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Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 1 September 22, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This post continues our examination of Cold War Social Science, edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens.

One issue to look out for when addressing the history of the social sciences — and intellectual history more generally — is that scholars are apt to see themselves as in dialogue with the events about which they are writing.  As with scientists writing about their own disciplinary past, there is a felt need either to credit the past as prologue, or to distance oneself from the folly of one’s predecessors.  Such, of course, are the roots of whig history.

The implicit aim of a new whig history, which shapes much intellectual and social science historiography is, in broad strokes, to explain how anthropologists and their intellectual allies bested academic competitors, and can now lead society away from a myopic modernism toward a more harmonious, genuinely cosmopolitan future.

This narrative is fairly similar to the original Whig narrative diagnosed by Herbert Butterfield, which took history to progress away from authoritarianism to political, economic, and religious liberalism. However, the whiggishness of the present narrative can be difficult to acknowledge, because the phenomenon of whig history is actually incorporated within the narrative as an intellectual pathology arising from the same teleological modernism being cast as outdated.  It is counterintuitive that the narrative could be whiggish, because whiggism is a declared enemy of the narrative.


How to Run a Historiography, or: Chymistry Rides High July 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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I know, I know, my scholarly crush on the chymistry literature is probably getting a little embarrassing. But I want to make sure everyone is taking notes like I am, because William Newman, Lawrence Principe, and their crowd are really putting on a clinic on how to run a proper historiography. The latest lesson is in putting together a good Isis Focus section: “Alchemy and the History of Science”, organized by Bruce Moran, and available free of charge in the latest issue.

I’ve been very happy to see this specialty spring to success, receiving both scholarly praise and public exposure in places like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Economist, and the New York Times. I am a bit worried that this success will be held up as simply a product of the virtues of historical scholarship. To an extent it should be, for reasons I will discuss, but I also think it’s important that the rest of us — including those of us working in decidedly remote terrain like 20th-century science — pay close attention to what these scholars are doing particularly right.


Philosophy of Science, Normativity, and Whig History August 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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Karl Popper, 1902-1994One of the things left behind by the historians of science who undertook the Great Escape from the philosophy of science was a claim to normative judgment.  The philosophy of science could look at scientific arguments and, using the epistemological tools at its disposal, come to a judgment concerning whether or not current or historical claims were worthy of the name “science”.  Through epistemology, science could consolidate and build upon its gains, which was not the case with something more subjective, like art, or (possibly) politics.

If we may say that science is, therefore, progressive, it stands to reason that, with the benefit of philosophy, we can look back on history and identify scientific works that were either progressive or regressive.  This is why Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) did not feel it was appropriate to apply his notion of “whig history” to science.  The notion is also central to the thought of Karl Popper (1902-1994), who thought that it was possible for epistemology to legitimize the assertion of those claims that stood because they had not been falsified, while delegitimizing those claims that were held as certainly true on account of illegitimate (i.e., social or political) prejudice, an action that necessarily falsified other claims prematurely.  The Church’s suppression of Galileo, the suppression of relativity and quantum mechanics to the benefit of deutsche Physik, or the enshrinement of Lysenko’s genetics as the official state policy of the Soviet Union all constituted sure signs of the illegitimacy of the socio-political system that made these events possible in the face of an epistemologically overwhelming challenge.

Setting Popper aside, in this general philosophical point of view, scientific progress is made possible only through proper epistemology.  The interference of society or politics represents an illegitimate interference with proper epistemology.  The philosopher of science therefore is in a position to make normative judgments of current science and upon science’s historical development, as well as upon the political systems that either allowed science its autonomy or that interfered with its freedom.

For much of the 20th century, this point of view was opposed mainly by a Marxist philosophy of science, which held (more…)

Philosophy, Sociology, and History: A Pocket History January 10, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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To understand the history of the history of science profession, it is very important to understand its contentious and evolving relationship with the philosophy and sociology of science, not to mention the history of philosophy.  Here I’d like to outline a quick “pocket” history of the relationship between history, philosophy and sociology, and beg the tolerance of connoisseurs for boiling the points down so recklessly.

Karl Popper

Karl Popper

Traditionally, the history of science has been of interest on account of its ability to reveal and demonstrate ideas about epistemology.  William Whewell’s The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded Upon Their History (1840) followed quickly on his History of the Inductive Sciences (1837).  Epistemology-oriented philosophers before and since have deployed cases from the history of science as illustrations of their theories about the progression of knowledge, and contain a normative element about how reliable knowledge can best be achieved.

In the 20th century, positivist philosophers and Karl Popper’s anti-positivist theory of the progress of science suggested clear demarcations between proper application of method and straying away from that method.  History could illuminate these debates.  According to a Popperian history of science, we don’t start from basic truths and build up; we start from a sort of primeval error and confusion (such as with the Aristotelian philosophy, which had been thoroughly trashed by Enlightenment philosophers) and, eliminating false beliefs, proceed toward truth.  What is interesting in any progressive history is the origins and acceptance of accepted ideas.  So, let’s say we read William Herschel, we easily pick out the discovery of Uranus (more…)