jump to navigation

Kuukkanen on the Philosophical Foundations of the Historiography of Science October 13, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
7 comments

The Twitterverse has brought to my attention a new article by philosopher of history Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen of Leiden University: “The Missing Narrativist Turn in the Historiography of Science,” History and Theory 51 (2012): 340-363 (paywall).

Like Lorraine Daston’s 2009 article in Critical Inquiry (with which Kuukkanen does not engage), Kuukkanen’s piece covers the oft-plowed ground of the relationship between the social studies of science and the historiography of science. Recall that Daston takes the rather unorthodox view that historians have exhausted the insights of the social studies of science, and have therefore turned to the mainstream history discipline, which she believes explains our present surfeit of disconnected microhistorical case studies. Kuukkanen takes a more traditional view in that he believes that present historiography remains a fairly direct product of science-studies thinking. However, he also peculiarly believes that, due to this influence, we historians have not embraced the “narrativist turn” taken by other historians, which is to say, we believe the way we write about our subject matter is the way to write about it, and so we myopically fail to open ourselves to the possibility of alternatives.

(more…)

The Mirrored or the Integrated Image? Beyond the Cult of Invisibility March 16, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
1 comment so far

Having outlined and criticized a style of historiographical work, labelled the “cult of invisibility” in Pt. 1, Pt. 2, and Pt. 3, this final post enumerates some of the effects of writing in this style, and how to move beyond it.

The central characteristic of the cult of invisibility is its method of proceeding by identifying prejudices — intellectual, ideological, what have you — that prevent aspects of history from being seen, or interpreted correctly.  One key implication is that diagnosing these prejudices opens a path to a more proper historiography.  But can it?

Highly visible, but not necessarily well understood

One way of approaching the question is to consider to what extent we have a proper historiography of topics that are clearly “visible”.  David Edgerton’s emphasis on how little we know about twentieth-century Britain as a scientifically and technologically sophisticated nation with a powerful military has been very influential on my thinking on this problem.  I’d also include here Sven Beckert’s work in illuminating the history of wealthy men in 19th-century New York City.

At this point, though, it is crucial not to suppose that the problem with the cult of invisibility is that it somehow renders formerly visible topics invisible in a kind of reverse discrimination against “official” or culturally “dominant” history.  The real problem is in how historians deal with empirical knowledge of history by mistaking visibility for knowledge.  This is a problem that pertains almost equally to “visible” and more classically “invisible” topics.  Notably, Edgerton (whose office is actually next door to mine, so we talk about this stuff often) will also be happy to tell you about how little we know about the use of established technologies in poorer nations.

Now, Edgerton will also go on to tell you that we know little about technology use in poorer nations because “technology” is too often taken to mean high technologies, novel technologies, or invention.  This observation is, I think, correct, but I would like to put it aside, because it is — just like this series of posts — typical of the style of argumentation that prevails in the cult.  It is another case of identifying an intellectual prejudice that prevents the historiography from rendering a topic properly visible.

(more…)

The Repetitious Image: History-Writing and the Cult of Invisibility, Pt. 3 March 13, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
1 comment so far

I argued in Pt. 1 of this series that historians routinely formulate research projects, and present their findings in such a way that it stresses their work’s ability to overcome intellectual or ideological prejudices that systematically prevent aspects of the past from being seen or, at least, properly understood; this is the “cult of invisibility”.

In Pt. 2, I argued that the goal of historians’ writing seems to be to produce a “sublime image” — a product that in its scope and form reflects the critical insights, which allow historians to reveal invisible aspects of the past.  Unfortunately, these writings do not easily cohere into an integrated and cumulative “understanding” of the past.

These works are typically written in a style apparently designed to introduce a critical insight permitting previously invisible aspects of the past to be seen, not to capitalize on these insights.  Most of the time, the critical insights deployed do not claim to be particularly original.  The result is the accumulation of generally competent studies with repetitive argumentative structures, which treat varied, but ultimately fragmented subject matter.

I tend to think the persistence of this style of work and presentation is mainly habit and tradition, deriving from the period in the ’70s and early ’80s when various post-Marxist critiques were fairly novel to historians.  But recent work lacks the programmatic clarity of that era — for both better and worse.  However, this post presents a few fairly satirical guesses as to why we might tell ourselves working in this way makes sense today.

(more…)

The Sublime Image: History-Writing and the Cult of Invisibility, Pt. 2 March 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
add a comment

As these things are wont to do, this post has ballooned on me, so it will end up being 3 or 4 shorter parts.

