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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?


Cosmology and “Synoptic” Intellectual History September 23, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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The influence of anthropological ideas on historiography is widely acknowledged, if too often boiled down to a slogan: “approach history as a stranger,” or “know the past on its own terms.”  On this blog, Chris Donohue has been revisiting the problems informing the interpretive approaches of Malinowski’s “functionalism” and Lévi-Strauss’ “structuralism”.  By grounding ritualistic behaviors in issues of social cohesion and cognitive strategy, these approaches bring sense to activities that, on their surface, seem arbitrary.  Applied to familiar societies, they also form part of a trend stretching over a century that makes our own social behaviors seem less explicitly rational, if not altogether less rational.  For historians of science, this is of great interest, because it helps reanalyze scientific practice in ways removed from overt scientific reasoning.

Moving beyond scientific practice as simply a particular mode of reasoning was part and parcel of the Great Escape from the philosophy of science.  But I’d now like to move beyond the limitations of abandoning philosophy, to concentrate more on the generative ideas in the same historiographical period (roughly, the fabled ’80s), which have ceased to be articulated now that that period’s gains have themselves been boiled down to basic slogans.

The most important anthropological concept that has vaporized into the atmosphere is the cognitive cosmology, an idea which holds that every society, or really every individual, necessarily creates their own sense of what is in the world and how the world works, which allows people to cope with their surroundings.  I’d like to very roughly sketch out a preliminary sense of how this idea worked in the historiography. (more…)

Objectivity, Pt. 3: Philosophy of Science and Historiographical Empiricism September 10, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, Methods.
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I suggested in Pt. 2 of this post that Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity fits in with themes both have been exploring over the courses of their careers, as exemplified in Daston’s Wonders and the Order of Nature (written with Katharine Park), and Galison’s Image and Logic.  Both are excellent books, though very different from each other.  I believe my basic disagreements with the presentation in Objectivity (as described in Pt. 1) can be characterized in terms of how elements of the presentation of those books are carried over into Objectivity.  I also believe these disagreements correspond to at least some elements of Martin Kusch’s criticism of the book in his essay review in Isis.

I mentioned in Pt. 2b that Wonders is an exemplary work of historico-philosophy.  What I mean by this is that its subject matter is philosophically defined, roughly as follows: 1) understanding of the world is governed by system (an “order of nature”); 2) this understanding produces expectations concerning what is likely to be seen; 3) violations of this system constitute “wonders”; 4) ethical and intellectual responses to wonders constitute a way of fundamentally distinguishing epistemic traditions.

This scheme allows us to move the history of ideas about nature beyond the philosophy of science by characterizing at a very basic level what intellectual systems can look like outside of what we would think of as a properly scientific worldview.  Not only does the scheme allow us to be sympathetic to Scholastic methods that have often (though not always) been disparaged in histories of science, but also to literary and religious cosmologies (which offered intellectual resources to early natural history, which themselves have only recently begun receiving proper historiographical treatment).  Daston and Park’s scheme further periodizes modern natural (more…)

Historiography versus Historical Non-Fiction August 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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So, seriously, what’s up with all this methodological introspection?  What does it actually accomplish?  Is it really necessary?  Wouldn’t it all just go away and start looking like fever-dream logic if I simply relaxed and devoted myself to augmenting my own corner of the literature?

Useful cliche

To an extent, the productivity of methodological introspection is a question of faith—its value only becomes apparent once one begins to accomplish things that one could not do before.  For example, I don’t think I ever really appreciated the severity of the tensions between the philosophy and sociology of science, and its consequences for history, until recently.  It’s only been in the past month or so that it has become necessary for me to speak of the “socio-epistemic” imperative.  This was previously the “epistemic” imperative, and, before that, the “epistemological” imperative—a formulation that I can now see was totally absurd, given the bête noire view of philosophical epistemology that still motivates historians’ professional sensibilities thirty years after the Great Escape (as so neatly expressed by Iwan Rhys Morus).  But, I could never have gotten this far without laying out those initial off-target notions first.

Puzzling out these sensibilities and their changes through time allows me to understand what is going on in the literature I read, why other scholars (more…)

Spotlight: Renwick on Geddes (also Ideas vs Practice) August 12, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Since we’re in the middle of a fairly polemical series of methodological posts, and since a general critique of the professional function of journals fits in with this, I thought it would be a good idea to shine a quick spotlight on a recent exception to the rule: Chris Renwick’s “The Practice of Spencerian Science: Patrick Geddes’s Biosocial Program, 1876-1889” Isis 100 (2009): 36-57.

Renwick’s piece, like Schmitt’s recent piece on Vicq d’Azyr, places itself quite nicely within a literature, as well as its subject matter within history.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the subject matter is Patrick Geddes’ relationship with the ideas of Herbert Spencer, whose work falls within the ambit of the Darwin Industry.  As I have previously noted, localized historiographies—the “industries” in particular—seem to acquire a critical scholarly mass that propels them into a more rigorous problematic.

In this case, Renwick uses his piece as part of an effort to reclaim the influence of Spencer’s ideas.  Traditionally understood as not having made positive contributions to biology, and as a proponent of social Darwinism, Renwick notes that recent literature has begun to chart a more general debt to the ideas present in Spencer’s thinking, many of which had little to do with severe competition in nature or society, and, in fact, stressed cooperation as a higher form of evolutionary development.  Renwick observes Geddes’ debt to Spencer’s thought in (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…)

Philosophy of Science, Normativity, and Whig History August 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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Karl Popper, 1902-1994One of the things left behind by the historians of science who undertook the Great Escape from the philosophy of science was a claim to normative judgment.  The philosophy of science could look at scientific arguments and, using the epistemological tools at its disposal, come to a judgment concerning whether or not current or historical claims were worthy of the name “science”.  Through epistemology, science could consolidate and build upon its gains, which was not the case with something more subjective, like art, or (possibly) politics.

