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Holiday & Introductory Course August 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I am going to be doing some traveling for the next couple of weeks, and so there are likely to be no new posts in that time.  In other news, starting in October, I will be teaching a year-long introduction to the history of science course here at Imperial.  I’ve included a tentative lecture schedule and reading list below the fold.  This isn’t set in stone yet, so comments and suggestions are welcome.


The Canon Game: Preliminary Observations June 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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I’d like to start talking now about possible canons, but, before we get started, I want to make a few observations about what I, personally, would expect out of a canon. I think for a lot of people the idea of a canon is a little repulsive, because it suggests that there is a batch of writings (usually old ones) up on a pedestal that cannot and should not be touched or questioned, and that serve as models for all us mere mortals. I also think a lot of people think of a canon as works serving as methodological milestones. Thus, obviously, we’d have to start with Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions or something, and move on from there. In my previous post on the Forman thesis, I rejected this view, arguing that milestones, however influential they may have been in their day, are not best suited to guide future inquiry.

I’m a believer in the inevitable existence of things that must logically exist whether they are acknowledged or not. The idea of the inevitable rationale underlying policy plays a big role in my research on the policy sciences. I think the same applies to a canon: one always exists whether we want it to or not. Even if we don’t have a specific set of writings we’ve all read, there is a certain constellation (or “model” to borrow once again from C. S. Lewis’ framing of medieval literature) of arguments and strategies that are derived from set of writings, as well as certain key ideas about the “Enlightenment” or the “Victorian era” or the “Cold War” within which we may write. Thus, we are best off to acknowledge the necessity of canonical literature, and to ask the questions: what does it do for us, and is there a better one available?

I believe that a canon should help us mine the available historiography, which is actually very deep, and build on it. One theme I’ve been circling around is the tendency of historians of science to do a remarkable impersonation of 19th century Homesteaders in going further and further afield from the actual history of science to find new land to till. This is fine, but are we exploiting the land we’re already on to its fullest? A properly selected canon can be very revealing of the richness of the historical terrain that is available to us.

This brings up the most important point. We can think of a canon as the tool of specialists or as a general tool for all of us. I lean toward the general tool interpretation. Specialists are obligated to be familiar with an entire literature within a certain area, and would probably be inclined to pick out a game-changing paper, thus bringing us back to the pedestal conception of canon. But I think to the non-specialist these papers don’t resonate as effectively without the necessary background knowledge. A well-chosen canon will allow those who know it to be familiar enough with the terrain to speak competently about it, even if they can’t achieve “wonk” status, and thus be a receptive and discerning audience in areas outside their specialty.

Also, at least from my perspective, the selection of canonical works should focus on familiarity with history rather than methodology. I know there are many who disagree, but I’m of the opinion that unless you know the history, you’re doomed to making absurd statements; cleverness cannot save you. This has been a priority of mine, especially since teaching my intro class last semester. So, rather than start out in an area I’m really familiar with, I’d like to start with something I’m semi-familiar with, but in which I still ought to be much better schooled: 19th century physics.

Galison’s Q’s #7: Locality and Microhistory June 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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If I’m not too keen on questions of science ethics and science politics (at least contemporary questions), in Problem 7, Galison touches on a question near and dear to my heart: case study history. Basically, Peter asks: “What’s the deal with all the case studies?” (which could also be this blog’s motto). He notes that microhistory case studies of individuals or laboratories or what-have-you, were once seen as a Baconian way of getting at an underlying philosophy of science. But that project’s long dead, as is the project to nail down a specific moment when some important thing was discovered or theorized. Case studies don’t seem to make a claim to “typicality”–if anything they argue for the uniqueness of moments in science.

My position on this blog has consistently been that the case study has basically just become a habit. This habit was originally grounded in the utility of the case study in demonstrating the intermingling of science and its context (as Galison points out), which itself stems from the sociology-philosophy feud. Rather than demonstrate a set ahistorical philosophy of scientific method, sociologists commandeered the case study approach as a way to build their own historicist theoretical vocabulary (historians: seek out some pure sociology of science some time; it’s basically the modus operandi). Historians–who, as I’ve pointed out, have only minimal use for this vocabulary–have basically taken away the core historicist sociological insight, that “science” follows no peculiar “high road” to knowledge (science is comprised of a series of unique practices), and beat that naive position straight into the ground.

To what end? The most charitable interpretation, I believe, is that the strategy is used to illustrate the interaction of science with certain defining epochal trends: Enlightenment, modernity, imperialism, Cold War, etc… I’ve been pretty critical of this, because I think we’ve said little interesting about the history of science, and we’ve said little that’s really very new about any of these historical epochs. If anything, we’ve simply validated (only to ourselves) some notion that these things are coherent historical entities that can be easily encapsulated in caricature. Our job seems to be to adorn these concepts in baroque detail with our case studies, to add to our “model” of modernity, imperialism, etc… (my use of the term “model” here echoes C. S. Lewis’ description of the medieval literary model of the universe–see my post on “Hobbit History“). I’m pretty sure we get this habit off the literary theorists and art historians, whose primary job seems to be to pick out and describe literary/artistic epochs.

Galison asks “if case studies are paving stones, where does that path lead?” I’m obviously pretty belligerent and grumpy on this issue, and would reply “nowhere fast”. If we’re going to continue using the approach, we need very badly to be more creative in our identification of scientific trends. We won’t do it by copying the arts and letters crowd so slavishly.

Hobbit History: A Case Study March 7, 2008

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Fair warning: long post.

