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Objectivity, Pt. 2a: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Epistemology September 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History as Anti-Philosophy.
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In his useful essay review of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity in Isis, the philosopher Martin Kusch (formerly of Cambridge HPS, now of Vienna) notes that an important feature of the book’s argument is its twin commitments to combating “relativism” and “localism” (which causes him “unease”; more on this later).  I agree with his emphasis on these motivations as key to understanding the format of Objectivity‘s presentation, and believe the commitments are linked to the historiographical program of the Great Escape from the philosophy of science that began some 30 years ago.

If this story is right, once various forms and specters of epistemological determinism were removed from the history of science, local “contingency” became the watchword.  To understand why any view became established in the history of science, you had to go to the local archive and uncover all the nuanced negotiations that resulted in the “construction” of this or that concept.  This tended to be repellent to scientists and philosophers of science, not because it uncovered their dirty laundry, but because it tended to make the development of whatever concept was at issue appear arbitrary.  Even if constructionism did not imply arbitrariness, per se, it did leave plenty of room for socio-cultural bias, or, to put it another way, for the intellectual overdetermination of scientific knowledge through the “ladening” of observations with theory or values.  This overdetermination could be teased out by examining the archive, or simply by examining the “situatedness” of patronage (following the Marxists) and of the metaphors employed in scientific knowledge-building.

Even since How Experiments End (1987), Galison (not unlike fellow Escapist Latour) has been keen to defuse not only radical skepticist claims that knowledge is socially determined, but also more moderate claims attached to anti-positivist philosophy of science that there is a theory bias in science (a source of contention with Andy Pickering).  He has also been dissatisfied with the view (asserted by Pickering in Mangle of Practice, 1995, and evident in the format of much of the history of science literature) that to understand the history of science, we must trace every single step of its highly contingent socio-cultural-intellectual construction.

In Image and Logic (1997), Galison emphasized mesoscopic explanation, and the intermingling of material (and immaterial) traditions as a way of constructing long-term histories.  To my mind, he did a top-notch job of reconstructing and mapping all, or at least many, of the intellectual and practical problems and traditions necessary to understanding the history of particle detection instrumentation.

It is important to realize, though, that in Galison’s reconstruction, not all traditions are equal: some are more fundamental and longer-lasting than others.  I would agree that there is a hierarchy of traditions, but what I didn’t realize until very recently is that, to Galison, certain kinds of traditions bearing a specific kind of epistemological content are privileged to have large constituencies and longer half-lifes.  To escape localism and skepticism (or historicist “relativism”, though Kusch debates the use of the term), you need this epistemological content.  And to Galison, this content is embodied in traditions of adherence to aesthetic ideals—a point he has been developing at least since “Minkowski’s Space-Time: From Visual Thinking to the Absolute World,” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences (1979): 85-121.

It was really only when I read Galison’s dispute with philosopher Kent Staley that this all began to cohere for me.  Staley believed he was making a “modest” criticism of Galison’s language concerning the epistemic divisions between the titular “image” and “logic” traditions, and he earned a none-too-well-disguised full-on smack-down for his troubles.

We might attribute this smack-down to the prickliness that too often characterizes academic disputes, but having been Peter’s student for five years, it surprised me, because I know that Peter has an extremely inclusive view of science studies, that he is a really nice guy and values peace in the profession, and that he (unlike me) actually relishes the persistence of contradicting views of the historical record.  Going back to what one knows from Galison’s works: We might attribute his unwillingness to countenance Staley’s critique to be simply the conceptual dissonance between Galison’s emphasis on the “disunity of science” and Staley’s appeal to some form of a philosophical “unity”.

But I think there’s more to it, because it seems to me that for Galison, while science may be disunified, it is not infinitesimally disunified.  Rather, scientific traditions are organized around epistemic macrotraditions that are defined by aesthetic ideals, such as the ideal of finding the particle’s “image”, or, conversely, the ideal of proving its existence by means of logic.  So, the question for me becomes: why did Galison react so strongly to Staley’s criticism that the image and logic traditions were epistemologically closer to each other than Galison made them out to be?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the history in Objectivity has a strangely Kuhnian feel to it.  For Galison, scientists working in different macrotraditions (which I read as aesthetic counterparts to theoretical paradigms) adhere to incommensurable ideals, and therefore are innately suspicious of evidence presented by scientists striving toward other ideals.  From time to time—on the scale of several decades or even centuries—as the smaller elements (such as the instrumentation) of science shifts, these macrotraditional ideals undergo a metamorphosis reconciling previously disparate positions, but also creating new macrotraditional divisions (which Galison believes are a source of strength in the sciences).  The creation of image-logic “hybrid” detectors (such as the “postmodern” Time Projection Chamber) represented one such moment of metamorphosis in physics.

