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Kuukkanen on the Philosophical Foundations of the Historiography of Science October 13, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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The Twitterverse has brought to my attention a new article by philosopher of history Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen of Leiden University: “The Missing Narrativist Turn in the Historiography of Science,” History and Theory 51 (2012): 340-363 (paywall).

Like Lorraine Daston’s 2009 article in Critical Inquiry (with which Kuukkanen does not engage), Kuukkanen’s piece covers the oft-plowed ground of the relationship between the social studies of science and the historiography of science. Recall that Daston takes the rather unorthodox view that historians have exhausted the insights of the social studies of science, and have therefore turned to the mainstream history discipline, which she believes explains our present surfeit of disconnected microhistorical case studies. Kuukkanen takes a more traditional view in that he believes that present historiography remains a fairly direct product of science-studies thinking. However, he also peculiarly believes that, due to this influence, we historians have not embraced the “narrativist turn” taken by other historians, which is to say, we believe the way we write about our subject matter is the way to write about it, and so we myopically fail to open ourselves to the possibility of alternatives.

I think the first thing to keep in mind in reading Kuukkanen’s piece is that he is approaching the historiography of science as a philosopher of historiography. He cites very few examples of historical writing (exceptions being Martin Rudwick’s Great Devonian Controversy, Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions, and Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis’s Unifying Biology: The Evolutionary Synthesis and Evolutionary Biology), engaging instead with the methodological reflections written by historians and science-studies scholars. Thus, Kuukkanen never really says whether he feels the individual histories we write, or the body of literature we collectively produce, are establishing a good portrait of the past.

He does, however, make the very cutting point that we are not ourselves evaluating the quality of our portraits. Our relationship to science studies has caused us to push “historiographical reflection into a secondary role.” Instead of concentrating on how we can develop better pictures of history, we dedicate our energies to achieving a more “accurate understanding of the nature of science” (341, Kuukkanen’s emphasis).

Indeed, according to Kuukkanen, we believe we have already achieved a proper method of understanding and portraying science by rejecting “grand aprioristic schemes” (341) — basically meaning teleological, philosophy-based histories — and settling on a vision of science as “narratively constructed” (344), which I gather is to say that science is a series of claims about nature on which scientific figures have been able to forge agreement using whatever resources are at their disposal. (Ironically, according to Kuukkanen, we cast the same eye on science that we should be casting on ourselves.)

We believe the best means of accessing this most proper view of science is through “anthropological studies of science” (348), which historians are able to approximate through careful use of archival material. According to Kuukkanen, “the idea is that the traces left in the form of laboratory notebooks, letters, and other texts enable a historian to be some kind of temporally conditioned anthropologist of science” (353).

He further argues that the methodological core of this anthropological approach is an uncompromising empiricism. Because our commitment to sociological symmetry prohibits us from invoking disembodied ideas (i.e. “truth”) as a causal force in history, we focus instead “on historical micro subjects and on explicitly observable traces and objects of study” (348). We have turned our attention to “texts, inscriptions, ink on paper, instruments, and tacit knowledge manifested in people’s practices, meeting places, technological devices, test animals, and so on,” because these things “can be easily identified and their existence verified” (349).

Kuukkanen identifies a commitment to empiricism in the remarks of Thomas Kuhn, but sees its rise in the wake of the sociology of scientific knowledge. He points, for instance, to Rudwick, who called for “empirical studies of science in the making” (353). But the commitment found its apotheosis with Bruno Latour, who pioneered the anthropological method in his Laboratory Life (1979, with Steve Woolgar), and then, in Science in Action (1987), urged “readers just to follow scientists around in order to understand the nature of technoscience” (351). In Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT), we can even find a supposedly gold-standard descriptive metaphysics, which will inform any successful, empirically-based analysis of science, or knowledge more generally.

Provocatively and cleverly, Kuukkanen argues that our belief in the empirical integrity of our portraits corresponds to a renewal of the spirit of Leopold von Ranke’s (1795-1886) goal of reassembling the documentary evidence of the past so as to portray it “wie es eigentlich gewesen” (as it actually was). He asserts we think of our methodology as “a borderline science” (341). He astutely quotes the Interlude in Latour’s Reassembling the Social (2005), wherein “the ANT professor … identifies himself as not only ‘the objectivist type’ of sociologist but also ‘in the end, a naive realist, a positivist'” (351).

Obviously, though, Kuukkanen can’t be right in claiming that we historians of science are a new breed of Rankeans. After all, we have been indoctrinated with the Gospel of Peter Novick, the same as all other historians. At the same time, to see that he at least has a point, you only need to listen to the very first thing Simon Schaffer has to say in his interview in the CBC’s “How to Think about Science” series.

In the end, I think Kuukkanen makes a number of good points. First, I think historians of science do, on the whole, believe that the solution to the problem of epistemology (or, more accurately, epistemology-and-society) is also the solution to the problem of good historiography. Having felt that the epistemology-and-society problem has been solved, we do not feel much need for further historiographical introspection (except for on stylistic matters, as we feel more elegant and engaging prose will allow our ideas to be better received).

