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“Discipline & Ontology” vs. “Projects” in Reconstructing Histories of Ideas June 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I am gearing up to review the recently published Cold War Social Science (2012) volume on this blog, and this post was written with that task in mind. But, before I get to the review, I’d like to sharpen up a critical tool I’ve been working on.*

I propose that within the historiographies of science, technology, and ideas in general — but politically and socially relevant twentieth-century work (be it scientific, engineering, intellectual, architectural, etc…) in particular — we can identify a common interpretive approach.  This approach supposes that historical contests between different disciplines over politically and socially significant “ontologies” are important foci for historians’ attention, because society is taken to grant disciplines, particularly “scientific” ones, the intellectual authority to dictate those ontologies’ form and implications.  Some important ontologies include: the structure of the just polity and the prosperous economy, modernity, human nature, mind, normality, disease, nature and “the natural”, and aspects of personal identity such as gender, sexuality, and race.

This approach is to be contrasted with another interpretive approach, which seeks to identify distinct but interrelated intellectual and practical “projects” in history, and to characterize the nature of those projects, their ambitions, the scope of their influence, and the relations between them.  Some projects (particularly some medical ones) may well have attempted to claim authority over ontologies, including those enumerated above, but whether they have or not is a matter for intensive historical investigation, not presumption.

Here’s an example to make a more concrete case for this critical dictinction:

The critical distinction between “discipline-ontology” versus “project”-oriented interpretive frameworks first began to cohere for me at a 2010 workshop on the “Strangelovean” sciences hosted by Lorraine Daston and Michael Gordin at the MPI for the History of Science in Berlin.  One of the the conference’s organizing themes was how in the twentieth century a calculating “rationality” had displaced “reason”.

The idea was that Enlightenment thinkers such as the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had been fully cognizant of concepts of rationality manifested as explicit calculation, but that their theories of mind also incorporated some capacity for unarticulated judgement, i.e. “reason” (or Vernunft or raison), which adjudicated how rational rules were to be applied.  By contrast, twentieth-century decision theorists’ concept of mind, exemplified in John von Neumann (1903-1957) and Oskar Morgenstern’s (1902-1977) theory of games, encapsulated only rational calculation.  But this comparison made little sense to me, because Condorcet and Kant were clearly engaged in a different project from von Neumann and Morgenstern.  If Enlightenment thinkers were indeed seeking an ontology of mind, decision theorists were only really looking to establish a stronger conceptual vocabulary to describe the logical structure of certain kinds of deliberations and behaviors.

<begin tangent — feel free to skip>

If you looked solely to decision theorists’ publications within their project, you would, of course, gain little sense of their understanding of the ways in which their project related to some overall ontology of mind, and, more specifically, how their theories related intellectually and practically to phenomena like unarticulated judgment.  I argue in my own work that decision theorists (and those working in related projects like operations research) actually had very clear ideas about this sort of thing, which you can find if you want to and know where to look for it.

Going further along this tangent, I think the discipline-ontology vs. project distinction articulates quite well some differences between my own view and Daston’s “historical epistemology” more generally.  If you look to her book with Peter Galison, Objectivity (2007), you find a similar argumentative form at play.  Reading that book according to my scheme, “discipline” should be taken quite literally to mean a ritualistic way of disciplining the mind and the senses to conform to one or another “epistemic virtue”.  Such virtues, according to Daston and Galison, preferentially determine what constitutes a properly “objective” way of viewing and depicting the world, and thus what constitutes a properly scientific ontology, be it of a plant species, a splashing drop of liquid, a cloud, a snowflake, a nerve cell, or a cosmic ray.

My argument with that book† is that historically there have generally been no singularly proper modes of seeing and depicting, but that different modes have been taken to serve different kinds of argument, different tasks and publications, and different audiences (i.e., different modes of depiction have served different projects).

<end tangent>

Getting back to the more general point, then, you can begin to understand the appeal of the discipline-ontology approach if you note the importance of certain historiographical commitments.

First, adhering to a discipline-ontology framework is a good way for historians of scientific or otherwise intellectual ideas to assert a broader significance for their research for political and cultural history.  If fixed ontological ideas determine or limit how people react to the world — if knowledge is indeed power — then we can find in disciplinary disputes over these ideas a crucial source of support for scientific doctrines, political power, and social customs, if not their point of origin.  For this reason, histories of intellectual disputes over ontology pair quite naturally with histories of policy, popularization, and imagery.

Second, by designating certain historical intellectuals or scientists as authoritative and influential — and others as defeated, weak, or absent‡ — historians establish the importance of their own writing as a contribution to an ongoing, high-stakes intellectual contest at large.  Typically, today’s historians of ideas will generally do so not by trying to establish their own ontology, but (in the signature move of the interdisciplinary post-Marxist project) by drawing attention to the contest itself, and the possibility that we could be governed by alternative ontologies than those that have hitherto prevailed.  In a sense, historians working in this framework use their labor to try and restore free will to a society apparently robbed of it by ontological hegemons.

