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The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 3 April 21, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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This post continues Pt. 2.  (Or, return to Pt. 1)

At the beginning of his preface to his book on the early years of the Royal Institution, Morris Berman explicitly states that his aim is to use history “to ask … significant questions regarding the nature and function of science in industrial society” (xi).  At the end of Pt. 2, I wrote that I believe we are secure insofar as we say that “science” and “reason” were “important cultural touchstones” in 19th-century Britain.

What I meant by a touchstone is that claiming that an explanation of something was “scientific” or that a proposed plan of action was “reasonable” would have been a means of associating the explanation or plan with a high status.  (These are of course still touchstones, although my impression is their present use in public discourse carries less of a sense of general virtue.)  However, given the number of such touchstones any society has — many of them contradictory — and given the lack of any control over the use of such touchstones, to say that some concept was a touchstone is not to say much at all.  Could, for example, an explanation deemed “scientific” trump an assessment of a plan as “unfair”?  It is not clear to me that we can say anything about the interplay of these concepts that would consistently describe social and political action, or even rhetoric in 19th-century Britain.

In particular, I am unconvinced by Berman’s account of science as an agent of invisibility, because it appears to me, first, that questions were being asked and continued to be asked about mine disasters and worker conditions (to take Berman’s key example), but also, second, that we require no special resort to scientific justification to explain why those questions failed to result in enhanced economic and political power for workers.  Invisibility need not be invoked to explain powerlessness.

I would not argue contrary to Berman that there simply was no “ideology of science” in 19th-century Britain.  My argument would be that by being satisfied with an account of that ideology that can explain certain persistent evils of 19th-century British society (especially the cruelty of industrial life and the Poor Law, and the incapacity of engineering to amend that cruelty), we can fail to ask questions necessary to understanding how far this ideology extended, and what it was all about.

For example, we require some means of explaining why different individuals would consider certain policies, actions, and decisions to be reasonable or “scientific”, and not others, and how individuals handled variations between their ideas.  What disputes did different individuals take to be legitimate, and how were deeper political demarcations between constituencies drawn?  To what degree was thinking about “science” — and specific sciences — constituent of political thought in general? how did thinking about science vary within and between political groups? given the prevalence of disputes, how important was the rhetoric of science amid other points of rhetorical appeal?

It is my opinion that by seeking answers to such questions, we can come to more satisfactory conclusions about why historical actions made sense to actors, what alternatives were proposed and by whom, why they were or were not pursued and in what venues, and what changes eventually were made and how.  In the case of coal mining, we do well to ask just how far owners’ liberties extended, what political debates and struggles extended or constrained that liberty over time, and what rationales informed those debates and struggles.

I believe that such explanations are preferable to explanations that rely on reference to block concepts such as Benthamism and Utilitarianism, not only because they provide richer explanations, which can parse finer historical issues in addition to broader ones, and not only because they explain what happened rather than what failed to happen, but also because they are heuristically productive, where answering questions prompts us to either reframe our questions or to ask additional questions.  Such inquiries may well produce portraits that more satisfactorily address the original concern.

As an extended addendum, I think it is worth comparing my opposition to the use of block concepts as historical explanations to the arguments Simon Schaffer made, especially in the early 1980s, against the use of block concepts in the analysis of natural philosophical thought.  In particular, at that time he criticized what he called “tradition-seeking” and “synoptic” analysis, which I believe are observations that can be applied to the present case as well.

Schaffer’s criticism of tradition-seeking was aimed primarily at historians who sought to determine how individual philosophers’ ideas related to the general tradition of “Newtonianism”, rather than to investigate more particular components and strands of philosophical thought.  And, interestingly enough, Berman, following commentators such as Herbert Marcuse, understands the block Utilitarian tradition to itself be the “eventual outcome of the Cartesian-Newtonian method” (xviii).

Schaffer criticised synoptic analysis primarily as it related to the Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) literature, as attempts were made to integrate Priestley’s natural and political philosophical arguments into a singular world-view, which might, for instance, help explain his “conservative” stance on the phlogiston question in light of his radical politics.  Berman’s reliance on a hidden ideology of Utilitarianism underlying actors’ ideas and actions likewise seems to require that he reconcile historical actors’ thought and psychology into synoptic wholes.

This presents no problem for explaining the actions of the opportunistic William Thomas Brande, but Berman goes to some lengths to reconcile Faraday’s vociferous devotion to pure inquiry with his participation in the Utilitarian project.  Following Trevor Levere* (and anticipating work of David Gooding and Geoffrey Cantor), he attempts to connect Faraday’s Sandemanian religion not only to his scientific theorization, but to his practical activities as well.  However, as near as I can see the approach yields no major insight: “Given the sublime nature of Faraday’s interest in science, we can only wonder what he thought of his social role when, for example, he sat before the Select Committee on Metropolis Sewers” (162).  “Faraday viewed all this as a distraction from his ‘real’ work, yet regarded it necessary for a loyal subject to provide government service.  In this sense, he was not apolitical, but very political — a Tory, as [L. Pearce] Williams notes” (173).

In the end, though, I think social-institutional-psychological-ideological history of science suffered less for its dearth of heuristic productivity than it did as the social history of science was simply eclipsed by a new focus on epistemically focused history, which nevertheless retained some key tactics from this strand of post-Marxist thought.  Although I am critical of the post-Marxist social history approach, I do feel it had certain advantages over more recent approaches.  We will turn to this comparison in a follow-up post.

*Trevor H. Levere, “Faraday, Matter, and Natural Theology — Reflections on an Unpublished Manuscript,” British Journal for the History of Science 4 (1968): 95-107.



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