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Harry Collins, Methodological Relativism, and Sociological Explanation, Pt. 2 August 20, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In my previous post on Harry Collins’ ideas about “methodological relativism”, I discussed how in the early 1980s Collins began explicitly using relativism as a “natural attitude” that could be used to produce “sociological explanations” of scientists’ behavior.  Methodological relativism was premised on a clear delineation of tasks, which makes it appropriate for the sociologist, but not for scientists.

However, this delineation of tasks remained incomplete: in particular, the relationship between sociology, philosophy, and history of science remained confusingly unresolved.  Further, it was unclear what sociological fruits would actually be obtained via methodological relativism.  Finally, it left unclear what the relationship was supposed to be between the sociology of scientific knowledge and the more general sociology of knowledge, upon which STS appears to be based.

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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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Toulmin on Cosmology and the “Theology of Nature” December 4, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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In April I finished up a series of posts on the anthropological concept of “cosmology” (meaning a coherent system of thought), and the relationships historians of the 1980s were able to draw between it and the historical practice and fate of natural philosophy — including scientific cosmology — in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (See especially Simon Schaffer’s clear 1980 argument on this point.)

In my last post in that series, I noted that in seeking to ground Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) physical convictions in his Sandemanian religious beliefs, Geoffrey Cantor used the term “theology of nature” to distinguish ideas implicit in Faraday’s thought from a contemporaneous, but more explicitly reasoned “natural theology”.  To quote the subtitle to William Paley’s (1743-1805) 1802 book, Natural Theology, natural theology sought “evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity” in the study of nature.  For Faraday, though, only the certain revelation of the Bible could produce knowledge of God, making it necessary for historians to excavate his personal theology of nature.

Some time later, it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to chase down this “theology of nature” term, which led me directly to Stephen Toulmin’s 1982 essay collection, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature.  Aha.  Since today marks the first anniversary of Toulmin’s death, I thought it might be a good time to try to type something up that helps put Toulmin, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, into our history of the history of science of the 1980s.

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Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 2: Malignant Historiography and Self-Healing August 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Pt. 1 of this post began a discussion that stems from (but extends well beyond) two works of Simon Schaffer: 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”.  These works identified misleading narratives within a broader social and cultural historiography: a rise of reasoned polity and culture, and a decline of superstition and enchantment.  I suggested that in critiquing these narratives Schaffer had taken to the hustings to show how these narrative faults could be remedied by making use of then-recent insights in the historiography of science.  According to Schaffer, in order for all historical beliefs (scientific or superstitious) to survive and proliferate, their proponents had to engage in polemics that portrayed the beliefs as beneficial — and opposed beliefs as dangerous — to the social order.

In a sense, Schaffer was playing a role that is quite similar to the people he was writing about.  As he wrote in (1), “Representations about nature were stabilized … because … natural philosophers made their representations grip key interests within culture.”  His diagnosis of a historiographical ill and offer of a remedy from the historiography of science should invite us to consider why the diagnosis and remedy were deemed apt by the critic, and why he thought it would be received as apt by his intended audience.  Also, as Aaron suggested in the comments to Pt. 1, we should likewise be open to questioning who this audience really was. (more…)

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…)

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…)

Primer: The Rise of the Austrian School of Economics July 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973)

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973)

The “Austrian School” in economics traces its tradition to the work of Carl Menger (1840-1921).  Menger’s theoretical development of the origins of price has grouped him with the contemporary “Lausanne School” (identified with the axiomatic mathematical economics of Leon Walras) and the work of British economist William Stanley Jevons, all as part of the “marginalist revolution” in economics, which grounded the mechanism of price-setting in the value attributed to various quantities of goods by their buyers and sellers—a keystone of neoclassical economic theory and a critical element in the argument against the control of the economy by the state.

Menger developed his theories in opposition to the “German Historical School” headed by Gustav Schmoller (1838-1917), which gave Menger and his followers the label “Austrian”, intending the label as derogatory.  Schmoller insisted that theoretical economics disregarded essential differences in national traditions, and that only detailed historical investigations could arrive at a firm understanding of political and economic activity. The opening of the conflict between Menger and Schmoller occurred following the publication of Menger’s Principles of Economics (1871), a mere four years after Menger had received his law degree.  An anonymous review signed “G. Sch.” in a literary journal criticized the text’s scientific pretensions.  When Schmoller dismissed Menger’s Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics (1883) in (more…)

Historical Insultography and Posture May 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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All good historians know that one of the biggest pitfalls to writing good history is taking historical actors at their word.  Testimony from the past is bound to be limited by the witness’ particular perspective and colored by their own interests.  For example, a dispute of a scientific claim might be said to be motivated by “jealousy” by one party, where another party might claim the other was “narrow-minded”.  Reckless historiography simply takes actors at their word without getting the view of the other side.

Historians are thus challenged to adopt an analytically useful posture to find some way to resolve the problem.  One possible posture is to parse all the evidence to “get to the bottom of things”.  (One sees this a lot in really old-school historiography, especially out of Britain.)  Another possible posture is to see the existence of the controversy as an opportunity to examine some broader issue.  Following the epistemic imperative, one might dilute actors’ positions, to show that their position was “not universal” or “limited” or “influenced by tacit interests”.  A very common posture is a variation of this: to use controversies to triangulate out a detached position by simply acknowledging the existence of disputes: “but their actions were not without controversy”.  For some reason, it has become popular to just assume that narrating a controversy in such a way as to invert the actors’ broad claims is useful historiography regardless of the place of the particular controversy in broader history.

One gets the impression from the historiography that the history of science is nothing but conflicting and contested claims—the Great Inversion of “science’s”  claim to be the ultimate model of open and collaborative society—a (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…)

Primer: Paul Feyerabend and Epistemological Anarchism December 25, 2008

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer.
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Photo by Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend

Paul Feyerabend, born on January 13, 1924, died on February 11, 1994, was a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.  His major works included,  Against Method (1975), Science in a Free Society (1978), and Farewell to Reason (1987) a collection of already published papers. Feyerabend understood the history of science to reveal “anarchism” in scientific methodology, whereby discoveries are produced not through an adherence to any scientific methodology, but through the rejection of the prevailing wisdom and any established ways of doing science. Feyerabend argued in Against Method that any recourse to “method,”  such as in the Aristotelian account of motion or Galileo’s heliocentric position, was rhetorical flourish.    Like Thomas Kuhn but against Karl Popper, Feyerabend emphasized the socially constructed nature of scientific theories.

Against Method articulated the position of “epistemological anarchism” underscoring that the history of science revealed no useful or consistent methodological rules or general understanding of underlying logics of the growth of knowledge.  So variable was scientific inquiry that the only generality produced through a proper view of its history and the only rule useful to future scientific endeavors was that in the pursuit of science (past and present,) “anything goes.”  For Feyerabend, Karl Popper’s Critical Rationalism would, by mandating that all scientific theories admit validity or falsification through recourse to empirical evidence, inhibit the growth of science by placing undue and unrealistic limitations on  theory.  The goal of Against Method, Feyerabend later observed, was to free individuals from the philosophical “tyranny” of such concepts as “truth” and “objectivity.” (more…)