The power and appeal of the cult of invisibility is in the fact that its central insights are more-or-less correct.  How the past is viewed and not viewed is powerfully impacted by the way in which the (often-tacit) ideas are structured, which determine what we imagine the past looked like and why it unfolded in the way that it did.

Furthermore, because we correctly suppose that “culture” is central to why events unfold in one way and not another, it is should not be too surprising that the ideas we use to analyze the past often turn out to be closely related to the past and present cultural ideas that govern how people behaved and behave in politics and in society more generally.  This almost insidious intertwining of analytical and cultural ideas means that historians must constantly exercise a strong critical faculty in our efforts to interpret the historical record.

Thus, in opening a critique of the cult of invisibility, I am not criticizing critical history itself.  If anything, I would complain that — important exceptions aside — historians’ present critical standards are much lower than they were between, let’s say, 1965 and 1990.

(more…)

The Revealed Image: History-Writing and the Cult of Invisibility, Pt. 1 February 26, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
11 comments

I’ve tried to swear off abstract historiographical theorizing in favor of somewhat more specific projects like my “tactile history” series, but old habits die hard.  This post is basically an attempt to pull together some persistent themes from this blog for my own benefit, but it may be of use to others.

Although there exists a certain amount of “philosophy of history,” in my experience it is generally now accepted that history-writing has no set philosophy or methodology.  (That would make it a “science”, and boo on that).  Philosophers will be apt to tell you that where practitioners, e.g. historians, follow no explicit methodology, they are probably following one implicitly.  The validity of such a notion for history shows through in professional historians’ zeal for methodological reflection (if not actual philosophizing), and in a pronounced peevishness toward the methodological failures of non-professional writings on history.  The philosophers will probably also go on to say implicit methodologies may well not conform to ones that practitioners would approve of if they were faced with an explicit articulation of it.  Hence the need for philosophers.

So, what methodology do historians implicitly follow?  After much reflection on this blog, I’ve come to describe it as a “cult of invisibility”.  I use the term “cult” here half-facetiously.  I don’t really mean to connote a kind of nefarious and secretive conspiracy.  However, I believe historians do by and large abide by a set of doctrines, which carry a strong moral resonance.  Further, these doctrines characterize historians’ special ability to “see” invisible things.

(more…)

Cultural History of Knowledge and Post-Marxist Social History of Science April 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
18 comments

The Edinburgh Science Studies Unit in the early 1980s; Steven Shapin is second from the left in the back row; David Bloor is first on the left and Barry Barnes is second from the right in the front row

Circa 1980, “social” historians who explored the connections between scientific work and its political, social, and economic milieus showed an interest in how scientists selected their objects of inquiry, in the allocation of scientific research effort, and in the social function of scientific work.  Unlike many historians of science, they showed comparatively little interest in the development of scientific knowledge itself.  In 1982 Steven Shapin wrote that he saw “no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but,” he observed, “much literature in the social history of science has less of a connection with the sociology of knowledge than many apparently traditional exercises in the history of ideas” (my emphasis).

At that time, Shapin was a key figure in a movement that was opposed to a traditional philosophy-inspired history of science, which sifted “science” out of history and narrated its progress; to a Mertonian sociology of science, which delineated the conditions in which “science” takes place; and indeed to the social history of science, which linked lines of research to social interests, but which often took research results for granted.

(more…)

The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 2 April 19, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, EWP Book Club.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

This post continues Pt. 1 without re-introduction

What I like to call the “cult of invisibility” was a staple of Marxist analysis, with its constraining socio-economic structures and its psychology of false consciousness.  Invisible constraints of this sort are taken to render certain classes of actors in some sense powerless and ineffectual — their invisibility or silence or inability to articulate or perhaps even feel their own plight explains a failure of something to happen, such as the ascendancy of the working class.

In addition, historians often connect such invisible constraints to a historiographical prejudice, whereby the persistence of psychological and intellectual constraints through history restricts present ideas about what sorts of things constitute proper history, which renders certain aspects of the past systematically invisible to historical memory.   This second, historiographical form of invisibility establishes a social need for the services of the critically trained historian who can identify invisible prejudices, recover systematically concealed aspects of history, and make them more generally known, possibly helping to overcome the forces of invisibility in our own time.  E. P. Thompson’s (1924-1993) The Making of the English Working Class (1963) is probably the key work in this tradition.

