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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…)

Objectivity, Pt. 3: Philosophy of Science and Historiographical Empiricism September 10, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, Methods.
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I suggested in Pt. 2 of this post that Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity fits in with themes both have been exploring over the courses of their careers, as exemplified in Daston’s Wonders and the Order of Nature (written with Katharine Park), and Galison’s Image and Logic.  Both are excellent books, though very different from each other.  I believe my basic disagreements with the presentation in Objectivity (as described in Pt. 1) can be characterized in terms of how elements of the presentation of those books are carried over into Objectivity.  I also believe these disagreements correspond to at least some elements of Martin Kusch’s criticism of the book in his essay review in Isis.

I mentioned in Pt. 2b that Wonders is an exemplary work of historico-philosophy.  What I mean by this is that its subject matter is philosophically defined, roughly as follows: 1) understanding of the world is governed by system (an “order of nature”); 2) this understanding produces expectations concerning what is likely to be seen; 3) violations of this system constitute “wonders”; 4) ethical and intellectual responses to wonders constitute a way of fundamentally distinguishing epistemic traditions.

This scheme allows us to move the history of ideas about nature beyond the philosophy of science by characterizing at a very basic level what intellectual systems can look like outside of what we would think of as a properly scientific worldview.  Not only does the scheme allow us to be sympathetic to Scholastic methods that have often (though not always) been disparaged in histories of science, but also to literary and religious cosmologies (which offered intellectual resources to early natural history, which themselves have only recently begun receiving proper historiographical treatment).  Daston and Park’s scheme further periodizes modern natural (more…)

Objectivity, Pt. 2b: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Epistemology September 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History as Anti-Philosophy.
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If Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity is a product of the history of science’s Great Escape from the philosophy science, their work differs from much of the work in the Great Escape historiography in that it retains a clear interest in not only the history of ideas, but scientific ideas.  As I argued in Pt. 2a, Galison’s oeuvre has concentrated on aesthetic ideals as ideas governing individual scientific practice and intertraditional conflict: image vs. logic, or, indeed, one kind of representational objectivity versus another.

Daston, even more than Galison, has likewise never seemed too tempted to abandon ideas for practice.  Her work, like Steven Shapin’s work on the 17th-century, takes the relationship between epistemology and morals extremely seriously, so that it is not so much practice, but ideas about proper practice, that take center stage.  I would go so far as to say that Daston’s work, much like Michel Foucault’s, functions best as a mapping of systems of socio-epistemic ideas, and tends to be a little lackadaisical concerning things like proper periodization, and, especially, constituency (“eighteenth-century notions” should be read as “the notions of these thinkers active in a certain period of the eighteenth century”).  This is not to say it isn’t brilliant—it is—it just has its priorities, and readers are well-served to keep these in mind.

A nice introduction to Daston’s intellectual program is her piece “The Moral Economy of Science” from the 1995 Osiris, which (aside from stealing and redefining—i.e., appropriating—E. P. Thompson’s term “moral economy”) sketches out what (more…)

Galison’s Q’s #3: Technology of Argumentation May 19, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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PhunDay: once again a great time. Good papers; good, deep arguments. Apparently we’ve got some blog readers from Princeton, so here’s a shout out to y’all up in NJ.

To continue on with another PhunDay participant, Peter Galison’s questions, I’ll address Peter’s third question about historical argumentation. He starts out by talking about the boxes of inquiry: physical sciences, biological sciences, earth sciences, etc… which leads to a heavy concentration on certain areas clearly within these boxes (Darwin, quantum measurement, number theory, etc…), but less in cross-cutting areas, though we have a good start in areas like probability, objectivity (cf. his new book with Raine Daston), observation, and model building. So, the question seems to be, where should we go with this?

I guess I have a few reactions. First, it may be too easy to invent or commandeer categories and then to tell their history in our eagerness to find sexy new ways of looking at history. Before commenting conclusively or in depth I have to sit down with the book rather than flip through it, but I have my suspicions about the objectivity argument (Ted Porter wrote a good review on this, too, I think in Isis–I’d have to look it up). Galison and Daston chart attitudes toward objectivity through time. But is objectivity the sort of thing that bears coherent attitudes that change in clear ways? You can tell a history of anything if you cherry pick your evidence, but I always liked Keith Thomas’ Man and the Natural World, which to me serves as a permanent refutation of the notion that the human “attitude to the natural world” is something that actually has much of a history, because there are just too many concurrent–and contradictory–perspectives couched in concerns other than a general outlook on the natural world. (It’s true Thomas focuses on the “man” bit from his title, but arguments that “women” have a coherent attitude to the natural world have always struck me as fiercely reductivist as well). I’d think objectivity is a similar sort of concept–different attitudes toward portraying the “typical” or the “prototypical” or the “unusual” or the “specific specimen” would probably vary depending on concern rather than on grander epistemic shifts, but maybe that’s wrong….

