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Leftovers: Practical Strategy as Fractional Philosophy September 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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After working through my thoughts about the historiographical aims of Objectivity and whether or not the history of science’s turn away from the philosophy of sciences impoverishes its ability to write a history of ideas, I have one leftover question I don’t really know what to think about, and it is expressed nicely in Martin Kusch’s review of Objectivity as he confronts their attempt to construct a “historicist” history without being “relativist” (possibly, I may be misunderstanding).

(Here, by the way, “historicist” means that concepts, such as objectivity, are not transcendental, a meaning to be distinguished from a historical determinism, as in the Marxist dialectic.)

According to Kusch:

Only a century ago, and thus very much in the period at issue in Objectivity, the relationship between historicism and relativism was extensively discussed among the likes of Dilthey, Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche, Rickert, Simmel and Windelband.  Whatever emerged from this eventually abandoned debate, it certainly included the insight that the historicist can avoid relativism only by either positing a telos of historical development or treating the views of different periods as components of one overall truth.  Neither option now seems particularly attractive.

Kusch defends relativism here as something not to be equated with skepticism.  I have to admit I haven’t read enough of Kusch to know his opinions on the matter, but, having read enough of Harry Collins to understand how relativism informs his specifically sociological project (and with their jointly-written book still on my to-do list), I think I understand the defense as having to do with generating additional layers of explanation describing why rational actions can only make sense within specified social preconditions.

Rather than try and explain my understanding of what they mean by relativism any further at this point, I want to focus on the unattractiveness of seeing different views as components of an “overall truth”, because this is how I tend to see practice as informed by, or at least conforming to, philosophy, as discussed in my last post.  The basic idea here (more…)

Escape’s End, or: Philosophy and the Art of Historiography Maintenance September 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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This book makes no pretense of giving the world a new theory of the intellectual operations.  Its claim to attention, if it possesses any, is grounded on the fact that it is an attempt not to supersede, but to embody and systematise, the best ideas which have been either promulgated on its subject by speculative writers, or conformed to by accurate thinkers in their scientific inquiries.

—John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, 1843

While he ended up caught in a bloody tangle of barbed wire and killed, I heartily approve of Steve McQueen’s clever orchestration of a mass escape from a Nazi POW camp culminating in a heroic motorcycle chase.  It is, though, perhaps needless to say that academic life is not the film of The Great Escape, historians are not Steve McQueen, and the philosophy of science is not a POW camp (however much it may have felt like one at points in the past).  We do, however, risk a similar outcome in our own Great Escape.

The rationale underlying the Great Escape was the overbearing influence the philosophy of science apparently exercised on historians’ reconstruction of history.  These histories perhaps concentrated too strongly on contributions to a history of ideas and not enough on the actual concerns of the people who made those contributions.  They rendered certain topics of historical importance such as astrology unworthy of historians’ sustained attention, and narrated history in a language of discovery and proof that made the shape of science seem inevitable and the matter of the reception of discoveries a simple question of vision or blindness.

The vision of scientific community offered in philosophy and in philosophy-derived histories was of a sort of hive mind, which assumed that, once demonstrated, scientific ideas should and would spread freely, and that, therefore, it was appropriate to ask (more…)

Objectivity, Pt. 2b: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Epistemology September 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History as Anti-Philosophy.
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If Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity is a product of the history of science’s Great Escape from the philosophy science, their work differs from much of the work in the Great Escape historiography in that it retains a clear interest in not only the history of ideas, but scientific ideas.  As I argued in Pt. 2a, Galison’s oeuvre has concentrated on aesthetic ideals as ideas governing individual scientific practice and intertraditional conflict: image vs. logic, or, indeed, one kind of representational objectivity versus another.

Daston, even more than Galison, has likewise never seemed too tempted to abandon ideas for practice.  Her work, like Steven Shapin’s work on the 17th-century, takes the relationship between epistemology and morals extremely seriously, so that it is not so much practice, but ideas about proper practice, that take center stage.  I would go so far as to say that Daston’s work, much like Michel Foucault’s, functions best as a mapping of systems of socio-epistemic ideas, and tends to be a little lackadaisical concerning things like proper periodization, and, especially, constituency (“eighteenth-century notions” should be read as “the notions of these thinkers active in a certain period of the eighteenth century”).  This is not to say it isn’t brilliant—it is—it just has its priorities, and readers are well-served to keep these in mind.

