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Kuhn’s Demon, or: The Iconoclastic Tradition in Science Criticism January 21, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The message that scientists are human and that science is messy is crossing the ether once again. Of late there has been a certain degree of excitement percolating among historians and science-studies scholars over the #OverlyHonestMethods hashtag on Twitter. It seems that scientists are sending out tweets about their work that happen to nicely coincide with the images of science that historians would like to present to the world. Twitter is, of course, the world hub for “trending” topics, and this particular trend is already simmering down. But, before the moment is completely gone, it might be worthwhile to reflect briefly on the history of the ideas 1) that there exists a dominant image of science as a pristine and rigidly ordered activity, and 2) that the negation of this image would be broadly beneficial to scientists and society.

iconoclasts

Is it idol-smashing time again already?

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The Search for a Mature View of Industrial Research July 8, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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At the moment there is an interesting — if scattered — set of arguments about, proffered by senior historians, concerning what an appropriately mature handling of industrial research might look like.

In his essay “Time, Money, and History” (pdf, free) in the latest Isis, my colleague David Edgerton refers to the influence of the “spontaneous economics of academic research scientists,” which unduly privileges discussions of the importance of university-based research amid the much wider world of R&D, while also fixating on a more longstanding concern with how patronage might influence the course of research work (“filthy lucre”).  Most of the concerns still regularly expressed about the funding, independence, and broader importance of academic research were, by the 1960s, already widely circulated by purveyors of this spontaneous economics.

Amid particular ’60s-era concerns that science was being perverted by tighter connections to national defense and the economy, and stifled by more structured administration, some historians and sociologists of science were eager to dispel oft-voiced beliefs that science’s strange, new institutional situation represented a fundamental change in how science was done.  On this blog we have seen how Robert Merton was eager to argue that the competitive behaviors chronicled in James Watson’s The Double Helix (1968) were a longstanding feature of science, and not some twentieth-century pathology.  Similarly, in their 2007 essay, “The Commercialization of Science and the Response of STS,”1 Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent detect a nothing-new-to-see-here attitude as early as a 1960 commentary by Thomas Kuhn highlighting the history of the science-technology relation.

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Collins and Tacit Knowledge December 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Before proceeding further in my discussion of “tactile history”, I’d like to take a slight detour back through my discussion of Harry Collins’ “methodological relativism” to his earliest articles, in order to get at some of the ideas underlying his interest in tacit knowledge, which was highly influential in the historiography of science, and continues to play a key role in his current work on the sociology of expertise:

1) H. M. Collins, “The TEA Set: Tacit Knowledge and Scientific Networks,” Science Studies 4 (1974): 165-186

2) H. M. Collins, “The Seven Sexes: A Study in the Sociology of a Phenomenon, or The Replication of Experiments in Physics,” Sociology 9, (1975): 205-224

Throughout the history of social constructionism in the history of science, there was never any agreement as to what the relationship between sociology and history was supposed to be.  Some proponents evidently sought to reduce the history of science to a sociological process, effectively replacing philosophical accounts (see especially David Bloor’s “Polyhedra and the Abominations of Leviticus” [paywall]).  Collins attempted to come to purely sociological accounts of scientific knowledge without resorting to philosophical appraisals, but not necessarily replacing philosophy or supposing that sociology should be able to account for the history of science.  Tacit knowledge was crucial to his analysis of how and where sociological factors operate in science.

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

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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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.

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Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 3: Fragmentation and Consensus August 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This is the third and final part of a look at two of Simon Schaffer’s 1993 works, 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”, and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”.  In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and now here in Pt. 3, the focus is on the papers’ mode of argumentation and this mode’s significance within the historiographical culture of the early 1990s.

In these papers, a historiographical malignancy is identified: an insistence on seeing a rise of reasoned polity and society, and of spaces of free inquiry; this rise is attended by a decline of false belief.  This is considered a malignancy because it ignores the extensive and persistent controversies over various beliefs.  The remedy, thus, is taken to be what I call “insultography”: a charting of commonalities in the polemics used to secure the boundaries of belief about what exists, or at least what is plausible.  Historical “polemical work” consistently references widely acknowledged sources of credit-worthiness and discredit (in Pt. 1 these pervasive opinions are referred to as “grand cultural ideas”): religious piety, superstition, the vulgar crowds, the emotional manipulation and illusion of the theater, courtly society, bourgeois society, investment schemes, the legacy of Isaac Newton…  Historians’ failure to acknowledge the historical importance of this polemical work as they chart the history of knowledge is taken to stem from their own selective credulity toward of these same polemics.

