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Anthropological Cosmology and Anti-Demarcationism, Pt. 2 March 18, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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There was no such thing as the historiographic revolution and this is a (too-long) post about it.

Historiographical totem?

In the late-1970s, the applicability of anthropological notions of cosmology to issues in the historiography of science could be understood as evidence of the need for an epistemology that extended into the domain of social relations.  This extension entailed the notion that scientific work existed in a cultural and intellectual continuum with the society around it, and thus that attempts to demarcate scientific work and ideas were ill-founded.  Society was not simply something to be scrubbed from science; legitimate scientific work was made possible through its establishment in legitimate places within society, and through the selective borrowing from society of cultural and political means of establishing legitimate claims.  This, I think, was a good idea, but was it methodologically revolutionary?

The test of the validity of any idea is whether it can change the outcome of a process in some specific way.  A scientific idea can help create a successful experiment or an improved technology.  The idea of social epistemology could be tested as could much sociology and philosophy of science by running it through the historical record and seeing if it rendered it more coherent.  In other words (to use a Latourian formulation), the success of social epistemology was bound up with its ability to forge an alliance with historiography.

The socio-epistemology advocates took no chances on getting lost in the shuffle, and apparently decided to tie the success of their program to a beneficial historiographical sea change.  In a 1983 article discussing possible implications for science education, Steven Shapin and Harry Collins even used the title “Experiment, Science Teaching, and the New History and Sociology of Science” (my emphasis; reprinted in Teaching the History of Science (1989), eds. Michael Shortland and Andrew Warwick).  However, the existence of this shift as a coherent entity, and the placement of socio-epistemology within it, should not be taken for granted.  The idea took years to successfully engineer. (more…)

Kjeldsen on Rheinberger via Epple April 28, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Continuing on last week’s discussion about the sufficiency of current methodology, I’d like to take a look at Tinne Hoff Kjeldsen’s piece, “Egg-Forms and Measure-Bodies: Different Mathematical Practices in the Early History of the Modern Theory of Convexity,” from the latest Science in Context (free issue!), and particularly the function of her invocation of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s array of “epistemic things”.

For those not familiar with the modern theory of convexity, fear not.  I’m mainly interested in the topic because it is central to the mathematical theory of linear programming, which is an important part of the canon of operations research techniques, and Kjeldsen, a historian of mathematics, is the top expert on the subject.  She has a long line of papers explaining how the rather discontinuous history of convexity theory can be understood in terms of its development as parts of mathematicians’ varying projects—what she has previously referred to as different “tasks”.  Her work is extremely useful to people like me who need to figure out what any of this has to do with military doctrine-building and radical British scientists—you’d be surprised—and are reluctant to spend too much time on the nitty-gritty details on the history of things like convexity theory.

The history of mathematics is a nice place to address this issue, because this history is relatively coherent from antiquity to the present in comparison to other fields of study.  As a consequence, historians of mathematics have found it to be more legitimate to address transhistorical mathematical problems as addressed across large gaps of time.  In venues such as the Archive for History of Exact Sciences, history maintains a sort of unusual (more…)