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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.


Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 2: Malignant Historiography and Self-Healing August 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Pt. 1 of this post began a discussion that stems from (but extends well beyond) two works of Simon Schaffer: 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”.  These works identified misleading narratives within a broader social and cultural historiography: a rise of reasoned polity and culture, and a decline of superstition and enchantment.  I suggested that in critiquing these narratives Schaffer had taken to the hustings to show how these narrative faults could be remedied by making use of then-recent insights in the historiography of science.  According to Schaffer, in order for all historical beliefs (scientific or superstitious) to survive and proliferate, their proponents had to engage in polemics that portrayed the beliefs as beneficial — and opposed beliefs as dangerous — to the social order.

In a sense, Schaffer was playing a role that is quite similar to the people he was writing about.  As he wrote in (1), “Representations about nature were stabilized … because … natural philosophers made their representations grip key interests within culture.”  His diagnosis of a historiographical ill and offer of a remedy from the historiography of science should invite us to consider why the diagnosis and remedy were deemed apt by the critic, and why he thought it would be received as apt by his intended audience.  Also, as Aaron suggested in the comments to Pt. 1, we should likewise be open to questioning who this audience really was. (more…)

Entente Cordiale: Anthropological and Natural Philosophical Cosmology March 2, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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Simon Schaffer’s “Natural Philosophy” in Ferment of Knowledge (1980) is an exhilarating piece by a 25-year-old scholar.  When I first looked at it on this blog, I gave my post the title “Schaffer Busts Out the Hickory”, suggesting that he had taken a wooden bat to the extant literature on the topic.  In view of the scholarship of today’s grande entente cordiale, it was really refreshing to see a vigorous and pointed critique directed against other historians’ work.  Sure, it was a tad violent, but it was in the service of progress!  “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven” and all that.

Anyway, partially a part of the growing rebuke against viewing 18th-century science as an outgrowth of a grand tradition of “Newtonianism”, partially a rebuke against attempts to define natural philosophy in terms of what makes it distinct from science (e.g., Kuhn’s definition of “pre-paradigmatic science”), the piece ultimately moves beyond criticism and becomes a messily-articulated, but powerful and original discussion of how one might begin to construct a positively-defined historiography of natural philosophy.

Schaffer identified two possible proposals for constructively analyzing the history of natural philosophical systems:

[S]ome historians [cite: Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin] have used the ideas of Mary Douglas, Robin Horton, and other cultural anthropologies as clues to unravel the cosmologies of natural philosophers, while Michel Foucault has constructed an ‘archaeology of knowledge’ with which to analyse the structure of natural philosophy as a set of discourses.  These contrasting approaches derive from two opposed epistemologies.  (86)


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…)