When Staley suggested that the invention of the Time Projection Chamber, while certainly not inevitable, was sensible enough on account of the unity between image and logic traditions, and when he suggested that expressions of the ideals of each tradition (the “golden event” versus “anything can happen once”) were mere “slogans” that over-accentuated the intellectual differences between the traditions, he thought he was quibbling, one aficionado of the history of high energy physics to another.  In fact, I think, he was actually unwittingly questioning Galison’s entire conception of how scientists think, why science has epistemological power, and how its history develops.  There was, apparently, a reason why the book was called Image and Logic, beyond the fact that it sounds cool (which it does).

Diagram of neurons created by Cajal, 1950

Diagram of neurons created by Cajal, 1905

Such incommensurability of aesthetic ideals is present once again in Objectivity, particularly with the 1906 encounter between histologists Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Camillo Golgi over the arrangement and functioning of neurons in the brain, which kicks off chapter three on “Mechanical Objectivity”.  In Stockholm, as the two histologists were jointly receiving the Nobel Prize (though they had strong disagreements with each other), Golgi presented hand-drawn images of an entangled mass of neurons, which supported his “holistic view of the brain” (115).  For his part, Cajal denied this neural model and the fact that Golgi’s image—which relied upon trust in Golgi’s learned expertise but was supposed to represent arrangements of neurons as actually seen—allowed space for Golgi to impose his theoretical view upon it.

Daston and Galison argue, “One of the elements that makes this episode so compelling is that there is no reason at all to think that either Golgi or Cajal was acting in bad faith.  Both were passionately committed to depicting rightly the cells they were studying.  Both had in their hands a method, invented by Golgi, that opened up for visual inspection aspects of the nervous system that had never before been seen in such extraordinary detail” (116, my emphasis).

They argue that, since there was no question of who was making a proper argument or a proper experiment, what sparked the conflict between the two was the differences between two disparate conceptions of what it meant to see and represent objectively.  Per Pt. 1 of this post, I would argue that questions of proper representation only come to the fore when enmeshed in specific arguments about how the brain works where a proper representation of neural networks is an issue, and that it further makes a difference when one considers whether the audience is an informed opponent, or a lecture hall in Stockholm full of newspaper reporters and assorted bigwigs.  Golgi and Cajal, for all their differences in whether the image was a valid presentation, cannot necessarily be said to have adhered to disparate, ideal-based macrotraditions of objective representation.

For Daston and Galison, the incident took on ethical overtones because to represent is to strive toward an objective ideal, which, in turn, is a function of what it means to be scientific.  For me, it did so because there were differences concerning highly specific issues of what kinds of representation were needed for which audiences and which arguments.  Golgi was presenting evidence that privileged one side in a matter of live contention to an audience that did not have the expertise to question the representation.  This interpretation does not mean that the standard of “objectivity” deployed in Cajal’s criticism of the image is always in force, and that other standards of representation mightn’t be appropriate in other circumstances.

To understand Daston and Galison’s position it is necessary to understand the links they draw between the epistemology of the aesthetic ideal, the relationship between ethics and epistemology, and the possibility of identifying macrotraditions in history.  To understand the relationship between ethics, ideals, and epistemology, as presented here, it is necessary to understand the intellectual program of Lorraine Daston.  We turn to her work in Pt. 2b.


1. Will Thomas - September 5, 2009

For those hard-core souls interested in the depths of these issues, see Martin Kusch’s discussion (including a linking of Daston and Galison’s project to the project of Ian Hacking) last November at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science here. Also be sure to have a look at the Q&A and, above all, the discussion at the end of the session. As Paul Krugman would say on his blog, warning: very wonkish.

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