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Scientists and the History of Science: The Shapin View April 15, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post incorporates some general impressions I’ve developed over the last several years, but is most immediately motivated by Steven Shapin’s negative Wall Street Journal review* of physicist Steven Weinberg’s new book To Explain the World. I’d like, though, to make clear at the outset that this post isn’t really concerned with whether or not Shapin’s review did justice to Weinberg, specifically. I’m not especially interested in Weinberg’s views, and they are not something that worries or perturbs me. Shapin’s review is of interest here because it is written in a tradition that does see in histories such as Weinberg’s the operation of larger forces that should be a cause for concern.

Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin

A much earlier work in this tradition was the 1968 book Science in Modern Society, written by the Marxist science journalist J. G. Crowther (1899–1983). In it, Crowther criticized a trend he saw in academic scholarship toward a “disembodied history of scientific ideas.” In his view, science could only be governed to serve the best benefit of society if the unvarnished history of the “social relations of science” was understood. Crowther believed that narrowly intellectualized history concealed those relations, and thus constituted “a long-range natural protective action, by dominant interests that do not wish to have the social and political implications of their scientific policy comprehensively investigated.” 

Comparatively, Shapin plays down the dangers of improper history, but inherits Crowther’s perspective insofar as he regards macroscopic forces as responsible for such history. In Shapin’s view, the shortcomings of Weinberg’s specific history, as well as Weinberg’s concentration on what he regards as powerful about science, are, depressingly, simply what is to be expected when a scientist—any scientist—attempts to write the history of science.

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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 5b: Automata and the Enlightenment December 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post concludes my look at Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999).

As detailed in previous posts, Schaffer’s interest in 18th-century automata in this piece is mainly a means of making larger points about the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, and its links to an emerging economic order of industrialism and managerialism. In doing so, he contributes an interpretive gloss that joins an existing general historiography of Enlightenment ideology, with a historiography of the automaton creations of such figures as Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–1782), Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–1790), and John-Joseph Merlin (1735–1803). This post discusses this second facet of the history.

For Schaffer, the key questions are: 1) what interests did automata engage, allowing them to proliferate as objects of display and fascination? and 2) in what ways did they speak to the concerns of philosophers and other commentators of the period, making them into salient metaphors and objects of intellectual reflection?

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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 1: The Disappearance of “Weltphilosophie” in the History of Science February 11, 2013

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Hanson, NR

Norwood Russell Hanson

In his 1962 paper, “The Irrelevance of History of Science to Philosophy of Science,” Norwood Russell Hanson referred to a longstanding concern of philosophers of science that historians of science abided by one or another deficient “Weltphilosophie“.  A Weltphilosophy was an explicit or implicit outlook adopted by a historian, which “controls his selection of salient subjects, his alignment of data, his conception of the overall objective of the scientific enterprise, and his evaluations of the heroes and villains within the history of science.”  According to Hanson, “Those who stress the silent operation of a Weltphilosophie in the studies of historians of science then suggest that without philosophical awareness and acuity, the reader must remain at the mercy of the historian’s unspoken assumptions.”

Do historians abide by unspoken philosophical assumptions today?  Critics have often asserted that historians abide by a social constructionist epistemology, and much time and effort was expended in the 1980s and ’90s contesting its validity.  According to Michael Bycroft, it is still useful to analyze and criticize social constructionism precisely because “[m]uch current research in the history of science can be seen either as an affirmation of [social constructionist] claims or as a consequence of them.”  But this is one of the few points on which he and I disagree.  In the past several years, I have come to believe that “social constructionism” is a rhetorical red herring, which confounds an appreciation of less well articulated changes in historical methodology, including the fact that most historians of science no longer abide by any Weltphilosophie at all.

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

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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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.

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Strangers and Confidants January 30, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Much tactile history of science is basically an attempt to get as close to past scientific practices and technical knowledge as possible, so as to transcend the lack of verbalization of tacit knowledge, techniques, material culture, and experience, which we fail to inherit through the textual record alone. Intriguingly, although tactile history is very much the opposite of “playing the stranger”, these motivations are quite similar to those given for treating science with an anthropological remove.

