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Anthropological Cosmology and Anti-Demarcationism, Pt. 1 March 8, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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If we ever wanted to get really serious about it, I doubt the notion of an “entente” between anthropological and natural philosophical cosmologies will wash as a way of understanding the historical roots of current historiographical concerns.  However, much like last summer’s series on the “Great Escape” from philosophy of science, this line of thinking will provide a useful heuristic that should prove of value in assembling a more coherent picture of the concerns that drove an important shift in historiographical style.  Recent posts here have discussed the “natural philosophy” end of this bargain—and we will return to that presently—but the next step should be to understand the appeal and application of anthropological cosmology to the history and historiography of science.

Simply following the citations from Schaffer’s “Natural Philosophy,” a good place to start is Barry Barnes’ and Steven Shapin’s essay review of Mary Douglas’ essay collection Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology, entitled “Where is the Edge of Objectivity?” and appearing in the British Journal for the History of Science 7 (1977): 61-6.  The work is notable for the clarity, simplicity, and explicitness with which it conveys some key points.

The essay review is mainly used as an opportunity to advertise the talking points of the Edinburgh School of sociology of science.  As such, what is taken to be important are certain features of Douglas’ work, rather than the work itself.  I’ll try and delineate a few such features.

  1. Cosmology, defined as the cognitive resources at one’s disposal, is inevitable.  The attempt to escape a system of ideas simply resorts to other ideas.  Barnes and Shapin quoting Douglas: “People are living in the middle of their cosmology, down in amongst it; they are energetically manipulating it, evading its implications in their own lives if they can, but using it for hitting each other and forcing one another to conform to something they have in mind.”
  2. Cosmology as a cognitive strategy is a way of maintaining social order, which helps us understand complicated foreign belief systems.  According to Barnes and Shapin, in Douglas’ early work, “Preliterate beliefs were social institutions bound into the practical operation of the community and intelligible only in terms of activity in the community.  Even conceptions of nature in such communities had to be made intelligible in terms of their social functions; one did not ask how well they reflected reality but how well they justified the social hierarchy or how far they discouraged deviant acts in the society.”
  3. Purity and Danger.  Cosmology maintains social order by establishing sets of commonly-accepted intellectual boundaries that define appropriate behaviors; violations of these boundaries are perceived as pollutants that threaten individual sanctity, and through polluted individuals, society itself.
  4. As an inevitable cognitive resource, cosmology should be deemed universally applicable.  “The dynamic feature of [Douglas’] thought has been the progressive extension of her working approach to knowledge, so that it is now held to apply to the beliefs of all societies.  In the 1970s she has formulated for herself the task of establishing the social roots of all cosmologies—‘ours’ as well as ‘theirs’, ‘scientific’ as well as ‘magical’, since she can no longer accept the grounds upon which she once believed that our thought was different.”

For Barnes and Shapin, these tenets define knowledge as “constitutively social”.  The analytical power of the insights is taken to endorse the Edinburgh School’s call for a “social epistemology”, which doubles as a criticism of the historiography of science.  According to Barnes and Shapin the historiography boasts “a wide range of perspectives and no lack of intellectual vitality,” but the historiography is fatally flawed in a way that Douglas’ work is not.  In the historiography of science

an individualistic epistemology is more or less taken for granted.  The individual scientist is assumed to contribute to the growth of genuine knowledge by rationally appraising his observations or experimental results.  His success is that of an individual rational mind in contact with reality through experiment or observation; the social context in which he operates is not considered an essential element in understanding his achievement.

This segues directly into the second key point, an attack on forms of analysis that purport to demarcate a rational core from unrational social context.  Within such analyses, “the social context is often considered to be a source of prejudices and biases, a source of disturbance of rational thought, a potential pollutant of the knowledge being produced.”  At best, this pollution might “accidentally contribute to the long-term benefit of science.”  In an analysis that accepted a social epistemology, “the social relationships within scientific communities and the institutional structures of the societies wherein science arose” would be as necessary for explaining the successes of scientific cultures as the cognitive processes employed.

The validity of the anti-demarcationist view is taken to be demonstrated by the applicability of anthropological or sociological analysis to scientific work.  If the demarcationist view is accordingly rejected, “Scientific knowledge would cease to have a privileged status.  It would become a set of collective representations just like those of ‘popular science’ or ‘common-sense’ or of some other esoteric sub-culture.”

