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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…)

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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…)