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Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 3: Fragmentation and Consensus August 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This is the third and final part of a look at two of Simon Schaffer’s 1993 works, 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”.  In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and now here in Pt. 3, the focus is on the papers’ mode of argumentation and this mode’s significance within the historiographical culture of the early 1990s.

In these papers, a historiographical malignancy is identified: an insistence on seeing a rise of reasoned polity and society, and of spaces of free inquiry; this rise is attended by a decline of false belief.  This is considered a malignancy because it ignores the extensive and persistent controversies over various beliefs.  The remedy, thus, is taken to be what I call “insultography”: a charting of commonalities in the polemics used to secure the boundaries of belief about what exists, or at least what is plausible.  Historical “polemical work” consistently references widely acknowledged sources of credit-worthiness and discredit (in Pt. 1 these pervasive opinions are referred to as “grand cultural ideas”): religious piety, superstition, the vulgar crowds, the emotional manipulation and illusion of the theater, courtly society, bourgeois society, investment schemes, the legacy of Isaac Newton…  Historians’ failure to acknowledge the historical importance of this polemical work as they chart the history of knowledge is taken to stem from their own selective credulity toward of these same polemics.

The current goal is to understand why the identified historiographical issue is considered an important malignancy and why the remedy is considered apt.  As suggested in Pt. 2, portraying historiographical issues as malignancies could be used to explain a gnawing problem of historiographical craft: fragmentation.  In his (free, and well worth reading) 2005 Isis article on this fragmentation phenomenon in the historiography of science, David Kaiser traced complaints about it as far back as a 1987 article by Charles Rosenberg in Isis, a 1991 Casper Hakfoort article in History of Science, and a 1993 James Secord article in BJHS.  Kaiser suggested that the fragmentation was akin to specialization that occurred within the natural sciences as they expanded in the 20th century, pointing to similar patterns of growth in the recent history of the history of science discipline. 

In the natural sciences, the key danger of specialization is topical and methodological isolation.  Lacking an overarching understanding of the interconnections between the sciences, it becomes difficult to apply knowledge from one branch of the sciences to another even though natural phenomena often cannot be explained by reference to a single specialty.  Only expressly interdisciplinary efforts can establish new links.

If historiographical fragmentation is related to scientific specialization, this lets us see it as a symptom of unnatural divisions between historians’ efforts.  Some — such as dividing the historical record by place and period — are historians’ own doing.  Others are inherited.  Historians may limit themselves to distinct disciplines: physics, biology, physiology and medicine.  What had not occurred to me is that it could be possible to think of divisions between history of science and cultural history as being a product of this inherited fragmentation as well.  But it follows easily in Schaffer’s arguments: the historical record is divided into science and culture, or knowledge claims and polemics.  The expunging of polemics from the record of science is part of what Schaffer refers to as the “‘amnesia’ of realism”.

As with divisions by period, by region, and by discipline, the answer to fragmentation-as-specialization between the histories of science and culture is interdisciplinary work.  What constitutes a successful interdisciplinary historiography, however, seems not to have been a subject of serious meditation.  The idea seems to have been that you could put an eclectic bunch of scholars together in a room for a few days, and have them find similarities between their work.  The fact that you could find similarities validated the exercise and the notion that unnatural divisions appeared in the historical record, and that interdisciplinarity was the solution.

This is an undiscriminating kind of interdisciplinarity.  In juxtaposing portions of the historical record arbitrarily or semi-arbitrarily, commonalities found will revolve around pervasive historical phenomena, in particular the “grand cultural ideas” that manifest themselves in polemics.  This pervasiveness, combined with the notion that these ideas represented a heretofore hidden cultural content of science gave these ideas a status in the historiography of science as the missing “social” component of epistemology.  Conveniently, these ideas will also find overlap with the subjects treated by social and cultural historians.

Some sympathetic critics had long voiced their suspicions of this sort of exercise.  Notably, in his 1980 Isis review of Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin’s Natural Order (1979) collection, Charles Rosenberg had observed that the observations relating to the cultural content of science were “facile”, lacking the more detailed reference to social, political, and intellectual context that would give them meaning.  Where Barnes and Shapin, inspired by anthropologist Mary Douglas, seemed to want to reconstruct “cosmologies” that linked knowledge with social order in intricate ways, Rosenberg saw more of a kinship to Arthur Lovejoy’s (1873-1962) history of ideas in the tendency of this historiography to satisfy itself with identifying common cultural tropes in the historical record.