I urge the “project”-based framework, not least because it removes some of these conflicts of interest that are baked into the discipline-ontology approach.  Also, it puts the historical intellectual figure in a more humble (and, I believe, more realistic) role.  It acknowledges that the history of ideas is almost never one of victory and defeat, or even dominance and subordination.  Instead, the history of ideas is more like “background noise” to a broader, amorphous, and highly complicated political, social, and cultural history.  In that broader history, non-intellectual actors (politicians, doctors, industrial laborers…) mainly act on the basis of precedent and idiosyncratic ideas they hold — this is really just the same point Carlo Ginzburg made with The Cheese and the Worms. In this framework (but unlike with the Inquisition!), few attempt to control ontology; to attempt to do so promises little practical power.

Within this background noise, different intellectual projects may appear to have embraced conflicting ontologies, but since a definitive ontology was not necessarily at stake, or even in dispute, such projects may be understood to have co-existed (peaceably or uncomfortably; think Chomsky vs. Sapir-Whorf, for instance), or even to have complemented each other.  When attention is directed away from conflicts over ontology, whole terrains of differing goals, methods, and problems can be more easily mapped.

(Note that historians of natural philosophy and geology have already arrived at something like this view by moving beyond existential conflicts between “catastrophism” and “uniformitarianism”, “vulcanism” and “neptunism”, “mechanism” and “vitalism”, and “science” and “religion”  as an organizing historiographical framework.)

If, in the project-oriented framework, the history of intellectual and scientific ideas becomes background noise, does that marginalize our work?  I would argue it makes it more realistic and credible.  There is still ample room to examine how this background noise can provide some non-intellectual actors with a vocabulary to express themselves, and to determine how vague ideas might apply in specific situations.  (Think of a politician using economic ideas to determine how to respond to a proposed trade treaty.) Such uses of ideas can have important, concrete consequences.

*The basic insight here is common enough on this blog, but I had my first crack at articulating it in a two-part post from April 2009 called “Claims, Authority, and Spheres of Practice,” (part 1part 2).  However, those posts are now scarcely intelligible even to me!

†For more on Objectivity, see my posts on it: Pt. 1, Pt. 2aPt. 2b, and Pt. 3.  Also see “The Historiographical Idea of the Automaton-Scientist”.

Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds does a great job documenting British intellectuals’ tendency to downplay their own history.


1. Will Thomas - June 9, 2012

Coincidentally, Jon Agar has posted a quote from the late Michael Mahoney about paying attention to the “agendas” of disciplines and specialties. I think the basic point is similar to the one outlined here concerning the “project” framework. Read it at the UCL STS Observatory.

2. Michael Bycroft - June 26, 2012

I find the project/ontology distinction interesting, and the follow-up post compelling (with or without the distinction). But I also find the distinction a bit hard to pin down. Here are my main questions:

–what sort of things are you calling “ontologies”? Are they domains of inquiry (such as the mind) or are they particular theories about the fundamental nature of those domains (such as the view that the mind is distinct from the brain)?

–would you include “methods” among “ontologies”, and if so doesn’t this over-stretch the meaning of the word “ontology”? You seem to include methods among ontologies in the follow-up post to this one (https://etherwave.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/the-projects-of-operations-research-and-the-ontology-of-management). There you assess the view that “OR was, essentially, an attempt … to transform the ontology of military planning and industrial management from one of seasoned leadership into one of ‘science.'” The rest of that post, and the title of the 2007 BJHS piece that you discuss there, suggest that by ‘science’ you mean certain methods associated with science.

Yet the current post suggests that you *don’t* want to include methods among ontologies, and that your point is precisely that methods do not determine ontologies ie. that one can (for example) study the mind using mathematical formalisms without confusing the formalism with the thing that it is meant to represent. In the current post you seem to take issue with Daston and Galison on precisely this point: you deny their assumption that “epistemic virtues…preferentially determine…what constitutes a properly scientific ontology.”

This idea of severing methods from ontologies does seem to be part of the point of the follow-up post, but on my reading it is not the whole or even the main point of that post. Your point there is not that OR researchers, in imposing a highly formal, ‘scientific’ method on various industrial settings, did not thereby impose an ontology on those settings. It is rather that the researchers were not interested in imposing a highly formal method in the first place (and that the idea that the were so interested is largely an invention of the Project III historiography).

–Is this post only about the motives of non-scientists who use science, or is it also about the motives of the people who do science? In other words, is your claim just that “non-intellectual actors (politicians, doctors, industrial laborers…)” do not have much use for the ontologies of scientists, insofar as they have any use for science at all? Or are you making the bolder claim that scientists themselves are not much interested in ontologies–that they are not interested in the fundamental nature of “modernity, human nature, mind, normality, disease, etc”?

