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Terminology: The History of Ideas May 19, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
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Arthur Lovejoy (1873-1962), proponent of one version of the history of ideas

Arthur Lovejoy (1873-1962), proponent of one version of the history of ideas

One of the drums I like to beat is that historians’ methodological toolkit is well developed, but that we do not use this toolkit as cooperatively and as productively as we might.  Part of making good use of tools is having good terminology, which helps us to understand and talk about what tools we have and what they’re good for, and how they can be used selectively and in chorus with each other.  It also helps avoid needless disputes, where vague language leads to perceptions of wrong-headedness and naiveté.  For example, I like to talk about the need for “synthesis,” which I take to mean an interrelating of historians’ works at the level of their particulars (rather than mere thematic similarity).  For me, synthesis is a sign of a healthy historiography, but such calls could be dismissed by others as a call for “Grand Synthesis,” which all right-thinking historians have been taught to shun.

For this reason, I thought it might be useful to suggest some definitions, which I personally follow.  In some cases, these are the result of extensive reflection, and, if you go into the archives of this blog, you will find I do not use the terms consistently.  And, of course, I don’t suppose my terms are the final word on the subject.  The best thing would be if they opened the door for debate and clarification.  In this post, I want to talk about:

The History of Ideas


“Discipline & Ontology” vs. “Projects” in Reconstructing Histories of Ideas June 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I am gearing up to review the recently published Cold War Social Science (2012) volume on this blog, and this post was written with that task in mind. But, before I get to the review, I’d like to sharpen up a critical tool I’ve been working on.*

I propose that within the historiographies of science, technology, and ideas in general — but politically and socially relevant twentieth-century work (be it scientific, engineering, intellectual, architectural, etc…) in particular — we can identify a common interpretive approach.  This approach supposes that historical contests between different disciplines over politically and socially significant “ontologies” are important foci for historians’ attention, because society is taken to grant disciplines, particularly “scientific” ones, the intellectual authority to dictate those ontologies’ form and implications.  Some important ontologies include: the structure of the just polity and the prosperous economy, modernity, human nature, mind, normality, disease, nature and “the natural”, and aspects of personal identity such as gender, sexuality, and race.


Foucault, Ginzburg, Latour, and the Gallery September 30, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post is an expansion on my previous post on Lorraine Daston’s discussion of the proliferation of microhistories that are “archivally based and narrated in exquisite detail” but that seem to serve no clear end.  I largely agree with her assessment of this trend as an unsatisfactory state of affairs, as well as with her linking of the trend to a divergence from a prior era of productive dialogue with the other fields of science studies.  However, she makes two key claims with which I disagree:

  1. “…in large part because of the mandate to embed science in context, historians of science have become self-consciously disciplined, and the discipline to which they have submitted themselves is history” (808).
  2. “Insofar as there has been a counterweight to these miniaturizing tendencies in recent work in the history of science, it has been supplied not by science studies but by a still more thoroughgoing form of historicism, namely, the philosophical history of Michel Foucault” (809).

I do not believe historians of science have in some way exchanged science studies for history, and I believe the historicism associated here with Foucault represents a continuity with the scholarship of the ’80s.

Let’s start with the intertwined set of highly productive conversations that took place around the ’80s (which we are beginning to revisit on this blog, and of which Daston was a part).  Participants understood their gains to be generated by studying things like “practice not ideas”, “instruments”, “cultures of the fact” and so forth, which are slogans that make sense if you have a (more…)

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…)

Schaffer busts out the hickory October 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Before heading on to Leviathan and the Air-Pump, I’m heading back to some earlier Schaffer articles that I missed in my initial run-through.  This includes a couple of pieces from the late-’70s, as well as what should be required methodological reading: “Natural Philosophy” in The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth-Century Science (1980), edited by G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter (one of the more disciplined and useful edited volumes I’ve seen).

What fun!  Schaffer takes out a baseball bat and goes ape on the then-extant historiography of natural philosophy, moving from specific to general critiques of it, before moving on to confirm my prior guess that he saw himself as expanding upon Foucault’s “archaeological” examination of the sciences.

Schaffer places an emphasis on the need for intellectual (indeed, epistemological) conflict to resolve historiographical flaws:

…there is an important need for alternative attitudes to natural philosophy as an historical category, not merely revisions of one or other of the unifying assertions which contemporary historiography has made.  This necessarily involves a genuine confrontation with the philosophical debates on the discursive place of history of science which, significantly enough, in the work of Bachelard, Kuhn, and Foucault, have all drawn on natural philosophy in the eighteenth century for much of their evidence.  Such a confrontation is overdue.

It is far more overdue today.  I’ll explain why…. (more…)

French history debate results May 12, 2008

Posted by Jenny Ferng in Uncategorized.
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Sorry for another prolonged absence. Obviously Will is beating me in the number of posts here but I will do my best to plod alongside his commentary. This post summarizes our online debate that occurred several weeks ago. We are thinking of trying something similar, maybe with more of a direct science slant, in the near future.

