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Objectivity, Pt. 3: Philosophy of Science and Historiographical Empiricism September 10, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, Methods.
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I suggested in Pt. 2 of this post that Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity fits in with themes both have been exploring over the courses of their careers, as exemplified in Daston’s Wonders and the Order of Nature (written with Katharine Park), and Galison’s Image and Logic.  Both are excellent books, though very different from each other.  I believe my basic disagreements with the presentation in Objectivity (as described in Pt. 1) can be characterized in terms of how elements of the presentation of those books are carried over into Objectivity.  I also believe these disagreements correspond to at least some elements of Martin Kusch’s criticism of the book in his essay review in Isis.

I mentioned in Pt. 2b that Wonders is an exemplary work of historico-philosophy.  What I mean by this is that its subject matter is philosophically defined, roughly as follows: 1) understanding of the world is governed by system (an “order of nature”); 2) this understanding produces expectations concerning what is likely to be seen; 3) violations of this system constitute “wonders”; 4) ethical and intellectual responses to wonders constitute a way of fundamentally distinguishing epistemic traditions.

This scheme allows us to move the history of ideas about nature beyond the philosophy of science by characterizing at a very basic level what intellectual systems can look like outside of what we would think of as a properly scientific worldview.  Not only does the scheme allow us to be sympathetic to Scholastic methods that have often (though not always) been disparaged in histories of science, but also to literary and religious cosmologies (which offered intellectual resources to early natural history, which themselves have only recently begun receiving proper historiographical treatment).  Daston and Park’s scheme further periodizes modern natural philosophical traditions into an early period of radical reform, wherein oddities are embraced as validating a break with the old system (and as a point of common interest with patrons who had a love of the peculiar and exotic), and a rising period of Enlightenment confidence in the rational power of new systems to incorporate oddities, if not now, then eventually.  These different intellectual-ethical responses to wonder are then presented in a historical gallery of practices, which in this case proves satisfying because it is philosophically coherent, i.e. it fully maps possible strategies to the philosophical problematic, here the problem of what to do with violations of natural orders.

Image and Logic represents the culmination of Galison’s project (under way in How Experiments End a decade earlier) to empirically map the practical and intellectual traditions shaping the history of particle detection.  In a tradition mapping project, the historian empirically identifies material continuities through time and posits plausible channels and mechanisms for the continuity in those traditions.  Ideas may be read from these traditions by detecting patterns (both articulated and not) in the specific ways they were deployed.  We can say that tradition mapping renders a historiographically coherent portrait because it provides an account of both resources (traditions of practice) and ideas (if not necessarily a full set of preconditions) that most directly explain the choices exhibited in a defined sector of the historical record.  The identified strategies need not account for all philosophical possibilities of choice (the historian need not answer “why didn’t they do X?”), only choices actually exhibited.

The difficulty with Objectivity is that it mixes and matches historiographical strategies indiscriminately.  It presents a gallery of practices without a fully satisfactory philosophical scheme, and it purports to identify traditions empirically without taking stock of and mapping all the material traditions at play in any given place.  I believe these criticisms can be linked to Kusch’s criticisms that Objectivity is not reflexive in its treatment of objectivity, and his criticism that it abandons locality of explanation.

The basic point here seems to be that a series of superficially similar representational strategies have been grouped and periodized—this represents a legitimate empirical identification of a material tradition.  Suspiciously, however, the motivation for this tradition has been linked to one overarching, homogeneous macrotraditional motivation: representation is an unproblematic expression of the “scientific self” (defined here by a commitment to pursuing certain aesthetically ideal representations).  It is not just modes of representation, but this choice-governing idea of the scientific self that is purported to be what is being exhibited in the gallery of practices.

Because the plausibility of a gallery (versus a coherent historiographical narrative) is rooted in the coherence of the philosophical picture that created it, the gallery strikes one as implausible, because, philosophically, different modes of representation serve different functions of obtaining and communicating evidence for different audiences.  This leaves two possibilities:

  1. Historical actors were philosophically naive, and were driven by a more limited set of ideas (argued in the book to be an aesthetically-defined ethics).
  2. The gallery was constructed in such a way that historical choices adhering to the more philosophically sophisticated view have been left out.

Kusch’s criticism of Objectivity‘s lack of reflexivity suggests (and, if I read him right, I would concur) that (2) is the case.  We have been asked to take it on trust that Daston and Galison’s portrayal of the historical record is representative of both practices and ideas in different times, while the philosophical incompleteness of the gallery militates against this view.  In other words, unless we accept the naiveté of historical actors, there is reason to believe that Daston and Galison were insufficiently objective in either their reading of the record or their presentation of their gallery; yet, Kusch notes, they do not declare that readers depend on their scholarly integrity to be assured that the gallery is an adequate representation of history.

If it is the case that the gallery is an inadequate portrayal—that there are more traditions to be mapped for the burdens of historiographical empiricism to be met—then it stands to reason that similar modes of representation might support multiple motivations, or, conversely, that the same understanding of what it means to be “scientific” might produce different representations in different circumstances (see Pt. 1).  We must therefore explain representations as phenomena that result from peculiar local circumstances (unlike responses to “wonder”, which can be more distinctly characterized by philosophy as transcendentally possible strategies to the problem of ordering nature, as stated).  This does not mean that mesoscopic history of ideas is impossible, only that the ideas being argued for are incapable of accounting for the particular choices exhibited in the individual portraits in the gallery.

In her conversation with Kusch in the video here (kicking off the “general discussion” at the bottom of the page), Daston offers three key defenses of the project.

First, she appeals to the project’s commitment to developing a historiography of the mesocscopic, which abandons the historiographical futility present in Kusch’s emphasis on the local.  As I understand Kusch’s (or at least my own) argument, material traditions and ideas governing the deployment of those traditions may be mesoscopic; but individual choices must be local based on a complete assessment of the ideas governing those choices—identifying a concept of “objectivity” is not a complete assessment.

Second, to answer charges that the gallery is selective, she points out that “objectivity” is one epistemic virtue among many.  I would argue that the book’s historiographical coherence depends upon objectivity being the only idea governing the material tradition of representation; yet, a cognizant approach to representation demands that other factors be taken into account when assessing a choice of representation.  These “other virtues” (I would say, “missing fractions of a complete system of ideas”) cannot be bracketed out without destroying the possibility of satisfactorily explaining the historical choices depicted.

Third, to answer the problem of historical cognizance, she appeals to (1) above, indicating that only a historical delineation of different modes of objective representation will allow for an informed choice of representational strategies in the future.  In other words, to protect the normativity of historiography, she removes cognizance from historical actors (i.e., turns them into automatons) and bestows that cognizance upon the historian.

Ultimately, while perhaps not appealing to the usual science-society theodicy, Objectivity makes a move typical of Great Escape historiography.  By abandoning the possibility that philosophical ideas can be found in the history of science (possibility 1: historical actors are naive), it creates philosophical cogency for its own novel approach to what Daston calls historical epistemology.  Yet, to make this approach seem both novel and adequately descriptive, it must create an unduly selective portrayal of the historical record (possibility 2), which its epistemological vocabulary can handle.  To me, this constitutes every bit as much an act of violence to the historical record as a philosophically-determined history.

To allow historical actors philosophical ideas is not to idealize them or to remove contingency from history.  It is simply to allow ourselves a more expansive language for describing their actions; more on this in the final Great Escape post.

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