The former claim seems more plausible to me than the latter. But the former also has a narrower target–it implies that the lessons of this post only apply to historians who are interested in the motives of non-intellectual actors.

The latter, bolder claim seems to be the point of the “Strangelovean” example. Your point there seems to be that the scientists involved (Neumann and Morgenstern) were not interested in developing a general theory of the mind, or at least that they did not take their simplified, purpose-built model of the mind as a full description of the fundamental nature of the mind. But even there you do not say, I think, that scientists are always or even mostly like this — you admit the possibility that “Enlightenment thinkers were indeed seeking an ontology of mind.”

The bolder claim also seems to be assumed in the second-to-last paragraph, where you disapprove of using “existential conflicts betweeen ‘catastrophism’ and ‘uniformitarianism’ [etc.] as an organizing historiographical framework”. This disapproval would not make sense on the more modest claim, which allows that some scientists were indeed interested in whether past geological events were uniform or catastrophic.

One could of course accept the modest claim and not the bolder claim ie. one could hold that scientists sometimes really are interested in knowing the fundamental nature of things, but that this knowledge often has little direct relevance to non-scientists.

–how many of the problems of the “ontology-discipline” approach can be solved by making more fine-grained distinctions between different ontologies and between different disciplines? The fine-grained distinctions between different OR projects is one of the valuable aspects of the follow-up post. But surely proponents of the “ontology-discipline” approach can give similarly high-resolution accounts of the past without abandoning the ontology-discipline approach.

I’m not saying that the OR case in particular could be well-treated by a “high-resolution” ontology-discipline approach–just that the broad-brush approach that one perhaps finds in the book by Galison and Daston is a contingent flaw of that book at not something inherent to the ontology-discipline approach.

Will Thomas - June 27, 2012

Thanks for another very insightful comment, Michael.

You’re right to note the ambiguity in the use of ontology. Here it is both a space to be filled (“what is the ontology of the mind?”) and the thing that fills the space (“the ontology of the mind is, e.g., a collection of subjective thoughts”). If there is a more philosophically correct way of putting this, I’m prepared to be educated!

The only really important thing about an “ontology” (as used here) is that, according to the discipline & ontology view, some people may feel it is subject to authoritative definition, and that that definition determines what social and political role that thing plays. Generally, I would say, it is related to “method” in that, again according to the discipline & ontology view, different methods vie for the authority to define an ontology. (Of course, in these scenarios, it is the social and political acceptability of the ontologies produced that may determine which method wins out in the battle for authority.)

You’re right to point out that I do use ontology to describe “methods” (e.g. managerial thought, but one could talk about battles to define “scientific method” as well), but I’m not sure that that makes a big difference.

According to my “project” view, ontologies or definitions aren’t actually that important, because people (scientists, politicians, ordinary people going about their lives) are rarely committed to them. And here I am actually making the bolder claim.

I wouldn’t deny that scientific figures have often been interested in the fundamental nature of things — particularly among the older, more philosophical breed. But, I tend to stress arguments and heuristics more than attempts to define what something is, or how it ought to be seen. This may ultimately offer some insight into its fundamental nature, but rarely makes a firm claim to describing that nature. The work of economists who view the mind as a rational calculating device need not be incompatible with the work of psychologists whose work reveals it to be anything but.

Generally, scientists will not spend their time trying to prove a particular ontology, to earn it victory. To go back to unformitarianism vs. catastrophism, historians now seem to agree that Lyell, for an important example, was not committed to proving that catastrophes never occurred, just that they could not be part of a properly grounded geological explanation. Proponents of one or another “side” might have debates with each other, but mostly they worked (often in similar ways) to investigate more mundane issues, that is to say they had projects that were quite separate from, and probably more important than whatever pitched ontological battle they may or may not have viewed themselves as embroiled in.

In any event, it’s probably good that scientists don’t spend much time trying to establish ontologies, because the “modest” claim is also true: most people, a) wouldn’t listen to scientists if they did, and certainly not exclusively, and b) won’t necessarily be consistent in their ontological beliefs anyway.

I believe we can describe more historical activities more plausibly, if we view them as being part of a large number of projects. I believe a preference over the discipline & ontology view for obtaining higher-resolution accounts can be found in the criterion of “plausibility”. Yes, we can, if we like, view high-resolution activities as elements of pitched ontological battles, but, in my experience, such attempts usually start invoking things like scientific fetishism, or they start ignoring actors’ actual statements in favor of assuming hidden agendas and motives. This is why, even when discipline & ontology approaches are avowedly not making strong claims to intentionality (e.g., in analyses of “discourses”), they tend to take on the air of a conspiracy theory.

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