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Neglected Connections between the Histories of Science and Economics, Pt. 2 March 9, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Part 1 of this post argued that the historical relations between natural scientific and economic thought require additional attention.  It suggested that in the Enlightenment period both were subsumed within the epistemology of philosophical systems-building and the generic argumentative structure of “economy”.  Although David Hume’s theory of morals was not economics, per se, in a separate post I used his example to demonstrate how the argumentative construction of a social economy had to face similar intellectual problems as chemistry, botany, and (what was thought of as) physics.

Part 2 emphasizes the importance of logical or argumentative space in economic thought, as exemplified by — but by no means limited to — mathematical inquiry.  I want to argue that economics continued to adhere to the argumentative strategy of system-building familiar from 18th-century natural and political philosophy.  Meanwhile, though, most natural sciences took a separate path toward argumentative rigor applied to a tightly constrained space of argumentation, such as that defined by laboratory phenomena.  Political economists were deeply influenced by the natural sciences’ newly enhanced commitment to rigor, but interpreted that commitment in novel ways within the relatively unconstrained argumentative space of political economy.

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Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 3: Fragmentation and Consensus August 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This is the third and final part of a look at two of Simon Schaffer’s 1993 works, 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”.  In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and now here in Pt. 3, the focus is on the papers’ mode of argumentation and this mode’s significance within the historiographical culture of the early 1990s.

In these papers, a historiographical malignancy is identified: an insistence on seeing a rise of reasoned polity and society, and of spaces of free inquiry; this rise is attended by a decline of false belief.  This is considered a malignancy because it ignores the extensive and persistent controversies over various beliefs.  The remedy, thus, is taken to be what I call “insultography”: a charting of commonalities in the polemics used to secure the boundaries of belief about what exists, or at least what is plausible.  Historical “polemical work” consistently references widely acknowledged sources of credit-worthiness and discredit (in Pt. 1 these pervasive opinions are referred to as “grand cultural ideas”): religious piety, superstition, the vulgar crowds, the emotional manipulation and illusion of the theater, courtly society, bourgeois society, investment schemes, the legacy of Isaac Newton…  Historians’ failure to acknowledge the historical importance of this polemical work as they chart the history of knowledge is taken to stem from their own selective credulity toward of these same polemics.

The current goal is to understand why the identified historiographical issue is considered an important malignancy and why the remedy is considered apt.  As suggested in Pt. 2, portraying historiographical issues as malignancies could be used to explain a gnawing problem of historiographical craft: fragmentation.  In his (free, and well worth reading) 2005 Isis article on this fragmentation phenomenon in the historiography of science, David Kaiser traced complaints about it as far back as a 1987 article by Charles Rosenberg in Isis, a 1991 Casper Hakfoort article in History of Science, and a 1993 James Secord article in BJHS.  Kaiser suggested that the fragmentation was akin to specialization that occurred within the natural sciences as they expanded in the 20th century, pointing to similar patterns of growth in the recent history of the history of science discipline.  (more…)

Life at the Boundary June 29, 2010

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For decades now, historians of science and their allies in science studies have had an enduring fondness for boundary studies.  The “boundaries” in question are taken to be places where agreements that define what constitutes a legitimate claim no longer clearly apply.  In Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the “paradigm” (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962), arguments across paradigms cannot be decided based upon evidence, because the standards of interpretation that would allow a decision to be made differ.

Kuhn’s point spoke to a potential philosophical irreconcilability, but sociologists would adopt the basic idea to discuss the importance of social coalition-building in knowledge-building, which could be hidden beneath an apparent epistemological smoothness where arguments were well-accepted, but which became visible in instances of controversy along coalition boundaries.

Harry Collins wrote in 1981, “In most cases the salience of alternative interpretations of evidence, which typifies controversies, has acted as a level to elicit the essentially cultural nature of the local boundaries of scientific legitimacy—normally elusive and concealed” (“Introduction” to a special issue of Social Studies of Science 11 (1981): 3-10).  Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer wrote in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985):  “Another advantage afforded by studying controversy is that historical actors […] attempt to deconstruct the taken-for-granted quality of their antagonists’ preferred beliefs and practices, and they do this by trying to display the artifactual and conventional status of those beliefs and practices” (p. 7).

