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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 2: The Weltphilosophie of Historical Epistemology February 16, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Rheinberger's history of historical epistemology

Rheinberger’s history of historical epistemology

The program of “historical epistemology” represents one of the more ambitious and thoughtful projects espoused by historians of science in recent years.  The self-conscious efforts of people like Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Lorraine Daston, and Peter Galison to renew interest in epistemological questions among historians is laudable.  And their point that epistemology is something that is invented rather than transcendental—and thus historically variable in its content—is surely a correct observation, at least from a historiographical standpoint.

That said, I have never been fully comfortable with the history produced by historical epistemology.  To date, the program has received the most intensive scrutiny from philosophers.  A good example is Martin Kusch’s 2010 paper, “Hacking’s Historical Epistemology: A Critique of Styles of Reasoning”.*  My own interest in the subject has less to do with the integrity of historical epistemology as epistemology (a subject I am happy to leave to philosophers), as it does with its Weltphilosophie and its conception of the history-philosophy relationship.

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The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 3 April 21, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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This post continues Pt. 2.  (Or, return to Pt. 1)

At the beginning of his preface to his book on the early years of the Royal Institution, Morris Berman explicitly states that his aim is to use history “to ask … significant questions regarding the nature and function of science in industrial society” (xi).  At the end of Pt. 2, I wrote that I believe we are secure insofar as we say that “science” and “reason” were “important cultural touchstones” in 19th-century Britain.

What I meant by a touchstone is that claiming that an explanation of something was “scientific” or that a proposed plan of action was “reasonable” would have been a means of associating the explanation or plan with a high status.  (These are of course still touchstones, although my impression is their present use in public discourse carries less of a sense of general virtue.)  However, given the number of such touchstones any society has — many of them contradictory — and given the lack of any control over the use of such touchstones, to say that some concept was a touchstone is not to say much at all.  Could, for example, an explanation deemed “scientific” trump an assessment of a plan as “unfair”?  It is not clear to me that we can say anything about the interplay of these concepts that would consistently describe social and political action, or even rhetoric in 19th-century Britain.

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The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Temporal and Practical Frontiers, Pt. 2 April 12, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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How do we deal with this guy Faraday?

If you wanted to pick out a transitional figure between a wide-ranging natural philosophy and a more bounded science, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) would be about as good a choice as any.  On account of his experiments and conceptual developments in electromagnetism, Faraday is now most identified with the history of physics, but, as the protege of Humphry Davy (1778-1829), he established himself within the tradition of chemistry.  An enterprise lacking foundational principles, chemistry fit poorly with natural philosophy, but was also not fully at home in natural history, and became an early independent field.

This was, of course, a recent development.  As Jan Golinski has described in some detail, it was only circa 1800 that chemistry managed to shed an association with a wide-ranging philosophy and radical politics, and to establish itself as a much more constrained field.  The heyday of natural philosophers like James Hutton (1726-1797) was, for many, still a living memory when Faraday vocally reasserted the importance of an empirical and non-speculative attitude toward science, and began to be recognized by others as an exemplar of this vision of science.

According to Geoffrey Cantor in Michael Faraday, Sandemanian and Scientist (1991), early biographies also emphasized the empirical qualities of Faraday’s work, and it was only beginning with Joseph Agassi’s Faraday as a Natural Philosopher (1971) that a portrait of Faraday “as a bold theoretical speculator in the mould of Karl Popper” began to emerge (Cantor, 208).  For his part, Cantor sought to take Faraday’s empiricist rhetoric seriously while developing an understanding of the conceptual precepts underlying his work.  Following the lead of David Gooding’s early-1980s analyses of Faraday’s methodology, Cantor aimed “to locate Faraday’s metaphysics in his religion and, in particular, in his views about the structure of the divinely created physical world.  These views […] coloured Faraday’s highly idiosyncratic theories about matter and force” (161).

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Primer: Michael Faraday June 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Michael Faraday (1791-1867) came from a London artisan family and as a youth became an apprentice at a bookbinding shop.  There he took the opportunity to read the books passing through, including such scientific titles as Conversations on Chemistry (1805) by Jane Marcet and Antoine Lavoisier’s landmark Elements of Chemistry (translated into English in 1790).  Supported in his explorations by his master and others, he attended popular scientific lectures, including some given by the celebrated chemist Humphry Davy (1778-1829) at the new Royal Institution (est. 1799).  In 1813 Faraday finagled a job as Davy’s assistant, and would remain at the Royal Institution for the rest of his life.

Faraday undertook his work throughout a period when the sciences were changing rapidly, as they were yoked into distinct specialties, and as his own area, the  experimental physical sciences, became dramatically more sophisticated.  Under Davy’s and other Royal Institution figures’ supervision, he learned the techniques of chemistry, and undertook all his early work in that field (and is credited with the discovery of benzene).  When Faraday initiated his interest in electricity and magnetism early in the 19th century, the harnessing of galvanic currents by means of voltaic piles was a recent innovation that had sparked extensive investigation into electrochemical effects (an alternative explanation is here).  Davy was a leader in this new field of study, and Faraday would likewise become an expert.  Faraday would eventually fall out with Davy—who would oppose his election to the Royal Society—and he came into his own at the Royal (more…)

Schaffer and the End of Natural Philosophy January 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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As we’ve moved along in our Simon Schaffer project, an underlying set of general historical concerns has emerged from reading his articles (plus Leviathan and the Air-Pump) together, which is the way arguments work and develop in natural philosophy.  Although the various subgenres of natural philosophy had varying sets of rules permitting cosmologies of varying stability, the history of natural philosophy could be told in a very organic way by examining the progression of ideas within cosmologies.  Some ideas could be specific, such as the restorative role of comets, or very general, such as the idea that fundamental aspects of the universe could evolve with time.  Religious views were a part of, rather than connected to or constraining natural philosophy.

Schaffer’s arguments helped make over a century worth of history make more sense, because they elucidated why natural philosophers’ arguments made sense to them.  In pursuing this project, he was a part of a break with prior historiography, which had ignored or sought to explain away the ideas and practices in the past that didn’t make sense.  What had motivated this new break was the epistemic insight that the inquiries of prior eras, both “good” and “bad”, made sense on account of their connectedness—not their disconnectedness—from their surrounding culture.  This insight has now become so mainstream in the history of science community, its manifestation so much a part of why we write, that it is actually Schaffer’s long-time-scale historiographical sensibilities (which were actually part of his more classical training) that seem remarkable and exciting to me.

Not so to Schaffer:

(He gets to the most relevant bit right away, but the whole 37 minutes is worthwhile.  Also, plenty more of the four hour interview at YouTube, or Alan Macfarlane’s web site.)

I’ve mentioned that writing around the epistemic imperative has a museological quality designed to ornament and advertise the profession’s (more…)