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Cultural History of Knowledge and Post-Marxist Social History of Science April 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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The Edinburgh Science Studies Unit in the early 1980s; Steven Shapin is second from the left in the back row; David Bloor is first on the left and Barry Barnes is second from the right in the front row

Circa 1980, “social” historians who explored the connections between scientific work and its political, social, and economic milieus showed an interest in how scientists selected their objects of inquiry, in the allocation of scientific research effort, and in the social function of scientific work.  Unlike many historians of science, they showed comparatively little interest in the development of scientific knowledge itself.  In 1982 Steven Shapin wrote that he saw “no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but,” he observed, “much literature in the social history of science has less of a connection with the sociology of knowledge than many apparently traditional exercises in the history of ideas” (my emphasis).

At that time, Shapin was a key figure in a movement that was opposed to a traditional philosophy-inspired history of science, which sifted “science” out of history and narrated its progress; to a Mertonian sociology of science, which delineated the conditions in which “science” takes place; and indeed to the social history of science, which linked lines of research to social interests, but which often took research results for granted.

The movement was related to sociologist (and Robert Merton student) Thomas Gieryn’s contemporaneous investigation of the nature and boundary of “science” as a matter of historical contest, but it was really more concerned with the cultural conventions that governed how agreement on individual ideas were reached. This included both an interest in the professional standards that governed the assignment of validity to experimental and observational facts, and in the intellectual links between scientific, methodological, social, and political ideas.  (Bruno Latour, in search of a universal descriptive language, would criticize this apparent dualism as “internalist epistemology sandwiched between two slices of externalist sociology”.)

The objective of the movement was to come to an account of how various groups have established bodies of knowledge that they accept, and how they have delineated themselves from other groups, and fought to have their claims and recommendations accepted more broadly.  The project was viewed as an extension of the sociology of knowledge of Karl Mannheim to encompass the natural sciences.* Like post-Marxist social history of science, it drew inspiration from anthropology, although favoring Mary Douglas over Clifford Geertz, but mainly to take the same general point: knowledge systems abide by a coherence that is intuitive to those who inhabit them.  On this point, see especially Barry Barnes and Shapin’s 1977 review of Douglas’s Implicit Meanings essay collection.

To return to this blog’s recent exemplar of post-Marxist social history of science, Morris Berman’s account of the early years of the Royal Institution: his references to the “epistemology of modernization” and Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966) refer not to the acts of learning or constructing ideas, per se, but to the rationales that underlie a modern, industrial way of life.  The argument in Berman’s book is that a “legal ideology of science” psychologically, culturally, and socially smooths over structural disjunctures in the logic of society, constraining political action, and precluding the possibility of a more logical and just polity.

By contrast, the “cultural history of knowledge” (as I will call history inspired by the “sociology of scientific knowledge” and related programs) adhered to the doctrine of symmetry, admitting no preference for one or another system of ideas, which allowed for a more “naturalistic” description of history.  By handling systems of knowledge evenly, drawing on Thomas Kuhn, cultural history dismissed the possibility that any one system would win out by virtue of its innate obviousness.  This point was supposed to make cultural history into a potent talisman against Whiggism.

It also aimed to be apolitical.  According to Barnes and Shapin, “Naturalism closes no evaluative or political options; it merely ejects them from historical practice.”  They referred here to philosophical efforts to assess the purity of scientific knowledge. However, the avowed lack of political motivation of Barnes, Shapin, and their colleagues in the “Edinburgh School” dismayed Marxist historians as well.

Now, as I have previously argued, the cultural history of knowledge did in fact carry a deeply normative component, not by revealing a preference for one system of ideas over another, but by casting itself as a sensible system of ideas, a mature recognition of science as something other than an abstract form of thought standing apart from its cultural surroundings.

The idea of a historical abundance of naive understandings of how science worked is, of course, very close to the idea that society unwittingly adhered to an ideology of science, as found in the post-Marxist strand of the social history of science that I have examined in the past few posts.

Where this post-Marxist thought embedded its ideology in a communal psychology that looked to technology and scientific reasoning to avoid confronting social and political problems, the cultural history of knowledge embedded historical naivete concerning science (with technology sometimes awkwardly included, notably in the Social Construction of Technology program) in unexamined conventions of trust that permitted agreements about knowledge and its implications to be formed around mutable concepts.

