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Against Methodology by Cryptic Aphorism December 13, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.

Although this blog roams freely across the history of science and technology, it is first and foremost a methodology blog. One early conclusion reached here was that historians’ interest in methodology is largely limited to consideration of certain quasi-philosophical problems. By quasi-philosophical, I mean that ostensibly fundamental and thorny conceptual issues are not actually treated with careful language, nor do new conversations build systematically on prior ones.

Instead, these considerations often revolve around free-form discussion of certain cryptic aphorisms. Some examples:

  • Science is socially constructed
  • Science is no different from other forms of culture.
  • Scientific method/the Scientific Revolution is a myth
  • There is no such thing as scientific progress
  • Objectivity is illusory/Claims to objectivity are ideological
  • All technologies embody a politics
  • History is storytelling

All of these statements—which are obviously interrelated through a rejection of realist epistemology—are intentionally provocative, and intended to challenge some purportedly widely held, capital-T Truths.  

These aphorisms do in fact embody valid methodological concepts, which are brought out once the conversation moves from the aphorism to a more in-depth discussion. Typically those discussions date back many decades, with some of the best analyses scattered across articles that might equally well have been written in 1975, 1987, or 2002.

Yet, rather than building on the most advanced discussions available, time and again new conversations—conducted in forums ranging from articles to Tweets to seminar rooms—start fresh from the primitive aphorism.  Why?

One possibility is that a rehearsal of debates surrounding the aphoristic form is considered to be a kind of healthful exercise. It doesn’t really matter if discussions attain the philosophical heights of prior iterations of the debate. From a methodological perspective, the mere act of discussing such questions is sufficient to render one a more sensitive and skillful historian. I’ve witnessed a number of discussions in which someone invokes the aphorism, and someone else issues a challenge to such an apparently radical claim. After some back and forth, it is decided that everyone actually has a pretty unobjectionable position. The exercise ends with all being congratulated on their civilized and constructive conversation.

However, things change when the discussion is not among colleagues but between inside groups and outside groups. Suddenly, the aphorism becomes a shibboleth.  To adhere to the aphorism is to confirm one’s status as a right-thinking individual unbeholden to powerful (if ultimately untenable) ideological interests that hope to enshrine science, technology, what-have-you as unaccountable sociopolitical forces.

Those who reject the aphorism are confirmed as beholden to just such an ideology. Methodologically, they are marked as inherently unreliable, because, to uphold their ideology, they must construct and defend false imagery of science, of technology, of what-have-you. Moreover, because the likelihood of ideologically rooted objection is actually built into the aphorism, the manifestation of objection becomes compelling evidence of the aphorism’s truth. And, because the opposing ideology is regarded as a sociopolitical pathology, firmly refuting the opposition becomes an important task. This is the stuff the so-called science wars were made of.

What I find striking in such conversations is how historians will act as if the aphorisms are self-evidently correct—as if it is altogether inconceivable that anyone could object to them.  This attitude, of course, enhances the sense that anyone who objects to the aphorism simply must be beholden to an ideology because there is otherwise just no way to explain their objection. In my opinion, even if you do think the aphorisms constitute sound methodological guidance, it should not really be that hard to imagine a legitimate contrary position, and to empathize with it.

In these situations, I think it is important that we understand the crypticness of the aphorism as a feature rather than a bug. That is, it is actually in historians’ interests that they be misunderstood, and this makes it congenial to them to return again and again to an aphoristic state of debate in which it is difficult to discern what anybody actually thinks.

We might attribute this situation to a phenomenon familiar from other instances of abuse of expertise: the use of obscurantism to delimit who can and cannot participate in a debate, thereby pushing away possible challenges to the experts’ authority.

We might also attribute it to the fact that, if the aphorisms are revealed to describe positions that are actually banal and unobjectionable, it would significantly detract from the cogency of historians’ work.

My own preferred explanation is that there is a conflict of interest at play. Historians will claim that it is essential for our intellectual, social and political future that the lessons of their work (as summarized in the aphorisms) be widely understood and absorbed, resulting in a redemptive transformation in sociopolitical ideas. Yet, if those aphorisms ever were understood, historians would be forced to contend with the fact that their professional project had progressed beyond its formative stages, necessitating them to develop their ideas and professional strategies beyond the rudimentary state in which they currently exist. Things get a lot more complex once you step outside the seminar room.

