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Terminology: Art, Literary, and Music History; History of Philosophy; and History of Scientific Knowledge June 12, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
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When we start dividing up sub-categories within the history of thought or the history of ideas, we make distinctions of convenience: between explicit and tacit ideas, for instance, or between different genres of thought.  These distinctions do not get at some internal essence of a form of thought.  What they really do for us is provide us with provisional guidelines as to what forms of analysis are likely to lead to insights into things like: the genesis of an expression (“where did this weird idea come from?”), the circumstances bearing upon the form of expressions (“why did the author choose to publish that pamphlet at that time?”), and its relations with other expressions (“what did that film have to do with that book that appeared a couple of years earlier?”).

In my last post in this series, I marked out “intellectual history” as a sub-genre that can derive insight from the analysis of particular details of particular works, and that is centrally occupied with how works and their creators respond to prior and contemporaneous works.  In this post I will look at some areas that fit in and around the sub-genre of intellectual history: art/literary/music history, the history of philosophy, and the history of scientific knowledge.  As always, no historian need confine themselves to a particular genre, and the comments are open for clarification, dissent, and debate.

Art, Literary, and Music History

If intellectual history is partially the study of the way works respond to other works and operate within broader contexts, then surely art, literary, and music history are prime examples of it.  A significant part of these genres involves the identification and intensive study of influential artists, authors, and their works, and tracing lines of influence.

That said, most of the time, these influences are not so direct as in an essay with explicit arguments, though one can think of exceptions of heavily intellectualized works, such as T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or Lev Tolstoy’s use of fiction to explore philosophical ideas.  One could easily discover that local circles of artists operated in a similarly intellectualized way.  However, one might also use strategies more reminiscent of the general history of ideas to study the more ethereal flows of influence in areas such as folk art, amateur poetry, or the design of mass-production goods, which one could also, of course, do with higher-profile figures and works.

Thus, historians of art, literature, and music could be said to exist somewhere at the confluence of intellectual history and the general history of ideas.  Some of the tools of the intellectual historian are bound to be of use, but perhaps more sporadically than they would be in intellectual history.  By the same token, some of the peculiar technical tools of the art/literary/music historian—e.g., analysis of brush strokes, musical patterns, poetic forms, and narrative tropes—surely have useful analogues for the intellectual historian, the history of a philosophical turn of phrase, for instance.  But these tools would probably also be of more sporadic use.

The History of Philosophy

I am kind of up in the air as to whether, on a methodological basis, it is useful to maintain a distinction between intellectual history and the history of philosophy, since the latter seems to be distinguished mainly by the supposition that there exists a canon of works deemed to be “philosophy”. Distinguishing the genre seems to open the door to pointless discussions, for instance, about whether “critical theorists” are properly “philosophers,” or whether a philosopher’s work as a “public intellectual” constitutes a part of their philosophical oeuvre, and so on.  At the same time, it is not hard to see that the depth and difficulty of the content of much philosophy requires a specialized training, much in the way that art, literary, and music history do. This is reflected in the fact that historians of philosophy tend to associate with philosophy departments (much in the way that the history of economic thought is still bound closely, if rather uncomfortably, to economics).  On a practical basis, therefore, the distinction of the history of philosophy makes sense.

The History of Scientific Knowledge

In my next post in this series, I want to discuss terminological problems peculiar to the history of science.  Traditionally, the history of science has had very tight connections with the history of philosophy.  But there is also a strong “craft” component in the history of scientific experimentation and its links with engineering, which lends itself to analysis along the lines of the technical components of art/literary/music history.  (Here it is worth noting that recent studies in the “craft” of theory, such as in the work of Andrew Warwick and David Kaiser, as well as more general inquiries into the “history of the book”, provide us with a sense of the craft component of apparently more intellectualized activities.  Nevertheless, I think we can feasibly gauge a stronger depth and complexity of this component in more “hands on” activities.)

Historians of science have not locked themselves together in a room to agree on a term for the more “intellectualized” component of their subject matter, which is often regarded as old-fashioned anyway.  A lot of this component shares space with general intellectual history (on this blog, this is basically what Chris Donohue analyzes), some of it with the history of philosophy (for the subject of “natural philosophy” good insights have been derived from treating natural philosophy as contiguous with early modern philosophy more generally).  Yet, there are a lot of peculiarities in many scientific forms of argument that risk being smoothed over if no independent distinction is recognized.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have spoken of the “intellectual history of science” in this capacity, but I am now shying away from the term after conversations with Michael Bycroft in the comments on his and my blogs.  I would now apply that term to intellectualized ideas about science.  David Hollinger’s “Science as a Weapon in Kulturkämpfe in the United States during and after World War II” (1995) would be exemplary of work in that vein.  I would draw no distinction between this intellectual history of science and intellectual history more generally.

