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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.


History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 1: The Disappearance of “Weltphilosophie” in the History of Science February 11, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Hanson, NR

Norwood Russell Hanson

In his 1962 paper, “The Irrelevance of History of Science to Philosophy of Science,” Norwood Russell Hanson referred to a longstanding concern of philosophers of science that historians of science abided by one or another deficient “Weltphilosophie“.  A Weltphilosophy was an explicit or implicit outlook adopted by a historian, which “controls his selection of salient subjects, his alignment of data, his conception of the overall objective of the scientific enterprise, and his evaluations of the heroes and villains within the history of science.”  According to Hanson, “Those who stress the silent operation of a Weltphilosophie in the studies of historians of science then suggest that without philosophical awareness and acuity, the reader must remain at the mercy of the historian’s unspoken assumptions.”

Do historians abide by unspoken philosophical assumptions today?  Critics have often asserted that historians abide by a social constructionist epistemology, and much time and effort was expended in the 1980s and ’90s contesting its validity.  According to Michael Bycroft, it is still useful to analyze and criticize social constructionism precisely because “[m]uch current research in the history of science can be seen either as an affirmation of [social constructionist] claims or as a consequence of them.”  But this is one of the few points on which he and I disagree.  In the past several years, I have come to believe that “social constructionism” is a rhetorical red herring, which confounds an appreciation of less well articulated changes in historical methodology, including the fact that most historians of science no longer abide by any Weltphilosophie at all.


New Article in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences December 5, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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hsns.2012.42.issue-4.coverMy new article, “Strategies of Detection: Interpretive Practices in Experimental Particle Physics, 1930-1950,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 42 (2012): 389-431, is out.  Click here to download a free pdf copy (15MB—lots of images).  I’ll talk more about the contents of the paper in future posts. For the moment, I’d just like to publicly jot down some thoughts about the origins and thinking behind the paper, which I think is a useful exercise to do for all new publications.

The paper is self-consciously a testing ground for ideas about how to build a more synthetic historiography. First, it’s an attempt to develop a way to find interesting historical “objects” to periodize and interrelate in the history of scientific practice. In doing this, I am trying to build explicitly on the foundations for “mesoscopic” history that were laid by Peter Galison (my PhD advisor) in his big book,Image and Logic (1997). Other attempts to do this sort of thing have tended to look for very large “objects”, such as John Pickstone’s “ways of knowing” or Galison and Lorraine Daston’s attempt to classify and periodize concepts of “objectivity”. I am arguing for the importance of looking at things that are smaller, but which are not simply “local”, and things that are less “epistemic” in nature, but which nevertheless provide us with insight into past scientific arguments. These are the titular “strategies of detection”.

Second, the paper is also an attempt to summarize the already considerable past gains in the historiography of experimentation in particle physics (which is dominated by Image and Logic), and then to go deeper, retaining and extending some gains while challenging and revising others. If we imagine historiographical progress as existing along two axes of “depth” and “breadth”, this paper aims to further progress along the depth axis, while contributing only slightly to the breadth axis. But I started work on this paper while putting together the topic guide on particle physics for my Array of Contemporary American Physicists resource, which looks for new gains mainly along the breadth axis. So, in my mind, ACAP and “Strategies of Detection” are complementary branches of my thinking about the central problem of historiographical synthesis.

A few notes on the paper’s origins below the fold.


Kuukkanen on the Philosophical Foundations of the Historiography of Science October 13, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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The Twitterverse has brought to my attention a new article by philosopher of history Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen of Leiden University: “The Missing Narrativist Turn in the Historiography of Science,” History and Theory 51 (2012): 340-363 (paywall).

Like Lorraine Daston’s 2009 article in Critical Inquiry (with which Kuukkanen does not engage), Kuukkanen’s piece covers the oft-plowed ground of the relationship between the social studies of science and the historiography of science. Recall that Daston takes the rather unorthodox view that historians have exhausted the insights of the social studies of science, and have therefore turned to the mainstream history discipline, which she believes explains our present surfeit of disconnected microhistorical case studies. Kuukkanen takes a more traditional view in that he believes that present historiography remains a fairly direct product of science-studies thinking. However, he also peculiarly believes that, due to this influence, we historians have not embraced the “narrativist turn” taken by other historians, which is to say, we believe the way we write about our subject matter is the way to write about it, and so we myopically fail to open ourselves to the possibility of alternatives.