But beyond that, I think that if the aphorisms ceased to draw objection, historians would also have to contend with the fact that broad acceptance of the aphorisms’ wisdom can’t actually produce the transformational effect they anticipate.  So long as one can demonstrate that understanding remains stuck at square one, one can always maintain the hope—and the promise—that the anticipated transformation in ideas and social order can yet be realized. That is, it allows historians to maintain the claim that they are activist intellectuals rather than members of a bourgeois club.

The idea behind presenting debate about these aphorisms as methodological is that a proper understanding of their wisdom enables historians to select and interpret source material and assemble narratives in legitimate ways.

In fact, it is questionable whether the aphorisms have much to do with methodology at all. We have little discussion, for example, about the range of sources available to us, and the manner in which they were produced, and what they can and cannot tell us about the individuals, organizations, social structures, and cultures that produced them. We have little discussion about how events and cases can and cannot be related to larger pictures. And so on.

Methodology by aphorism is not without its virtues, but I believe it is, on balance, a substitute more advanced methodological discussion. Worse, it is a wedge that drives academic historians apart from others who have much to contribute and may not be prepared to accede to our aphoristic declarations.

So, yes, I think methodology by cryptic aphorism is a bad thing.


1. danallosso - December 14, 2015

Seems to me historians often assume people haven’t actually thought about these issues before. But yes, some probably do congratulate themselves for delivering what they think is a shocking new perspective.

On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s inevitable that getting past this debate (or giving it the nuance it deserves) necessarily leads to becoming either an activist intellectual or a member of a bourgeois club. Although I’d probably agree that getting stuck forever in it is a problem.

Will Thomas - December 14, 2015

Thanks for the comment Dan. I think getting stuck in conversational ruts is probably the major frustration here, especially when that conversation causes distrust and hard feelings.

I do believe there is plenty of room for both “bourgeois club” and “activist intellectual” models of historian. My own feeling is that we do well to accept that, at present, we are probably more a bourgeois club than an activist force of any real consequence. But that’s not to suggest we leave things at that. In my mind, it’s by having a good appreciation of who we are and where we are as a profession that we’ll be able to identify and take modest but concrete steps toward increasing the prominence of our role.

In an upcoming post, I want to outline a revised publication model that would funnel historians’ work to a variety of the most engaged audiences. This contrasts with publications that try to communicate whatever we happen to be working on to “broad” audiences, usually accompanied by some aphoristic lesson that we hope our work will illustrate and that they will absorb.

The point about historians’ assumptions is an interesting one, since that speaks to an important extension of the conflict of interest I mention in this post. If historians don’t take others’ (especially scientists’) thinking seriously enough, that not only creates a diplomacy problem but a historiographical one, as that assumption will show up in our analyses of scientists’ past thought. I know this is definitely an issue with the history of operations research, systems analysis, and the related areas where I do much of my research work.

2. Michael Barany - December 14, 2015

I really like the question behind this post, Will, but I get hung up where you talk about “understanding” an aphorism or its associated (alleged) methodological implications, as though that were what we’re after as historians. As you say, “Things get a lot more complex once you step outside the seminar room” and methodology outside the seminar room is more about how “to select and interpret source material and assemble narratives.” When I think of what has come of my own extended study of the methodological classics in the background of this post, I think less of questions like “what do we know and how do we know it?” and more of those along the lines of “what do we look for and how do we look for it?” and for that a pithy aphorism and the discussions one can have about it seem pretty effective as a basis for methodology. The converse is that historians have built up quite a robust methodology out of things that are hardly formalized at all, aphoristically or otherwise, and pointing to the intellectual shortcomings of aphorisms in the seminar room seems to ignore the methodology of, say, archive practice–which many have theorized in different ways, but which is also built into training in less theorized but disciplinarily central ways.

Will Thomas - December 14, 2015

Michael, thanks, those are good points. I think I tripped over “understanding” myself as I was writing this and didn’t bother to hone my language, as understanding encompasses both “comprehension” (of methodological consequences) and “appreciation” (of certain truths about the nature of science, technology, history…).

It’s worth asking if when we move from aphorism as methodological shorthand (describing sensibilities concerning proper selection of source material, assembly of narratives) to the use of aphorism as shibboleth, whether the aphorism still carries any methodological implication, i.e., do we actually hope to make good historians of scientists, policymakers, and other people we hope will accept the aphorism’s wisdom?

