside as the historiographically artificial plaything of philosophically-disposed historians.

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