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Professional Theodicy and Synthetic Narrative August 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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The term “theodicy” is getting a lot of exercise here recently, so, to review: a theodicy is a philosophical explanation for why there is evil in the world in spite of the existence of a benevolent deity, as in Leibniz’ Theodicy.  A theodicy almost necessarily draws on problems of free will, the hope of knowledge, and its attendant dangers.  Transforming theodicy into historical narrative, it becomes possible to periodize these themes.  Sometimes this narrative functions as an origin story (as in Genesis and the stories of Prometheus and Pandora’s Box).  Following the Enlightenment and French Revolution—just as geology and cosmology began to acquire temporal elements—more recent human history could be periodized in terms of an overarching balance of knowledge, morality, and wisdom, as in the criticism of Joseph-Marie Maistre.

Since Maistre’s time, historiographical theodicies have frequently used rationalism or scientism as explanations of evil.  Following the rise of the Soviet Union and the Nazi Party, conservative thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper regularly drew connections between the post-French Revolution thought of Saint-Simon and Comte through to Marxism, logical positivism, modernism, and the rise of totalitarian regimes.  Chris Donohue has written about this trend on this blog, and he is responsible for getting me into the topic.

Science studies has imported similar narratives of theodicy linking the philosophy of science (positivistic and otherwise), the historiography of science, and the authority of science in society.  The sociology of knowledge has, in recent years, functioned within this theodicy as a kind of deliverance from evil, restoring a true historiography undistorted by philosophy’s arbitrary elevation of science to a coherently identifiable, objective, uncultural, and therefore privileged activity.  It is the contention of this blog that this theodicy has reduced the scope of historiographical inquiry to ornamentation of socio-epistemic issues privileged by the theodicy’s narrative.  Abandoning a study of ideas for a study of practices consonant with the theodicy, our professional theodicy now deeply inhabits our historiographical synthesis.

Witness Iwan Rhys Morus’ essay review of Patricia Fara’s new book Science: A Four Thousand Year History in the latest History of Science, which he edits.  Historical explanation of evil is present and unusually explicit: “Up until the 1960s, historians (more…)

R&D, please May 7, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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A couple of weeks ago, in my Intro to History of Science course, I gave a lecture on the rise of research and development as perhaps the most socially significant arm of the scientific enterprise. It was one of my favorite lectures of the semester. In some ways it extended off the “culture of invention” lecture that I gave with my industrial revolution lecture, but emphasized how tightly intertwined laboratory/workshop work had become with the invention/development culture.

The invention lecture emphasized loose connections, and was given in the same week as the 19th century physics lecture–the non-textbook readings of the week were from Smith and Wise’s Lord Kelvin biography on William Thomson and the telegraph. The R&D lecture started off with the fairly familiar story of BASF and the German chemical industry and the emphasis at places like the KWG on more applied kinds of research. I also brought in Dave Kaiser’s recent work on the growth and “suburbanization” of physics in the postwar period as being specifically oriented around R&D-type activities (which he doesn’t devote much attention to, emphasizing the pedagogical angle instead).

However, I began the lecture by emphasizing the complexity of the relationship between “basic science” and “applied science”–where a “simple narrative” tells you basic leads to applied, the “complex narrative” has more to do with basic science facilitating the leap from technology to improved technology, than with unveiled secrets of nature leading to fabulous new technologies. I emphasized that the complex narrative was well-understood by anyone with real knowledge of R&D activities. David Edgerton’s “The Linear Model Did Not Exist” was the reading for the week (along with a 1928 article in United Empire called “Scientific and Industrial Research” by British science administration luminary, Henry Tizard).

I was especially satisfied with the lecture, because I don’t think it would appear in too many courses or historical overviews, and yet is both simple to understand and extremely important. I pointed out that even though R&D dominated scientific culture, and to a remarkable degree in the postwar era, Bowler and Morus devote pretty much zero attention to it. Their “Science and Technology” chapter ends just when the story is getting interesting! Beyond the scope of the class, I don’t think we’ve come to terms with R&D as a part of scientific culture, which is a part of our continuing historiographical difficulty in really understanding and describing science in the 20th century in general. Edgerton’s article is not a bad place to start thinking about the issue–a draft of it can be found here (see #41 under articles).

Discourse on Style April 2, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Since I eventually rejected Buffon’s “Discourse on Style” as a title for the blog (no clear science reference), here’s a few quick thoughts on what has always seemed to me to be the most important reason for reflecting on “the issues”. That is improvement in style. These thoughts aren’t well refined, so I may post some clarification later.

In his response to me (below), Matt Stanley brings up the important observation (that I haven’t seen too much myself) that popular writing by scholars is often panned by other scholars. Now, I haven’t heard too much criticism of Alder’s Measure of All Things or Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps (except by nitpickers on the history of telegraphy), so I’m not too sure if it’s a universal revulsion (and it’s not the first time I’ve heard calls for bringing our craft to the masses). But I think it also goes to reinforce my point that there seems to be some sort of professional need to guard “our” style against corruption, because apparently we think that our intellectual gains are fragile.

But what’s in style? I was previously a bit mean to Actor-Network Theory and Pickering’s “mangle”, saying that, by contrast, the new SEE may be “worth historians’ time”. This question of worth ought to be clarified. I do not mean that ANT and the mangle (a punk revival band name?) have no worth–I think they’re fine for those who are interested in those kinds of theories. But I think their impact on how we write history is pretty negligible. Even though we all love Latour very much, I don’t see his jargon or even his concepts getting deployed too much in the historical literature. In fact, I’d say that the bulk of the impact of sociology has been avoiding clumsy statements.