Where in post-Marxist historiography communal psychology caused subsidiary effects through the unwarranted extension of scientific expertise and technology to the solution of social and political problems, within the cultural history of knowledge conventions of trust caused subsidiary effects by embedding cultural assumptions in knowledge itself, which influenced social and political affairs because knowledge claims are generally assumed to have equated with authority claims.

Post-Marxism and the cultural history of knowledge both lean heavily on the cult of invisibility.  Where post-Marxism takes the objectivity of science to render its ideological extension cognitively invisible (and thus unassailable by obvious questions), cultural history takes widespread misunderstanding of science to render its cultural components invisible.

In the case of cultural history, I believe this invisibility has created an impetus to overcome past prejudices by producing works that elucidate the function of these cultural components in particular cases, that enumerate the varieties of cultural invisibility, and that demonstrates the effects of this invisibility (which include both fractiousness surrounding knowledge claims and the authoritarian abuses so often highlighted by post-Marxists).

The profusion of such culture-centric, invisibility-dispelling works has, I believe, had malign effects on historical synthesis on the intellectual history of science, which was supposed to be secure within a cultural history of knowledge (as Shapin claimed in ’82).

The differences between the post-Marxist and cultural history traditions leads to slightly different historical pictures.  The post-Marxist history tends to trace its ideology of science to industrialization, but also often to a mechanistic-theoretical “Cartesian” or “Newtonian” worldview.  In the wake of Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985), the cultural history tradition has been more apt to trace naivete relating to science to the rise of experimental science and natural history, because it was the ascendancy of discrete facts as persuasive evidence that established the need for cultures of trust (see, for example, Latour’s odd characterization and periodization of “modernity”)

Also, where post-Marxists see the need to explain errant thinking about science in terms of the rise of a psycho-cultural condition, cultural historians, I believe, would be more apt to view the question “why didn’t X think sensibly about science?” to be akin to “why didn’t George Washington use tanks against the British?”  The answer is simply (albeit tacitly): because STS theoreticians and cultural historians hadn’t yet invented sensible thinking about science.  The cultural history of knowledge is at its core the history of people resorting to and establishing cultural tropes — some with real epistemological value, including the idea of “science” itself — to contend with their inability to come to general agreements about knowledge.

In a sense, I view the social history of science (Marxist or post-Marxist) as a better-thought-out tradition than the cultural history of knowledge.  Recognizing that it needs to establish a case for the phenomena it seeks to describe, it both posits a source for those phenomena (class interests and ideology), and, at its best, makes its case for its characterizations systematically, embracing prosopography, economic history, and other means of charting social trends in the large.  If its more radical proponents were not always convincing, they had the courtesy to wear their radical credentials on their sleeves.

By contrast, the cultural history of knowledge seems too satisfied with its ability to portray cultural complexity.  Like Marxist and post-Marxist social histories of science, it depends on the cult of invisibility.  But rather than developing a broad, coherent, and justified picture about that invisibility and what it conceals, as the social histories did, its use of invisibility as a historiographical device is haphazard and even more opportunistic than that of the social historians.

Cultural historians seem comfortable declaring that any old study hasn’t been done because some historiographical prejudice — whether professional, philosophical, or popular is usually left ambiguous — has prevented some new facet of “culture” from being seen.  The liberty taken with the historiographical power to declare things invisible renders scholarship eternally path-breakingly heroic, but never synthetic, thus releasing it from any real scholarly responsibility, except to avoid committing a few basic taboos often afflicting more popular or philosophical historiographies.

It has been said (among others, by Shapin (paywall)) that cultural historians need to leave behind their “jargon” and to take their message to a broader audience.  But it is exactly this jargon that makes the cultural history of knowledge, as it is currently practiced, sustainable.  I would argue that the jargon does not allow scholars to communicate complicated and subtle ideas to each other (which would be the case with a true “hyperprofessionalism”).  Rather, it seems to allow scholars to construct their thoughts in such an arcane way as to prove to themselves that they do not think about science like other people do.  In fact, this is precisely why it is believed that the message needs to be better popularized.

