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The Archive, Navigability, and the Sum of Historiographical Knowledge November 13, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

Will you reclaim history from the archive, or will the archive claim you? (Photo from Wikimedia Commons; click for the original)

Historians owe a great deal to librarians and archivists, as well as to those who have preserved their own papers.  However, “the archive” — referring broadly to books, journals, papers, artifacts, etc. — is pointless if it is not used.  We can scarcely claim to know about history if all we have done is preserve it rather than read it, publish it, and talk about it.  This post is a meditation about how it can be claimed that history is known, and how this relates to the use of the archive.

Publication, in itself, cannot be strictly identified with use.  Publication is perhaps a step above reading the archive — it is an essentially personal act that is more or less pointless unless the publication is read.  If the publication is not read, then it sits on a shelf (and maybe a server), which means that it has essentially become part of the archive itself.  Perhaps the archive has been made more accessible, but this point is moot if it is not accessed.

So, quality of use must in some way define historiographical knowledge.  One sign of quality of use is circulation: the work must be used, and if it itself is not used multiple times, the thing that uses it must be used.  Another sign of quality of use is constructiveness: the use has to make a difference in how one presents a related topic. Citations that suggest some generic stylistic inspiration (“Bruno Latour has pointed out that scientific work must move around; this piece contains depictions of scientific work moving around”) or acknowledgment that others have worked in a vaguely related area (“this piece is about molecular biology; Angela Creager has also written about molecular biology, read her book on the Tobacco Mosaic Virus…”) do not count.

I believe that constructive use comes primarily through what I like to call “hooks”.  Hooks are something that can be in footnotes, but should really be in the main text, which allow readers to ascertain what concrete connections existed between the topic under discussion and related topics, as well as how the piece at hand works within some sort of problematic established by other pieces.  Hooks place pieces within contexts that are defined not by the broad cultural, economic, and political milieu in which the history takes place, but within the context of comparable activities (i.e., institutions among other institutions, ideas among other ideas related to the same problem, individuals among a community).

The ability to hook one’s specific work into such contexts, I think, defines whether work is competent, or merely impersonating competence by telling a coherent narrative isolated from any obligation to relate it in coherent and specific ways to adjacent narratives.  I refer to this as an impersonation, because it is often the case that the context of adjacent narratives can make significant differences to the meaning of the contents of the primary narrative.

Hooking to adjacent narratives places the scale of the significance of primary narratives in perspective; it enumerates possible competitors, allies, and resources; it provides sets of specific things to which actors in the primary narrative were reacting.  Without understanding these things one’s knowledge of the primary narrative is, at best, superficial, and very likely misleading.  For a nice illustration of this point, see Thony C’s new post on the importance of seeing Galileo’s cosmological arguments in the Dialogo in the context of the breadth of astronomical-cosomological thought in the early 1600s.

The ability to connect a primary narrative to any number of adjacent narratives defines the navigability of a historiography.  I would put forward the tentative thesis that it is navigability that ultimately defines what aspects of the archive are in circulation, and thus allows us to establish what can really be said to constitute the sum of current historiographical knowledge.

Bibliographies provide the most rudimentary tools of historiographical navigation, and the one that is probably most common in history-writing today.  The idea behind a bibliography is that if you read the works listed therein, you will know what “the historiography” knows.  Having bibliographies is certainly better than not having bibliographies, but they remain an extremely cumbersome method of navigation.  Small bibliographies have the disadvantage of not being inclusive, particularly of information contained in older literature (thus sending large chunks of literature straight back to the archive), while large bibliographies are simply unwieldy (thus making a visit to the archive shelves roughly as constructive as trying to wade through the literature contained in the large bibliography).

Simply having a list, then, of what people have written about the archive is insufficient: to be considered in circulation, the contents of the literature must transcend texts and inform others’ writing, or else what Chris (a long time ago) called historiographical atavism sets in as the nuances of texts are lost.  Tools that augment historiographical navigation allow the content of works to achieve that transcendence.  The aforementioned hooks are one such tool; they allow one to survey areas immediately adjacent to the primary narrative.  Although they only allow you to see what is immediately around the primary narrative, making navigation into a rather ad hoc process, they nevertheless provide an important way of navigating through complicated historical terrains.