Let’s go to the literature. Here are the first three sentences of John Heilbron’s 1979 book Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (which I used for my lecture on “Invention and the Industrial Revolution”): “The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century did not affect the several branches of natural philosophy equally. Some sciences, like astronomy, mechanics and geometrical optics, already far advanced in antiquity, were then transformed into prototypes of modern, quantitative, instrumentalist physics. Other sciences, like chemistry, exchanged one set of unproductive concepts for another.”

Now, all right-thinking historians will cover their ears in pain at some of those statements. Bowler and Morus’ Making Modern Science textbook that I’m using goes out of its way to reject the idea that the “scientific revolution” (whatever that is) came to chemistry late. But here’s the thing: Heilbron’s book is actually pretty damn good, and commits very few Whiggish heresies. Yes, he drops some of these discordant sentences on us, and, yes, the sociology of science has trained us to avoid them, but that’s actually not a very substantive stylistic improvement for the sheer amount of praise showered on sociology. Again, I’m not saying the sociologists are wrong and shouldn’t exist, just that their importance for the writing of history is overstated, especially since we never mention prior historical theorists like Quentin Skinner, who offer many of the same lessons without all the quasi-philosophical hoopla. [edit: “contemporaneous” is probably more accurate than “prior”]

Bowler and Morus/Naive Positions March 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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In History 174 we’ve now come to the end of Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences, a textbook which I like a great deal (and the students seemed to like it, too). For the rest of the course, the textbook is Peter Bowler and Iwan Rhys-Morus’ Making Modern Science, which I generally like, but I have one major criticism that applies both to it, and to history of science writing in general, and that is its insistence on arguing against naive positions.

We’re starting out with their chapter on “The Chemical Revolution”, which they frame around the question of whether the chemical revolution was delayed by a century from the rest of the scientific revolution (and, of course, whether it was a revolution at all). They mount a sustained attack on the notion. This general strategy is employed throughout the book. Various historians, like Kuhn, are constantly making an appearance. I can’t help but think that this is distracting to students. I would be willing to bet they have no a priori notions abut the “chemical revolution”, so why burden the text by structuring it around a refutation of such notions? I believe the point of a textbook is to tell the best, most informative history we can, not to lay bare the neuroses of our profession induced in us by our battles with our forebears [edit; rereading Bowler and Morus this morning, this last clause is too extreme a description for what they clearly have intentionally deployed as an interesting framing device–but I think the statement is valid for why it might seem like a good idea to insert the “history of science profession” so prominently into a “history of science textbook”].

Really, the strategy isn’t surprising, because it is, in general, a habit ingrained in our desire to elevate our own analyses by arguing against the naive positions of certain prior thinkers about science, or against the “science textbook presentation”, or against “pop science”, or against the notion that the progress of science is independent of its context, as if these represented a living and threatening school of historical thought. My historiography guru David Edgerton has publicly and privately criticized technology historians’ habit of taking on straw men like the “linear model” (my students will read his piece against this straw man) and technological determinism. I tend to glorify mainline historians, but they, too, tend to rail against viewing developments as inevitable, and insist on looking at how events are “contingent”. If we’re going to improve our art, we need to avoid intellectual crutches like arguing against long-comatose naive positions.

Cumulative History January 22, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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It’s now a week until my course at the University of Maryland, so increasingly this blog will be turning toward that. I’ll let my students know about it, and they can come here to look at some of the background ideas and sources behind lectures, if they like. It also makes it seem like a good time to talk about cumulative history. As I was saying earlier, the history of science does not tend to reflect historical methodology. Hence there are few textbooks. For our course, I’ll be using Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences (which Ken Alder used when I took my first history of science course as an undergraduate at Northwestern), and Peter Bowler and Iwan Rhys-Morus’ Making Modern Science (which my AIP predecessor, Babak Ashrafi, used when he taught the same course). These are pretty good books–probably the best available for these purposes.

I’m really looking forward to teaching a “Plato to NATO” course, actually, because it gives me a chance to go back and try and assemble a coherent narrative about science. I think we need to write more long histories. When I was writing my dissertation, I was reading R. F. Foster’s Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, which I thought was a fantastic example of what such histories should look like, and was stylistically inspiring. Foster clearly incorporated historiographical insights into what his book included and how it included them.

If I were to make a sort of coarse observation about the history of science profession, it’s that there’s sort of a nervous hesitancy to paint broad pictures. One of my colleagues has noticed that we focus on the micro-level apparatus and observation, rather than on the level of the department, the university, the discipline/profession, or the nation. I can’t really say why this narrow focus exists, but I get a feeling it has to do with a reluctance to get criticized for oversimplifying historical developments–there are always more wrinkles that just have to be included, otherwise we might as well not undertake the venture of cutting a broad swathe through science; or maybe it’s that we feel we can’t say anything coherent about broad trends at all. But I’m of the opinion it’s better to write and rewrite histories rather than wait for a day when we’re confident enough to make broad statements. Following science, we should have more textbooks, certainly, but we should also have more review articles.

Anyway, busy day ahead, so I’ll cut this off fairly abruptly here.