This last provocative line was commonplace in varying forms in the 1970s and ’80s, and so we come to a critical point in the story.  The basic applicability of socio-epistemology and anthro-cosmology should not be controversial.  Scientific figures routinely trust in the validity of colleagues’ reports, in the reliability of ritually-performed standardized methods, and in the legitimacy of ideas inherited from predecessors.  Likewise, no scientific community can maintain its work unless this acceptance is well-enforced.  Nevertheless, the intellectual leveling implied by the phrase “cease to have a privileged status” would cause controversy to no end, partially because the phrase and ones similar to it were ill-formulated, partially because it was sometimes genuinely deployed to various radical conclusions.

For their part, Barnes and Shapin were eager to demonstrate their moderate credentials, not least by throwing Douglas and other anthropologists under the bus at the appropriate moment.

It may be […] that, with the emphasis Professor Douglas has increasingly found necessary in order successfully to convey her social epistemology, certain aspects of the generation of knowledge have been neglected.  One need have no quibble with her characterization of beliefs and arguments as conventional in order to suspect her insistence that knowledge must always reflect an interest in social control….  ¶…natural scientists do often attempt to develop their work as a body of technical lore and competences, and nothing more, devaluing cosmology and metaphysics even as they use it….  ¶Professor Douglas neglects technique and the importance of an interest in predicting and controlling the behaviour of material entities, when discussing the generation of knowledge.  Social anthropologists in Britain have not been greatly interested in the empirical lore of their tribes: how to attach fish hooks to lines, how to make spear points.  But such lore must be considered in any general theory of knowledge.

Nevertheless, there was plenty of provocation left to keep things stirred up.  I think the term chutzpah is applicable to the tactic of applying a theory designed to analytically level different schemes of thought to dismiss those who refuse to accept the tenets of selfsame theory:

Professor Douglas’ own theories, probably correctly, indicate that […] they are unlikely to gain ready acceptance among all historians of science.  Science is a highly valued body of knowledge.  Much depends upon its high credibility, upon its being perceived as an especially reliable, distinctive form of knowledge.  And, to an extent, the differentiated existence of the history of science, its interesting institutional position, and the structure of its internal system of authority depends upon this perception.  Those who benefit from an entity being perceived in this way are always under pressure to treat the entity as sacred and set-apart.  By doing this, by insisting that the entity is different in essence from less-valued things, logically distinct and bounded-off, they legitimate and justify their own position….  A social epistemology erodes currently dominant legitimations of science and undermines the presently accepted way of distinguishing its internal history from the study of external pollutions.  Thus it is liable to evoke hostility and sanction.

Here the meaning of the phrase “different in essence” becomes crucial.  Are philosophical efforts to describe scientific thought an effort to differentiate it in essence? to set it apart as sacred?  Or is this just another humble appeal for the acceptance of the applicability of anthro-cosmology?  How one parses the phrase makes all the difference in determining just who one is accusing of illegitimately exempting their work from legitimate question.  The phrase “all historians of science” indicates we might be dealing with a few recalcitrant souls, but the blanket condemnation of the historiography as founded on the sand of an “individualistic” epistemology suggests otherwise.  The question seems to hinge on the intellectual viability of the historiography circa 1977.

Where Schaffer’s attack on scholars’ general approach to the problem of natural philosophy strikes me as intellectually exuberant, in this piece one can more palpably feel the professional tensions, which, according to popular lore, had begun to permeate the history of science.  More discussion forthcoming.


1. Will Thomas - March 8, 2010

Ascribing a demarcationist motivation to opponents remained a longstanding tactic, as noted in a piece by physicist David Mermin in The One Culture (2001), an edited volume that was one of the attempts to declare the “Science Wars” to have ended. The basic idea is that in the mid-’90s Mermin had read Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch’s discussions of the “proof” of relativity as questioning the validity of relativity. Protesting, Mermin was accused at various times by various people of behaving like an offended “high priest” when he really had no problems with the fact or objective of the analysis, only what the prose seemed to imply. The discussion is instructive. The most relevant bit is here, but this is a link to the beginning of the piece, which is available in full on Google Books. Immediately following it is a piece by Shapin called “How to be Anti-Scientific”.

2. Blogs - March 14, 2010

The Weekly Smörgåsbord #4…

Along with the usual range of modern topics, there are a couple of links to late medieval and early modern topics. I’m always happy to see posts on earlier material. “Scott and Scurvy” — An interesting history of scurvy from the…

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