Further, I agree with Kuukkanen that we feel our anti-teleological perspective on science is an advanced perspective. That is, I agree that “the antiprogressivism of science studies with regard to the progress of science becomes progressivism with regard to the progress of science studies” (351, Kuukkanen’s emphases; he calls this the “modernism of science studies”). In fact, I have gone further to argue that historians’ sense that they have escaped from past naiveté regarding the nature of science and its place in society has invaded our historical narratives. I have called this a “conflict of interest” between the history of science and STS, and I am presently in the process of arguing that this same self-progressivism — including our commitment to an anthropological perspective — informs our histories of the recent social sciences in a very particular way.

However, I disagree that we have not taken the “narrativist turn”. Indeed, in my post on what I called the “Rashomon posture”, I implicated this turn in our reluctance to synthesize our literature.

Does Kuukkanen believe we need to take a Rashomon-like view toward our work? No, according to his view, narrativists need not commit to nihilism in the selection between narratives, only to avoiding commitment to a single narrative. Narrativists may — and should — “cognitively prioritize different historiographical interpretations” (359). Disappointingly, Kuukkanen does not actually offer many new clues as to how value should be ascribed to any given portrait of the past.

Of course, we historians of science do not offer many clues ourselves. But I do not believe we write the way we do because we hold a Rankean belief that it is the definitive way of writing about our subject. Nor, perhaps, do we truly follow a Rashomon posture by believing that we cannot choose between portraits. Rather, I argue, we do, in fact, implicitly follow evaluative criteria, which validate our particular way of writing as serving a high historiographical priority (over and above historiographical synthesis, even after some two decades of having worked in this way). These criteria are defined by what I call the “cult of invisibility”. That is, we write about topics in such a way that we reveal a critical aspect of the past that would not have been visible without the application of our special skills.

Thus, while I agree historians of science exhibit a strong commitment to archival realism, this commitment does not derive from a commitment to absolute empiricism as the proper foundation of history, but from our belief that realistic portrayals of the past will also reveal invisible components of scientific practice and thought, for example the tacit skills and assumptions involved in successful experimentation, or hidden ideological commitments within scientific arguments. This revelation of the invisible is particularly valued where concrete and seemingly self-evidently legible items are involved, as in the differing symbolic values ascribed to “boundary objects”. Thus many historians’ interest in studying the material aspects of science.

I would further argue that, while we certainly derive some of our sub-projects from the social studies of science (such as the invisible factors underlying contingency in experiment), our commitment to the evaluative scheme of the cult of invisibility is broadly shared with many other sorts of historians, particularly cultural historians, but really including any historian who borrows a sense of historiographical value from the old Marxist project of identifying interests and ideologies underlying actors’ actions, and of championing historically suppressed interests and ideologies.

Finally, a side point to conclude: I do believe Kuukkanen is correct in identifying Bruno Latour’s empiricist commitments. However, I do not think ANT has been “particularly influential,” even in creating a “general historiographical zeitgeist” (348). Although we often cite Latour, use concepts such as “immutable mobile”, and may well believe ourselves to follow his lead, I don’t think our methodology follows what I have called his “semiotic phenomenology of science and society” in any serious way.

See also my post: Foucault, Ginzburg, Latour, and the Gallery


1. Will Thomas - October 14, 2012

A couple of other extraneous thoughts:

1) One should point out that historians of science have also invoked empiricism as an antidote to what Kuukkanen calls “anti-apriorism”. This is what they used to call “naturalism” in SSK, and is also the impulse behind Rudwick’s 1985 invocation of empiricism. However, I do think that whatever empiricist impulses exhibit themselves in today’s safely post-apriorist historiography are mainly regarded as a way of accessing invisible ideas, ideologies, assumptions, etc.

2) In discussing historians’ attitude toward the material, Kuukkanen observes that “it is characteristic of contemporary historiography of science to treat material products of science as commodities as if they were objects in international trade that are first locally created and then spread to other connected localities. This orientation has led to a development of a wide variety of theories of delocalization to explain the transition from locality to translocality or to globality” (349).

First, this actually nicely jibes with my point about invisibility, since disparate values ascribed to “material products of science,” which allow these products to circulate across cultures, are just the sorts of invisible things historians of science believe it is important to uncover. I have referred to this as the “historiography of values”.

Second, I haven’t gotten around to working up a post on Philip Mirowski’s argument that science studies has close affinities with neoliberalism (mentioned in this post). However, this emphasis on neutral objects being traded as commodities according to values ascribed to them by individual actors is, I believe, along the lines of what he has in mind.

2. Will Thomas - October 16, 2012

Some further reflections, based on the principle that work should be interpreted to be as correct as possible:

Michael Bycroft has been chiding me to just get up and defend the legitimacy of “internalist” history of science already. I suppose I’ve been reluctant to do so because we just know that such a thing would be historiographically backward (not dissimilarly from how Chicago-School economists and conservatives seem to just know that Keynesian economics has been definitively refuted).