That said, the approach has produced its successes. I think Daston and Park’s charting of attitudes toward wonder was very well done and was a nice way of looking at changing ideas about knowledge without adhering to science/non-science boundaries. Also, I believe the history of 20th century science cannot be told without discussing a constant state of interdisciplinary shifting. These shifts might not be a broad cross-science trend, but they definitely defy a one-field analysis. Also, Peter’s focus on the tools of science is apt. There’s a lot more history left to write on the history of such-and-such a method of arguing, or such-and-such an epistemological sensibility. In fact, these histories probably serve as a sort of guide to interdisciplinary shifts. I’m not sure if I can articulate that any better at this point.

One last observation: historians of science have never seemed to mind stepping outside of boxes. If anything, we’ve become obsessed with accounts that emphasize what is external to the history of our science. Yet, we do seem to harp on the same bits of science, the same stories over and over again, don’t we? I attribute this to a growing lack of concern with the actual history of science, and more toward seeing ourselves as historians of “ways of seeing the world” or something. But this strange disconnect between our desire to go outside the box and our adherence to a very narrow set of episodes or scientific practices is worthy of further thought.

Medieval Book Culture February 5, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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Reposted from the History 174 class blog:

Here I’d like to address the background question of what all this has to do with science. I got today’s lecture largely from Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park’s book, published in 1998, called Wonder and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. This is a really clever book, and demonstrates just what we have to gain from abandoning whig notions of history. Rather than try and reach back into the soup of books that come to us out of the middle ages and either brush it off entirely, or to try and pick out things that look like science, Daston and Park take all of these books as part of a unified intellectual culture. Literate people used to read devotional texts, bestiaries, and travel narratives all together, and they assembled knowledge indiscriminately from them–they didn’t relegate knowledge about the natural world to one defined set of books and read another set for entertainment. They all participated in a “model” of the universe, to use Lewis’ term, that informed and was informed by poetry, hagiography, philosophy, etc… Daston and Park choose to trace changes in this bookish culture not by trying to pick “science” out of it, but by tracking changing attitudes toward “wonder”–was it something that created a simple admiration for God’s creation? was it something that suggested the need for a preternatural or supernatural explanation? or was it something that was supposed to be expunged through rational explanation (as, they argue, happened with the rise of science).

Next lecture we’ll talk about astronomy, which was an extremely technical profession, but we have to understand that “natural philosophy” as it began to cohere in the 1600s, encompassed all kinds of non-technical subjects like natural history and geography as well as astronomy, and we have to understand where interest in those subjects came from. The answer is medieval book culture.

(For the super-interested, also check out William Eamon’s Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture)

How to begin… January 24, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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Starting in with discussion about the upcoming course, I guess I’ll just say a few words about the course structure. As an “Introduction to the History of Science” I’m trying not to make things too fancy. I’m not going to muddy up the plot-line too much. This will be, unabashedly, the history of what we understand to be the modern scientific enterprise–not the history of knowledge about the natural world. Thus it’s largely a European story (with some detours into the Arabic-speaking world early on, of course) until the 20th century. Because, if we were to take some kind of weighted average, the most “science” does take place in the 20th century, I’m also trying to expand coverage of more recent events to try and address just how radically the character of science has changed in the last century–not just the well-known advent of “big science” but also diversification in the topics of scientific inquiry; diversification in methodology, and, above all, the full-scale integration of science into the fabric of society.

In some ways this integration (which, I would say, we can trace to the relationship between university science education and industrial R&D) represents a return to the way the medievals looked at the world; wherein knowledge of the natural was not well separated from theology, politics, history, and poetry–the most important topics of that period. I’m going to be using C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image to make this point about the medievals. This book is, as I understand it, a favorite of Katy Park at Harvard, and is now being used in their new year-long survey course. And it is a very nice way of jumping into the medieval mindset from which modern science emerges.

So, what I’m doing, after the introductory lecture is to give two lectures. The first will be on the classical philosophical issues. This will sort of give the high intellectual road to science, which comes via Arabic preservations of full classical texts–also pertinent are early Christian and Scholastic high philosophy. The second lecture will be on the “Medieval Model” as Lewis calls it. This is more of the broad “on-the-street” intellectual content of the early modern period, of which the early scientific sorts would also have been keenly aware. Subsequent lectures will focus on the clear craft influences on intellectuals in the early modern period.