A nice introduction to Daston’s intellectual program is her piece “The Moral Economy of Science” from the 1995 Osiris, which (aside from stealing and redefining—i.e., appropriating—E. P. Thompson’s term “moral economy”) sketches out what (more…)

Objectivity, Pt. 2a: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Epistemology September 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History as Anti-Philosophy.
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In his useful essay review of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity in Isis, the philosopher Martin Kusch (formerly of Cambridge HPS, now of Vienna) notes that an important feature of the book’s argument is its twin commitments to combating “relativism” and “localism” (which causes him “unease”; more on this later).  I agree with his emphasis on these motivations as key to understanding the format of Objectivity‘s presentation, and believe the commitments are linked to the historiographical program of the Great Escape from the philosophy of science that began some 30 years ago.

If this story is right, once various forms and specters of epistemological determinism were removed from the history of science, local “contingency” became the watchword.  To understand why any view became established in the history of science, you had to go to the local archive and uncover all the nuanced negotiations that resulted in the “construction” of this or that concept.  This tended to be repellent to scientists and philosophers of science, not because it uncovered their dirty laundry, but because it tended to make the development of whatever concept was at issue appear arbitrary.  Even if constructionism did not imply arbitrariness, per se, it did leave plenty of room for socio-cultural bias, or, to put it another way, for the intellectual overdetermination of scientific knowledge through the “ladening” of observations with theory or values.  This overdetermination could be teased out by examining the archive, or simply by examining the “situatedness” of patronage (following the Marxists) and of the metaphors employed in scientific knowledge-building.

Even since How Experiments End (1987), Galison (not unlike fellow Escapist Latour) has been keen to defuse not only radical skepticist claims that knowledge is socially determined, but also more moderate claims attached to anti-positivist (more…)

Book Club: Objectivity, Pt. 1 August 30, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History as Anti-Philosophy.
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Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison argue in their recent book Objectivity that “objectivity” is not a transcendental concept: it “has a history”.  It therefore must have come into existence at a certain point in time.  They further argue that the character of objectivity has both transformed and fractured with time, and that the transformation, fracturing, and collection of different notions of objectivity can be periodized.  To demonstrate their case, they analyze scientific imagery and its production through time, as surveyed by assembling a gallery of scientific “atlases” (collections of images meant to convey a body of scientific knowledge).

Objectivity is, I think, an important work of historiography that addresses head-on problems associated with the historiography of the gallery of practices: how to write analytical long-term (“mesoscopic”) histories of scientific practice, how to write histories that do not depend on a strict narrative of causality, and how to write about science as a cultural and intellectual activity without questioning the ultimate validity of scientific work.  In addition to their scattered commentary toward these points throughout the book, see a distillation of their position last year in Victorian Studies.

Reviews suggest that the book will be a widely-read touchstone.  I believe this presents a danger to a historiography that is not sufficiently reflective.  Rather than critically reflect on the book’s strategies, there is a danger that historians will now be inspired to “go fishing” for instances of “truth-to-nature” or “mechanical objectivity” in the histories that they themselves study.  Those who do so may deploy Daston and Galison’s methodological insights directly, or may question or problematize their periodizations by finding contrary examples.  But I believe a more productive exercise is questioning the methodology in toto as an approach to the historiographical problems the book explicitly seeks to address.

The book is certainly broadly-researched and its presentation is extremely erudite, and it contains useful insights.  But I disagree with Daston and Galison as to what these insights are.  I believe the presentation in Objectivity is grounded on a few interrelated assumptions.  First, the practice of representation constitutes a fundamental act of science, a presentation of what scientists believe the scientific object must look like as seen through the scientific eye.  Second, there is, therefore, a (more…)

The Historiographical Idea of the Automaton-Scientist August 26, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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"Go Robot: Do Science!"