Probably not. However, I do think there is a related expectation that scientists and policymakers’ reasoning and rhetoric would suddenly shift to encompass an alternative set of reference points, and that this would cause them to make different, better decisions in their work. This might include making sounder uses of historical examples, but I think it’s better to think of it as simply a different outlook that is analogous to the one that enlightened historians use when undertaking their craft.

I’m not totally sure I’ve understood you here, but that’s my initial reaction.

I think you are more sanguine than me about the finer points of methodology.

First, I do think the lessons embodied in the aphorisms are good ones, though it is not always clear how they are supposed to work in practice once they’re unpacked. “Science is a social construct” seems to have different methodological implications depending on if one is studying Robert Boyle’s pneumatics or modern climate modeling.

The “classics” provide some good guidance on such questions, but I think historians often just bend the rules concerning what they look for and how they look for it depending on the point they want to make. I think it is legitimate—advisable, actually—to look at a subject through multiple sets of rules, but we should not try try not to be too preferential in our selection.

Finally, on (let’s call them) technical points of methodology, an early draft of this post actually started by noting that we don’t have any equivalent to the Chicago Manual of Style for historical practice. Again, I’m not proposing a binding set of rules. However, I know I would have personally benefited if there were a handbook discussing how to know what you’re looking at when you’re in government archives. And I’m sure the people who study alchemy have similar technical concerns.

I think we do OK in the absence of any formalized (or even aphoristic) guidelines on such things, but they are nice to have so we can benefit from accumulated wisdom. And when we have disagreements—“I think your use of this advertisement to infer conclusions about the culture of the people it is meant to appeal to”—it would be useful to have summaries and references to the most advanced discussions on the topic that we can consult to sharpen the discussion.

Technical handbook or no technical handbook, I think it would be beneficial if we had a broader conception of what points of methodology it is important to have open running dialogue on.

I guess that’s mainly a distinct point, but it is also on my mind as I have a review coming out in the January T&C of a book called Digital Methods that contains extensive technical discussions about how we can glean evidence about culture from Internet sources.

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4. Aaron Wright - December 22, 2015

Hi Will,
I see a lot to like in your post, but I have two concerns. The first is that you fall in to a bit of the sins you are ascribing to the discipline. Is there an example of a specific debate over these “aphorisms” (or “slogans”) that you see as indicative of the larger question? In my own experience as someone who has spoken at 4S and also at the Max Planck History of Quantum conferences, I have witnessed a lot that fits with your picture; but there are substantial complicating factors.

The second point is about methods and some of your reply to Michael. Too few historians of science read the methodological classics of History: Bloch’s Historian’s Craft, Carr, Iggers, Anderson, etc. I find people are moving more toward the Phenomenological stuff from Ricoeur and Kosselleck than the down-to-basics of archives. But history of science has had a number of productive methodological debates (in concert with other disciplines) where “method” refers to archival / literary practice and epistemological issues: on women and gender; on national frameworks vs postcolonial and transnational analyses; on historical epistemology; etc. Hopefully the DH stuff will spark a good debate—as with Morretti’s distant reading in Lit. Jim Secord wants a return to meta-narratives.

On an optimistic note, I have hope that Oreskes et al.’s realism about climate science will allow a substantive debate on the aphorisms you discuss here.


Will Thomas - December 23, 2015

Hi Aaron,

Much of my thinking on the subject extends from personal experience with the question of “Cold War” science and the related issue of formalism in science. This excerpt from my book pinpoints places in various authors’ works where the aphorism seems to function as a interpretive presupposition.

Extending off your point about realism vs. relativism, one of the authors I mention in that excerpt is Paul Edwards. While pioneering in some ways, I think The Closed World builds its argument on the questionable presumption of a kind of techno/fomalistic fetishism in the sciences of the period. On the other hand, I think his Vast Machine is altogether good, and I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that he’s sympathetic to climate science, but wasn’t so willing to extend that courtesy to military science and the postwar behavioral sciences. That said, I’m reticent to claim that “good” historiography extends from a belief in a “realist” epistemology (which we’re willing to accept in the case of climate change because we care about it) , and that “bad” historiography extends from a “relativist” epistemology, just as I’m unwilling to claim the opposite. Rather, I think the methodological foundations of good historiography simply remain obscure.

