jump to navigation

Anthropological Cosmology and Anti-Demarcationism, Pt. 2 March 18, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

There was no such thing as the historiographic revolution and this is a (too-long) post about it.

Historiographical totem?

In the late-1970s, the applicability of anthropological notions of cosmology to issues in the historiography of science could be understood as evidence of the need for an epistemology that extended into the domain of social relations.  This extension entailed the notion that scientific work existed in a cultural and intellectual continuum with the society around it, and thus that attempts to demarcate scientific work and ideas were ill-founded.  Society was not simply something to be scrubbed from science; legitimate scientific work was made possible through its establishment in legitimate places within society, and through the selective borrowing from society of cultural and political means of establishing legitimate claims.  This, I think, was a good idea, but was it methodologically revolutionary?

The test of the validity of any idea is whether it can change the outcome of a process in some specific way.  A scientific idea can help create a successful experiment or an improved technology.  The idea of social epistemology could be tested as could much sociology and philosophy of science by running it through the historical record and seeing if it rendered it more coherent.  In other words (to use a Latourian formulation), the success of social epistemology was bound up with its ability to forge an alliance with historiography.

The socio-epistemology advocates took no chances on getting lost in the shuffle, and apparently decided to tie the success of their program to a beneficial historiographical sea change.  In a 1983 article discussing possible implications for science education, Steven Shapin and Harry Collins even used the title “Experiment, Science Teaching, and the New History and Sociology of Science” (my emphasis; reprinted in Teaching the History of Science (1989), eds. Michael Shortland and Andrew Warwick).  However, the existence of this shift as a coherent entity, and the placement of socio-epistemology within it, should not be taken for granted.  The idea took years to successfully engineer.

Reading the back literature, I am increasingly floored by just how frequently some variation on the phrase “over the last X-number years” appears, indicating the existence of some ineffable trend leading away from false visions of history and “increasingly” toward correct ones. The making of this very general observation was by no means limited to those who identified a grand historiographical shift, though they certainly embraced the idea.

Far from being any clearly-valid periodization (the period in question seems to move arbitrarily), it seems to have been a powerful rhetorical device that lends cogency to the claims of whoever purports to have the ability to ride the new wave.  Indeed, it is still used in much this way.  Conversely, it can also function as a critique of opponents.  “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”  As a cliché, it is probably better thought of as a tic produced by historiographical argumentation than as a consciously-used device.

The manufacture of a coherent shift from an amorphous sense of change seems to have been accomplished through a two-pronged strategy: disavowing credit for the change while predicating the successful continuation or even culmination of that change on the acceptance of socio-epistemology as an articulation of the essential insights governing it.  In “Where is the Edge of Objectivity?” Shapin and Barry Barnes identified a number of historians whose works, in varying ways, clearly embraced an acceptance of socio-epistemology, whether they themselves would say so or not: definitely Ruth Cowan (on Galton), but also Paul Forman (on Weimar physicists), Martin Rudwick (on fossils), Piyo Rattansi (on the Helmontian-Galenist controversy), Robert Young (on Malthus and evolution), Margaret Jacob (on Newtonian ideology), Christopher Hill (on William Harvey), and Jonathan Miller (on 19th-century studies of the nervous system).  Shapin would influentially repeat and augment the strategy is his 1982 article, “History of Science and Its Sociological Reconstructions”.

In this way, historiography became a wedge in this period, cleaving the community of historians into vestiges of an older era doomed to be left behind against those open to progressive approaches, who could be identified through their acceptance of socio-epistemology as the central foundation of proper historiography.

Barnes and Shapin’s edited volume Natural Order (1979)  is a key moment in this effort.  They make clear in their introduction that a change is afoot, and that this change is self-manifesting, i.e. the authors did not create it: “Without any great proclamation or catastrophic upheaval in method, scholars have been increasingly willing to accept accounts of scientific change simply as the techniques of their discipline reveal it to them…” (9).  But, crucially, Barnes and Shapin do claim to understand what is going on, and their formulation must be embraced, because it can explain and create historiographical success and prevent future historiographical failure.

For instance, in their joint piece, “Darwin and Social Darwinism: Purity and History”, Barnes and Shapin portray some of the preoccupations of the prodigious and (they stress) mainly successful Darwin Industry as manifestations of systematic historiographical failure.  Social Darwinism, they note, had been, by comparison, a poorly studied subject, though effort had been expended on downplaying Darwin’s personal responsibility for it.  Similarly, historians had been eager to probe the nature of Thomas Malthus’ influence on Darwin attempting to ensure that Darwin took no ‘unscientific’ notions from it.

Barnes and Shapin deploy Mary Douglas (correctly, I think) to note the literature’s strong interest in defending the purity of Darwin’s scientific contributions against the possibility of “taint” that might accrue to them through the association of the figure of Darwin with intellectual and social pollution.  Darwin must be defended from efforts to make a taboo of him and his ideas.  (As we have seen, Schaffer returned to the Malthus-Darwin issue in 1989 in discussing the nebular hypothesis.)  Barnes and Shapin do not believe the literature’s conclusions wrong, but argue that the historiographical portrait that emerges takes on certain contours that do not necessarily well-reflect the life and work of Darwin or the development of natural science in the period.