It is unrealistic to suppose that knowledge can stay in circulation all the time.  Therefore, it is also important to inquire as to how knowledge is stored without having it return to the archive.  Where the sciences have a rich network of textbooks, review articles, and references, in the history of science these tools are underdeveloped.  Recent textbooks and cumulative reviews (I’m thinking mainly of the ongoing Cambridge series) tend to be sparsely detailed collections of impressionistic essays; meanwhile, most references (guides such as John Heilbron’s Oxford Guide to the History of Physics and Astronomy or the Sciences of the Earth encyclopedia edited by my former supervisor Greg Good) are alphabetical lists of people and topics, making them most useful if you already know what you’re looking for, though it is possible, albeit difficult, to use them to learn about history flipping back and forth through entries.

Historians seem to have a weird faith in the richness, reliability, and accessibility of private knowledge.  Historical writing tends to see the published presentation as a final product of research, and the goal of this presentation is not to convey knowledge gained in research.  It is not meant to be useful: it is meant to convey a particular argument, or a historical set-piece, which is meant to stand-in as an exemplar of some broader historical trend, cultural idea, research style, etc., which is thought to be the important subjects garnering broad interest.

Further, because presentation rather than information is the goal of the work, hooks are few and far between, leading to a literature plagued by what I refer to as the “new internalism” — the isolation of the coherence of individual narratives from reliance on integration with the rest of the literature.

Thus all the research that goes into the final presentation is pared down and rearranged.  As a consequence, reading works produced by the history of science community turns out to be a remarkably frustrating way to learn about the history of science.  Scholars wishing to place the work in context or to challenge the argument or the presentation of the set-piece will have to dip into the footnote grab bag and essentially redo all the author’s work to assemble a useful picture of the past, leading to the tiny islands of interactive scholarship we see today.  In fact, in my experience, scholars are more likely to take it on faith that other scholars have accurately represented what is important in the archive in their digestion of it rather than to engage in any disputes over details.

The implication of all of this is that the sum of knowledge about history of science that allows us to write about history of science exists out in the void, and that individual scholars will all have a private appreciation of this knowledge, which will be conveyed in part through the writing, but mainly (if at all) in private pedagogy and exchanges.  For those wishing to gain access to this appreciation, what is then necessary is to gain an appreciation of who is an expert in what, and then, either to synthesize one’s own private interpretation of their works, or to gain personal access to them through workshops or similar (usually ephemeral) enclaves where people with experience can work together to develop knowledge about the past.

All of this seems like a very elaborate and cumbersome way of gaining and spreading knowledge about history.  Rather than have a patchwork of scholarship vulnerable to dissolution through idiosyncratic workings of networks of knowledge, it seems preferable to find some systematic way of enumerating and consolidating historiographical gains (one of this blog’s older warhorses), which gathers and reconciles basic information that scholars might need to do detailed research to uncover, but which should be readily available once this work is done rather than making others pass the same hurdles; historians could also use this framework to point to more detailed accounts and to scholars who have personal experience in a specific area.

This represents an opportunity for online communities, as blogs can represent a place for talking about what is known about history (this post at Whewell’s Ghost sparked a brief but educational conversation) or even presenting “news flashes”, while other websites (I have my ACAP resource in mind, as usual) are places for organizing and storing what has been found out.  Having a historiography that is easily navigable might contribute to what could be considered a stable and growing network of knowledge, rather than pumping it out of the archive in ever-greater quantities, only to have it fall straight back in.



1. Thony C. - November 13, 2010

As usual Will a stimulating post which hits the nail squarely on the head. I would interpret your argument as a not so concealed plea for more works of general synthesis within the HOS and of course a continual renewal of such works as new standpoints, interpretations, discoveries, links etc are made.

In recent decades I see a tendency for the HOS community to become ever more fragmented with small groups of specialists huddling in their respective corners and communicating with their fellow group members through specially developed secret sign languages and mocking those on the outside who stand bewildered on the periphery.

