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Kuukkanen on the Philosophical Foundations of the Historiography of Science October 13, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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The Twitterverse has brought to my attention a new article by philosopher of history Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen of Leiden University: “The Missing Narrativist Turn in the Historiography of Science,” History and Theory 51 (2012): 340-363 (paywall).

Like Lorraine Daston’s 2009 article in Critical Inquiry (with which Kuukkanen does not engage), Kuukkanen’s piece covers the oft-plowed ground of the relationship between the social studies of science and the historiography of science. Recall that Daston takes the rather unorthodox view that historians have exhausted the insights of the social studies of science, and have therefore turned to the mainstream history discipline, which she believes explains our present surfeit of disconnected microhistorical case studies. Kuukkanen takes a more traditional view in that he believes that present historiography remains a fairly direct product of science-studies thinking. However, he also peculiarly believes that, due to this influence, we historians have not embraced the “narrativist turn” taken by other historians, which is to say, we believe the way we write about our subject matter is the way to write about it, and so we myopically fail to open ourselves to the possibility of alternatives.

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Galison’s Q’s #5: What Should We Make? May 23, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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Jumping off of “fabricated fundamentals”, Galison asks a related question: if we can make new natural things, what natural things should we make? It’s basically the same thing Donna Haraway was getting at back in the ’80s with her Cyborg Manifesto (I think–Haraway can be baffling). We’re all artificial now, so now what?

I don’t really see this as a history and philosophy of science question at all–it’s basically a political and economic question. We have some technology, so what should we do with it? Economists will tell us that we will be hard-pressed to come to conclusive answers because individuals hold different values, and that market-type negotiations will instead determine what takes place. Is it possible to ban a technology? Probably not; if it’s valuable enough, a black market will develop. Then, if some people have access to it while others don’t, that changes the dynamics of what constitutes ethical and legal behavior (see the plethora of current IP issues, or the ambiguous social attitudes toward narcotics). Do we in the science studies professions have anything original to say on this score? I’m not too sure we do.

Thinking about this actually reminded me of one of the most interesting sci-fi novels I’ve read (I’m not really a student of the genre), Frank Herbert’s Dune, where a society 30,000+ years from now is highly technological, highly feudal, and highly religious. In this techno-ethical system, the highest technologies revolve around the mind. Interstellar travel is based on folding space, which is accomplished using a state of hyper-consciousness achieved through ingesting the spice “melange” (which only exists on the desert planet Arrakis, a.k.a, Dune). Melange is a pretty transparent stand-in for oil, and its trade is tightly controlled. But maybe a more pertinent point to this post is the fact that “thinking machines” (i.e. advanced computers) are religiously banned; in their place are “human computers” called Mentats. There’s more to the book than that; but it’s an illustration of the book’s overall treatment of the limitations on the use of technology in a time when technological applications are basically unlimited, essentially suggesting that fanaticism and totalitarianism (the book’s main plot revolves around the possibility of a coming galactic “jihad”) are the only replacements for economic behavior in a society where technology must be controlled. Interesting stuff.

Postmodern equivocation March 26, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Here’s that Zammito quote, Nice Derangement of Epistemes, pp. 262-263; on Stanley Fish’s reply to Alan Sokal at the height of the science wars:

“Stanley Fish, before he resorted to ad hominem self-righteousness [Zammito does not pull punches], also offered a defense of the postmodernist stance. He wrote: ‘What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are socially constructed–fashioned by human beings–which is why our understanding of those properties is continually changing.’ This is a remarkable piece of writing. If, indeed, science studies took the stance that Fish represented, there would be nothing radical whatever about it. That is, in fact, why Fish is unbelievable, for science studies does seek to be radical. Indeed, a careful study of Collins, of Pickering, and above all of Latour–to say nothing of Harding and Haraway–suggests not only that they would repudiate Fish’s intervention but recognize it for what it is–disingenuous rhetoric. There is a characteristic move here, one which features in much postmodernist posturing. Extreme positions are taken; when challenged, authors deny the extremity and affirm they really meant a far more modest posture.”

Zammito is astute here and what he says jibes well with what I’ve seen in my short career in the history of science. It shows the instability of ideas* in the sociology of science, which devolves into one of two states, call them “spin up” and “spin down” to use the idea from physics that “intermediate” quantum states cannot exist.

Spin up is the radical “strong program” that I refer to as a parlor game, which states that science-society relations are understandable without reference to epistemology. The problem is that the stance totally fails to explain historical events, which cannot be understood without reference to the robustness of scientific (or really any) ideas and the incentive to agreement that robustness provides (more on “robustness” later). Hence the need for epistemological “cheats” as I called them yesterday.

Spin down is the banal “science is not context-independent” critique which sets up prior scholarship (and a general “society’s view” often referred to using the pronoun “we”) as a straw man that presumes a naive philosophical (“algorithmic”) viewpoint toward science, that nobody holds (I think we could include even the Wave One’ers here, although Collins and Evans insist on keeping them naive). Spin down informs the majority of professional history of science writing today.

So, by refusing to take any positions between spin up and spin down, sociologists are faced with either being interesting and wrong, or uninteresting and right, and will tend to vacillate between the positions as it suits their interests. However, Zammito goes on: “At least in Collins, Pickering, and Latour we have authors strong enough in their convictions, whatever others think of their claims, to refuse to water them down and escape criticism.”

Notably, all three of these individuals have tried to break out of the constraints of the spin up-spin down duality. Latour with Actor Network Theory, Pickering with the “mangle” (which I want to discuss later), and now Collins and Evans with SEE. I have my reasons for thinking that SEE is actually worth historians’ time.

*I love the term “instability of ideas”; in “Fog of War”, LBJ, in a conversation with Robert McNamara re: Vietnam, quoted a senator saying it.