The cultural history of knowledge does have some unique features — particularly an unprecedented (and generally beneficial) predilection for writing histories with a museological commitment to realistic portraiture of practices.  Yet it is far from apparent to me that cultural historians of knowledge and their allies in STS do, in fact, think substantially differently about science and technology. They use the cult of invisibility to borrow radical postures from Marxist and post-Marxist historiography, but they use those postures to press fairly pedestrian points, generally about the mundane procedures and sources of support required to make the pursuit of scientific knowledge possible.

Further, it is unclear, for example, that the historiography’s realism of portraiture can realistically capture the complexity of either scientific or even political thought, preferring to believe (as did the post-Marxists) that a naive trust in certain authoritative practices is a sufficiently robust explanation of a very large swath of the historical record, rather than to explore past ideas in a fully complex and sympathetic fashion.

The cogency of the cultural history of knowledge seems to be predicated on its vision of itself as an unprecedently rich way of thinking about science and society, but in many ways it is simply an nth-generation rehash of a longstanding theodicy of science and technology.

*See David Kaiser, “A Mannheim for All Seasons: Bloor, Merton, and the Roots of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge,” Science in Context 11 (1998): 51-87.


1. Benjamin Goldberg - April 30, 2011

I don’t have anything substantive to say–still trying to digest these past few posts–but I did want to thank you for all the hard work you have done here with your historiography blogging. I have learned a *ton*, and my work has benefitted directly from some of your posts (for example, the one on Toulmin and cosmology was extremely useful). So thanks!

2. Will Thomas - April 30, 2011

Benjamin, thanks very much for the kind words. I find that working all this out here helps me respect the finer points of the past literature, while also helping me not be intimidated into accepting its arguments and assumptions wholesale. I’m always really glad to learn that it helps others, too.

I packed a lot into this last post, in particular, because I was eager to finally wrap this series up. (I originally planned maybe two posts inspired by Berman’s book.) So, as usual, if I’ve glossed anything too quickly, please do let me know, and I’ll clarify when I get the chance.

3. alice - April 30, 2011

Mmm, take a lot of those points but not entirely sure that the idea that the cultural history only having jargon to validate itself is quite fair.

Yes, various ideas are associated with particular words. However, such language unlocks new ways of talking about the world, which in turn provides new ways of seeing. Then, if they are capable (which sadly too many are not) researchers can then re-articulate to others. I think we could probably say this about many jargon-filled areas of research.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding you though.

(or equally, maybe the fields of work you talk about need to be better at communicating itself).

Also not entirely sure the “cult of invisibility” is valid way to describe thing. Again, maybe I’m misunderstanding you – could you elaborate on that?

4. Will Thomas - May 1, 2011

Hi Alice, good to hear from you again. Both of these are very good points to press me on. I haven’t fully developed the “cult of invisibility” point (jargon), although I have previously worked out some points, arguing that it is often better to speak of “underdocumentation” rather than “invisibility” here.

I’m actually in favor of jargon if it works in the way you say. I mean, I certainly use a lot of it on this blog. In my STS-HoS conflict-of-interest post, one of my sub-points was that I thought STS theory (using Leigh Star’s work as an example; I might’ve also pointed to some of Harry Collins’s work) was able to develop some fairly subtle points, but that this subtlety rarely makes it back into historiography, nor does it necessarily need to.

The question is whether in any given case the jargon does “unlock new ways … of seeing” or whether it simply makes it appear that a new way of talking and seeing has been achieved.

In historiographical use, I think the “jargon” point and the “invisbility” point are related, wherein once decoded much of the jargon reduces to the form, “you may think X, but actually Y” wherein Y ends up being some totally unobjectionable thing. “You may think museum exhibits simply communicate scientific information, but actually they must balance the needs of many audiences”; “You may think science proceeds as abstract thought, but actually it relies on obtaining careful control over many material practices”; “You may think science is an individualistic endeavor, but actually it relies on extensive networks of interaction”, etc.

The point here is that Y is supposed to be some invisible aspect of scientific work. Therefore, any old study of Y is supposed to be of interest, not because it gives us a synthetic and detailed history of Y (which might well be valuable) but because it breaks down barriers that allegedly prevent us from seeing Y.

(My point about borrowing radical postures is that Marxist and post-Marxist historiography usually works in a similar, but opposite manner. There X usually is some position we would like to keep, albeit caricatured in the radical portrayal, while Y in fact is a genuinely radical alternative.)