Thanks for the link and the, as usual, over generous comment.

2. alicerosebell - November 13, 2010

Fair enough comments, but is this different from the large body of STS and HPS which has been developed on science communication issues? – e.g. by Wynne, Bucchi, Lewinstein (we might also add Latour, Gieryn and Giddens).

Or is history of science in society/ as society somehow a different issue?

I’d agree with a fair bit of the characterisation in the above comment and add that seeing as a fair number of those small groups are thinking about issues like the popularisation of science or boundary work is it really that hard to apply a bit of basic reflexivity?

More pragmatically, have you come across any of the debates over the impact agenda since landing in blighty?

3. Will Thomas - November 13, 2010

Hi Alice,

I’ve seen comments from time to time that take the problem of synthesis and navigability to essentially be concessions to the need for public appeal. (I have in mind Iwan Rhys Morus’ maddening review of Patricia Fara’s Science: A 4000 Year History). The attitude here seems to be, “Well, professionals think that trying to synthesize and make sense of history is a childish dream, but the masses seem to like it, and we do want to reach out to them, so I guess we can condescend to throw something together.”

However, I also strongly link the urge for a public appeal to the profession’s lack of interest in historiographical navigability. This has to do with my not-at-all-clear comment in this post:

“[historical writing] is meant to convey a particular argument, or a historical set-piece, which is meant to stand-in as an exemplar of some broader historical trend, cultural idea, research style, etc., which is thought to be the important subjects garnering broad interest.”

Unpacking this, what I have in mind is things like a book talking about boundary battles between some grand ideas, as in the attempt of a museum or a social survey or something to fashion and maintain the boundary between the scientific and the local, or something to that effect. The immediate issue is not meant to be hooked to related issues (other museums, or other surveys), but rather it is meant to be indicative of some larger shift in cultural ideas that (it is claimed) is taking place. So, yes, there are small, little groups, but, while they discuss different topics, thematically they are all discussing the same things.

Basically, what I have in mind here is all the things I spent last summer griping about.

The profession has a bit of a muddled reaction to these sorts of histories. At once they are “too scholarly” to get “the message” across; but, at the same time, these histories are thought to be the only things anyone is interested in, and what the public is thought to need. My occasional disagreements with Rebekah Higgitt are instructive here, since to her it is self-evident that a lush historical portraiture of past scientific work — no matter what the exact topic — is just what is needed to convey “where science sits in society”.

My position is that providing guides from the basic outlines of history, which can also lead you to the nitty-gritty have an innate appeal; but I also think that the historiographical kick-start it could provide also makes historians look like they’re doing something interesting, which also has an appeal. I had “navigability” in mind when I was talking about “appeal” at the end of my narrow/broad historiography post.

Not much substantive in Imperial’s CHoSTM on the impact agenda, actually. I’ll keep my ear to the ground. Thanks again by the way for your comment after my talk on resemblances to grounded theory. I’ve only looked at it superficially since, but I’ll try to figure out what’s going on there in a bit more detail and see what relationship that might have with the ideas outlined here.

Rebekah Higgitt - November 17, 2010

While I agree with much of your characterisation of scholarly articles in history of science, I think you’re being a bit unfair here in a number of ways. You are pretty dismissive of general textbooks, but have nothing to say about more focused introductory texts – an example might be John Brooke’s Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives – which present a coherent and detailed look at the existing narratives and state of scholarship in the field. I think you’re also being unfair to scholarly monographs which, perhaps unlike journal articles, are usually very concerned to hook and connect to relevant narratives (not saying that everyone can do this well). Students coming to the field seem to manage to find their way quickly enough, through reading as well as teaching sessions.

You make some comparison with syntheses and review articles etc in science, but surely a more instructive comparison for history of science is with other areas in history. Is political, social, economic etc. history producing the kind of navigability that you think is lacking in history of science? Another point that might be relevant is that history of science is a small field, and in fact any individual member of the profession is probably more aware of the range of literature, interpretations and topics in a broader chronology that is the case for other areas of history. This *might* explain why useful syntheses have yet to be produced.

