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Polemics, Ideals, Ideas, and History June 11, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Some time ago, I posted on a subject I referred to as “insultography“, which is the study of insults operating in history.  When I later posted on Simon Schaffer’s (fantastic) “Comets & Idols” and its discussion of historical uses of Newton’s work as a kind of “sacred text”, I thought that might be a more general treatment of the problem.  Since then, I’ve been batting this vague idea around in my head, and thought it might be a good idea to do a post, albeit a very hand-waving one.

Every good historian knows it’s not wise to take historical insults at face value.  For example, if someone in history observes that someone else’s complaints against them were rooted in that person’s jealousy of their accomplishments, it might not be a good idea to repeat as fact the idea that that other person was complaining just because they were jealous.  There are two sides to every story, and so on and so forth.

What I have in mind here, though, goes more toward the relationship between historical polemics (or praise) and historical ideas.  The character of an insult can tell you a lot about the culture that the polemicist inhabits: they might accuse someone of being impious, or imprecise, or rough-mannered, or weak.  It seems reasonably safe to say that polemics and praise reflect on the ideals of a culture: piety, precision, refinement, strength.  In the history of science, insults can tell you a lot about surrounding cultural resources that a scientific culture draws upon to structure thinking within its community.

The recent “historiography of values” (discussed briefly here), seems to take great stock in the importance of these ideals.  Historians’ arguments very often seem to run something like along the following lines: 1) a scientific figure (SF) will explicitly express a self-evident epistemic ideal, such as “realism” or “calculation” or “precision” or “solitude”; 2) unable to achieve this ideal, the SF will inevitably be forced into compromise; 3) this compromise will usually unveil a polemics/hagiography, the ideals underlying which point to the subtextual or hidden cultural basis of the SF’s work; 4) it is the combination of explicit and subtextual ideals that constitutes the sum of the SF’s epistemic culture; and, optionally, 5) this is a super important observation about “how we know” and historians of science should be admitted forthwith to the fourth tier of the punditocracy and everyone should buy our books.

For example: 1) SF: “What I say is true, I did this experiment”; 2) Somebody, somewhere: “I saw your experiment fail that one time, I do not believe you”, SF is forced to respond; 3) SF: “That was because my servant was lazy and drunk; you are no better than those autocratic XYZers”; 4) the SF’s epistemic culture comprises the authority of an instrumental reality, which is made possible by appeal to class distinctions, the spiritual economy of temperance, and the political economy of mutual assent; 5) historian: “in our time of such controversy, we do well to remember that knowledge is fragile; it is not separable from politics and culture, but is embedded in it.”

My own feeling here is that while polemics do clearly correspond to ideals, ideals do not neatly correspond to ideas.  Where the above sketch would tend to portray the SF as mindlessly pursuing an ideal, and then floundering and resorting to cultural authorities in the face of difficulty (see my post from last year on the “automaton scientist”), I would tend to see an ideal as an approximation of some aspect of an idea set.  Thus, when deviating from an ideal, actors are not acting haphazardly, but drawing on ideas that inform how the compromise (if we can even call it that) is to be navigated.  If the actor does not wish to engage a certain audience, polemics may have been deployed in lieu of an articulation of those ideas.

So, for example, our SF might emphasize the importance of “rigor” in science and decry opponents’ “speculation”, but this by no means implies the SF is absolutely committed to rigor in all circumstances, nor that speculation is always out-of-order.  In this scenario, the historian’s task would be to attempt to find out what was implied by “rigor”, and how speculation was supposed to be managed.  There is no doubt that “rigor” relates to the underlying idea set, but that it was nowhere near an adequate description of it.

A further task would then be to understand the implications of the disjuncture between the polemics of rigor and deeper historical ideas.  Did polemics drive apart individuals with otherwise similar ideas?  Were the polemics effective in tarring the opponent?  Was the polemicist discredited for unfairly applying the polemic?

None of this is meant to refute the basic point that scientific work requires a cultural component—I do not intend “ideas” to be understood as a culture-free version of “ideals”; some ideas are shared with a wider cultures (not even necessarily in the form of ideals).  This particular polemic is intended to convey that a history of ideals that neglects an exploration of ideas and their lineage will have difficulty rising above being a portrait of historical polemics.

In a follow-up post, I would like to address the historiography of “boundary studies”.  I want to claim that “the boundary” is a zone that features frequent exchanges of both polemics and ideas, but that absent studies of ideas away from the boundaries, only polemics will tend to be visible.

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