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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. 1 August 24, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post looks at two works from the oeuvre of Simon Schaffer:

1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century” in Realism and Representation: Essays on the Problem of Realism in Relation to Science, Literature, and Culture, ed. George Levin, 1993, pp. 128-157.

2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain” in Rethinking Social History: English Society 1570-1920 and its interpretation, ed. Adrian Wilson, 1993, pp. 279-318.

Both papers find Schaffer on the hustings.  As historian of medicine Adrian Wilson puts it in the introduction to the Rethinking Social History volume, “Simon Schaffer’s chapter … can be read as a plea to social historians to concern themselves with the history of science.”  This appeal is made by identifying certain misconceptions about the role of science in history prevalent in a broader historiography.  According to Schaffer:

Received history has it that the eighteenth century was a crucial period for the establishment of [realist] regimes.  The novel and the experimental report appeared as legitimate means of representing the moral and the natural order….  Somehow or other, older, courtly forms of making knowledge failed or were thrust aside. (1; 283/5)


The social history of [stories about claims about things like humans giving birth to animals, perpetual motion, and the inverse square law of gravity] has typically been described in terms of the ‘decline of magic’ and the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ (2; 128) (more…)

Schaffer on Bodies, Evidence, and Objectivity February 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Bodies of evidence: frontispiece of Nollet’s Essai sur l’electricité des corps

In 1983’s “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century,” Simon Schaffer set himself the task of determining whether “some of the more fashionable themes in current historiography” could be made to yield real explanatory gains.  Among these themes was “the notion of scientific production as performance”.  The gist of that piece was that natural philosophical arguments, as illustrated through public demonstration, had trouble fostering social agreement because of the requirement that the audience be able to interpret the performance and its implications correctly.  Here was a tension that, especially when connected to the social and political dangers of rationalist Jacobin politics, could help explain the nineteenth-century rise of contained scientific communities.

Much of Schaffer’s output in the 1980s and early 1990s filled out various instances where natural knowledge was linked to problems of maintaining proper behavior, and, thus, political order.  He especially concentrated on the cases of pneumatics (and the related practice of eudiometry), and cometography.  He also highlighted pointed criticisms of the idea that experimentally-gained knowledge could solve problems of social order, particularly those of Hobbes, Burke, and Whewell.

“Self Evidence,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 327-362 returns us to 1983’s general point—the problematic relationship between experimental evidence and its implications for knowledge—and returns to some of the same electrical experimenters.  There is however a new wrinkle: the emphasis now is on self-experimentation and the difficulties of evidence produced specifically through the experimenter’s body.  How could a savant or an audience trust in reports of the medical benefits of electrical therapy, for example?  Accordingly, Schaffer does not point to the rise of the contained community.  Instead the consequence of the identified tension is the rise of mechanical instrumentation designed to measure physiological effects.  “The lesson of the story of self-evidence may … be that there is an intimate relationship between the trust placed in evidence of self-registering scientific instrumentation and the moral authority of the scientific intellectual” (362). (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…)