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Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 2: Malignant Historiography and Self-Healing August 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Pt. 1 of this post began a discussion that stems from (but extends well beyond) two works of Simon Schaffer: 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”; and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”.  These works identified misleading narratives within a broader social and cultural historiography: a rise of reasoned polity and culture, and a decline of superstition and enchantment.  I suggested that in critiquing these narratives Schaffer had taken to the hustings to show how these narrative faults could be remedied by making use of then-recent insights in the historiography of science.  According to Schaffer, in order for all historical beliefs (scientific or superstitious) to survive and proliferate, their proponents had to engage in polemics that portrayed the beliefs as beneficial — and opposed beliefs as dangerous — to the social order.

In a sense, Schaffer was playing a role that is quite similar to the people he was writing about.  As he wrote in (1), “Representations about nature were stabilized … because … natural philosophers made their representations grip key interests within culture.”  His diagnosis of a historiographical ill and offer of a remedy from the historiography of science should invite us to consider why the diagnosis and remedy were deemed apt by the critic, and why he thought it would be received as apt by his intended audience.  Also, as Aaron suggested in the comments to Pt. 1, we should likewise be open to questioning who this audience really was.

Our first question relates to the appeal of the diagnosis.  One possibility I want to consider right off the bat is that maybe the patient was a hypochondriac.  In the terminology of argumentation: was the identified historiographical flaw a straw man?  My answer is maybe.

G. M. Trevelyan (1876-1962) and his English Social History (1942) are rolled out for a ceremonial whipping at the beginning of (2), as is Lucien Febvre’s (1878-1956) The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century (also 1942) which sought to historicize the appearance of “a concept of the impossible” as a “mental tool”.  (I should note that (2), as opposed to (1), is a history of what beliefs are “plausible” rather than accepted as “real”).  A little later on Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1978) is cited in the footnotes as a source on “the discrediting of popular beliefs”.

A little closer reading reveals a kind of anti-Popperian slant.  The argument is against those who purport to tell the history of the creation of a cultural space where free inquiry can take place.  The Stallybrass & White reference in Pt. 1 on the importance of “processes of social exclusion, boundary maintenance and satirical ribaldry” was made to oppose literary critic Terry Eagleton’s discussion of the historical importance of the creation of a bourgeois space “for the free, equal exchange of reasonable discourse” in The Function of Criticism (1984).  In (2), the chief targets of criticism seem to be Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), and another literary critic and historian, Ian Watt and his account of the rise of literary (rather than scientific) realism, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Schaffer cites a 1983 edition, but the work was apparently 1957; Schaffer had already written on Defoe).

Attacks on scholars of the past and on the instrumental uses of history by those in fields like literary studies might be signs of a critic looking too hard for enemies to best.  However, the critique lands closer to home as well.  Schaffer cites The Scientist’s Role in Society (1972) by sociologist of science Joseph Ben-David (who had actually died in 1986, and whom Shapin had identified as an opponent of the new sociology of scientific knowledge in 1982) as an “influential survey of scientific institutionalisation as the creation of intellectual autonomy”.  The living purveyors of this influence were left anonymous, perhaps because they received the strongest words:

…too many historians of science have found these cushions [i.e. the idea of economic, cultural, and technical isolation] comfortingly seductive.  The clerisy’s fragile isolation is used as an excuse for intellectual laziness.  Links between scientific problems and economic purposes are dismissed as vulgar Marxism.  Connections between natural knowledge and social interests are damned as sociological relativism. (2; 133)

The failure to attend to the insultography that persisted around scientific work was part and parcel of controversies within the historiography of science that had been percolating steadily for well over a decade at that point.  If indeed this was a straw man, it was at least related to reasonably recent conflicts.  Aaron was right to suggest that I question what audience Schaffer had in mind.

Even if we allow that historiographically misleading positions persisted, that the targets were more than straw men, there is still a question of why the diagnosis is needed.  If the historiographical sins of various brands of scholarly realists and politico-epistemic Popperians were so noxious, why not walk away, create a schism (as was happening anyway), and move onwards and upwards?

Aside from run-of-the-mill conflicts over academic positions and resources, I speculate the answer might have to do with a need to see one’s own historiographical program as suffering affliction that cannot be solved by simply cutting out dissenters.  In 1993, it seems to have been as yet unclear what a functioning historiography absent the constraints of past views would actually look like.  However, one can postpone indefinitely a reckoning with problems of historiographical craft if one can understand oneself as engaged in an ongoing struggle to purge oneself of malignancies of historiographical method.

Adrian Wilson expressed this anxiety well in his introduction to the 1993 Rethinking Social History volume that (2) was a part of.  He referred to “the diversity of themes treated in this book” as reflecting the “contemporary paradox of English social history” which juxtaposed “an enormous vitality and a very wide range of concerns” with its lack of “a clear sense of direction or unifying perspective”.  He acknowledged a “sense of fragmentation which besets the subject today.”  The consequence was that “social history has tended to lose both its integrative potential and its ability to grapple with historical change.”

I have always thought of historiographical “fragmentation” as an obvious product of newer historiographical priorities.  But I’d like to make a new speculation: what if this “fragmentation” that bedeviled historiography could be portrayed as an inheritance of past historiography?  If it were, then diagnosis of the past malignancies and a recitation of their most common historiographical manifestations might be seen as offering a clear prescription for undoing this fragmentation once and for all, so that a properly reintegrated historiography might finally emerge.

Unfortunately this post has ballooned on me again, so Pt. 3 will have to deal with further speculation about how this fragmentation process was envisioned as working, and, following from that, how it was imagined reintegration could best be brought about.

Go to Pt. 3


1. Conversations with Will Thomas on Schaffer | False vacuum: a weblog by Aaron Sidney Wright - August 26, 2010

[…] that’s come out of their series of analyses of Schaffer’s oevre. The posts (part one; part two; three to come) are about two of Schaffer’s papers from 1993 dealing with the historiography […]

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