Finally, I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to think that I think the historian’s work is done with “lush historical portraiture of past scientific work”, depending on your definition of lush. I think richness and complexity is an important way of a) interesting a range of readers and b) challenging simplistic, triumphalistic narratives, but it’s not much use if it is not connected to other narratives. In fact the richness of the picture is created by showing how the nitty-gritty of science fits into political, economic, cultural narratives. In other words, I’m not quite sure what you think we disagree on.

Will Thomas - November 17, 2010

First, thanks for your continued willingness to engage in these questions — it’s much appreciated. I’m fairly certain at this point that we agree on general principles of good historiography. I suppose where we might differ is in our assessments of what aspects of professional effort require improvement.

As I understand it, you take the position that the state of historiographical knowledge is generally quite healthy, and that a key frontier is finding ways to influence public understanding of the history of science.

My position is that interest in the problem of public perception of science (among other things) has, wittingly or unwittingly, shifted professional knowledge development to a lower priority. My suspicion is that, on account of this shift, we may know quite a bit more about some things than we did 30 years ago, but that we actually know less about a number of other things, and that we certainly do not know as much overall as we seem to think we do.

Of course, I can’t be sure about any of this, but the fact that there is no good way to check up on it is part of the basis of my suspicion.

Having not worked extensively in other historiographies, I don’t know how much better or worse the situation is; in my limited experience, there seem to be bright spots and dim patches. (Nor have I read Brooke, I’m afraid.) To me, the comparison with the sciences is instructive because scientists seem a lot more worried about taking stock of what they know and what they don’t. Some might argue that history and science have totally different epistemologies, but I don’t subscribe to that view.

Christopher Donohue - November 19, 2010

Depending on which field your addressing, the problem of navigation is either worse or better than the history of science.

Insofar as intellectual history is concerned, there are wide, inexcusable gaps in basic monograph coverage of what I call “second order intellectuals,” people like Oswald Spengler or Gobineau. The problem is particularly acute for nineteenth century intellectual history but also exists for the twentieth century.

There are still no studies of Arnold Gehlen, Karl Lowith, Ernest Cassirer, J.L. Talmon, or Hans Blumenberg. Karl Popper’s later writings, post-1945, seem to interest few except philosophers of economics and the social sciences, and there has been very little interest in Hannah Arendt’s philosophy of science and its relationship to people like Bergson, Heidegger, and Husserl.

Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and early modern philosophy, particularly early modern republicanism and philosophies of toleration and radicalism, is reasonably well-covered, with a broad consensus that the “Cambridge School” and/or J.G.A Pocock, i.e. “text in context,” is a historiographical advancement that any subsequent monograph needs to address.

Although more work needs to be done in the history of sociology, LaCapra, Nisbet, Mommsen, Bryan Turner, Robert Alun Jones, and Jerry Muller have done a great service in relating major sociologists like Smith, Marx, Durkheim, Weber to their immediate and not so immediate economic, social, and political contexts. The major sociologists and how they fit together and talk about things like “modernity,” “liberty,” autonomy,” and “capitalism” is now reasonably well-understood. Though, poor Georg Simmel is only now receiving some attention from people like David Frisby and Gary D. Jaworski.

Histories of intellectual and sociological thought are also typically written in either concept history fashion, e.g. Pierre Force’s “Self-Interest before Adam Smith,” or around schools and methodological conflicts, i.e. Yūichi Shionoya’s “The Soul of the German Historical School,” or around specific perceived discontinuities in the arguments of philosophers across their canon.

Thus, there is always continual excitement over whether the Adam Smith of the “Wealth of Nations” is the same as the Adam Smith of the “Theory of Moral Sentiments” or the “Lectures on Jurisprudence,” but I think Jerry Muller, Istvon Hont, and Charles L. Griswold have settled this question.

There’s a lot to be said about whether there’s one or two Karl Marx’s, the economist or the philosopher, or how he relates to the Hegelians, but these things are covered in a rich, interesting, if sometimes frustrating way by scholars like Warren Breckman, David Leopold, and the always useful Schlomo Avineri.