Perhaps our clearest articulation for an anthropological approach is to be found in Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar’s classic study of a Salk Institute laboratory, Laboratory Life (1979). In their introduction, they make their case for working in an anthropological mode, and are quite clear that this mode is particularly warranted on account of the social fact of the peculiar intellectual power of science, which threatens to subsume any analysis of its culture (29–30, their emphasis on “not”, mine on the last clause):

We take the apparent superiority of the members of our laboratory in technical matters to be insignificant, in the sense that we do not regard prior cognition (or in the case of an ex-participant, prior socialisation) as a necessary prerequisite for understanding scientists’ work. This is similar to an anthropologist’s refusal to bow before the knowledge of a primitive sorcerer. For us, the dangers of ‘going native’ outweigh the possible advantages of ease of access and rapid establishment of rapport with participants. Scientists in our laboratory constitute a tribe whose daily manipulation and production of objects is in danger of being misunderstood, if accorded the high status with which its outputs are sometimes greeted by the outside world. There are, as far as we know, no a priori reasons for supposing that scientists’ practice is any more rational than that of outsiders. We shall therefore attempt to make the activities of the laboratory seem as strange as possible in order not to take too much for granted. 

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Harry Collins, Methodological Relativism, and Sociological Explanation, Pt. 2 August 20, 2011

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In my previous post on Harry Collins’ ideas about “methodological relativism”, I discussed how in the early 1980s Collins began explicitly using relativism as a “natural attitude” that could be used to produce “sociological explanations” of scientists’ behavior.  Methodological relativism was premised on a clear delineation of tasks, which makes it appropriate for the sociologist, but not for scientists.

However, this delineation of tasks remained incomplete: in particular, the relationship between sociology, philosophy, and history of science remained confusingly unresolved.  Further, it was unclear what sociological fruits would actually be obtained via methodological relativism.  Finally, it left unclear what the relationship was supposed to be between the sociology of scientific knowledge and the more general sociology of knowledge, upon which STS appears to be based.

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Harry Collins, Methodological Relativism, and Sociological Explanation, Pt. 1 July 19, 2011

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When I was at SEESHOP5 in Cardiff last month, I had an opportunity to talk a little with Harry Collins about the history of his work, its relationship to the history of science, relativism, radicalism, and STS.

People involved in Collins’ “Sociology of Expertise and Experience” (SEE) project would like their work to inform future STS scholarship.  However, by their estimate, STS has been reluctant to take up SEE.  This has led the SEE crowd to chart their own course, distinguishing their work as committed to a constructive deliberation about the nature and social operation of expertise, which they would contrast to an argumentation-averse, and ultimately nonconstructive critical orthodoxy prevailing in STS.

Now, STS distinguishes itself by a sort of ambivalently* radical relativist intellectual position, descending from the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) project of the late-1970s and 1980s.  By attempting to define the bounds of expert authority, the SEE project is often taken to be a retreat from STS-brand radicalism to a more traditional set of ideas about expertise.  It has sometimes been paired with Bruno Latour’s own apparent retreat (pdf) around the same time as the SEE project got started, in the early 2000s.

Collins denies that SEE represents any shift in his critical position: for him it is just a shift to a different methodology and a different sort of problem.  (more…)

Going SEESHOPping June 1, 2011

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SEE icon

When I first started EWP in 2008, I labored under the misapprehension that historians of science were not only interested in the details of arguments taking place in other areas of science studies, but that those details actually played a large part in setting historiographical priorities.  In that spirit, I did an eight-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans over their new “third wave of science studies” project, Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEE).

I first encountered the early SEE papers when I was finishing up work on my dissertation.  Then and now, I have found traditional science studies models to be unhelpful in untangling the methods and sources of legitimacy in the “sciences of policy” that I study.  SEE seemed to be closer to the mark.  I would not go so far as to say that I have ever been particularly invested in the SEE program, or that I use its ideas actively.  It has a lot of components — such as debating the use of “hawk-eye” technology in tennis, or playing “imitation games”, or developing a deep well of analytical concepts — that are beyond the pale of what I do as a historian.  However, I do view SEE as compatible with my historical work, and was therefore eager to do a bit of promotion, since I still thought if historians were not very united by interlinking their research projects, they were united by conceptual concerns that informed their research and writing.

I now believe that historians’ interest in conceptual debates is not actually very deep either.  These debates seem to play a vaguely inspirational role, more a matter of footnotes and casual conversation than real engagement.  To my mind this isn’t a huge tragedy, because I believe it is a lack of synthetic work rather than a lack of conceptual resources that most constrains historical work today.  Still, I remain intrigued by the lack of any real historical component to the SEE program.  And so I am currently typing up a paper on this subject to present at the Fifth International Workshop on Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEESHOP5) in Cardiff, the weekend of June 10.

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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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