My main concern is that this way of thinking leads to a kind of slash-and-burn view of historiography, where the premium is placed on figuring out what kinds of things have been invisible, and then moving on once visibility has been declared, without ever working out the history in its full and crucial detail.

Galison and Daston’s idea of “mechanical objectivity” is a good example. Their history of it is premised on the idea, “You may think photography and self-registering instrumentation are obvious means of achieving objectivity, but actually they have a messy history”. It is certainly unobjectionable to say that photography was eagerly adopted as a means of capturing unprecedented realism and avoiding the capriciousness of individual judgment, and it may be true that in many cases photography was treated as an unalloyed “virtue”. But to limit one’s description of it as a “virtue” is to treat the many historical discussions of what photography can and cannot accomplish in a manner similar to the manner in which Berman treats discussions about worker safety: as generally invisible frictions that subvert the obviousness of a dominant and visible virtue, rather than as part of nuanced historical discussions about the validity of certain interpretive practices.

Another interesting case to consider is Dear and Jasanoff pointing to Dave Kaiser and Andy Warwick’s conclusion to their edited volume on pedagogy in D&J’s riposte to Daston. There Kaiser and Warwick draw on Kuhn and Foucault to make the case for studying pedagogy, because pedagogy is an invisible but crucial practice that makes certain kinds of science possible. D&J are glad to incorporate just this sort of argument into the illuminating spotlight of STS. (I was going to say “umbrella” but that would make for a horrible metaphor!)

However, I don’t actually like K&W’s conclusion all that much, because simply saying that pedagogy has been invisible and needs attention is to neglect a) the fact that nobody would demand justification for the study of pedagogy (i.e., it is not invisible, only underdocumented), and, more importantly, b) the synthetic craft and attention to the detail of historical ideas that makes Kaiser’s and Warwick’s documentation of historical physics pedagogy so good.

alice - May 6, 2011

ah, thanks for that – helps clarify a bit more. I’ll have a proper look at that underdocumentation post at the weekend.

As perhaps a horrible, horrible side point… have you ever come across Basil Bernstein’s idea of invisible pedagogies? It’s one of my favorite ideas in the sociology of education, been meaning to do a blogpost describing it for ages (as sadly the original is one of the best/worst examples of hard to read sociology there is)

I haven’t read Kaiser and Warwick though – must look that up!

Will Thomas - May 7, 2011

Good luck with the invisibility/underdocumentation post — I just had a read over again myself, and while a couple of key ideas come through, I think I probably tried too much to build my point up from basic principles, and that bit comes off as nearly incomprehensible in retrospect. I’ll come back to the subject properly one of these days.

I haven’t heard of the Bernstein — I hope you do end up doing a post on it!

5. Fred Bane - May 3, 2011

Very interesting, though the last bit about jargon bothers me. I think the multitude of connotations that accompany every “organic”, quotidian word in our language does indeed hinder scientific inquiry. Jargon allows the author something of a blank slate to use a word which communicates exactly what she means and nothing more. I feel this is necessary, particularly in the so-called social sciences. However, because of the mimetic nature of language use, if some term becomes adopted, becomes “industry-standard”, it is then used by different authors in jumble of different ways. the author must be careful to clearly define her usage of these terms at the outset.
I do agree, however, that jargon is used as a way to distinguish insiders from outsiders, to make clear the author’s intended audience. the way you write must communicate your “professionalism” to other “professionals”, and texts written in any other style are dismissed summarily as “non-academic”. I’m not prepared to weigh in with any judgment about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it deserves mentioning because I agree with that aspect of your point, but also see the necessity of jargon

Will Thomas - May 6, 2011

Hi Fred, thanks for the comment. As with my reply to Alice, I agree with your standards for good jargon. In the case of historians, I am hard pressed to think of anyone — even among very good historians — who is very careful about the definition of terms. I think that’s just traditionally more of a philosopher’s than a historian’s concern.

At the same time, I don’t get the sense that the jargon that is used is explicitly seen as a marker of professionalism. My feeling is that in many cases (again, I am referring to my experience with history) it is seen as genuinely necessary to proceed from certain naive positions — false dualisms, various “-centric” perspectives, etc. — to an analytically savvy position. In most cases, I think by simply not starting with a naive position, most of the jargon is disposable. But, by forfeiting the idea that one is moving from a naive to a savvy position, one also risks forfeiting a major claim to the significance of the work.