If we may say that science is, therefore, progressive, it stands to reason that, with the benefit of philosophy, we can look back on history and identify scientific works that were either progressive or regressive.  This is why Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) did not feel it was appropriate to apply his notion of “whig history” to science.  The notion is also central to the thought of Karl Popper (1902-1994), who thought that it was possible for epistemology to legitimize the assertion of those claims that stood because they had not been falsified, while delegitimizing those claims that were held as certainly true on account of illegitimate (i.e., social or political) prejudice, an action that necessarily falsified other claims prematurely.  The Church’s suppression of Galileo, the suppression of relativity and quantum mechanics to the benefit of deutsche Physik, or the enshrinement of Lysenko’s genetics as the official state policy of the Soviet Union all constituted sure signs of the illegitimacy of the socio-political system that made these events possible in the face of an epistemologically overwhelming challenge.

Setting Popper aside, in this general philosophical point of view, scientific progress is made possible only through proper epistemology.  The interference of society or politics represents an illegitimate interference with proper epistemology.  The philosopher of science therefore is in a position to make normative judgments of current science and upon science’s historical development, as well as upon the political systems that either allowed science its autonomy or that interfered with its freedom.

For much of the 20th century, this point of view was opposed mainly by a Marxist philosophy of science, which held (more…)

Traditions of Practice: Mesoscopy, Materiality, and Intercalation July 31, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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If there are no guides to the construction of the history of science: if the task is more than identifying precedents to the present, if narratives of class interest or other overriding social determinants of scientific knowledge are rejected, and if (as the Great Escape has it) philosophy is no guide to how knowledge develops and spreads, then the danger arises that history drops into a deeply contingent state that can only be successfully analyzed at the most local level.

Arriving in this position, one must resolve the absurdity by asking: what sorts of things can be the subject of historiography?  I would reply that science studies has successfully argued that traditions of practice constitute the possible objects of historical inquiry.  If definable physical conditions can persist through history (mountains are a nicely tangible example), then certain definable practical reactions to those conditions can also persist (climbing the mountain, digging mines, etc…).  Such practices can be broken down into analytically useful categories: technology, technique, tactic, policy, arguments and knowledge claims, rhetoric, imagery, etc.  Properly characterized varieties of these practices can be given useful labels (e.g. “empire-building” as a national policy).

Specific choices  concerning how to deploy these practices in varying situations are informed by the history of ideas.  Ideas may be decoded through a careful analysis of how practices are selected based upon historical appreciations of the character of situations faced (“imperialism” suggests territorial acquisition as a response to international economic (more…)

Schaffer on Cometography, Pt. 2: Hermeneutics and Historiography July 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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A hermeneutical conundrum

Hermeneutical conundrum

I. After reading Simon Schaffer’s “Comets and Idols”, I find myself using the word “hermeneutics” a lot more than I used to.  In general, you can get your point across just fine talking about “interpretation”.  However, when it comes to Isaac Newton, and writing the history of his ideas, the history of how he presented his ideas and himself, the history of how others drew on his ideas, and the history of how others presented how they were drawing upon his ideas—not to mention the act of writing the history of all this—the pithy phrase “Newtonian hermeneutics” (p. 209) acquires a certain appeal.

Drawing on his writing on Newton’s understanding of cometography as part of a project to restore a long-debauched Chaldean natural philosophy, in “Comets and Idols” Schaffer takes the opportunity to reflect on the role of “sacred texts” and their interpretation in history.  If natural philosophy was a chaotic mess of competing systems filled with different arrangements of matter and forces, then the sacred text serves as a rare fixed point of unalterable truth.  And for some time, no text was more sacred to many natural philosophers than Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (but see also Adam Smith).  Unfortunately, the interpretation of sacred texts is never straightforward, and it is by offering one’s own interpretation of the meaning of the sacred text—by uncovering what stands unspoken behind it, whether motivation, intended emphasis, methodology, hidden knowledge, or concrete ideas—and by discounting others’ “misunderstanding” or “distortion” of it that one draws upon its authority.

As Schaffer had observed before (especially with the construction of historic scientific discoveries, and with psychology’s claiming the personal equation as its own), the appropriation of history within the program one is trying to advance is an important, perhaps inevitable, tactic in building authority.  (more…)

Methodological Unity, Revisited June 20, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Buchwald and Franklin, eds., Wrong for the Right Reasons.

In my recent look at historiographical language, I discussed Kent Staley’s 1999 critique of Peter Galison’s division of particle detector history pre-1970 into epistemologically discontinuous “image” and “logic” traditions.  I noted that Staley might have made his point less palatable through an appeal to the methodological “unity” of science (rather than contiguousness), which Galison jumped on as contrary to the construction of coherent history.  For Galison, it is the methodological divisions in science that keep it nimble, intellectually diverse, and heuristically powerful, and it is an appreciation of this disunity that allows us to make any sense of its history consistent with a detailed reading of the historical record.  What, then, is the appeal of philosophical “unity”, and do historians have anything to gain by letting philosophers espousing it in the door?

If, indeed, philosophers believed philosophy could be used to reconstruct an algorithmic history of science, then surely they should be kept out at all costs, but this does not appear to be the case.  Staley, for one, appears to seek conceptual clarity rather than to follow Imre Lakatos’ notion of the “rational reconstruction” of history—science may be epistemologically diverse, but underlying epistemological connections may be revealing of the sources of the strength of certain kinds of knowledge-making acts: “We might entertain the following version of the ‘unity of methods’ thesis: there are a small number of forms of argument that are shared among otherwise diverse areas of investigation, or that are employed in common during (more…)