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Alder on Art History and the History of “Episcience” June 9, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
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Alder, Ken

Ken Alder

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.


1. Michael Weiss - June 9, 2013

Two things struck me on reading Alder’s essay. One, the first four paragraphs are by far the best written; it really goes downhill in the last section. (Just talking style here.) Two, he seems to suffer from a massive inferiority complex. To paraphrase unfairly, “At parties, everyone else’s job sounds way cooler than mine!”

It was also disconcerting, after plowing through sixteen paragraphs on the neologism ‘episcience’, to be told that the term “needn’t last nearly that long, perhaps no longer than this essay.” Really?!

By the way, I think Alder misuses the well-known Rabi anecdote.

Will Thomas - June 11, 2013

Hi Michael,

First, I agree, I don’t think Rabi’s quote is a propos.

Second, I’d hesitate to psychologize Alder’s piece in any sort of personal way. What I would say is that the argument he presents is very illustrative of one of the general theses of this blog: that “baked into” the history of science field, there is a very certain logical structure, which links historians’ self-conception with their methodologies, the topics they take to be of special interest, and their perceptions of past and present ideas held by scientists and by society at-large.

This worldview holds the following points, among others:

1) Good historiographical methodology is founded upon certain insights into the nature and interrelations of science, knowledge, and culture. (These interrelations are equivalent to Alder’s “episcience” but they have been articulated in much the same language since the 1970s)

2) These same insights—by virtue of their almost unique disciplinary flexibility, reflexivity, etc.—can also be of great value in managing science-society relations.

(See, of course, this post).

3) These insights have not been, and are still not, widely held.

Note: this is a claim about history that threatens to infect the integrity of historians’ professional assessments of the past.

4) Historians are thus insufficiently influential.

(4) is the “inferiority complex” that you detect. But it is important to understand its pairing with the “megalomania” (if we want to retain the psychological terminology) of (2).

Now we get into a subtle issue of perceptions. Historians are, of course, correct to observe their marginality to mainstream discourse. But, the following belief is also held:

5) Historians ought to, could be, and, so, by implication, are on the cusp of influence.

This is a claim with which I disagree. I would argue that historians are professionally unwilling to acknowledge the enormous chasm that separates them from influence. Generally, they merely assume that their ideas are not more influential because they threaten a mainstream “ideology of science” in which mainstream opinion is heavily invested. Thus:

6) The next steps to be taken on the path to influence involve making the insights mentioned in (1) more palatable, by learning to “write for broad audience”; some among the younger set might want to set up a blog; or, in Alder’s case, “rebranding” might seem like a good idea.

Such suggestions, of course, are totally inadequate to the task of attaining relevance that historians set for themselves. I agree that writing for broad audiences is good—Alder is a master of this, by the way—and that seeking relevance is good, but I don’t see the one as a good path to the other.

Also, historians are unwilling to confront the possibility that (3) is simply an incorrect presumption, and that, in fact, so heavily invested are they in (1) that they have completely neglected investing in any other scholarly apparatus that could make the field broadly valuable. For this reason they seize upon any evidence—say, if Brian Cox, who is popular, says something they disagree with—that (3) is, in fact, a correct characterization of ideas in society. This leads to the following pathology:

Historians routinely infantilize non-historians, or those they perceive as not sharing in similar insights, because it reinforces (3) and thus (4).

Generally, historians direct this infantilization at scientists and journalists. In this case, though, art historians have fallen afoul, evidently because their methods can be presented (if perhaps unfairly) as not conforming to (1). Faith in (1 and 2) must never be questioned, and its virtues must be constantly reaffirmed, including at the expense of others who can serve as an example of those who fail to uphold them.

Note: Historians do not infantilize others because they are nasty people. In fact, historians are deeply invested in an image of themselves as people capable of understanding different cultures, and reconciling the differences between them through the wisdom acquired via historical study. This no doubt reinforces and justifies in their mind their opinions of those who they regard as more powerful than them, but who they believe do not share in this virtue.

The remarkable thing is that knowing how this framework works and repeats itself year in and year our is a testament to the validity of the point that historians and others in allied fields constantly reassert: that ideas do exercise a powerful influence over behavior.

2. Joachim - June 10, 2013

My hunch is that it’s not just the oxymoronic juxtaposition of “history of science” but the ambiguity of th term “history” in general.

