Alder on Art History and the History of “Episcience” June 9, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
Tags: Ken Alder, Thomas Kuhn
My next post in my “Terminology” series will discuss art history and the history of science (among other areas) vis-à-vis the category of intellectual history. As these two areas are also discussed by Ken Alder in his recent Isis Focus essay, “The History of Science as Oxymoron: From Scientific Exceptionalism to Episcience,” (free) I thought it might be useful to discuss that essay first.
Alder’s piece is part of a Focus section on “The Future of the History of Science,” and, as such, contains arguments about where the history of science is and where it ought to go. (This sounds obvious, but Alder actually isn’t very explicit about these points, so we need to dig a bit to figure out his opinions.) Initially, he seems to believe that, intellectually, the history of science is exactly where it needs to be, and that what it needs to do is get out into the world. The problem is the world just doesn’t get what we do: people at parties don’t understand what the “history of science” is, and the Wikipedia History of Science page is a mess. Thus we need to “rebrand” (90).
Alder emphasizes that in our attempts to define or redefine ourselves “we should refuse to allow [our] history to come to a stop at science’s edge” (89), that we not accede to “scientific exceptionalism” (90).
Given that such dangers have been cast as the bêtes noires of historians of science for two or three decades, I have trouble seeing how “scientific exceptionalism” could be regarded as a program that any practicing historians—and most past historians—actually advocate.
Alder’s point appears to be that we might yet be tempted to restrict our definitions of what we do in an attempt to carve out a more coherent disciplinary identity and to gain a more prominent place in academic institutions, like that enjoyed by art history. Alder cites anxieties expressed by Thomas Kuhn and other unnamed “Cold War historians of science” (92) on this score.
This, Alder seems to believe, is a slippery slope toward disciplinary rigidity and isolationism. He urges that we should embrace our apparent failure to find disciplinary coherence, because “our institutional heterogeneity has kept our field intellectually supple and perennially reflexive” (92). The “orthogonal tugs” on our field from other disciplines “have kept us open to new intellectual questions and methods” (92-93). Indeed, “our heterogeneity may yet make us a valuable repository of critical reflection in an age of retrenchment—as now appears imminent—when general historians revert to empirical social histories and domesticate the interpretive challenges posed by the cultural turn” (93).
(I would challenge Alder’s rather complacent assessment of the flexibility, heterogeneity, and reflexivity of the history of science by arguing that the cross-sections of “cultural historians, art historians, literary scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, and, yes, even philosophers” (93) with whom we have collaborated all use more-or-less the same methods, and that this has resulted in a historiography that is methodologically rigidified and single-faceted.)
By contrast, Alder feels that art history’s “institutional coherence” has “hindered that field’s ability to adapt to the challenge of near-allied projects like visual culture or indeed cope with any threat to the singular potency of the aesthetic object.” It treats art as a standalone subject matter, whereas historians of science have fashioned “a set of tools to connect the so-called content of science with its context” (93).
Yet, this ability of historians of science to recognize a relation between science and surrounding culture is apparently the most precious and fragile of gains, requiring constant mental policing to prevent backsliding. Even to allow oneself to conceptualize history in terms of (a) science, and (b) its cultural context, is to risk slipping into insularity. Thus we find Alder himself struggling throughout the piece to maintain proper mental hygiene. For example, in defining what historians of science study as not “science” or even multiple “sciences,” but “the interaction between those sciences and the cultural ‘milieu’ they produce and that embues them with meaning,” he immediately admonishes himself: “But already I am engaging in spatial metaphors, as if science were on the inside and culture on the outside” (95-96).
To be safe, such false boundaries must be not only crossed but eradicated: “the burden [is] on us to show historians of other subfields that we can treat the history of any given scientific subject in a manner no different in principle from the way they treat the history of any nonscientific subject…. Historians of science should show that they can treat particular scientific developments in a manner indistinguishable from the way that general historians treat such problems as, say, the role of racial thinking in sparking ethnic violence in colonial Zanzibar” (94, my emphases).
Lest we think that Alder really supposes that the negation of scientific exceptionalism is to treat its history as totally indistinguishable from other forms of history, he makes the classic move of following apparently radical claims with redeeming banalities. Thus his position “need not mean that we cease to study the history of science as a stand-alone topic but, rather, that we demonstrate that historical analysis does not stop at science’s edge.” Historians of science need merely foster “a self-conscious attention to the differences and similarities in knowledge making among actors and historians; appropriate caution in reading distinct forms of evidence; and a guarded skepticism about the gap between material conditions and beliefs, structure and eventfulness, and so forth” (94).
But, by watering down the claim of indistinguishability, doesn’t the very possibility of studying science as a “stand-alone topic,” doesn’t admitting that there are “edges” to be crossed, reintroduce exceptionalism? After a while, the article starts to feel like one of those old episodes of Star Trek where they destroy a computer by catching it in a logical paradox:
Alder ultimately circumvents the problem by inventing the neologism of “episcience” which conveniently merges science and its context into a single term. But I don’t feel this actually solves any of the problems Alder has set for himself.
First, returning to Alder’s opening gambit of introducing the history of science to others, this solution surely does not alleviate the problem. If he had trouble making what he does comprehensible at parties before, I can’t imagine what people will think when he says he studies the “history of episcience”.
Second, by simply adding a prefix to the word “science” it is clear that Alder for some reason needs to keep science at the center of the picture, even as he simultaneously insists on denying that the subject is of special or even coherent interest.
Where I think Alder stumbles is in linking terminological reform with historiographical identity: he asserts that terminology should define the subject that we historians of science study. But, since we do not want to limit what we do strictly to science, we require a less restrictive definition both of ourselves and of science.
I would recommend instead that we connect terminological reform with genre. As a historian of science, I mostly study science. But sometimes I study the history of the state, sometimes military history, and sometimes intellectual history. Sometimes the history of science cannot be meaningfully distinguished from, say, intellectual history, in which case I am studying the history of whatever the thing is I am studying. As a historian, I reserve the right to be judicious in what objects I study and what methods I use to study them.
This position, I think, does not ultimately differ substantially from Alder’s. But I would argue that expressing the position this way has two key advantages.
First, by delineating genres we foster respect for the subject matter defined by the genre. Alder is dismissive of Kuhn’s concerns about the history of science losing its technical edge, but I would maintain that Kuhn was right to worry about this issue. Similarly, where Alder looks with pity on art historians, I have always viewed them with admiration because of their mastery of their subject matter. By delineating a subject matter, we encourage the creation of a robust and integrated body of knowledge concerning it. That certainly doesn’t mean we have to treat a genre in an essentialist way, or become insular in our interests.
The other advantage is that concentrating on genre permits historians of science to step into an alternative identity when the occasion calls for it. For example, when historians of science address the history of law or politics, they tend to treat the subject as if it were simply another branch of what they ordinarily study, say by stressing the epistemic content of laws, while treating as remarkable or surprising things that would be utterly pedestrian to historians of politics and law, like conflicts of interest, the primacy of established legal frameworks over rationality, or the tension between expediency and arbitrary rule.
This sort of issue actually shows up in Alder’s own work. I admire his writings, but they do, I think, exhibit a strong preference for presenting views of polity and law as pervaded by scientism. It is, I hypothesize, Alder’s antipathy to scientism that drives him to argue that science not be isolated in others’ accounts of science’s history, even as it drives him to keep science at the center of his own accounts of history, and of his identity as a historian.