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The Gallery and the Renaissance Episteme August 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.

Can progressive historiography co-exist with the Gallery of Practices?  Possibly, but the challenges seem to be great.  Peter Galison seems to have thought along similar lines, judging by his “Ten Problems” piece in an issue of Isis last year.  Here is how he put the issue:

Back in the postwar period, James Bryant Conant hoped that the Case Studies in Experimental Science that he organized would, by a kind of Baconian generalization, lead to a general understanding of scientific method. But it is hard to see this Baconianism emerging from microhistories today. Microhistory is supposed to be exemplification, a display through particular detail of something general, something more than itself. It is supposed to elicit the subtle interconnections of procedures, values, and symbols that mark science in a place and time, not as a method but more as a kind of scientific culture. This then leads to a hard question: What does it mean to aim for exemplification without typicality? And if case studies are the paving stones, where does the path lead?

Indeed, Galison thinks it is possible to perpetuate the case study program and not end up anywhere we necessarily want to be:

Conversely, after the remarkably successful buildup of microhistorical cases, one can ask after the limits of localism. That is, suppose we continued to fill our journals with ever more case studies, packed encyclopedias with dozens of microscopic inquiries into every laboratory, field station, and observatory of any weight anywhere. Would there be, in principle, a residue? Would there be kinds of questions that simply could not be accessed even through the objectives of the most assiduous application of our fine, 1000x historical‐philosophical microscopes?

As far as I’m concerned Galison has already answered these questions entirely adequately in Image and Logic (1997), where he identified “mesoscopic” traditions of practice as a key subject of historical inquiry.  However, historians have not seen the mapping of traditions as a historiographical imperative.  This includes Galison, whose recent book with Lorraine Daston, Objectivity (2007, on which more later), relies on a Gallery-based approach.

Inasmuch as the historiography embraces “practice”, the analysis of Big Ideas still seems to dominate scholarly concerns.  Abandoning the traditional philosophical interest in the combat between opposing epochal and metaphysical programs (uniformitarianism vs. catastrophism, mechanism vs. vitalism, etc.) and the construction of scientific knowledge by means of method, the interest in practice does not abandon ideas, so much as practices are used to access other overarching ideas not supposed by philosophy (gender relations, senses of the self, attitudes toward scientific knowledge, etc.)

My concern with using the Gallery of Practices as a gateway to other major ideas is that the Gallery seems to be assembled using a preconceived history of ideas to select practices worthy of historians’ interest.  This history seems to be some combination of traditional history-of-science narratives, an inverted Whig narrative of theodicy arriving at a justification of the act of writing history, and a broad-brush political and moral history of the last half-millenium: Religious Conflict → Enlightenment → Romanticism → Industrialization/Imperialism → Modernism → Cold War → Globalization/Corporatization.  This segues into a more recent literary-thematic analysis wherein notions are selected based on seemingly semi-arbitrary criteria—“iconoclasm”, “information networks”, “the public sphere”—and examples of these notions are assembled.

If one puts examples of the narrative or the notional terms of analysis together in a room, the general idea seems to be that one will learn something about the nature of these topics (a Baconian view), or history will be understood via the manifestation of these topics in specific historical contexts (an Aristotelian view of formal causes and accidental properties), as evidenced by the resulting edited volume.

I’ve never been comfortable with this manner of scholarship, because it has never been clear to me that anything is being learned about either the topic or its context, since no claim to representativeness or significance of the topic is ever made—the research is eternally exploratory—and because no new ideas can easily emerge from the Gallery because the Gallery was selected in the first place through the terms of a tacit narrative or according to words seemingly drawn out of a hat, the properties of which are already understood.

The logic of  the scholarship strangely reminds me of what Michel Foucault described as the “Renaissance” episteme in The Order of Things.  In the Renaissance episteme, nature is a text, and interpretations (Ancient and new) of the subject matter are all also texts (as in accounts of its symbolic or heraldic significance, its practical properties, or even poetry written about the subject), as is third-party commentary on such interpretations.  The goal of scholarship is to gather all texts together.  As Foucault says of this strategy, “To know an animal or a plant, or any terrestrial thing whatever, is to gather the whole dense layer of signs with which it or they may have been covered…”

He goes on: “The function proper to knowledge is not seeing or demonstrating; it is interpreting…  none of these forms of discourse is required to justify its claim to be expressing a truth before it is interpreted; all that is required of it is the possibility of talking about it.  Language contains its own inner principle of proliferation….  This relation enabled language to accumulate to infinity, since it never ceased to develop, to revise itself, and to lay its successive forms over one another….  The task of commentary can never by definition be completed” (40).

There was no possibility of reconciling texts, or of eliminating interpretations.  “The only possible form of link between the elements of this knowledge is addition” (30).  Definitive interpretation was impossible; to compile was not suppose correct answers: “It was not because people believed in such relations that they set about trying to hunt down all the analogies in the world” (31).  Foucault was not afraid to scorn the approach.  Knowledge in this Renaissance episteme was “plethoric yet absolutely poverty-stricken”, “a thing of sand” (30).  Its undiscriminating character, its lack of conclusiveness, was its downfall.

Foucault is often taken to be a postmodernist and poststructuralist, but he certainly understood the futility of knowledge without a reconciling problematic of some kind.  It was essentialism, not structure, that seems to have bothered him the most.  His appraisal of the Renaissance view of nature-as-text strikes me as at least comparable to current views of the historical record.  Foucault was of course instrumental in establishing the view of record-as-text, but I do not think he advocated the simple accumulation of interpretations now seen.



1. Tawrin - August 25, 2009

I’ve really been enjoying your recent posts on historiography. This one brings up some arguments that are, in my opinion, really well put by Bill Newman in the introduction to his recent book Atoms and Alchemy (an excellent book in general, though quite technical). As an example of how constructivist-type approaches (the “gallery” approach included) tend to uncritically accept the current, dominant intellectual history (tacitly assumed by many such historians to be correct), the position of alchemy in the history of science is an excellent case.

2. Will Thomas - August 25, 2009

I’m glad you like the series—I was starting to feel overly self-indulgent. Chris and I had a quick look at the chopped up version of the intro on Google Books, and did indeed think the critique very pertinent. I liked the point about assuming that the work of intellectual history is already more-or-less complete.

The point about Shapin was especially thought-provoking, since in the 1980-2 period, he seems to have been intensely concerned with the interconnections between the actual intellectual content of knowledge and the social practice of its production, which is a scholarly imperative that didn’t really carry forward into the 1990s very well. In looking at policy analysis sciences, I’ve found their tandem exploration indispensable.

We found the grouping of Shapin and Dear to be a little strange, and suspect this has to do with their specific treatments of alchemy. In any case, Chris’ curiosity is piqued, and I think it sent him running to the library after work. We’ve both taken note of the strong currents of critical intellectual history running through recent history of alchemy/chymistry, as appears to be the case in the work of Anna Marie Roos, and Principe, of course. Very interesting sub-field developing there. There’s never any need to put the word “though” in front of “very technical” on this blog—we heartily encourage it!

3. Thony C. - August 26, 2009

I’m glad you like the series—I was starting to feel overly self-indulgent.

I too really like this series and I have the feeling that it is at the moment approaching some sort of climax. My only problem is that your rate of production is too high. I am still considering and formulating a comment to a given post and you have already posted the next two!

Above all you have made me reconsider my own, largely negative attitude, to deliberations about historiography and methodology. Keep up the good work, as long as you keep posting I, for one, will keep reading.

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