I am quite open to the use of jargon where it genuinely opens the way to the expression of subtle or complex ideas.

6. Juan - May 9, 2011

Will, who do you consider to be doing good work in history today? Would you put any “popular” historians in that category i.e. people like Hobswann and Perry Anderson?

Will Thomas - May 12, 2011

Hi Juan,

I’m sorry to say I limit most of my reading to history of science and technology, so I’m probably best off if I limit myself to authors I like in this area, rather than mentioning things I happen to have read in other areas that I liked pretty well.

At the top of my list would be two of my colleagues here at Imperial College London. I think David Edgerton’s critical thinking about historiography is most influential to me. As it happens, he’s been writing for wider audiences recently. His Shock of the Old is sort of a showcase for his aesthetic of history-writing. He has just come out with a new book about World War II called Britain’s War Machine. Actually, I saw a guy reading it on the Tube the other day.

The thing with David is that his writing is a bit idiosyncratic — it revolves less around narratives or portraits and more around amalgamating fractions of narratives and fractions of portraits in order to challenge a variety of commonplaces and clichés. If you’re not immersed in the history already, this can make for some choppy reading.

However, I would rate Andrew Warwick’s Masters of Theory on the 19th-century Cambridge Mathematical Tripos as one of the finest pieces of historical craftsmanship I can think of. Much of it is a cultural history of the rise of advanced mathematical teaching (some very fun stuff on university sports as a means of enhancing mental performance), but towards the end it also blends deftly into the intellectual history of 19th-century mathematics. If you already know a lot about the history of Einstein’s relativity, Richard Staley’s Einstein’s Generation is also a good recent book. I also think David Kaiser’s Drawing Theories Apart on Feynman Diagrams is superb, but again you’d have to be interested in the subject matter. I think his forthcoming How the Hippies Saved Physics will maybe be a bit more accessible, and probably very good (though I object to the cutesy title).

It’s quite old now, but Mario Biagioli’s Galileo Courtier is a fine example of cultural-intellectual history of science. Thony recommends Mario’s more recent Galileo’s Instruments of Credit, but I haven’t read it myself.

Of course, Biagioli is in the vein of “commentary” so it might be best to begin one’s studies of Galileo elsewhere — actually, I see John Heilbron has a new biography on Galileo, so that might serve as a good place to start. (As Heilbron says on his intro video for the book at amazon, his book is “not Galileo This, or Galileo That, but Galileo”)

I’m neither really a fan nor a critic of the “think histories”: your Tony Judts, your Daniel Rodgerses, your Eric Hobsbawms. I’ve thought from time to time about writing about how I enjoyed Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, though. (See, now I’m just talking about things I’ve happened to have read.) Throughout that book I kept thinking how it just seemed to be a synthesis of stuff we know about, before the sheer scale of his research started to seep in. I think the thing that led me astray is that it’s all presentation, no analysis, but you can find interviews where he comes off as a very analytical historical thinker.

7. Thony C. - May 9, 2011

In one of the comments in this excellent post, Will, you have illuminated what I see as a central dilemma in the modern historiography of science. You write, This point was supposed to make cultural history into a potent talisman against Whiggism.

Since at least the 1960s, if not even earlier, Whiggism in the history of science has been seen as a cardinal sin, to be avoided at all costs. That is the history of science may not be presented as a linear march of progress filtered through an unhealthy dose of presentism. Although I would note, as an aside, a considerable amount of popular history of science still adheres strongly to a Whiggish agenda.

Why do I think that this situation leads to a dilemma? The answer is quite simple; science does progress! Take one example from the period of history with which I’m best acquainted the 16th and 17th centuries, the discipline of dynamics or mechanics. Starting with the work of Tartaglia and Benedetti in the 16th century and proceeding over Stevin, Kepler and Galileo at the beginning of the 17th century through Borelli, Descartes, and Huygens up to Newton at the end of the century and beyond to Euler and whoever, there is a discernable and constant progress in the understanding of movement and the forces that cause it. Any historian studying this discipline in this period who was not aware of this fact should change his profession. It should not be thought that this example is an exception I could quote many others.