Now, the sociological work that Kuukkanen takes to have rendered the historiography of science impermeable to narrativism is the same work that claims to have shown that the internalist-externalist distinction makes no sense. Latour’s ANT can even be understood as a language motivated by the need to tear the distinction apart at its core. Has this pedigree actually banished internalist history from historiographical consideration? Are we in a position where we cannot admit that there are no components of the history of science that can be sensibly understood from an internalist perspective? Is our banishment of internal history evidence of our not having taken the “narrativist turn” (leaving the issue of our Rankean empiricism, which I am certain is not correct, aside)?

It’s certainly a compelling notion, but I’m not sure the phenomenon can be interpreted in a way that definitively distinguishes historians of science from other sorts of historians. For example, it could also be attributed to the same sort of fashion (or historiographical priority, to be less pejorative), which sidelines the history of high politics. At the same time, the banishment of internalism does seem to arise from a more metaphysical place…

3. 10 links for October — News from Somewhere - November 1, 2012

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4. Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis - December 8, 2012

Hi Will. Many thanks for your reflections, your serious commitment to historiography of science, and your service to our community. I’d like to respond to one point in your blog above and that is that “we historians do not offer any clues” about how to assign values to our narratives. I’ve been doing it for over 20 years, simply by writing a number of histories based on the theoretical scaffolding in Unifying Biology. You can see how fruitful–and fun– it has been to view science as discourse and culture in the “musical Darwin,” or in my approach to understanding the Darwin Centennial of 1959 or even in the narrative account of “The Plant Drosophila,” and I clearly articulated a way of interrogating approaches in science studies that viewed science exclusively in terms of “practice” (that nearly always meant material practice that lapsed into some form of instrumentalism-realism, at least then, which did little for me as a historian). I called into question the “practice industry” because it had been enormously productive in moving the history of science in that direction, and because I felt that there was a “herd-like” quality to all of it that did not help those of us who engaged history and who were both theoretically and practically (sorry to reinforce the binary) involved in a very different project, namely the writing of narrative. The sad thing about it all was that all I wanted was to spark a conversation, a lively discussion into how we approach the writing of history as serious historians when we worked on science. In other words, I did not come onto these questions from some commitment I had made to science studies, but by a practical and honest concern to grapple with what I was doing as a historian and a serious need to question my own historical assumptions about what it meant to create historical knowledge. I was sorely disappointed at how few people were daring, or honest, or I don’t know what, to “go there.” But I am very much enheartened to see that Kuukkanen has once again posed exactly the same set of questions and found the absence of a discussion in science studies noteworthy. I agree with him overall incidentally and do believe that at some level there is a fear of opening the doors to “open-ended relativism” on the part of our colleagues, but also because it is 1. hard to think through all the abstract twists and turns in historiography 2. demanding to actually read all the literature that has accumulated 3. risky, because it may isolate you as a scholar especially in an area like biology where so few people want to engage those questions (they can be paralyzing, I assure you). My solution, in short, has been to stop talking about the historiographic scaffolding to my narratives and just generate the things, buttressing many of my claims with archival documents, hoping somebody out there might actually return to those questions. And indeed it would appear that has happened–many thanks for the digital space you have provided for communication!

Will Thomas - December 9, 2012

Hi Betty (I take it you prefer to be called Betty?),

Thanks very much for the comment and for the very kind and encouraging words about this blog. One of the burdens and joys of working on a topic like operations research (the subject of my book ms) is that, to make any sense of the subject, you have to run back and forth between historical literatures ranging from military and business history to the history of mathematics to the history of the social sciences. The one place it hasn’t brought me, until now, is the history of biology. I’m very glad for Kuukkanen’s article and your comment for bringing your methodological work in this area more to the center of my attention.

Your comment happens to be very well timed, though, as I am just now working with my co-blogger Chris Donohue on an edited-volume chapter on relations between plant-breeding, eugenics, and social thought and civilizational theories, or, more precisely, Luther Burbank and R. A. Fisher. I was actually just reading Kenneth Mather’s biographical memoir when I saw your comment. I’m responsible for the Fisher half, which is a topic I was brought to by 1) my interest in things like statistical tests, which are important in OR, and 2) my more recent interest in agricultural expertise. (Chris is the expert in historical social theory.)

Thus I’ve suddenly found myself squarely in your research territory of the evolutionary synthesis, and am hoping not to make a hash of it. Naturally, I’ll be more than eager to engage with your methodological and historiographical ideas as well. I’m not immediately prepared to offer any comment, but probably will be in January. So it would be great if we could stay in contact, as I think it will be possible to have a really proper conversation.

Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis - December 9, 2012

Not only are you entering the “land of the synthesis,” but you are doing it through plants, which is wonderful. Welcome. You should take a look at C. D. Darlington’s “civilizational” theories too. He had a pretty large following of readers. I really wish someone would do more with Fisher, especially that way that he conceived of experimental design in terms of statistics. That was so influential and we know so very little about it. I’m on e-mail if you need anything else and thanks also for Whewell’s Ghost (you are running that too, right?)–Betty

5. Joachim - April 23, 2013

Could you pass on both articles (Dastonand Kuukkanen) to me, please?

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