Reading over C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, the following passage popped out at me about his opinion of the relationship between medieval literature and medieval conceptions about the historical-philosophical Model of the universe that they had. Seeking to explain “why the authors so gladly present knowledge which most of their audience must have possessed,” he observes: “One gets the impression that medieval people, like Professor Tolkien’s Hobbits, enjoyed books which told them what they already knew.” He tries on a number of theories as to why this might be, but concludes: “The simplest explanation is, I believe, the true one. Poets and other artists depicted these things because their minds loved to dwell on them. Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination.”

I think we have a Historical Model about science and context that maybe we just kind of like to remind ourselves about again and again through case study. I will present the case for the prosecution against the 2006 HSS Distinguished Lecture, “The Leopard in the Garden: Life in Close Quarters at the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle” by Richard Burkhardt of UrbanaChampaign, as appearing in the December Isis. The lecture is sort of a behind-the-scenes look at the history of the governance of the museum in the late-18th, early 19th century, especially under George Cuvier. I have nothing against the piece, as such. It’s charming and well written. But I would also claim there’s absolutely no reason to read it because we already know roughly what it says.

We get to the main claim to importance here: “From a somewhat more nuanced perspective [beware the word “nuance” because it will usually alert you to the presence of a nearby “naive position”], we might also think about the power the museum exercised over its scientists. Perhaps by the nature of its resources and practices, it disposed its scientists to think and act in certain ways but not others. Pursuing the phrase in a Foucauldian direction [novel claims are sure to come], we could consider how the museum’s structures and practices served to discipline the French populace, ordering their behavior and fixing their place in the social order.”

This last bit might be sort of interesting, if the significance of the museum could be demonstrated, but the “French populace” never actually appears, nor does the museum directors’ assessment of their impact on the populace. We are largely left to infer the relationship between the museum and the French populace, by the actions of the museum directors and our innate (edit: “enlightened”?) understanding of museums as loci of knowledge/power. He seems to make the connection primarily in the museum’s ability to control the specimens, but, as I say, the effects of this control in the minds of the populace is not dealt with.

Anyway, hijinks ensue for 18 pages until we get to the moral of our story: “In our daily lives, as well as in our historical researches, we are continually reminded of the ways in which the cultivation of scientific knowledge and its dissemination are tied to specific times, places, and interests.” Say it with me, everyone: science is not context-independent.

Yes, it was a wild ride. Agendas were not only politically negotiated, they were also constrained by their material circumstance in ways pretty well consistent with our extant knowledge of the social relations of 19th century natural history. The acceptance of “progressive” scientific theories was resisted by those in positions of political power. Heck, the Hottentot Venus even dropped by for a visit, as much of an opportunity for bourgeois Europeans to project their notions of the exoticness of other races onto her body as ever.

I did learn that the Paris museum did not push Lamarckism, and that in the period of Darwin, it fell back on Lamarckism as a conservative position, so that adds a data point to my understanding of natural history presentation in that era–but that could have been demonstrated in a few sentences. Further, the historical significance of this data point is not clear.

Now, this is a distinguished lecture, which means that it is an opportunity to please an audience tired after a long day of hearing talks, and what better way than by presenting a pleasant story demonstrating unchallenging themes with which we ought to be familiar. So, the piece may say something about history of science audiences, but I would claim that it is actually quite representative of history of science writing regardless of audience, in that demonstration of the influence of social context on scientific knowledge is the key to receiving a polite response; nothing further is required; nothing further will receive particular reward.

Had I been in Vancouver, I’d have probably skipped out to get a beer with my colleagues. Tell me something surprising, and you’ve got my attention. Your honor, the prosecution rests.

Coming soon: Why Philip Mirowski is a mad genius; and Jenny and Will invite some folks over for a debate on French versus Anglophone analytical traditions (if I understand her proposal right). Also, I’d at some point like to take a look at Ronald Binzley’s intriguing case for mid-20th century Catholic science in the same issue of Isis as Burkhardt’s piece.

How to begin… January 24, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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Starting in with discussion about the upcoming course, I guess I’ll just say a few words about the course structure. As an “Introduction to the History of Science” I’m trying not to make things too fancy. I’m not going to muddy up the plot-line too much. This will be, unabashedly, the history of what we understand to be the modern scientific enterprise–not the history of knowledge about the natural world. Thus it’s largely a European story (with some detours into the Arabic-speaking world early on, of course) until the 20th century. Because, if we were to take some kind of weighted average, the most “science” does take place in the 20th century, I’m also trying to expand coverage of more recent events to try and address just how radically the character of science has changed in the last century–not just the well-known advent of “big science” but also diversification in the topics of scientific inquiry; diversification in methodology, and, above all, the full-scale integration of science into the fabric of society.

In some ways this integration (which, I would say, we can trace to the relationship between university science education and industrial R&D) represents a return to the way the medievals looked at the world; wherein knowledge of the natural was not well separated from theology, politics, history, and poetry–the most important topics of that period. I’m going to be using C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image to make this point about the medievals. This book is, as I understand it, a favorite of Katy Park at Harvard, and is now being used in their new year-long survey course. And it is a very nice way of jumping into the medieval mindset from which modern science emerges.

So, what I’m doing, after the introductory lecture is to give two lectures. The first will be on the classical philosophical issues. This will sort of give the high intellectual road to science, which comes via Arabic preservations of full classical texts–also pertinent are early Christian and Scholastic high philosophy. The second lecture will be on the “Medieval Model” as Lewis calls it. This is more of the broad “on-the-street” intellectual content of the early modern period, of which the early scientific sorts would also have been keenly aware. Subsequent lectures will focus on the clear craft influences on intellectuals in the early modern period.