The take-away point that Barnes and Shapin stress is that social epistemology may seem frightening, because it abandons the moral comfort of demarcationism.  However, unlike the Marxist anti-demarcationist effort to “expose” science as a tool of social interest, social epistemology can uncover sources of scientific strength as well as weakness.  Further, it promises freedom from the neuroses surrounding the assessment of the intellectual purity of science in history through the process of “more relaxed and naturalistic” description.  By this path the violence of internalist-externalist debates can be alleviated.  The only choice that need be made is between history and advocacy, whether philosophical or political.  One cannot conscientiously do both:

Naturalism closes no evaluative or political options; it merely ejects them from historical practice.  It may be, indeed, that the main impetus to naturalism stems from professional, disciplinary considerations on the part of historians and others engaged in the study of science.  A recognition that explicit evaluative concerns and commitments are not conducive to good history may be the major factor.  If one aspires to do history in a properly ‘disinterested’ way, it is difficult simultaneously to act as an apologist for science, making out its past as a disembodied interaction between rational minds and reality.

Importantly, this new path was intellectually amorphous; the history and terms of social epistemology have not yet been articulated.  Rather, shunning bad methodology promised methodological freedom: “those who study natural knowledge will feel free to experiment with any of the general methods and theories of the social sciences.  Insofar as such methods and theories appear to have merit in the context of art or religion, or the cosmologies of preliterate societies, or any other setting, they may prove useful in the study of science also.  As a typical form of culture, science should be amenable to whatever methods advance our understanding of culture more generally.”

There is much that is appealing in the Barnes-Shapin critique, because it does describe a number of older historiographical preoccupations.  Nevertheless, its promised methodological eclecticism seems to have served it poorly.  It certainly did not eject “evaluative or political options” from historiography.  In fact, the reduction of historiographical—and historical—failures to a central pathology resulting from a naive and neurotic demarcationism could make writing an accurate and penetrating history of science into an act of socio-political consequence.  Where Shapin (in his piece in this volume on phrenology and again in ’82) would insist that the articulation of  the requirement of social epistemology rendered the “mere assertion that scientific knowledge ‘has to do’ with the social order or that it is ‘not autonomous’ […] no longer interesting,” the setting up of demarcationism as a pathology made the continual re-illustration of this key insight all the more appealing.

Further, the establishment of a “new” and “relaxed” historiography, and the reduction of historiographical failures to symptoms of a central intellectual pathology, would make it easier for anyone espousing a “new” historiography to cast opponents as antiquated and their protests as evidence of their high-strung antiquity, without needing to consider the deeper contours of the dispute.  This, in turn, made it easier to abandon the responsibility to make historical or historiographical arguments clearly.

This wedging of the historiography into two distinct groups could make for strange bedfellows, allying historiographical moderates with radicals on the “new” side of things, while stranding historiographically innovative and inclusive figures interested in “old” issues on the wrong side of history.  Ironically, it would also make those who articulated the new-old divide most clearly—e.g. Bruno Latour, SSK’ers, etc.—the target of frustration over historiographical trends that were older than their articulations, and which individuals within this group might not have even personally supported.

That’s the historiographical theory at this stage of the game anyway.  For some thin evidence I’ll leave the (extended) last word here to Geoffrey Cantor.  In his 1982 essay review of The Ferment of Knowledge edited collection (1980), called “The Eighteenth Century Problem”, he captured some of the historiographical tension created—or at least exacerbated—by the anti-demarcationist wedge:

One final general point about this volume is its marked historiographical partiality.  In requesting contributors to concentrate on the social aspects of science the editors have given the impression that this alone is the major feature of modern historical interpretation.  Indeed there is a certain amount of flag-waving on behalf of ‘externalists’ against ‘internalists’ ([G. S.] Rousseau, pp. 209-10), and ‘contextualists’ against ‘intellectualists’ (Shapin, pp. 105-11).  The unwary reader taking this rhetoric at face value would fail to appreciate that many of the major new perspectives have come from the ‘internalists’ or ‘intellectualists’ who in almost every branch of eighteenth century scholarship have altered our understanding of the period in very significant ways.  As [Jacques] Roger states (pp. 255-8), the history of science has undergone a major revolution in the last twenty-five years [i.e., 1955-1980] during which time all the old historical certainties have had to be suspended if not abandoned.  In the field of the biological sciences it would be difficult to find anyone who has changed the historian’s perception as much as Roger, and yet Roger is primarily a textual exegete and would, therefore, be an example of those criticized by Shapin and Rousseau.  Again, as [Henk] Bos shows (pp. 334-41), [Clifford] Truesdell has radically changed the history of mechanics; however, he has achieved this without enveloping mechanics in ‘a large cultural perspective’ (Rousseau and [Roy] Porter, p. 5).  Indeed, in almost every field of eighteenth century studies, major reinterpretations have been produced by craftsmen-like researchers who have redefined how their sciences developed, what problems were important and which scientists made significant contributions.  My purpose in making the above comments is not to side with the ‘internalists’ or any other political party but to counteract such fashionable and dogmatic utterances as ‘there is every reason to believe that the internalist camp is beginning to lose ground’ and ‘what remains to be charted by future students then, is the course of externalism’ (Rouseau, pp. 209-10).


1. Will Thomas - March 21, 2010

The level of debate circa 1980 seems to have been generally very high. On Natural Order, Charles Rosenberg’s essay review “Nature Decoded” in the June 1980 Isis, is good reading.

2. Blogs - March 26, 2010

The Weekly Smörgåsbord #5…

This week’s list of links is short, in part because I didn’t want to duplicate The Giant’s Shoulders #21 and in part because putting together the carnival took a lot of time and energy. In any event, here are some of the posts that at…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: