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Looking Backward, Moving Forward January 4, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

This blog launched on New Year’s Day 2008, so for the first post of the new year it seems like a good time to try and figure out and consolidate what has been learned in the last year.  Given the still-rather-uncertain place of blogs in the realm of professional history, any decision to continue on has to revolve around whether or not I am getting anything out of it personally.  The answer, I think, is a resounding “yes”.

Over the past two years, Ether Wave Propaganda has made a point of exploring in a continuous and semi-systematic way the concerns, methods, and history of current historiography.  While there is surely a long way to go, enormous progress has been made, which (in my opinion) puts this blog well ahead of most other commentators in trying to figure out what the sensibilities are that inform contemporary historiography.  A year ago the main insight was to make a distinction between socio-epistemic and chronological problematics, and to note that the bulk of historiography of science was dedicated to the former, and that this had something to do with the public mission of historiography.  I can now present a concordant, but clearer and more detailed picture.

That the focus on a socio-epistemic problematic was a product of the “1980s” scholarship was never in any doubt (although I’m thinking that a closer look at the 1970s is in order), nor was it in doubt that this trend was closely linked to broader trends in cultural history and cultural studies.  What is becoming increasingly clear is that this shift was based upon a series of rather particular gains made during the 1980s, which could be understood within a chronological problematic.  In the historiography of the 17th and 18th centuries, attention to the argumentative structure of natural philosophy; the close relationship between cosmology, theology, and social order; and the difficulties in interpreting individual incidents and in treating exceptions to natural orders, including the rise of statistics and probability, were all highly productive in establishing new interest in understanding of the historical importance of neglected works.  In the 19th-century historiography, the appearance of disciplinary divisions and the establishment of absolute certainty in highly restricted domains (the proliferation of precision measurement as a standard of good science, in particular) also produced important works of history.  In all periods, moving outside of progress-of-knowledge narratives and commentary-on-the-canon methodology became a priority.

These gains never represented the product of a coherent historiographical agenda, nor were they ever consolidated, even as they were pressed into the service of a historiographical movement, which sought to overcome apparently heavy criticism from certain scholars.  In this, historians were bolstered by various movements, particularly in sociology of science, which took the history of science as validating certain observations concerning “how science works” and how it doesn’t (i.e., according to a philosophically-defined dynamic).  The wagons were circled, and successfully.  The movement survived attacks and thrived in the 1990s.

I tend to think that historians got the raw end of this deal.  What was initially meant to deepen and complicate existing pictures ended up making them rather more simple, as specific historical gains were cast off, and differences between individual scholars’ perspectives were shrugged off, in favor of the perpetual re-illustration of basic insights.  The new insights into natural philosophy, for instance, never gained much attention, perhaps because they were too firmly embedded in intellectual history, perhaps because they were never widely appreciated in the first place.

The socio-epistemic scholarly imperative that grew out of this situation was, indeed, fed by the notion that it had broad, normative import.  More complex visions of 17th and 18th-century natural philosophy don’t automatically spark much attention, but when the adoption of these new pictures is taken to constitute the adoption of a more mature attitude toward “science” than is prevalent in society, some grip on wider attention might then be expected.  And when the lack of a mature attitude toward science and knowledge is taken as a possible cause of social and political evils (rampant modernization, a lack of modernization, centrally-controlled economy, unregulated economy, unreflective genetic manipulation, pursuit of expensive scientific projects of dubious worth, the prevalence of anti-evolution, and so forth), conducting scholarship in the socio-epistemic vein becomes an almost irresistible draw.

This view was evident in Robert Kohler’s criticism of Charles Gillispie’s “history of science losing its science” argument in 1980, in the notorious last page of Leviathan and the Air-Pump in 1985, and, most explicitly, in the central thesis of Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern in 1993.  This attitude still echoes quite clearly and surprisingly coherently in the recent CBC “How to Think About Science” broadcasts.  (I’ve now listened to several of the most pertinent—they’re excellent introductions to each scholar’s work, but also segue characteristically into critiques of “received” views, actively egged on by the fairy-tale narration of interviewer David Cayley.)

The view also presses “public understanding”, scientists’ histories, hagiographic accounts, and philosophical histories into a generalized naive understanding that needs to be swept away.  Because this justifies scholarship, scholars have a perverse incentive not to inquire into the deeper contours of these understandings, both historically and in contemporary life.  Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life represents an interesting attempt to reconcile the idea of a historical generally naive view with a contemporary academically naive view of scientific work.

The key characteristic of the socio-epistemic literature is that it never actually seems to have been meant to generate cumulative gains (a thought I first explored here nearly a year ago).  Nevertheless, rumblings that come even from within the mainstream professional elite indicate a lack of patience with a scholarship that seems to generate few pressing questions for discussion, and which fragments history into component studies with little asserted connection to each other (what I call the “new internalism”).  Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston have been proactive in attempting to rebuild large-scale history by assembling empirical histories of “epistemic virtues” and “ways of knowing”, with the attitude that what is needed is not to lose nerve with the project to see science and its history in a bold, new way.  I am personally of the opinion that it may be necessary to reconsider the boldness of the endeavor (see also my response to Daston’s recent Critical Inquiry article).

Some additional thoughts on this subject will doubtless arise as the Schaffer series proceeds deeper into the 1990s, and I want to look at the work of Crosbie Smith, Norton Wise, and Geoffrey Cantor early this year to see where Schaffer’s insights on natural philosophy meet the historiography of 19th-century science.  Mostly, though, I think this blog has a good enough handle on the sensibilities accompanying contemporary historiography to move on to other concerns.  What I want to start to do this year is go further back and try and crack open some of the more diverse perspectives on science aside from the ones we now know best.



1. Thony C. - January 5, 2010

I#m glad that you’ve decided to stick around Will. I for one very much enjoy reading your output and learn quite a lot while doing so.

2. Chris Renwick - January 7, 2010

Keep up the good work, Will! Echoing the previous comment, this blog has enabled me to learn a great deal about a variety of historians and subjects that I’ve not got the time to tackle in any great depth in my own work. Furthermore, I think the overall themes of the blog are important. For one thing, there’s a lack of history of science writing — both monographs and articles — that takes a step back and considers the bigger picture of the field. This blog is genuine contribution to dealing with that issue.

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