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The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Temporal and Practical Frontiers, Pt. 2 April 12, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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How do we deal with this guy Faraday?

If you wanted to pick out a transitional figure between a wide-ranging natural philosophy and a more bounded science, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) would be about as good a choice as any.  On account of his experiments and conceptual developments in electromagnetism, Faraday is now most identified with the history of physics, but, as the protege of Humphry Davy (1778-1829), he established himself within the tradition of chemistry.  An enterprise lacking foundational principles, chemistry fit poorly with natural philosophy, but was also not fully at home in natural history, and became an early independent field.

This was, of course, a recent development.  As Jan Golinski has described in some detail, it was only circa 1800 that chemistry managed to shed an association with a wide-ranging philosophy and radical politics, and to establish itself as a much more constrained field.  The heyday of natural philosophers like James Hutton (1726-1797) was, for many, still a living memory when Faraday vocally reasserted the importance of an empirical and non-speculative attitude toward science, and began to be recognized by others as an exemplar of this vision of science.

According to Geoffrey Cantor in Michael Faraday, Sandemanian and Scientist (1991), early biographies also emphasized the empirical qualities of Faraday’s work, and it was only beginning with Joseph Agassi’s Faraday as a Natural Philosopher (1971) that a portrait of Faraday “as a bold theoretical speculator in the mould of Karl Popper” began to emerge (Cantor, 208).  For his part, Cantor sought to take Faraday’s empiricist rhetoric seriously while developing an understanding of the conceptual precepts underlying his work.  Following the lead of David Gooding’s early-1980s analyses of Faraday’s methodology, Cantor aimed “to locate Faraday’s metaphysics in his religion and, in particular, in his views about the structure of the divinely created physical world.  These views […] coloured Faraday’s highly idiosyncratic theories about matter and force” (161).

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The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Temporal and Practical Frontiers, Pt. 1 March 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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Lord Kelvin: still natural philosophical after all these years

If we accept the working idea that 18th-century natural philosophy could be characterized by philosophers’ willingness to incorporate ideas about the physical nature of the world into a general scheme accounting for various natural “economies” or “cosmologies” that flowed into questions encompassing the characteristics of life, body, mind, epistemology, ethics, society, theology, and politics; then we need to define how far this universalizing philosophical practice extended, both temporally and within particular cultures, and what sorts of things have happened at the boundaries.

This was an active question through the 1980s.  One common answer was professionalization and specialization (not to be conflated!—notably see Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in Nineteenth-Century America” in the latest Isis; the piece opens with an unusually lively historiographical discussion).  In 1983, Simon Schaffer saw boundary creation as a consequence of the political dangers attributable to public natural philosophical demonstrations.  Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray were also very clear on this point in Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1981), discussing how the BA was established in the 1830s, both to promote scientific work, and to constrain the bounds of (and thus objections to) scientific investigation and thought.

It was likewise in this same early-to-mid 19th-century British context that William Whewell (1794-1866) coined the term “scientist” in response to an injunction by Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834) that men of science should not pretend to the more general and eminent title of philosopher.  (See also Schaffer (1991) on Whewell as a critic of knowledge claims.)  In 1986, Schaffer had been very explicit in denoting the establishment of new philosophies and institutions of science as signaling the “end of natural philosophy”, which also entailed the rewriting of histories of older discoveries to accommodate the new understanding of “science”, singular.