Now of course, this is not the purposeful, linear progress of the Whig historian but a meandering path with loops and cul-de-sacs, diversions and dead-ends. Things get lost and sometimes rediscovered, sometimes progress is made by going backwards and sometimes one researcher rejects the progress of another out of spite or some other irrational motive. So when the historian comes to write a synthetic narrative of this evolution he is faced with a problem, either he encumbers his narrative with an infinity of qualification, asides, additions and footnotes so that his story becomes almost unintelligible and positively unreadable or he simplifies and in so doing falls into the trap of producing an at least proto-Whiggish presentation.

Question, how can a narrative historian writing a work of synthesis present the very real progress in the history of a scientific discipline in a readable and attractive manner without being guilty of the sin of Whiggism?

Will Thomas - May 10, 2011

@Juan: I’ll get back to your question soon.

I think your instincts are right here, Thony. I’ll see where I can get in the space of a comment, though this might be a better subject for a post (or two or three…).

The idea of a “Whig” history of science is designed to avoid at least two related problems, which we can all agree are bad for historical understanding:

1) The problem of chronology: the attribution of later meaning or significance to a historical event; the use of anachronistic terminology; ignoring the means of persuasion and exclusion by which facts and ideas gain currency.

2) The problem of perspective: implication of majority status to ideas that were minority in their time; the systematic exclusion of competing individuals and ideas.

Your comment speaks to the difficulty of writing long-form histories, while still paying proper respect, especially to (2). And, in the long form, I do think it is necessary to acknowledge progressive narratives, at least in a number of traditions — we will require some allegiance to some philosophy of science if we are to parse the existence of intellectual progress in non-obvious cases.

Sticking with obvious cases, I would go further and say that in the long form, something like a Mertonian sociology is applicable, whereby we can identify certain social criteria necessary to long-form intellectual progress.

These points have largely become anathema, as I gather mainly because of their inability to consistently describe short-form historical detail. I agree that it was necessary to develop new ideas for the short-form, but the assumption that ideas are “constructed” in the short-form and reified into the long-form was never a passable assumption. Yet we have many local histories of the origins of ideas, and few of their long-term use.

Anyway, historians, as you accurately sense, are loathe to admit such things, I gather because something like a religious recidivism is assumed to set in if a mental guard is not vigilantly kept.

I think we can understand this attitude if we move beyond a home-grown anti-Whiggism, and start to look at the importance of cultural anthropological thought to historiography, with which we can develop:

3) The problem of constituency. If knowledge can progress within a culture, cultures of knowledge cannot themselves be considered progressive, at least by any transcendentally objective standard.

(3) has a sort of universalizing appeal. It allows one to place culturally relevant ideas on parity, so, say, demon possession and mental illness as explanations for a certain kind of behavior. One can of course argue that mental illness is a better explanation, but if we wish to understand cultures’ response to those behaviors, we will have to accept their explanations. I find that humanities people seem to think this is some sort of incredibly-hard-to-grasp insight, which makes continued support for our work very important indeed.

(3) also has a corollary for progress in science, which is its cultural irrelevance — Euler may have mastered celestial mechanics, but this was only of relevance to a vanishingly small fraction of people. “So what?” one might well ask. Well, if say you’re Stephen Toulmin talking about the death of cosmology, or you’re any of a variety of post-Marxists, the universalizing claims of scientific progress correspond to the rise of a universalizing polity. (Of course one would be correct to be very suspicious of this type of claim.)

Nonetheless, (3) carries a clear moral cogency; in fact, I would argue, it embodies a narrative of moral and political progress — i.e., Whiggism in its original connotation, except now the progression isn’t civilizational, it’s from a naive self-centric perspective to a more inclusive cultural cosmopolitanism (“But isn’t this just an epistemological rendering of arguments surrounding the 19th-century Reform Acts?” “No, it’s… completely different — sit quietly!”)

This narrative supposes one to be on one or another side of an intellectual realization, which I reckon is the source of the constant fear of recidivism if Whiggism isn’t completely shunned. It isn’t that progress isn’t progress, so to speak, but that if we start telling histories of progress, we or others who read us may forget about all the ways that progress might not be progress, if you know what I mean.