For the Gallery of Practices to be productive it must be read.  For the Gallery to be created, elements, or portraits, must be selected.  The danger of the Gallery is that the same thing that is read from the Gallery will be the same ideas informing the selection of its elements.  We will take away a conclusion about the relationship between science and the Cold War because we have selected events indicative of our preconceived understanding of what the relationship between “science” and the “Cold War” was like.

However, there is also a danger that even if a reading of the Gallery manages to escape the principles of its construction—say by constructing a gallery from some broad survey—it is still possible to abstract an idea or practice from the Gallery that makes little sense removed from a system of ideas of which it was initially a part.  Instead, the idea becomes incorporated in a system imposed on the Gallery by the historian’s interpretation, much as a Whiggish narrative of history imposes present ideas on the past.

In the last few years, there have been attempts to develop a history of the morality and virtues of the sciences—the history of the “scientific self”.  In The Scientific Life (2008), Steven Shapin drew upon a gallery of historical rhetoric for evidence of changing attitudes concerning whether scientific figures have been morally equated with or separated from ordinary people.  Similarly, in their book Objectivity (2007), Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have assembled a gallery of scientific “atlases”—collections of images designed to acquaint readers with a body of scientific knowledge—and have connected representational strategies, via a history of ideas about “objectivity”, to a history of the “epistemic virtues” that have inhabited scientific personas .

By making representation a matter of moral imperative rather than a matter of intellectual choice of representational strategy based on a concordant choice of representational goals—such epistemological deliberations do not appear in histories belonging to the Great Escape historiography—Galison and Daston makes sense of perceived patterns in these representational practices by drawing on a longstanding historiographical idea: the automaton-scientist.

The thesis of this post is that the historiographical idea of the automaton-scientist functions as a way of automating history, if you will, by relieving (more…)

The Gallery and the Renaissance Episteme August 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.

Can progressive historiography co-exist with the Gallery of Practices?  Possibly, but the challenges seem to be great.  Peter Galison seems to have thought along similar lines, judging by his “Ten Problems” piece in an issue of Isis last year.  Here is how he put the issue:

Back in the postwar period, James Bryant Conant hoped that the Case Studies in Experimental Science that he organized would, by a kind of Baconian generalization, lead to a general understanding of scientific method. But it is hard to see this Baconianism emerging from microhistories today. Microhistory is supposed to be exemplification, a display through particular detail of something general, something more than itself. It is supposed to elicit the subtle interconnections of procedures, values, and symbols that mark science in a place and time, not as a method but more as a kind of scientific culture. This then leads to a hard question: What does it mean to aim for exemplification without typicality? And if case studies are the paving stones, where does the path lead?

Indeed, Galison thinks it is possible to perpetuate the case study program and not end up anywhere we necessarily want to be:

Conversely, after the remarkably successful buildup of microhistorical cases, one can ask after the limits of localism. That is, suppose we continued to fill our journals with ever more case studies, packed encyclopedias with dozens of microscopic inquiries into every laboratory, field station, and observatory of any weight anywhere. Would there be, in principle, a residue? Would there be kinds of questions that simply could not be accessed even through the objectives of the most assiduous application of our fine, 1000x historical‐philosophical microscopes?

As far as I’m concerned Galison has already answered these questions entirely adequately in Image and Logic (1997), where he identified “mesoscopic” traditions of practice as a key subject of historical inquiry.  However, historians have not seen the mapping of traditions as a historiographical imperative.  This includes Galison, whose recent book with Lorraine Daston, Objectivity (2007, on which more later), relies on a Gallery-based approach.

Inasmuch as the historiography embraces “practice”, the analysis of Big Ideas still seems to dominate scholarly concerns.  Abandoning the traditional (more…)

Professional Theodicy and Synthetic Narrative August 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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The term “theodicy” is getting a lot of exercise here recently, so, to review: a theodicy is a philosophical explanation for why there is evil in the world in spite of the existence of a benevolent deity, as in Leibniz’ Theodicy.  A theodicy almost necessarily draws on problems of free will, the hope of knowledge, and its attendant dangers.  Transforming theodicy into historical narrative, it becomes possible to periodize these themes.  Sometimes this narrative functions as an origin story (as in Genesis and the stories of Prometheus and Pandora’s Box).  Following the Enlightenment and French Revolution—just as geology and cosmology began to acquire temporal elements—more recent human history could be periodized in terms of an overarching balance of knowledge, morality, and wisdom, as in the criticism of Joseph-Marie Maistre.