Of course, natural philosophy did not “end”.  To begin with, “scientists” were by no means prevented from discussing issues outside of their defined jurisdictions, nor, conversely, was delimited expertise devoid of broader implications.  In fact, the term “scientist” did not even catch on until much later.  However, it is clear that the situation did change, and some effort was put into figuring out how the intellectual and moral terrain of science was reconfigured. (more…)

Thematic Concerns and Synopticism in the Historiography of Scientific Work February 5, 2010

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Jed Buchwald began his essay review of Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise’s 1989 biography of William Thomson, Energy and Empire (British Journal for the History of Science 24 (1991) pp. 85-94) with the observation, “Post-modernism and Benoit Mandelbrot have found their way to the history of science.”  He went on to identify the book as “a sort of fractal biography“, and observed, “Here we have, as it were, an attempt to force meaning, but not global order, to emerge out of chaos through guided immersion in the chaos itself.” The “ever-present aim” is “thematic unity”.  Buchwald saw this as a new methodological tack, and his characterization of it is worth a lengthy quote.  Rhetorically asking why one should write a massive biography of a very important, but not Very Important physicist, he surmises:

The answer Smith and Wise would give, I think, points to Thomson’s unique significance as the exemplar and the creator of a special kind of imperial science and engineering.  His scientific creations both reflect and constitute a powerful amalgam of social, cultural and economic trends that shaped British physics and physics-based engineering into a form that gave it worldwide dominance during the same period, and for many of the same reasons, that Clydeside ship-builders and the British telegraph dominated.  I know of no comparable biography, or history, that so directly embraces and thoroughly works the view that every aspect of an individual’s career is indissolubly bound to every other aspect of it, that the whole connects both globally and in intimate detail to tendencies that influenced populous groups of people and that have at first sight little to do with questions such as whether or not one should treat moving force as an energy gradient.

Of course, the attempt to derive unity from an individual’s intellectual output was not new.  We have already seen on this blog how in 1984 Simon Schaffer had criticized the literature on Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) for portraying him as a “synoptic thinker”.  Energy and Empire was part of the very same discussion.  In fact, in their chapter 4 on the “changing tradition of natural philosophy”, Smith and Wise drew on Schaffer’s work on Glasgow astronomer John Pringle Nichol (1804-1859), whose commitment to social progress accorded with his support for the nebular hypothesis and the attendant implication of cosmological progress, which (apparently) implied an endorsement of the general concept of progress by nature itself. (more…)

Leftovers: Practical Strategy as Fractional Philosophy September 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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After working through my thoughts about the historiographical aims of Objectivity and whether or not the history of science’s turn away from the philosophy of sciences impoverishes its ability to write a history of ideas, I have one leftover question I don’t really know what to think about, and it is expressed nicely in Martin Kusch’s review of Objectivity as he confronts their attempt to construct a “historicist” history without being “relativist” (possibly, I may be misunderstanding).

(Here, by the way, “historicist” means that concepts, such as objectivity, are not transcendental, a meaning to be distinguished from a historical determinism, as in the Marxist dialectic.)

According to Kusch:

Only a century ago, and thus very much in the period at issue in Objectivity, the relationship between historicism and relativism was extensively discussed among the likes of Dilthey, Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche, Rickert, Simmel and Windelband.  Whatever emerged from this eventually abandoned debate, it certainly included the insight that the historicist can avoid relativism only by either positing a telos of historical development or treating the views of different periods as components of one overall truth.  Neither option now seems particularly attractive.

Kusch defends relativism here as something not to be equated with skepticism.  I have to admit I haven’t read enough of Kusch to know his opinions on the matter, but, having read enough of Harry Collins to understand how relativism informs his specifically sociological project (and with their jointly-written book still on my to-do list), I think I understand the defense as having to do with generating additional layers of explanation describing why rational actions can only make sense within specified social preconditions.

Rather than try and explain my understanding of what they mean by relativism any further at this point, I want to focus on the unattractiveness of seeing different views as components of an “overall truth”, because this is how I tend to see practice as informed by, or at least conforming to, philosophy, as discussed in my last post.  The basic idea here (more…)

Escape’s End, or: Philosophy and the Art of Historiography Maintenance September 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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This book makes no pretense of giving the world a new theory of the intellectual operations.  Its claim to attention, if it possesses any, is grounded on the fact that it is an attempt not to supersede, but to embody and systematise, the best ideas which have been either promulgated on its subject by speculative writers, or conformed to by accurate thinkers in their scientific inquiries.