I do think that there is a lot of strong methodological thought out there. The trouble is identifying it and making sure we build on what has already been accomplished. The one thing that we should absolutely avoid is debating the aphorisms, since they do not even come close to representing the state of the art in methodological thought. Whether that forces us all to canonize and familiarize ourselves with the intricacies of advanced methodological treatises, or we can simply develop less cryptic, more on-point aphorisms encapsulating good practice is a good question.

Since we’re both in the history of physics as well, I might just add that this historiography seems to largely exist as a methodology-free zone (meaning there are few discussions, not that there is no methodology!). Yes, the Forman thesis occasionally shows up in a sort of aphoristic way. And I think How Experiments End and Image and Logic contain superb methodological discussions, which I think have gone astray with the rise of historical epistemology. I tackled this question in my “Strategies of Detection” paper a few years ago. Historical epistemology has, in particular, sparked some good responses—there was a whole issue of Erkenntnis devoted to them—but I’m not sure about the degree to which anyone, least of all the proponents of historical epistemology, have taken them on board. So, again, I think this is a case for identifying and consolidating gains.

5. Alex W. - January 5, 2016

Hi Will —

As one of the people in one of the discussions linked to, I thought it would be worth putting out two cents of thought on this.

When Audra and I agreed to be part of a discussion on “history and stories,” it was as a solicitation from an “outsider” (a science writer who has written some history), who specifically wanted to know what we thought about the notion. So this falls under the “outreach” aspect. You raise the question, is this really necessary? In my experience… it is. Why? Because the way in which “history” is talked about by much of the broader, “outside” world is as a naive-realist enterprise, the creators of objective chronologies, where individual interpretation is called “bias” and people whose interpretation brings them way from “orthodox” views are called “revisionists.”

How common is this view amongst non-historians? More common, I think, than even the most cynical historians would fear, just based on the conversations I’ve had with non-historians and students. I think it is clear who “won” the “science wars” — the epistemological concerns of historians and philosophers of science have not had any great impact when put up against the juggernaut of “trust us experts, because we know how to make facts.” (I do not credit science studies for the anti-expertise strains in our culture — if only its influence had been so important!)

One could say many of the same things about “science is socially constructed” and your other “aphorisms.” They do some “work” when trying to engage people on the “outside” in thinking a bit differently about the basic enterprise. On my own piece I will just also note that a) it was meant to be deliberately un-cryptic (it was laboriously spelled out), b) it was not meant to be anti-realist (just anti-naive realist), and c) it did reference the fact that this is not a novel mode of thought and in fact there is an entire literature out there about the narrativity of history (i.e. Hayden White).

Does that mean they stand in for methodological conversation *inside* the discipline. Surprisingly I have found that many historians (usually not of science) are extremely poor on the epistemological methodology front as well. They may be aware of methodological issues within their field, but I have been shocked on many occasions (in grad school, in conferences, in private discussions, in comments on talks I have given) when an extremely naive position rears its head. By “extremely naive” I mean simply, “a position that does not seem to have been exposed to the basic questions of historical epistemology, and so seems to be making it up from scratch” (not “a position that I disagree with”). So I think some of these positions still do need to be occasionally brought up even in “internal” contexts. Without wanting to belabor the point, I would just also point out that I think historians of science get overexposed to these questions, because they are at the core of our mode of study (we study how knowledge is “made” and “moves,” and you only have to be a tiny bit reflective to see how that applies to history as as discipline as well). Diplomatic historians, in my experience, do not spend much of their time thinking about these issues (and I think it is not coincidental that they have one of the most “naive realist” cultures of writing history — line up a bunch of “facts” and glue them together with narrative).

You seem to be implying, in your end note about driving different species of historians apart, that having strong, disciplinary-derived positions on methodology is a bad thing to be avoided. I am not sure I can agree with that — if we historians of science have found some useful insights into science and technology, by all means, we should work to export them to other historians. As they should, and do, when they find useful insights into their broader areas of specialization. I have benefited much from the broader methodological observations of historians in other disciplines, and do not see why we should assume that this sort of thing is “divisive.”

Lastly, I think one of the main advantages to history as a discipline is its methodological fluidity and lack of strong commitments to much other than a basic sense of empiricism. It is definitely a feature and not a bug. It produces a different sort of output than does something like sociology, or any field that has to fill out a “methodology” section of their papers. To be a historian is in some sense to be a methodological pluralist, or scavenger. Even more so, maybe, as a a historian of science (we scavenge a bit more from sociology and anthropology, I think). It involves some trade-offs, as well — our monographs rarely “stand the test of time” in such a situation, because a new generation’s methodology is always in the wings, waiting to usurp and make irrelevant (but this itself gets into question of what “progress” means in our, or any, discipline). The “cryptic aphorisms” are, I think, meant to be broadly generative, not tightly binding, which I think would put them at odds with what a lot of methodologies are supposed to be (or, at least, as Feyerabend would seen them). There are up-sides and down-sides to that.

