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Escape’s End, or: Philosophy and the Art of Historiography Maintenance September 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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This book makes no pretense of giving the world a new theory of the intellectual operations.  Its claim to attention, if it possesses any, is grounded on the fact that it is an attempt not to supersede, but to embody and systematise, the best ideas which have been either promulgated on its subject by speculative writers, or conformed to by accurate thinkers in their scientific inquiries.

—John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, 1843

While he ended up caught in a bloody tangle of barbed wire and killed, I heartily approve of Steve McQueen’s clever orchestration of a mass escape from a Nazi POW camp culminating in a heroic motorcycle chase.  It is, though, perhaps needless to say that academic life is not the film of The Great Escape, historians are not Steve McQueen, and the philosophy of science is not a POW camp (however much it may have felt like one at points in the past).  We do, however, risk a similar outcome in our own Great Escape.

The rationale underlying the Great Escape was the overbearing influence the philosophy of science apparently exercised on historians’ reconstruction of history.  These histories perhaps concentrated too strongly on contributions to a history of ideas and not enough on the actual concerns of the people who made those contributions.  They rendered certain topics of historical importance such as astrology unworthy of historians’ sustained attention, and narrated history in a language of discovery and proof that made the shape of science seem inevitable and the matter of the reception of discoveries a simple question of vision or blindness.

The vision of scientific community offered in philosophy and in philosophy-derived histories was of a sort of hive mind, which assumed that, once demonstrated, scientific ideas should and would spread freely, and that, therefore, it was appropriate to ask questions such as “why didn’t so-and-so take the next step?” or “why didn’t so-and-so accept the idea?” where a more recent historian would ask “why should they have?”  Adding a sociological component to the history of scientific ideas made such issues non-trivial, and (taking a page from Kuhn’s vision) it made the utility of rival intellectual systems into a potent historical force that rationally resists change.

From Steven Shapin’s 1982 “Sociological Reconstructions” piece to Lorraine Daston’s 1995 “Moral Economies” piece, many historians have taken it to be the case that the intellectual history of science could be extended into a sociological dimension without damaging the philosophically-built intellectual history of science, thereby rendering a more complete socio-intellectual theory and history.  Not only would this problematize phenomena such as the reception of ideas, but would reveal the existence of old systems of ideas that were taken every bit as seriously as surviving systems, and were often as sophisticated.  The idea that historiography could be extended in a new direction makes the Great Escape seem accidental, an unexpected consequence of a failure to maintain the intellectual dimensions in view of exciting new ideas.

I think it is important to remember, though, that the analysis of outdated systems derived from anthropological and literary methods designed to analyze unfamiliar and seemingly unstructured patterns of thought and action but which revealed underlying complexity if viewed in the right ways.  Sure enough, when the practice and material culture of science came under closer scrutiny, science, too, appeared functionally ritualistic and its ideas replete with metaphors that migrated in anarchic ways not unlike literary patterns.  Here was a key way to dissolve philosophical boundaries between science and the culture surrounding it.  Combine this with the inadequacies of positivist or anti-positivist epistemologies to explain real knowledge development, and sociologists such as Harry Collins’ eagerness to analyze knowledge production practices without recourse to epistemology, and the Great Escape becomes less of an accident and more of a just cause

Daston has a nice discussion in the “Moral Economies” piece about not making scientific culture and general culture into outright equivalents (as the more dedicated devotees of the Escape would have it):

Although moral economies in science draw routinely and liberally upon the values and affects of ambient culture, the reworking that results usually becomes the peculiar property of scientists.  Traces of the original cultural models—for example, the simplicity, dedication, and humility of Christian saints or the unworldly innocence of the pastoral idyll—lie ready to hand, and can be evoked by the spokesmen of science to win public approval and support.  But the ultimate forms that moral economies assume within science, and the functions that they serve, are science’s own.

The prospect of distinguishing science from not-science is a philosophical goal, but because of historical analyses of scientific practices regularly fail to find much trace of philosophy being used to make this distinction real, it has been necessary to develop more malleable, less restrictive alternative scientific socio-epistemologies (as Daston puts it, a “historical epistemology”) to reconcile local practices into long-term traditions from which knowledge can emerge.  This seems to be the root of the focus on ethics and aesthetics that is so central to the argument in her book with Peter Galison, Objectivity.