The historiography of anthropology continues to frustrate, with George Stocking still looming too large. Excellent recent work on German colonialism and ethnographic ideology, fieldwork, and institutional imperatives have been undertaken by Andrew Zimmerman and George Steinmetz. Steinmetz’s “The Devil’s Handwriting” is a must read that changed the conversation about the interconnection between domestic politics and colonial practices.

20th century coverage in anthropology in Britain and America still remains spotty, but there’s a fair bit on Margaret Mead and Benedict. Stanley Tambiah’s book on Edmund Leach is outstanding but as recent work on Mary Douglas and Leslie White demonstrates, there is still no concerted move out of hagiography or apparently any great interest in making anthropologists the subject of critical monographs rather than textbooks.

Nazi Germany, the Kaiserreich, and the inter-war period, all have extremely defined historiographical boundaries and approaches, with any number of synthetic works appearing from the pens of Richard Evans, James N. Retallack, and Matthew Jefferies. One of the biggest problems which remains is lack of work which spans the Kaiserreich, Weimar, and the Nazi Period. French fascism and French fascist intellectuals have wonderful intellectual and social treatments from Robert Soucy, Eugene Weber, Julian Jackson, and Robert Paxton, all of which supplement or try to disprove the “Sternhell thesis,” which argues for continuities between French conservativism and Italian fascism, or which attempt to clarify the social, economic, or ideological underpinnings of Vichy France.

So basically, history of science is somewhere between the historiography of nineteenth century intellectual history and the historiography of Nazi Germany. There are any number of fine monographs but no efforts to resolve fundamental disagreements about methodology, approaches, uses of evidence. Indeed, there are no real disagreements at all but rather an understanding that all studies aggregate equally in contributing to the elucidation of some historically existent virtue or epistemology, a deepening of understanding of some topic, indeed any topic, without any discussion of its relevance to an overall historiographical frame or how it improves how historians can write constructively and cogently about their topics.

Will Thomas - November 20, 2010

At Imperial it turns out I’m something of a moderate, and often end up defending stuff that I’m not really fond of, but could be put to good use if placed within a constructive framework.

Chris: Edgerton shares your belief that the historiography of Germany and Eastern Europe functions pretty well by comparison. He is of the opinion that when you’re dealing with such heavily weighted issues, there is an extra incentive for work to engage substantively with what is already known.

4. Tawrin - November 16, 2010

Great post — I’ve been thinking about these issues a bit recently. I wonder if it is possible to have a history of science equivalent to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The nature of the two disciplines are quite different, and it seems that to be successful an online history of science “encyclopedia” would have to be both more ambitious and differently structured. Any HOS version of the SEP wouldn’t address all of your concerns, but but what the SEP does really well is provide an entry-point for investigating a certain topic. It’s searchable, it has cross-links, it has excellent bibliographies of primary and secondary literature; it gets you situated rather quickly, is flexible and easily revisable — and it’s in one place and generally of high quality. I’d love to have a resource like this for the history of science, but getting something like that to work for our field would be rather tricky, I think. Does anyone know of project like this in the works, or that are being considered? If not, why not?

Will Thomas - November 17, 2010

SEP is a great example of something constructive that might be done, and I agree with your assessment of the benefits and the difficulties of translating this into something that can work for historiography. Existing resources might be criticized for simply being too much like SEP, giving one a good sense of various issues, but leaving one a bit at sea if one wants to ground the issues amid historical facts.

Having a big set of entry-level overviews, combined with some means of collecting and parsing historiographical data within that framework would make such a resource useful to both novices and experts. Ostensibly, much could simply be done through the Wikipedia platform, but, aside from the discouraging disputes that can occur there, it would be nice to be able to include original research as well.

5. Will Thomas - November 17, 2010

Relevant! The reservations expressed in this article are weirdly similar to some of the ones I received with respect to ACAP at my recent talk here at Imperial.

NYT: “Digital Keys for Unlocking Humanities’ Riches”

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