Will Thomas - January 5, 2016

Alex, thanks very much for the comment. Your and Audra’s response to Ann Finkbeiner’s inquiry was one of the more immediate inspirations for this post—which is why I linked to it—but the inspiration was only in that it was a recent instance of the kinds of conversations I’ve heard and participated in many times, not because I wanted to criticize it in particular. I want to be clear that I in no way object to the exercise or how it was conducted: I thought your points were good and clear, and I almost completely agreed with their substance.

The one thing that did bother me somewhat is that the discussion didn’t give much credence to the view that history should not be identified with storytelling—a view expressed in some of the comments. To me this point of view simply relates to the fact that history is a research activity that abides by some sort of evidentiary standards. This of course doesn’t negate your point that historians have a large degree of freedom in deciding what sequences of events we choose to discuss, and in assigning interpretations to them. It does mean—and I think you’ll agree—that that freedom is not unlimited to the extent that a storyteller’s (by a common definition of the term) would be.

So, my point here is that people holding essentially the same view about the nature of historical research and writing could easily take diametrically opposite positions on the same question, simply because the question is phrased cryptically. That doesn’t mean I think you should have shot Ann’s question down, but I think it would have helped to acknowledge more clearly the different possible reasonable interpretations of it. That way we don’t risk alienating people who might happen to take the opposite view of the aphorism, but who hold similar views.

I think you could say the same thing, by the way, about your firm claim in that discussion that history is not a science. You make clear what you mean, and I agree with your points. At the same time, I might still disagree with your overarching position. Science admits a wide range of methods and investigative strategies, and in fact I would consider your own work—in the breadth and depth of your research on atomic weapons, in your rigor, in your interest in exploring what interpretations are more or less supported by evidence—to be good evidence that history is, or at least could be, a science. The point isn’t that history really is or is not a science—I don’t really care about that—but that we could be starting the conversation about methodology from a more productive position than we would if we decided to begin by hashing out the “history is/is not a science” question.

A further question is: does it really matter if we do decide to take one or another position with respect to these aphorisms? My answer would be, generally no, but the resulting confusion can in some cases be damaging, particularly if the confusion leads to disputes in which one’s opponent is suspected of being a naive realist, or otherwise methodologically suspect. This is what I mean when I worry about divisiveness. I see two possible consequences to be concerned about.

1) Possible misdiagnosis of methodological issues. Are diplomatic historians naive realists by disposition, or do they not have access to a broader range of investigative or interpretive tools? (Not dealing with them much, I couldn’t say.) This can go the other way, too. Back at Imperial we used to talk about how Central and Eastern European History (including Holocaust history) had a crisper grasp of historical detail than the history of science (and I would quickly exclude you and, say, the historians of alchemy, among others, from this description), possibly because the stakes in that subfield often go beyond the academy walls. Rather than attribute the attitude of historians of science toward detail to a naive relativist position, as some might, I prefer to attribute it to our lack of apparatus for handling empirical detail.

2) Dismissal of valuable historiography. I’ve written on your blog’s comments how I had to get over being dismissive of official history. I’d add a further anecdote to bring this back full circle. I recall some time ago being advised by a professor (whom I’m sure we both respect) that I should cite Finn Aaserud’s “Princeton Three” paper instead of Ann’s book on the Jasons in a footnote on the Jasons. Why? Because her book is popular rather than scholarly. That seems so foolish to me now, but at the time it certainly made me think twice about taking more popular accounts seriously as history. I don’t think confusion resulting from cryptic aphorisms is the sole cause of snobbishness toward certain kinds of history and certain authors, but I don’t think it helps either.

In fact, there may be one point where we do disagree, which relates to the prevalence of the “trust us experts” culture you mention. I think the supposition of the dominance of such a culture stems from an overly dismissive reading of the scientific community as pervaded by naive and arrogant attitudes toward knowledge and politics. Rather than open that debate up here, though—I am well aware that this is a sticky problem in the domain of radiation and public health, which you know so well—I’ll leave it for another time.

Thanks again!

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