Online debate on French history, theory, and the question of modernism

Our first experimental virtual chat went very well, and we are happy to report that we had the generous participation of some French historians in training who took some time to talk with us about the usage of theory, the meanings behind history, and what it means to be modern.

Our guests included Micah Alpaugh, a Ph.D. candidate in history at UC Irvine, who studies non-violent political protest during the French Revolution; Meghan Cunningham, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Northwestern, who examines modern conceptions of the family as evidenced in the writings of Enlightenment savants; and Natasha Naujoks, a Ph.D. candidate in history at UNC Chapel Hill, who investigates the mythology of Napoleon during the 19th century in light of both classical and contemporary traditions.

Here are summaries and fragmented excerpts selected from our group chat:

1. Derrida and Foucault in the Classroom

The long shadowy presence of Foucault seemed to dominate this part of the conversation since most of our participants’ educational backgrounds had touched upon his theories in some way. Most of our guests were in agreement that theory was often taught but there was little in the way of guidance about how to employ theory in relation to history. Natasha recommended Elizabeth Clark’s History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn as a good source that commented about the origins of the “new intellectual history” and its debt to French theory. Apparently, it also turned out that I was the sole supporter of theory with Will and the others quite happy to leave it alone. No closet Deleuzians here…

2. Textual Interpretation, Inside Out

Literary interpretation was another area of interest that seemed to be debilitating, or at least, lacking in proper means of usage. Meghan raised the problem of interpreting the emotional language found in the letters between romantic partners, parents/children, and friends for the purposes of her dissertation. Micah agreed that linguistic categories were equally limiting for the concept of mass-action. Everyone seemed to enjoy the work of Clifford Geertz as a budding graduate student, but Micah’s dislike of Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms merit as a micro-history divided the group. Bruno Latour’s Laboratory Life and Science in Action provided some amusing thoughts about the agency of salmon.

Meghan: (summarizing the book)…with the more theory-inclined arguing that bacteria have agency…
Meghan: and this one history grad student pipes up, “So what’s next? Salmon have agency?”
Will: See, it’s not that he’s wrong, if you read him right, it’s that he’s not that helpful.
Meghan: I would say that was my take on him as well.

3. Historians are Humanists too!

Should history graduate students really pretend to be part of the humanities in order to garner more grants and fellowships (when art historians really do need the money)? As Natasha aptly articulated, the “exercise in fantasy,” when a dissertation has yet to become a concrete project, is a mix of rhetorical posturing and not knowing where one will find the appropriate forms of evidence (if they even exist). Some shuddered at the thought that some historians do not even use archives at all.

4. Traversing the *“Leaderless Minefield”

Meghan noted that some historians, in the spirit of finding new frontiers, were making the move to the area of material culture. Which possibly could devolve into museum studies, according to Will. Which could be generalized as visual culture, as I implied. Which could end up in media studies. Not quite sure if that is so good. In retreating to the analysis of culture, the group agreed that there was a strong lack of argumentative programs that did not offer any original viewpoints about the state of the field (there were many scholars who were certainly trying to avoid obvious faux pas or attempting to revise the revisionist literature).

*We actually owe this term “leaderless minefield” to Micah.

5. Modern, Modernism, Modernity, WTF?

We managed somehow to return to address Fish’s assertion that deconstruction does not and could not have a politics, which did not sit well with most of the guests. The conversation finalized around the types of questions that our guests are posing in their projects and if looming presence of modernity played a role in their assessment of historical periods, fields of study, and the kinds of conclusions drawn from scholarship.

Micah: Very broadly, I think it’s time to have Revolution come back in — the Soviet hangover’s worn off a bunch over the last twenty years, and the world over the next few is likely to get a lot more interesting…
Meghan: I would say my chief interpretative issue is how to write a sort of collective biography, and in particular how to access emotional/private life issues through texts, which involves a lot of correspondence theory.
Natasha: on a provincial level, I’m challenging early modern and modern French historians about periodization
Natasha: I really resent the 1789 dividing line
Me: What would be the new date of the French Revolution?
Micah: I’m pretty invested in the 1789 line myself.
Natasha: I’m in favor of 1750-1850, not across the board of course
Micah: Sounds Furettian ;)
Natasha: well, I do love my ferrets, you know…no seriously, think about teaching the French Revolution, how could you possibly start in 1789 and make sense of it? Inevitably you’d have to create a sort of prologue unit, you know, “origins of…”
Micah: Such is the great challenge, but a worthwhile one. Did the French Revolution really have origins?
Natasha: no, was an accident…you’re right :-) Seriously, though, I’m not sure I’m convinced by the conflation of the FR and “modernity,” fraught with teleological problems
Micah: Yeah, modernity, WTF?