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Objectivity, Pt. 2b: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Epistemology September 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History as Anti-Philosophy.
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If Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity is a product of the history of science’s Great Escape from the philosophy science, their work differs from much of the work in the Great Escape historiography in that it retains a clear interest in not only the history of ideas, but scientific ideas.  As I argued in Pt. 2a, Galison’s oeuvre has concentrated on aesthetic ideals as ideas governing individual scientific practice and intertraditional conflict: image vs. logic, or, indeed, one kind of representational objectivity versus another.

Daston, even more than Galison, has likewise never seemed too tempted to abandon ideas for practice.  Her work, like Steven Shapin’s work on the 17th-century, takes the relationship between epistemology and morals extremely seriously, so that it is not so much practice, but ideas about proper practice, that take center stage.  I would go so far as to say that Daston’s work, much like Michel Foucault’s, functions best as a mapping of systems of socio-epistemic ideas, and tends to be a little lackadaisical concerning things like proper periodization, and, especially, constituency (“eighteenth-century notions” should be read as “the notions of these thinkers active in a certain period of the eighteenth century”).  This is not to say it isn’t brilliant—it is—it just has its priorities, and readers are well-served to keep these in mind.

A nice introduction to Daston’s intellectual program is her piece “The Moral Economy of Science” from the 1995 Osiris, which (aside from stealing and redefining—i.e., appropriating—E. P. Thompson’s term “moral economy”) sketches out what questions of social cohesion and self-discipline—socialization—accompany what scientific practices (“key aspects of how scientists come to know”).  For example, what kind of scientific community has to exist in order for “quantification” or “precision measurement” or  “empiricism” to be epistemologically productive practices?

Daston’s “Moral Economy” piece was also quite firm in its criticisms of the priorities of the “constructionist” position:

The numerous case studies of this genre run the gamut from piecemeal attempts to unmask this or that scientific claim as a piece of political interest tricked out as neutral fact, to more systematic exposés of all of science as a ‘social construction,’ laboriously if clandestinely built up out of interests, resources, and negotiations.

So Daston is very much in league with Galison (here at the height of the Science Wars) in trying to carve out a moderate position in the Great Escape historiography.  In her case, it is to develop a view of socio-epistemic practices that allows the cultural study of science to retain epistemological power.

If Galison’s unifying theme is the aesthetic ideal, for Daston it is the relationship between ethics, emotion (the “passions”), and “coming to know”.  I would characterize her excellent 1998 book with Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 as an exemplary work of historico-philosophy, which clarifies just these issues.

The basic idea of that book is that everyone has an intellectual system that creates certain expectations about how the world works.  When these expectations are violated, the violation (the “marvel”, the “monster”, the “sport of nature”, etc.) provokes a reaction of wonder.  The ethics of wonder are closely related to one’s intellectual system, and the shifting ethics of wonder chart nicely onto shifting knowledge systems.  A Scholastic theologian might dismiss a wonder as a philosophically uninteresting “accident”; a religious mystic might interpret it as a divine sign or a preternatural intervention of a demon; a natural philosophical reformer (or a nobleman with a taste for the exotic) might embrace it as something new that challenges conventional wisdom; an Enlightenment natural philosopher would insist it will eventually find explanation.

In Objectivity, the “epistemic virtue” of objectivity (a term Martin Kusch helpfully notes is appropriated from “recent philosophical literature, especially in Neo-Thomist quarters”), and, by extension, the act of representation and conflicts concerning proper representation, are coupled not with wonder, but fear (372-4):

All epistemology begins in fear—fear that the world is too labyrinthine to be threaded with reason; fear that the senses are too feeble and the intellect to frail; fear that memory fades, even between adjacent steps of a mathematical demonstration; fear that authority and convention blind; fear that God may keep secrets or demons deceive.  Objectivity is a chapter in this history of intellectual fear, of errors anxiously anticipated and precautions taken.  But the fear objectivity addresses is different from and deeper than the others.  The threat is not external—a complex world, a mysterious God, a devious demon.  Nor is it the corrigible fear of senses that can be strengthened by a telescope or microscope or memory that can be buttressed by written aids.  Individual steadfastness against prevailing  opinion is no help against it, because it is the individual who is suspect.

The other commentators in the Victorian Studies section on the book were taken aback by the provocative emphasis on fear.  I think, though, that Daston and Galison are in the right here, although I wonder if maybe they aren’t putting old wine in new bottles (to pick up on Bill Newman’s terminology in his criticism of Shapin and Peter Dear on their treatments of alchemy; props to Tawrin for the tip).

Put it this way: Daston and Galison, and I would add Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life, are not only different from a lot of other Great Escape historiography in that they seek out a moderate position with respect to exposé and epistemology, but that they admirably make no recourse to historiographical theodicy to seek cogency for themselves.  With them, there is no great historical onset of naiveté about the science-society relationship, for which historians’ studies can inspire a cure.  Rather, as is also the case with Harry Collins and Rob Evans’ recent “Third Wave of Science Studies”, the object is not to deconstruct the authority of science, but to explain the sources of cohesion in science and the sources of the strength of science in society.  (See our 2008 Q&A series with Collins & Evans here).

In fact, I think it is significant that both Daston & Galison and Shapin posit recent shifts in the terrain of knowledge (in Objectivity “presentation”; in Shapin, the characteristics of the “late modern vocation” of science), to which scholars must catch up, for when we do we will surely be able to say something normatively useful.  (Shapin, incidentally, does retain a revised theodicy by tracing the onset and persistence of beliefs about the science-society relationship in academia, which has to-date prevented us denizens of “the tower” from catching up!)

Yet, our stable epistemic terrain actually looks pretty familiar, only now it is reconfigured from intellectual into emotional and moral language, per the imperatives of the Great Escape.  Epistemological “fear”, you have to admit, looks a lot like good old-fashioned “doubt”.  Wonders and the Order of Nature worked because it contextualized familiar “curiosity” amid a series of philosophically-defined alternative reactions to “wonder”.  Even Richard Feynman, in his (pre-strong program) “Cargo Cult Science” speech, emphasized “honesty” as much as scientific method.

If we speak in terms of how scientists are morally dedicated to epistemologically virtuous ideal practices, rather than in terms of “how science works”—if we redefine the epistemological in terms of the aesthetic and ethical—the historiographical benefit seems to be that we reacquire a unity in scientific morality, or at least a historiographically manageable number of scientific “ideals” around which practices are oriented, which can replace the philosophers’ overly-determined, overly-unified, and ahistorical influence on the history of science.  My remaining concern, though, is that if I’m correct in suggesting that representational practice cannot be periodized by the prevalence of the “epistemic virtue” governing it, if I am right that representation (not to mention science) is less a matter of striving toward an ideal and more a matter of choosing a proper strategy, might this act of choice not be governed by more complex ideas that turn out to be awfully similar to the things that the philosophers of science talk about?

If this is what the articulation of a secure socio-epistemology following the Great Escape looks like, we might start to wonder if it was worth the trouble to launch ourselves so far into orbit in the first place.  I will consider this question in the last post of this book club series, which might end up doubling as the last post in the Great Escape series if all the issues work out concisely enough.

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