If we are to abstract the intellectualized component of science from its history for particular analytical purposes, I would recommend the “history of scientific argument and knowledge” or, more compactly, the “history of scientific knowledge”.

Next post: Facets of the history of science


1. Michael Weiss - June 12, 2013

I’m finding this very interesting but a bit unmoored — issues of methodology seem to loom large, with only a few tantalizing hints of how different methodologies pertain to different sorts of history. (E.g., “analysis of brush strokes, musical patterns, poetic forms, and narrative tropes”.)

For example, on the subject of tracing lines of influence: you distinguish between “essays with explicit arguments”, and “more ethereal flows of influence in areas such as folk art, amateur poetry, or the design of mass-production goods”. And I presume we will see still more instances in the next part, on HoS. Naively, I would think there are only three methodologies for tracing influences: (a) X explicitly refers to Y, by name, either in the work itself or letters or something of that ilk; (b) the historian notes that aspect x1 of X’s work resembles aspect y1 of Y’s work, and conjectures (or sometimes just asserts) that X was influenced by Y. (c) X and Y hung out together a lot, so the historian suggests they must have influenced each other.

None of these seem specific to science, or art, or law, or politics, or couture, or cuisine.

Should I just wait for the next part?

Will Thomas - June 16, 2013

Michael, sorry for the delay. I don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for in the next post, so I’ll try and elaborate at least a little.

The first point I’d make beyond your a, b, and c, is to highlight the difference between flows of ideas between individuals and within a broad culture. So, when I refer to “ethereal” flows, I tend to mean ones that discuss the evolution of certain characteristics across large collections of people and works. A good example of this sort of thing is classic architectural periodizations like “baroque”. In principle, one could trace the flows of these broad sorts of ideas through individuals. But, it is likely that due to limitations in both the historical record and the the lack of ultimate importance in tracing such individualized flows, that we rely on apparent similarities and loose connections (analogous to your b), but also on more anthropological modes of explanation, such as how ideas fit with social structures.

I take tracing such ethereal flows to be a method that is typical of the history of ideas as a whole, and thus also of more constrained parts, such as literary history or the history of science.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are modes of explanation that exclude most (but not all) literary/music/art history. In this case, we need not trace explicit references to prior authors. Rather, in texts containing arguments (about philosophy, science, policy, morals, etc.), one is likely to find certain “problems” with which authors are in some way required to deal. Thus, in these kinds of texts, one can trace continuities in these problems, as well as in authors’ strategies for dealing with them, through time.

I suppose one could say that artists, musicians, etc. try to solve the “problem” of provoking different responses from different audiences, but this strikes me as stretching the concept just for the sake of trying to make it fit universally.

That said, that point makes me think of an interesting illustrative example of some of the issues at play here. In the 1960s a lot of rock musicians like Bob Dylan and The Beatles found their lyrics subjected to the sort of analysis appropriate for intellectualized texts, as scholars attempted to decode the inner meaning and message of the songs. For their part, these artists resisted such interpretations. John Lennon explicitly wrote “I Am the Walrus” to confound that sort of interpretation. But, then, I suppose that would make “I Am the Walrus” into an intellectualized work, which was a direct response to the “problem” of intellectuals attempting to analyze non-intellectualized songs!

2. Michael Weiss - June 16, 2013

Thanks, that does help. Though I am puzzled by one remark, where you include HoS as an area where one traces ethereal flows. But then later, in the “responding to problems” paragraph, HoS is included as well.

Which is not to say HoS doesn’t do both, but if you could give a “canonical example” of each, I’d have a clearer understanding of the demarcation. And are you saying that HoS typically does both, or just that examples of both can be found in HoS historiography.

3. Will Thomas - August 22, 2013

Michael — I’m starting to get back into the swing of things blog-wise now. Hopefully you’ll notice this reply. A simple way of thinking about this issue might be to consider an “ethereal flow” to encompass things like “concepts” or “strategies”. Foucault’s “epistemes” are a prime example. But you might also do something like trace changes in what it means to “do economics”, or, more specifically, to trace pre-Darwinian concepts of evolution, or a certain style of argument. (This is what I tried to do in my “Strategies of Detection” paper.)

“Responding to problems” would be something more straightforward, like “how Erwin Schrödinger responded to matrix mechanics”.

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