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The Empiricist Potential: EWP at 8 January 1, 2016

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

I started Ether Wave Propaganda on New Year’s Day 2008 because I felt that historians of science and technology could benefit from more conversation about historical practice that was candid, open, and, above all, rapid.

I hope that EWP has played some role in maintaining the idea of a “loyal opposition” in a profession where objections routinely fade away in the face of a placid politesse. The history of science has for decades now avoided being riven by bitter and absurd disputes. But it has come at the cost of establishing a kind of de facto, hard-to-define orthodoxy or consensus about How Things Are Done, and throwing up barriers that prevent much interaction with disruptive outsiders. 

The point of the blog has always been to assert, first, that it is legitimate to feel uncomfortable with the status quo even if that discontent cannot be precisely defined; and, second, that there may indeed be an alternative way of doing things that is as-yet difficult to imagine.

The most productive phase of the EWP project ran roughly from 2009 to 2011. That phase was occupied by the construction of a (rather convoluted) critical vocabulary, but I would say its gains could be boiled down to two main insights:

  1. Methodological reform cannot derive from criticism alone. Present orthodoxy embraces the idea that sound methodology has been built up primarily through achievements in criticism (resulting, for instance, in various historiographical “turns”). That idea, though, is probably overdrawn. Therefore, to pursue reform through criticism (for instance, of those turns, or of our most cherished aphorisms) is just to repeat a central mistake of the status quo. We probably already possess all the critical insights and methodological tools we need to build a much-improved historiography; the trick is to apply them better. Unfortunately…
  2. The history profession’s handling of the empirical stuff of history is seriously flawed. Historians largely operate within islands of historical knowledge, and have a strikingly thin store of common knowledge.* In many subfields the production of consolidated reference works, essential to creating common ground, has languished as a low-prestige activity. Moreover, the vilification of “antiquarianism” has rendered vaguely embarrassing anything more than a passing concern with the empirical documentation of history. This situation, I think, has actually depleted our ability to have critical conversations about historical events, limiting us to discussing very general points of interpretation.

The neglect of empiricism has resulted in a situation in which individual projects scarcely cohere into an integrated historiography. Indeed, authors seem aware that their empirical work will not attract much interest in and of itself, and so argue the empirical content of their particular history reflects or sheds light on larger historical currents (e.g., “colonialism” or “Cold War liberalism”), or maybe they cast it as an important battleground where traditions or ideas (e.g., “mechanical objectivity” or “human nature”) are forged and contested. One sometimes gets the sinking feeling the present will be looked back on as the era of the ubiquitous half-baked concept history.

Yet, there are very promising signs that our era may also be regarded as a renaissance for empiricism, with the Internet playing a crucial supporting role. One important path is the historian-guided digitization of archives. The Newton Project and The Board of Longitude papers project are outstanding examples. The development of reference and relational databases will also be important. The recently launched Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, or (if I may) my own Array of Contemporary American Physicists are good examples.

Naturally, one wouldn’t expect or want all history to look like vast compendia of data, analyzable only through statistical means. At the moment it remains to be seen how such initiatives can translate into improved historical understanding.

How do we aggregate, annotate, and analyze empirical information in such a way that it can be navigated and used productively by novices and experts alike? How can such platforms facilitate collaboration within communities of scholars, or even between scholars and enthusiasts? How do we ask, debate, and keep track of vast arrays of questions surrounding large bodies of empirical information? That these problems don’t have answers represents an exciting opportunity for technical and methodological innovation.

Before we can realize the potential of a more thoroughgoing empiricism, we will require great amounts of time, effort, and communication, not only to develop new platforms, but to consolidate and synthesize our existing vast, if diffuse, gains.

When I began this blog eight years ago, I had just finished my PhD and was starting a three-year postdoc. Since then I’ve finished that and another three-year postdoc, gotten married, had two kids (now 3 and 1), and landed a job where I am constantly engaged with often-very-interesting and very-relevant historical research, most of which I unfortunately can’t really discuss online. Even as recently as two years ago, I could fit in new EWP work on my daily subway commute; now I drive to work. I sneak in a post and the odd bit of extracurricular work (book reviews, referee work, posts for other blogs, etc.) here and there, primarily in the last fatigued hour or so before sleep.

The upshot is that time and effort are in short supply for me these days. It has been gratifying to see blogs and other online history work become an important facet of the history profession. It is disappointing that the leaders of the profession haven’t done more to credit scholars for this work, or to use the Internet more aggressively to explode the limitations of existing genres of presentation. I am very much interested in how the future will pan out, but EWP is unlikely to return to peak activity any time soon. 

In the time I have available to me, I plan to continue to use this and other venues to contribute and help us communicate our ideas to each other as we feel our way forward. My New Year’s resolution is to focus my efforts along these lines more strategically than I have been.

*This situation has long been widely recognized, and is often discussed in terms of the “fragmentation” of the history, which is sometimes likened to specialization and compartmentalization within the natural sciences. I don’t think the situations are actually analogous, as I think specialized projects in the sciences are actually better integrated into an overarching body of knowledge and research.




1. thonyc - January 2, 2016

Happy bloggiversary Will! Your blog helped to spawn mine for which I will be eternally grateful ;))

2. Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #25 | Whewell's Ghost - January 4, 2016

[…] Ether Wave Propaganda: The Empiricist Potential: EWP at 8 […]

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