The impulse to reject a philosophical view of scientific practice and to put a new historical epistemology into place stems from the inadequacy of philosophical “theories of science” to provide a faithful picture of the “history of science”.  Flipping this around, to tell the history of science, it has continued to be presumed that a new theory of science is needed.  From the “epistemological anarchism” of Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (1975) to the “mangle of practice” in Andy Pickering’s  book of that name (1995), the need to develop a model of science that reproduces its history results in a theoretical nihilism.  Whatever happens happens.  There is no explanation, only narration.  To escape this picture that is both theoretically inadequate (some practices clearly produce better knowledge) and historiographically unsatisfactory (history clearly exhibits long-term  trends), it is necessary to identify traditions that have historically organized inquiry.

I generally do not think historians are wise to jettison older forms of philosophy in pursuit of this goal, no matter how absurdly removed from historical practice they may seem.  If philosophical thinking appears scarce in the history of science, I believe it is more present than most historians and sociologists allow, only tacitly.  It is more that which is understood without being spoken of regularly, or even explicitly formulated, but is nonetheless exhibited in practice (“conformed to by accurate thinkers” in Mill’s words).

I would suggest that, ironically, philosophy is most evident at the level of the sociology of science, where the legitimacy of claims is at stake.  If aesthetic considerations, for example, inform individual styles of work and choices of what claims seem satisfying or what arguments will not be entertained, scientific thinkers must place firmer demands on the legitimacy of claims when attempting to persuade people who might not share a style of work or aesthetic criteria of judgment.  These strategies are surely chosen in a way informed by sophisticated ideas; knowledge is not simply emergent from the negotiations.

The best place to find philosophy then is in the detailed practices within the all-important skeptical-but-persuadable-and-informed audience.  It is surely true that the bounds of this audience are policed sociologically not epistemologically, but a purely sociological or cultural vocabulary will be insufficient to describe the processes of persuasion that take place within those bounds.  Though formalized philosophical models may only rarely appear explicitly, only a philosophical language will permit description of some of the deeper intricacies of historical patterns of objection and acceptance of argument that appear in the record.

No theory of science will ever describe the history of science, but socio-epistemological theories give historians the insight needed to identify pertinent topics for investigation as well as the language necessary to describe it when found.  A full conceptual palette is necessary to maintain a robust historiography.

This language will be transcendental.  Just as we will be able to say that both Caesar and Roosevelt breathed or spoke, we will (per Buchwald and Franklin) be able to compare how Ptolemy argued with how Newton argued.  We can use the language to identify historical actors’ strategies concerning how to deal with transcendentally-defined problems and in what terms they described their strategies, and the specific consequences of both given the specificities of historical milieus.  We can also identify what philosophical distinctions historical actors did not make (and, as some historians have pointed out, what productive distinctions historical actors have made that contemporary philosophy fails to recognize—our philosophy of science must be multi-valent; it must include alternative schemes of understanding, and, hopefully, spell out the relationship between those schemes).

Because our socio-epistemological language is elective—because it describes possible historical strategies rather than a schematic of how history unfolds—the task of both sociology and philosophy should remain related to, but distinct from historiography.  Per Mill, they are both means of embodiment (articulation) and systematization, of what sorts of things might be found in history.

Historians should not neglect “the rest” by focusing only on “the best”, but we should not think we can analyze the epistemological best (or “the distinct” if you prefer) purely in the same terms of the rest.  It is often presumed that the philosophical best necessarily makes some sociological concession (“but this idea was not without its costs…” or some such formulation), and that the combination of the two represents some state of postmodern (or, pace Latour, un-modern) enlightenment that only today’s theorist or historian can achieve.  This approach almost inevitably introduces an element of historiographical theodicy into our histories.

To even acknowledge that historical actors had a grasp on the ideas that inform our history, that historians might not enjoy privileged access to socio-epistemological ideas (with an emphasis on the “socio”), not only seems to diminish the normative worth of our work, but it recalls the hero worship of some form of old-style or popular history that we have moved beyond.

What historians require above all is confidence to not insist that our work has broad lessons, to use a full palette of sociological and philosophical tools to describe and explain history, to allow that it is possible to acknowledge both sociological and philosophical sophistication in history without being made the servant of historical actors, and to accept (as Mill did) that it is all right both to take ideas from history while developing new terminology and systems to describe those ideas.  Finally, we require the confidence to use ideas from history (and ideas needed to explain history) to challenge and reform theorists’ present pictures of past systems of ideas, rather than to simply escape from inconvenient theorists to more amenable ones so as to develop entirely new world views of our own.

If we do try and escape too forcefully from the past, the lack of sophistication in our new ideas presents the constant danger that we will systematically neglect those aspects of history that are invisible to our historiographical ideas, that we will develop intellectual pathologies like theodicy to fill the gaps, or that we will simply adopt old ideas without acknowledging them, thereby preventing us from questioning them.  For all the gains we have made, the situation threatens as much restriction and historiographical degredation as the historiographical models we have escaped.


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