For example, most people probably understand “historiography” to mean the writing of history (what a historographer does), whereas professional historians mean a meta-study of this making of history (epi-history rather than episcience). Likewise, “history” can either mean the past of a topic itself or the end product of a writing of history.

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4. Michael Weiss - June 11, 2013

Yes, the “inferiority complex” remark was a cheap shot. I have no prior familiarity with Alder’s work; I was just giving my impressionistic reaction to that one article.

When you talk about the lack of influence of historians, do you mean all historians, or just HoS?

Will Thomas - June 11, 2013

Here I mean historians of science, though similar arguments could be made about other (though not all) branches of history, as well as some other branches of the humanities and cultural anthropology. However, some features of the argument would have to be adjusted to fit the specificities of the particular field.

Although certainly related to the “cultural turn” and the much discussed plight of the humanities, I would consider the argument to be more specifically about certain argumentative strategies within the study of culture—which I consider it very important to do well—rather than a critique of the the study of culture, tout court.

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6. Simon Nightingale - September 28, 2013

Isn’t all history really the history of something and, if it is, isn’t the attempt to make history of science indistinguishable from those other history of somethings, a bit of a nonstarter that will ultimately collapse in on itself? Personally I see no particular need to position the history of science apologetically; science is a part of culture, just like economics, or gender, or class, or any other thing that historians study. We study the history of science because it has a history and can be studied and has produced insightful ways about thinking of the internal workings of science and its external relationships. That it can be done so in a myriad of ways is, for me, a boon and we ought not to proscribe where it should stop or what shape it should have. That said, I think Alder hits on something with his party anecdote. Most approaches to the history of science conceptualize science in some way different from the way the majority of practicing scientists do. Accordingly, I rather think that our ‘edge’, if we have one, is not so much with science itself, as with the communicators of science – the popular histories & popular accounts of how science has worked and is working. It is this edge that we need to confront as it is here where the obscurity of what we do – Alder’s uncoolness, if you like – presents the history of science with an opportunity to inform of wider public. It is where the politics of the history of science lies (no Eco-style pun intended there!). Just as social history moved away from political history and engaged with the publics it was writing about (I’m thinking of EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm), the edge we need to push against is the constituted by the educated public that reads popular science and popular histories of science. And if this is the case, which, as I said, Alder’s party anecdote suggests it is, then we can only make the task more difficult by introducing smartspeak with terms like ‘episcience’.

Will Thomas - October 3, 2013

Simon, thanks for your comment. Sorry for being a bit tardy in my reply.

It’s probably true that historians must necessarily draw a wider circumference around our subject than most practicing scientists. (I gather you mean “edge” here to mean “border” rather than “advantage”.) At the same time, I prefer to conceptualize things like a large series of Venn diagrams rather than as a single circle—I imagine you’ll agree. Thus, we would need to think of the “communication” of science in the same breath as we think about the communication of a lot of other things (news, laws, etc…) We would, to draw on what I said above, be putting on a different hat. Once we did that , we could understand better if and how and in what circumstances the communication of science is different from the communication of these other things. Otherwise, there may be a danger in thinking of the communication of science as a unique or peculiarly important issue.

On the subject of engaging wider publics, I support these efforts. I do, however, think that historians tend to put too much hope or stock in them in terms of them being an audience around whom we can build a stronger, more relevant disciplinary identity. The public has quite a lot to potentially absorb, and very little time to do it in. As a man of the working world myself now I am more sensitive to this than ever. For 99% of that public, the history of science and science communication is going to be pretty far down the list of things that they’ll really want to engage with. We may console ourselves that the other 1% is a sufficient audience, but I think it’s a pretty thin gruel for nourishing the profession. If we had to prioritize, I would urge we do a better job of communicating with each other and building on each others’ work.

Simon NIghtingale - October 22, 2013

Will, reciprocal apologies on my part and thanks for your interesting reply. Yes, I did use edge to intend border or boundary, but on reflection my choice of word perhaps also captures something of the tensions that can/do exist at that border. I do agree with your Venn diagram analogy. I think you’re probably right about the interest rating as things stand, but given the media reporting of environmental science/issues, nanotech, GM foods and such like, it would be relatively easy, I would guess, to shape a public while giving those issues a historical perspective – the act of communication is always in some sense constructive of the group to whom you communicate. This of, course, takes nothing away from your point about talking with other practitioners in the field. The one does not exclude the other, although time constraints would clearly take their toll!

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