The current goal is to understand why the identified historiographical issue is considered an important malignancy and why the remedy is considered apt.  As suggested in Pt. 2, portraying historiographical issues as malignancies could be used to explain a gnawing problem of historiographical craft: fragmentation.  In his (free, and well worth reading) 2005 Isis article on this fragmentation phenomenon in the historiography of science, David Kaiser traced complaints about it as far back as a 1987 article by Charles Rosenberg in Isis, a 1991 Casper Hakfoort article in History of Science, and a 1993 James Secord article in BJHS.  Kaiser suggested that the fragmentation was akin to specialization that occurred within the natural sciences as they expanded in the 20th century, pointing to similar patterns of growth in the recent history of the history of science discipline.  (more…)

The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Intellectual Characteristics March 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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First off, apologies if some of the themes and arguments of this post have become repetitive.  I find that in trying to arrive at a synthesis, it is useful to go over and over the points, making sure to try and modify a bit each time through.  Ordinarily this process takes place in private, usually in notebooks, but part of the idea of this blog is to open the process to public scrutiny for whatever benefits it might produce.  Readers can tune in or out as they see fit.

What were those natural philosophers thinking?

The natural philosophy problem appears to have remained a topic of serious historiographical conversation through the course of the 1980s.  One big problem is that natural philosophy is a vague term: it applied to aspects of Peripatetic philosophy, but in the twentieth century Harvard physicist Percy Bridgman (1882-1961) still held a chair in mathematics and natural philosophy and was in fact a well-known writer in the philosophy of science.  Some natural philosophy chairs even still exist today (Bertrand Halperin now holds Bridgman’s old chair, and they apparently still officially spell “mathematicks” with a “k”!).

Obviously, all these “natural philosophers” are doing rather different things, so historians would be ill-advised to try and look for a single definition of natural philosophy, even within delimited time periods, or to try and locate a “real” natural philosophy.  One promising tactic is to apply ahistorical analytical criteria to different aspects of natural philosophical work, while allowing that natural philosophers might not have perceived the distinctions between these “aspects”.

As we have seen for the eighteenth-century heyday of natural philosophy, Simon Schaffer was keen to analyze natural philosophy in terms of a fully fleshed-out “cosmology” of ideas.  Analyzing these universalizing aspects of natural philosophy makes a lot of sense: in many venues natural philosophers (being philosophers) would have been expected to draw upon their general store of learning to discourse on topics ranging from astronomy to epistemology to ethics, and to articulate the connections between these subjects.  Through the 1980s, Schaffer argued (especially early on) for embracing the sincerity and importance of the particular questions posed within systems of thought, rather than seeing the cosmology or system as simply some extension of an underlying fundamental commitment or accommodation to a partisan religious, political, or intellectual program, such as atheism, royalism, or “Newtonianism”.  Looking at systems of arguments in this way, one could query the underlying intellectual assumptions that governed what made particular features of these systems into coherent arguments, and thus better understand why they were formulated and argued in the particular ways that they were.  As in his discussions of early Kant or William Herschel, one could also query what constituted an actual innovation within natural philosophical systematizing without whiggishly relying on later acceptance as a category of analysis. (more…)

Integration without Differentiation: The Fate of the Natural Philosophy Problem March 25, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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As I noted in my last post, the notion that we have experienced a historiographic revolution in the history of science has often been predicated on the notion that the key insight of that revolution was a conceptual extension of epistemology into the social.  In principle, this insight should support a number of conceptual variations within the general framework.  Thus, for instance, the avowed eclecticism of Natural Order (1979), which was supposed to begin a longer process by gathering examples which would accommodate a subsequent historical and philosophical synthesis.  In their introduction to the book, Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin warned , “Our predominant concern has […] been to obtain contributions based in concrete work [i.e., empirical history], and for this reason no unified point of view, or overall framework or theory, will be found consistently used and advocated through the book” (13).

In his 1980 Isis essay review of the collection (pp. 291-295), historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg described the general project as a “laudable task” (295), but worried that the book embraced “a position so tentative and eclectic that it almost approximates the theory-starved practice of a good many historians” (292).  This quality lent cover to an undifferentiated treatment of the connections between knowledge and social relations: it concentrated on the fact of the relationship between subject and its socio-cultural context rather than offering any notions about the manner of the relationship, and what the role and importance of various contexts were.  “Such facile connection between social location and the form of a particular idea removes the historical actor from that very richness of context in which Barnes and Shapin would have him placed” (ibid) … “the contributors almost never place their protagonists in appropriately detailed social location” (293).

As far as I can discern, the whole point of putting a number of historiographical problems under the single, crucial rubric of social epistemology was that it would prompt a differentiation between different manners of subject-context relations, allowing an explicit formulation of the relationships between differentiated historical phenomena to be forged.  The benefit of placing one’s own historiographical project within this rubric was the potential that it could be productively related to others’ historiographical projects.  The danger was that one’s own historiographical project, once integrated into the rubric, would fail to be distinguished from those other projects.  We return to the “problem of natural philosophy”. (more…)

Anthropological Cosmology and Anti-Demarcationism, Pt. 2 March 18, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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There was no such thing as the historiographic revolution and this is a (too-long) post about it.

