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Daston on the Current Situation September 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Cheers to Darin Hayton over at PACHSmörgåsbord for keeping his eye on Critical Inquiry, where, in a nicely timed coincidence, Lorraine Daston has a new article (paywall protected), “Science Studies and the History of Science,” dedicated to many of the same issues we regularly explore here.  Take a look if you can.

Daston notes—and I concur—that after a brief period of lively interaction, history of science and science studies drifted apart in the 1990s.  In the article, Daston portrays the science studies disciplines as listless and adrift, while the history of science has fled for the greener pastures of straight history, a move that has placed the history of science on safer, but tamer ground (the history of science now lacks “a certain yeastiness that at once intrigued and rattled the neighboring disciplines of history, philosophy, and sociology, as well as the sciences” p. 811, fn).

According to Daston (echoing a point made in Objectivity and in co-author Galison’s “Ten Problems”), “Gone are the case studies in support of one or another grand philosophical or sociological generalization about the nature of science; in their place a swarm of microhistories have descended, often archivally based and narrated in exquisite detail” (809).  I agree with the sentiment, but Daston believes the current passion for archive-mongering indicates our dedication to historiographical methodology—she notes the “improved craftsmanship of [our] footnotes”.  This serves mainly to (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…)

Normative Historiography and the Gallery of Practices August 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after awhile

–Bob Dylan, 1966

If I were David Byrne
I’d go to galleries and not be too concerned

–Crash Test Dummies, 1993

I take progressive historiographical scholarship to be generated through a chronological problematic.  By characterizing traditions (of practices and ideas) and projects as operating within defined periods and through defined constituencies, scholars can theorize and argue about the results of interactions between traditions, projects, and constituencies, and about the nature of changes in these things over time.

If this blog has its house critique, it is of the new internalism, which is a label for scholarship that creates self-standing pieces of work with no asserted historical relationship to other pieces of work.  Instead, the work often purports to address a socio-epistemic problematic, which seeks a deeper understanding of how knowledge is made and how it operates in society.  The scholarship seeks this understanding by accumulating instances of practices relevant to socio-epistemic questions in varying historical contexts.  The accumulation of such instances creates a scholarship referred to on this blog as the gallery of practices.

The object of this post is to inquire into the relationship between the creation of the gallery and the historiographical “theodicy” adopted to lend urgency to the establishment of a new sociology of knowledge (since around 1980).  In a change of thinking since I started this blog, I don’t imagine that the literature currently seeks to address questions actually posed by sociologists (more…)