Against Methodology by Cryptic Aphorism December 13, 2015Posted 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.