Historiographical totem?

In the late-1970s, the applicability of anthropological notions of cosmology to issues in the historiography of science could be understood as evidence of the need for an epistemology that extended into the domain of social relations.  This extension entailed the notion that scientific work existed in a cultural and intellectual continuum with the society around it, and thus that attempts to demarcate scientific work and ideas were ill-founded.  Society was not simply something to be scrubbed from science; legitimate scientific work was made possible through its establishment in legitimate places within society, and through the selective borrowing from society of cultural and political means of establishing legitimate claims.  This, I think, was a good idea, but was it methodologically revolutionary?

The test of the validity of any idea is whether it can change the outcome of a process in some specific way.  A scientific idea can help create a successful experiment or an improved technology.  The idea of social epistemology could be tested as could much sociology and philosophy of science by running it through the historical record and seeing if it rendered it more coherent.  In other words (to use a Latourian formulation), the success of social epistemology was bound up with its ability to forge an alliance with historiography.

The socio-epistemology advocates took no chances on getting lost in the shuffle, and apparently decided to tie the success of their program to a beneficial historiographical sea change.  In a 1983 article discussing possible implications for science education, Steven Shapin and Harry Collins even used the title “Experiment, Science Teaching, and the New History and Sociology of Science” (my emphasis; reprinted in Teaching the History of Science (1989), eds. Michael Shortland and Andrew Warwick).  However, the existence of this shift as a coherent entity, and the placement of socio-epistemology within it, should not be taken for granted.  The idea took years to successfully engineer. (more…)

Anthropological Cosmology and Anti-Demarcationism, Pt. 1 March 8, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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If we ever wanted to get really serious about it, I doubt the notion of an “entente” between anthropological and natural philosophical cosmologies will wash as a way of understanding the historical roots of current historiographical concerns.  However, much like last summer’s series on the “Great Escape” from philosophy of science, this line of thinking will provide a useful heuristic that should prove of value in assembling a more coherent picture of the concerns that drove an important shift in historiographical style.  Recent posts here have discussed the “natural philosophy” end of this bargain—and we will return to that presently—but the next step should be to understand the appeal and application of anthropological cosmology to the history and historiography of science.

Simply following the citations from Schaffer’s “Natural Philosophy,” a good place to start is Barry Barnes’ and Steven Shapin’s essay review of Mary Douglas’ essay collection Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology, entitled “Where is the Edge of Objectivity?” and appearing in the British Journal for the History of Science 7 (1977): 61-6.  The work is notable for the clarity, simplicity, and explicitness with which it conveys some key points.

The essay review is mainly used as an opportunity to advertise the talking points of the Edinburgh School of sociology of science.  As such, what is taken to be important are certain features of Douglas’ work, rather than the work itself.  I’ll try and delineate a few such features.

  1. Cosmology, defined as the cognitive resources at one’s disposal, is inevitable.  The attempt to escape a system of ideas simply resorts to other ideas.  Barnes and Shapin quoting Douglas: “People are living in the middle of their cosmology, down in amongst it; they are energetically manipulating it, evading its implications in their own lives if they can, but using it for hitting each other and forcing one another to conform to something they have in mind.” (more…)

Entente Cordiale: Anthropological and Natural Philosophical Cosmology March 2, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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Simon Schaffer’s “Natural Philosophy” in Ferment of Knowledge (1980) is an exhilarating piece by a 25-year-old scholar.  When I first looked at it on this blog, I gave my post the title “Schaffer Busts Out the Hickory”, suggesting that he had taken a wooden bat to the extant literature on the topic.  In view of the scholarship of today’s grande entente cordiale, it was really refreshing to see a vigorous and pointed critique directed against other historians’ work.  Sure, it was a tad violent, but it was in the service of progress!  “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven” and all that.

Anyway, partially a part of the growing rebuke against viewing 18th-century science as an outgrowth of a grand tradition of “Newtonianism”, partially a rebuke against attempts to define natural philosophy in terms of what makes it distinct from science (e.g., Kuhn’s definition of “pre-paradigmatic science”), the piece ultimately moves beyond criticism and becomes a messily-articulated, but powerful and original discussion of how one might begin to construct a positively-defined historiography of natural philosophy.

Schaffer identified two possible proposals for constructively analyzing the history of natural philosophical systems:

[S]ome historians [cite: Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin] have used the ideas of Mary Douglas, Robin Horton, and other cultural anthropologies as clues to unravel the cosmologies of natural philosophers, while Michel Foucault has constructed an ‘archaeology of knowledge’ with which to analyse the structure of natural philosophy as a set of discourses.  These contrasting approaches derive from two opposed epistemologies.  (86)

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