The trouble is that this creates its own form of Whig history: this includes signs that a properly modern and culturally relativist mentality is being achieved (see Chris’s posts on the history of ethnology and anthropology). More, though, it is what David Edgerton has called “inverted Whig” history, which is a history of failures resulting from a general failure to be on the right side of history: in the case of recent history of science, this results in a historiography of the intellectual fractiousness and intellectual authoritarianism that sprouts up around failures to secure agreement around knowledge claims. These failures, of course, belie crass histories of intellectual Whiggism.

Juan - May 10, 2011

Thanks for that, your thoughts on historiography have been very insightful. I’ve been waited to ask you something else for a while, I preiovusly put it on your post on Phil Mirowski, but anyway…have you ever watched Adam Curtis? He’s a BBC journalist who makes docs about the history of “ideas”. Here’s his blog:
And here is a list of his films you can watch online:
“The Trap” in particular is interesting, because it’s largely based on Mirowski’s Machine Dreams, and even interviews the big man himself.
I recommend him because he seems to be only guy making popular history of science on TV. I think he might be guilty of a lot of the sins you have accused STS scholars of, and I think he has a strong Whiggish agenda, but he’s very enetertaining nonetheless.

8. Will Thomas - May 14, 2011

Hi Juan, sorry, somehow this comment and your comment on the old Mirowski post ended up being held for my approval. This almost never happens, so I never check that queue, but I happened to notice them, and they’re up now.

Thanks for the link to EWP over at Adam Curtis’ blog. We got some traffic from that. I’ve seen The Trap, and, yes, I did enjoy it, but yeah, I agree, the “blinded by economics” message did come off to me as heavy-handed. For a similar message, see also this recent BBC radio broadcast.

I’ll have to remember to give Curtis’ other films a look when I get the chance.

9. Juan - May 15, 2011

Thanks Will, I didn’t realise my posts got held up. Sorry if I went on a bit about the blog, it was just on my mind lately and the Mirowski post sparked off my comments here. As for “The Trap” yeah, it’s guilty of some pretty gross simplification. Particularly unfair I thought was the dig at Dawkins and the “Selfish Gene”; Adam never satisfactorily explained what the game theory used there had to do with the “Nash equilibrium” bits that were the focus of the series. That’s also something that Mirowski was guilty of in MD, IIRC.

Btw, I would also recommend “The Fog of War” by Errol Morris, which is basically a mini biography of Robert McNamara but also segues nicely into a discussion of mathematical techniques used during WWII and the Vietnam War.

10. Will Thomas - May 16, 2011

Juan, if you have an interest in the history of game theory, try and pull up Paul Erickson’s 2006 PhD dissertation, “The Politics of Game Theory”, which I think does a pretty good job of discussing its transfer between mathematics, economics, social science, and biology. Paul does a pretty good job distinguishing the theory’s varying epistemic functions in different intellectual projects, and I’ve found his work useful in figuring out what’s going on in my own research.

“Fog of War” is great. Sometimes it gestures in the most typical directions of simplification (numerals falling on Japan, “rationality will not save us”….), but ultimately Morris lets McNamara be the thoughtful guy I believe he was. There’s no question that McNamara’s work and dishonesty in the course of the Vietnam War is appalling, but I don’t believe it derived from any sort of technocratic mentality.

It’s weird to me that Morris can let McNamara have some humanity, and yet he couldn’t help but do an embarrassing hatchet-job on Tom Kuhn in that NYT series.

11. Juan - May 16, 2011

Odd that you should mention the NYT series Morris did, I enjoyed that when it came out. Admittedly, this may be due to my unfamiliarity with Kuhn himself, so I may be blind to the injustices done to him in that article. However, the little I’ve read about him, from that Morris essay, to Phil Mirowski own “What’s Kuhn got to do with it?”, to various off hand comments by scientists and philosopher on various blogs, doesn’t paint a positive picture of his intellectual legacy.

I don’t think Morris is mounting a personal attack on Kuhn for the sake of it, or because of his bad experiences with the big man himself (remember that ashtray!), but because he detects a strain of post-modern relativism in his work that he feels needs to be criticized. Incidentally, he posted a “reply” to critics of the essay on a philosopher’s blog:


12. Scott - July 22, 2021

The benefits of learning science history include giving people a deeper understanding of the world.
Check this out Why Studying the History of Science Matters Hope this will help. Thanks.


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