The cult of invisibility not only survives, but thrives in the transition to post-Marxist historiographical analysis — a transition in which Thompson’s work was arguably instrumental.  In Morris Berman’s book on the Royal Institution (RI), the role of science as a cultural force that creates invisibility is emphasized. His major demonstration of this point comes in his extended analysis of Michael Faraday’s (and, incidentally, Charles Lyell‘s) role in the investigation verdict that there was no fault in the 1844 Haswell coal mine explosion, which had killed 94 mine workers including young boys (pp. 179-180): (more…)

Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 2 March 24, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Alan Shapiro (hssonline.org)

In Pt. 1 of this post, I discussed Alan Shapiro’s 1996 criticism of Simon Schaffer’s 1989 piece “Glass Works” (first discussed on this blog here).  Shapiro argued that deficiencies in Schaffer’s portrayal of objection to Newton’s experiments derived from Schaffer’s “constructivist” methodology, which made him pay too much mind to disputes over experimental results, and not enough to others’ apparent ability to replicate Newton’s experiments, nor to the theoretical context of those experiments.  Per Shapiro, these factors actually led to a record of reasonable success in securing assent around Newton’s work, even among Newton’s intellectual competitors.  I argued that taking Schaffer’s paper to constitute a fully adequate history of the reception of Newton’s work spoke past the point of Schaffer’s commentary, which was intended to elucidate historical strategies specifically surrounding instances of failure to attain assent over experimental results.

In this post, I want to expand on the key strength of Shapiro’s criticism: the importance he ascribed to synthetic accounts of history, which contrasts with the historiography of commentary espoused by Schaffer.

(more…)

Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 1 March 20, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
3 comments

This post is a response to this comment by Michael Bycroft on a 2009 post on Simon Schaffer’s well-known 1989 “Glass Works” paper, which brought to my attention a reply published seven years later by historian of optics Alan Shapiro: “The Gradual Acceptance of Newton’s Theory of Light and Color,” Perspectives in Science 4 (1996): 59-140.

“Glass Works” was itself a commentary on a large body of Newton scholarship, most especially Richard Westfall’s biography, Never at Rest (1980).  It explicitly made use of Harry Collins’ sociology of “calibration”, which pointed to the necessity that instruments and experimental procedures gain trust before assertions based on experimental results can be accepted.  Schaffer and Steven Shapin had previously used this insight in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) to call attention to the basis of Thomas Hobbes’ criticism of experimental philosophy as well as to the intellectual, literary, and sociological strategies Robert Boyle used to gain assent over experimental results.

Unlike Schaffer’s commentary, Shapiro assembles a synthetic history of the acceptance and replication of Newton’s important experiment showing the elongation of the light of the sun when passed through a prism, as well as his two-prism experimentum crucis, which demonstrated that white light was composed of differently refrangible rays.  (more…)

Invisibility, Underdocumentation, and Positive Portraiture September 6, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

In historiographical discussions, a key concern is whether certain problematics prejudice historical portraiture.  By “problematics” I mean the dialectical process that determines what topics are researched, how they are investigated, and how the results of investigations are presented.  By “portraiture” I mean the sum total availability of information about the various aspects of history, apart from any analytical statements made about it and from our ability to navigate within the resulting historiography.  In other words, how do the questions we want to ask about the historical record both expand and limit our summary and publication of the record’s contents?

For at least a half a century, one way that professional history of science (and history more generally) has consistently attempted to distinguish itself is by pointing to its ability to recognize and correct for earlier historians’ and non-professionals’ prejudicial limitations in their portraiture.  Hagiographic biographies discount major historical actors’ flaws.  Positivistic accumulations of scientific contributions discount scientific “wrong turns” and the importance of theoretical frameworks.  Intellectual histories of science discount the culture of science.  Philosophical accounts of the historical establishment of claims discount the sociological work necessary to secure assent around them.

Invisibility

Initially, criticisms of prejudicial portraiture emphasized that important constituencies have been rendered invisible through various forms of bias.  Social history in the vein of E. P. Thompson emphasized bias against histories of common people in favor of interest in political figures, cultural leaders, and other heroic or otherwise individually influential figures identified through what we might think of as a problematic that emphasizes concerted action.  Along these lines, portraiture of disempowered and marginal constituencies has flourished (although sometimes these retain a concerted-action problematic, choosing to emphasize actors who are on the fringe but who, within the confines of their particular sphere, are influential nonetheless).  Historians who discover new classes of invisible things stand to gain significant cachet.

(more…)