The 1980s were to be the proving ground to see which view prevailed.  As Shapin wrote in 1982, it was time to stop doing methodological battle, and to get on with it, to show that the new program for a history of science and culture was both productive, and an augmentation of, rather than a threat to, traditional historiography: “For my part I see no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’”.  It is my contention that the program, for about ten years, could credibly claim it was on the road to success.  Not only was it connected to striking historiographical successes like Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985), but a productive tension arose between approaches such as Jed Buchwald’s, Smith & Wise’s, Morrell & Thackray’s, Jan Golinski’s, Martin Rudwick’s, and Schaffer’s to major issues like the transformations in the sciences in the decades surrounding 1800.

By the early-to-mid-’90s, claims to programmatic success would be much harder to maintain as warnings such as Rosenberg’s remained apt.  It is possible we can pin this on faulty models of historiographical fragmentation and integration.  If the fact that interdisciplinary history could successfully find overlaps between social history and the history of science validated the exercise, then there was no need to place more stringent bounds on interdisciplinary historiography, despite pleas such as Lorraine Daston’s “Moral Economy of Science” piece (1995).  Further, if the pervasive grand cultural ideas identified came to be seen as a missing key to epistemilogy and as an intentionally effaced fragment of the historical record, pieces could attain value simply by identifying points in the historical record where these ideas manifest themselves (which is what this blog has referred to as the “socio-epistemic problematic”).

Schaffer’s two articles are a microcosm of the resulting historiography: there is no rationale underlying his selection of historical episodes to discuss, nor are the specific connections, or lack of specific connections between them especially important.  Only the most pervasive ideas are taken to be of intellectual value, and thus worthy of historians’ interest.

Perversely, this mode of history-writing exacerbates rather than remedies the phenomenon of historiographical fragmentation.  Aside from any specialization between branches of the historiography, individual works even within specialized branches of historiography become isolated from each other, because the chief concern of historians is not to engage with the details of others’ works, but to share with them an interest in pervasive cultural ideas.  Importantly, though, this historiographical phenomenon is no longer fragmentation-as-specialization, but what this blog refers to as the “new internalism” or the “gallery of practices”.

If the isolation of individual works exacerbates, rather than remedies, the fragmentation of historiography that causes such wide frustration, the question is: why does it persist?  My quite speculative contention is that it is because this mode of historiography had already been identified as possessing the virtue of combating the maladies of fragmentation-as-specialization.  This results in a situation so familiar to political economy: if something does not appear to work, but it has virtue ascribed to it, it must be because it has not been tried strenuously enough.

Schaffer’s pieces must be seen as instrumental (but very far from alone) in instilling this virtue in this mode of historiography.  In identifying a key source of historiographical error and fragmentation, and identifying a key strategy to reverse this malignancy, what was being sold from the hustings, I speculate, was not the history of science to social historians, but the idea of a virtue in a new historiographical culture to historians of science and to social historians alike.

I do not think it was Schaffer’s intention to unify sources of historiographical error, or to unify remedies into a mode of scholarship.  After all, in 1993 he also published the excellent “Comets & Idols”, which had similar arguments about trust and cultural sources of authority, but was much more nuanced in their application (pointing to the function of canonical or “sacred” texts in historical polemics) and addressing the needs of specific branches of historiography (those of cometography and the legacy of Isaac Newton).

Yet, the unifying of sources of error and remedy was precisely what was happening.  Differences between the diversity of perspectives that thrived in the 1980s were slowly ironed out.  In reviewing the Ferment of Knowledge volume (1980) in 1982, Geoffrey Cantor had been optimistic that disparate views of the 18th-century could be productively reconciled, but warned against the language of partisanship that divided historiography into distinctly old and new approaches.  By 1993, amid a rapidly decohering historiography, I speculate that partisan consensus allowed historians to maintain a sense of the virtue and progressiveness in their work.

Necessarily, partisanship papers over differences within parties, and augments the differences between them.  Once the key source of historiographical virtue had been identified, all other tensions hinging on detailed argumentation and synthesis between pieces could be viewed as superfluous.  Technical history was edged to the sides of mainstream history of science; tenuous links to political and business history were severed; philosophy of science was shunned; and strong connections to interested members of the scientific community were allowed to wither.  As I have previously argued, Schaffer’s own approach to the genre of natural philosophy disappeared.  Methodological homogenization and the self-containment of individual pieces followed.

(Note for newer readers of this series: Schaffer’s early work emphasized a systematic relationship between morality, social order, and the contents of knowledge.  See his work in pneumatics and pneumatology for an excellent example; see my post on his “Self Evidence” and my post on what I call the “entente cordiale” between the methodological use of anthropological cosmology and the analysis of historical natural philosophical cosmology for a discussion of the waning of this interest.)


1. Benny - August 29, 2010

Will, another great, stimulating blog post. I think I learn more from your blog than from journal articles these days!

2. Will Thomas - September 7, 2010

We do try to outdo the establishment whenever possible! Thanks for your support, Benny.

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