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Integration without Differentiation: The Fate of the Natural Philosophy Problem March 25, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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As I noted in my last post, the notion that we have experienced a historiographic revolution in the history of science has often been predicated on the notion that the key insight of that revolution was a conceptual extension of epistemology into the social.  In principle, this insight should support a number of conceptual variations within the general framework.  Thus, for instance, the avowed eclecticism of Natural Order (1979), which was supposed to begin a longer process by gathering examples which would accommodate a subsequent historical and philosophical synthesis.  In their introduction to the book, Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin warned , “Our predominant concern has […] been to obtain contributions based in concrete work [i.e., empirical history], and for this reason no unified point of view, or overall framework or theory, will be found consistently used and advocated through the book” (13).

In his 1980 Isis essay review of the collection (pp. 291-295), historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg described the general project as a “laudable task” (295), but worried that the book embraced “a position so tentative and eclectic that it almost approximates the theory-starved practice of a good many historians” (292).  This quality lent cover to an undifferentiated treatment of the connections between knowledge and social relations: it concentrated on the fact of the relationship between subject and its socio-cultural context rather than offering any notions about the manner of the relationship, and what the role and importance of various contexts were.  “Such facile connection between social location and the form of a particular idea removes the historical actor from that very richness of context in which Barnes and Shapin would have him placed” (ibid) … “the contributors almost never place their protagonists in appropriately detailed social location” (293).

As far as I can discern, the whole point of putting a number of historiographical problems under the single, crucial rubric of social epistemology was that it would prompt a differentiation between different manners of subject-context relations, allowing an explicit formulation of the relationships between differentiated historical phenomena to be forged.  The benefit of placing one’s own historiographical project within this rubric was the potential that it could be productively related to others’ historiographical projects.  The danger was that one’s own historiographical project, once integrated into the rubric, would fail to be distinguished from those other projects.  We return to the “problem of natural philosophy”.

As we have seen, one of the key developments in thinking about natural philosophy in the 1980s, was a new emphasis on philosophers’ explicit ideas regarding the relationship between epistemology, morals, polity, and the composition of the mind, body, and natural world, particularly as articulated in the 17th and 18th centuries.  This was, unapologetically, intellectual history: the history of ideas as written in books.  The impact of this trend can readily be seen even today in intellectual-historical works.  Stephen Gaukroger’s recent The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1210-1685 (2006), which unabashedly focuses singularly on intellectual history, is a fine example.

While it is clear that this intellectual history trend has survived, it is not clear that it has benefited from an association with social epistemology.  Rather, strenuously developed, often very subtle points of intellectual history can easily be conflated with rather different points about, say, issues of training experimenters or patronage.  In the 1998 volume Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge, edited by Shapin and Christopher Lawrence, and dedicated to the relationship between scientific practice and scientists’ bodies, Peter Dear, in his “A Mechanical Microcosm: Bodily Passions, Good Manners, and Cartesian Mechanism,” still, in 1998, felt the need to insert the following footnote (p.64n45):

It ought to be observed at this point that the structure of the present argument is not in the mold of many of the contributions to that hoary classic, Barnes and Shapin, Natural Order.  Some of those essays set up isomorphisms between ideas about an aspect of the natural world and attitudes toward the social order held by the same people, and infer a causal link from the former to the latter (e.g. [Brian] Wynn [“Physics and Psychics: Science, Symbolic Action, and Social Control in Late Victorian England”]), while others take a practically instrumental view of the function of particular ideas about nature for the furthering of their proponents’ social interests (e.g. Barnes and [Donald] MacKenzie [“Scientific Judgment: The Biometry-Mendelism Controversy”]).  I shall, by contrast, be attempting to show that appropriate social behavior and appropriate behavior toward nature were fundamentally the same thing to Descartes and many of his contemporaries.

One senses that 19 years after Natural Order, one simply had to resign oneself to the fact that one’s arguments were likely to be coarsely interpreted outside one’s specialty, while leaving evidence of the particularity of one’s argument for those who might want to follow up on it.  In general, though, arguments remained far more likely to be subjected to generalized, exploratory thematic interpretation (Science Incarnate is an exemplary “gallery of practices”) rather than differentiated-but-integrated scholarship.

One also gets the sense that there still exists an appetite for differentiated-integrated scholarship.  I believe, for instance, that Lorraine Daston’s recent “Science Studies and the History of Science” (2009) and her and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (2007) should be read, partially, as a call for such an activity.  Yet, 30+ years of historiographical tradition resists any such possibility.  One task, then, for anyone with such appetites is to understand how a project that promised a move from what Rosenberg called the “facile” to the well-differentiated could fail to develop.

For clues, one might look to the evolution of Simon Schaffer’s oeuvre.  Schaffer spent much of the ’80s as an intellectual historian, interested in the intellectual connections between ideas in natural philosophical systems and ideas about proper practice.  By the 1990s, matters of practice came to dominate.  “Self Evidence” (1992) marks the transition nicely, recapitulating earlier points but with new emphases.

In the article, Schaffer suggested his analysis would follow three lines: enculturation, calibration, and ontology.  Ontology relates to his traditional concern with the intellectual content of the scientific work he details, but in this piece it takes the third-tier place he gives it.  It is only of concern insofar as the fact that in the 18th-century it was understood “that electrical fluids governed the behaviour of living matter” and thus that electrical self-experimentation could rationally be connected to knowledge about the body or about electricity.

The thrust of the piece relates to the difficulties of securing consensus through experiment, particularly where it relates to experimenters’ bodies (note the early manifestation of the Science Incarnate “body” theme), which relates to the enculturated ability to construct a functioning experiment, and sociologist Harry Collins’ concern with the difficulties of replicating experimental evidence (calibration), as well as to the sociologically tacit—rather than philosophically explicit—means of overcoming the difficulty: the “Cartesianism of the genteel” and a new “trust” in self-registering mechanical instrumentation.  These points easily dovetailed with arguments about rather different histories, but which all related to the historicity and tacit social content of the idea of objectivity.

When I looked at Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) on this blog, I observed that its sociological interpretation—having, again, to do with the difficulties of experiment in securing consensus—seemed to outstrip its function as a history of ideas (especially, I would now emphasize, its exegesis of the natural and political philosophy of Hobbes).  But the brilliance of the book is that it can be—and should be—read as an elegant amalgamation of the two forms of analysis.  The reason that it is still possible, in 2008 or 2010, to read the book as bifurcated is that its influence as a signal accomplishment of the general socio-epistemological historiographical revolution outstrips its reputation as a penetrating analysis of intellectual issues particular to a very specific time and place.

It is weird to me that scholars committed to lively new readings in the intellectual history of natural philosophy have been central participants in trends that relegated intellectual history to a tertiary status in the historiography of science.  Leviathan and the Air Pump‘s provocative last page, as well as Peter Dear’s oft-cited “Totius in Verba: Rhetoric and Authority in the Early Royal Society” Isis (1985): 145-161, both seem to be used to mark a point in history where the ideas tacit in the social and cultural content of science become of far more historiographical interest than the  explicit ideas of the sciences.  Where scientific figures would henceforth claim a belief in no one’s word (“nullius in verba”), those privy to the new historiography would know that all knowledge was embedded in a dense cultural web of authority (“totius in verba”), and that the thing that really needed to be studied was scientists’ place in this cultural web.

It was a short distance from 1979 to 1985, and I can’t imagine that it would have been clear that the general historiography would not prove capable of both differentiating and integrating historiographical issues.  Within a decade, though, the “problem of natural philosophy”—so vital to understanding early modern sciences and their relationship to more recent periods—would settle in as something of a specialist concern, if that.


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