Since Maistre’s time, historiographical theodicies have frequently used rationalism or scientism as explanations of evil.  Following the rise of the Soviet Union and the Nazi Party, conservative thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper regularly drew connections between the post-French Revolution thought of Saint-Simon and Comte through to Marxism, logical positivism, modernism, and the rise of totalitarian regimes.  Chris Donohue has written about this trend on this blog, and he is responsible for getting me into the topic.

Science studies has imported similar narratives of theodicy linking the philosophy of science (positivistic and otherwise), the historiography of science, and the authority of science in society.  The sociology of knowledge has, in recent years, functioned within this theodicy as a kind of deliverance from evil, restoring a true historiography undistorted by philosophy’s arbitrary elevation of science to a coherently identifiable, objective, uncultural, and therefore privileged activity.  It is the contention of this blog that this theodicy has reduced the scope of historiographical inquiry to ornamentation of socio-epistemic issues privileged by the theodicy’s narrative.  Abandoning a study of ideas for a study of practices consonant with the theodicy, our professional theodicy now deeply inhabits our historiographical synthesis.

Witness Iwan Rhys Morus’ essay review of Patricia Fara’s new book Science: A Four Thousand Year History in the latest History of Science, which he edits.  Historical explanation of evil is present and unusually explicit: “Up until the 1960s, historians (more…)

Normative Historiography and the Gallery of Practices August 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after awhile

–Bob Dylan, 1966

If I were David Byrne
I’d go to galleries and not be too concerned

–Crash Test Dummies, 1993

I take progressive historiographical scholarship to be generated through a chronological problematic.  By characterizing traditions (of practices and ideas) and projects as operating within defined periods and through defined constituencies, scholars can theorize and argue about the results of interactions between traditions, projects, and constituencies, and about the nature of changes in these things over time.

If this blog has its house critique, it is of the new internalism, which is a label for scholarship that creates self-standing pieces of work with no asserted historical relationship to other pieces of work.  Instead, the work often purports to address a socio-epistemic problematic, which seeks a deeper understanding of how knowledge is made and how it operates in society.  The scholarship seeks this understanding by accumulating instances of practices relevant to socio-epistemic questions in varying historical contexts.  The accumulation of such instances creates a scholarship referred to on this blog as the gallery of practices.

The object of this post is to inquire into the relationship between the creation of the gallery and the historiographical “theodicy” adopted to lend urgency to the establishment of a new sociology of knowledge (since around 1980).  In a change of thinking since I started this blog, I don’t imagine that the literature currently seeks to address questions actually posed by sociologists (more…)

Sociology, History, Normativity, and Theodicy August 9, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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“For my part I see no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but 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.”

“Finally, there is a marked lack of rigour in much social history of science; work is often thought to be completed when it can be concluded that ‘science is not autonomous’, or that ‘science is an integral part of culture’, or even that there are interesting parallels or homologies between scientific thought and social structures.  But these are not conclusions; they are starting points for more searching analyses of scientific knowledge as a social product.”

—Steven Shapin, 1982

To my mind, Shapin’s “History of Science and Its Sociological Reconstructions,” (History of Science 20 (1982): 157-211) is perhaps one of the best articulations of how sociological methodology could augment historiography.  It is a manifesto for the sociology of knowledge program against critics (Joseph Ben-David, Rupert Hall, and Larry Laudan are specified).  It’s also an argument against more sterile sociology-based historiographical methods—the “social history of science”.  As pointed out in the quotes above, these methods draw no substantive connections between sociology and the intellectual production of knowledge: society is simply something that imprints itself on scientific institution-building, practice, and claims.

To put it another way, Shapin ought to be understood as an epistemological sociologist, one who in 1982 was apparently fighting against many of the same problems that bedevil us today.  No one, to my mind, better articulated how integral things like proper institution-building and proper etiquette have always been (more…)