“Discipline & Ontology” vs. “Projects” in Reconstructing Histories of Ideas June 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I am gearing up to review the recently published Cold War Social Science (2012) volume on this blog, and this post was written with that task in mind. But, before I get to the review, I’d like to sharpen up a critical tool I’ve been working on.*

I propose that within the historiographies of science, technology, and ideas in general — but politically and socially relevant twentieth-century work (be it scientific, engineering, intellectual, architectural, etc…) in particular — we can identify a common interpretive approach.  This approach supposes that historical contests between different disciplines over politically and socially significant “ontologies” are important foci for historians’ attention, because society is taken to grant disciplines, particularly “scientific” ones, the intellectual authority to dictate those ontologies’ form and implications.  Some important ontologies include: the structure of the just polity and the prosperous economy, modernity, human nature, mind, normality, disease, nature and “the natural”, and aspects of personal identity such as gender, sexuality, and race.


Norms, “Ideology”, and the Move against “Functionalist” Sociology September 4, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) critique of the Mertonian program to define a “normative structure of science” centered around the complaint that, by focusing on the social conditions that fostered scientific rationality, nothing was said about the sociology of knowledge-producing processes in everyday scientific work. It seems to me that SSK strategies like “methodological relativism”, and Steven Shapin’s embrace of “middle-range” historico-sociological theories, might ultimately have resulted in additions to, and a reconciliation with, the original Mertonian framework.

However, at the same time, another critique questioned the basic validity of that framework. This critique shared the SSK critique’s interest in describing actual scientific work, but, like Mertonian sociology, it focused on scientists’ and others’ sense of the essence of scientific culture without directly addressing knowledge-production processes. This critique held that, because “functionalist” ideal-type systems of scientific behavior could not actually be found in their pure form, such systems did not meaningfully exist. Legitimate sociology had to be obtained inductively from the empirical record, as studied by historians and ethnologists.

A key work here is: Michael Mulkay, “Norms and Ideology in Science,” Social Science Information 15 (1976): 637-656.


Dear and Jasanoff on Daston on the Current Situation February 27, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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The December Isis has been published, which includes a response from Sheila Jasanoff and Peter Dear to Lorraine Daston’s 2009 Critical Inquiry article, “Science Studies and the History of Science” (paywall), entitled “Dismantling Boundaries in Science and Technology Studies” (paywall).  I posted my own two-part reaction to Daston’s piece in September 2009: “Daston on the Current Situation” and “Foucault, Ginzburg, Latour, and the Gallery” (a title that is great search-engine fodder, by the way; it is now the most visited post on this blog written by me).

I don’t really have any major new reflections here, but I will offer a couple of observations, as well as some recapitulations of points I’ve already made.  (more…)

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.


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…)

Integration without Differentiation: The Fate of the Natural Philosophy Problem March 25, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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As I noted in my last post, the notion that we have experienced a historiographic revolution in the history of science has often been predicated on the notion that the key insight of that revolution was a conceptual extension of epistemology into the social.  In principle, this insight should support a number of conceptual variations within the general framework.  Thus, for instance, the avowed eclecticism of Natural Order (1979), which was supposed to begin a longer process by gathering examples which would accommodate a subsequent historical and philosophical synthesis.  In their introduction to the book, Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin warned , “Our predominant concern has […] been to obtain contributions based in concrete work [i.e., empirical history], and for this reason no unified point of view, or overall framework or theory, will be found consistently used and advocated through the book” (13).

In his 1980 Isis essay review of the collection (pp. 291-295), historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg described the general project as a “laudable task” (295), but worried that the book embraced “a position so tentative and eclectic that it almost approximates the theory-starved practice of a good many historians” (292).  This quality lent cover to an undifferentiated treatment of the connections between knowledge and social relations: it concentrated on the fact of the relationship between subject and its socio-cultural context rather than offering any notions about the manner of the relationship, and what the role and importance of various contexts were.  “Such facile connection between social location and the form of a particular idea removes the historical actor from that very richness of context in which Barnes and Shapin would have him placed” (ibid) … “the contributors almost never place their protagonists in appropriately detailed social location” (293).

As far as I can discern, the whole point of putting a number of historiographical problems under the single, crucial rubric of social epistemology was that it would prompt a differentiation between different manners of subject-context relations, allowing an explicit formulation of the relationships between differentiated historical phenomena to be forged.  The benefit of placing one’s own historiographical project within this rubric was the potential that it could be productively related to others’ historiographical projects.  The danger was that one’s own historiographical project, once integrated into the rubric, would fail to be distinguished from those other projects.  We return to the “problem of natural philosophy”. (more…)