—John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, 1843

While he ended up caught in a bloody tangle of barbed wire and killed, I heartily approve of Steve McQueen’s clever orchestration of a mass escape from a Nazi POW camp culminating in a heroic motorcycle chase.  It is, though, perhaps needless to say that academic life is not the film of The Great Escape, historians are not Steve McQueen, and the philosophy of science is not a POW camp (however much it may have felt like one at points in the past).  We do, however, risk a similar outcome in our own Great Escape.

The rationale underlying the Great Escape was the overbearing influence the philosophy of science apparently exercised on historians’ reconstruction of history.  These histories perhaps concentrated too strongly on contributions to a history of ideas and not enough on the actual concerns of the people who made those contributions.  They rendered certain topics of historical importance such as astrology unworthy of historians’ sustained attention, and narrated history in a language of discovery and proof that made the shape of science seem inevitable and the matter of the reception of discoveries a simple question of vision or blindness.

The vision of scientific community offered in philosophy and in philosophy-derived histories was of a sort of hive mind, which assumed that, once demonstrated, scientific ideas should and would spread freely, and that, therefore, it was appropriate to ask (more…)

A Message from the President July 21, 2009

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HSS members have just been alerted that the new e-newsletter is out.  First off, I think it’s good the newsletter is only online, but their new floating table of contents is not working for me, because it obscures the text on my computer at work even when the window is fully expanded.  You can shrink the screen contents by hitting Ctrl-minus, and that clears it up.  Or you can just access the pdf version.  This year’s HSS preliminary program is included (look for my session Saturday morning!)

Jane Maienschein

Jane Maienschein

What I want to post about real quick before I take off to Colorado on vacation until next week is Jane Maienschein’s message as outgoing president of HSS.  First off, a tip of the hat for the following: “We have to embrace a range of scholarly products, including well-crafted blogs that have more impact and reach a larger audience than the typical academic book, public presentations, and collaborations with scientists.”  Quite true, although I would emphasize the possibility for having real-time, open scholarly conversations rather than audience reach.

Second, an important and possibly controversial point: Maienschein observes that a major priority for her was getting the history of science to reconnect with…. the history of science!  “I worried that the profession had become so diverse and diffuse that it lacked the energy to carry the field forward. In particular, I saw too much of a swing toward a version of the social history of science that seemed to forget the science. I imagined I might help bring back a balance of interests – science at the core, along with plenty (more…)

Methodological Unity, Revisited June 20, 2009

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Buchwald and Franklin, eds., Wrong for the Right Reasons.

In my recent look at historiographical language, I discussed Kent Staley’s 1999 critique of Peter Galison’s division of particle detector history pre-1970 into epistemologically discontinuous “image” and “logic” traditions.  I noted that Staley might have made his point less palatable through an appeal to the methodological “unity” of science (rather than contiguousness), which Galison jumped on as contrary to the construction of coherent history.  For Galison, it is the methodological divisions in science that keep it nimble, intellectually diverse, and heuristically powerful, and it is an appreciation of this disunity that allows us to make any sense of its history consistent with a detailed reading of the historical record.  What, then, is the appeal of philosophical “unity”, and do historians have anything to gain by letting philosophers espousing it in the door?

If, indeed, philosophers believed philosophy could be used to reconstruct an algorithmic history of science, then surely they should be kept out at all costs, but this does not appear to be the case.  Staley, for one, appears to seek conceptual clarity rather than to follow Imre Lakatos’ notion of the “rational reconstruction” of history—science may be epistemologically diverse, but underlying epistemological connections may be revealing of the sources of the strength of certain kinds of knowledge-making acts: “We might entertain the following version of the ‘unity of methods’ thesis: there are a small number of forms of argument that are shared among otherwise diverse areas of investigation, or that are employed in common during (more…)