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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.


Schaffer on Bodies, Evidence, and Objectivity February 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Bodies of evidence: frontispiece of Nollet’s Essai sur l’electricité des corps

In 1983’s “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century,” Simon Schaffer set himself the task of determining whether “some of the more fashionable themes in current historiography” could be made to yield real explanatory gains.  Among these themes was “the notion of scientific production as performance”.  The gist of that piece was that natural philosophical arguments, as illustrated through public demonstration, had trouble fostering social agreement because of the requirement that the audience be able to interpret the performance and its implications correctly.  Here was a tension that, especially when connected to the social and political dangers of rationalist Jacobin politics, could help explain the nineteenth-century rise of contained scientific communities.

Much of Schaffer’s output in the 1980s and early 1990s filled out various instances where natural knowledge was linked to problems of maintaining proper behavior, and, thus, political order.  He especially concentrated on the cases of pneumatics (and the related practice of eudiometry), and cometography.  He also highlighted pointed criticisms of the idea that experimentally-gained knowledge could solve problems of social order, particularly those of Hobbes, Burke, and Whewell.

“Self Evidence,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 327-362 returns us to 1983’s general point—the problematic relationship between experimental evidence and its implications for knowledge—and returns to some of the same electrical experimenters.  There is however a new wrinkle: the emphasis now is on self-experimentation and the difficulties of evidence produced specifically through the experimenter’s body.  How could a savant or an audience trust in reports of the medical benefits of electrical therapy, for example?  Accordingly, Schaffer does not point to the rise of the contained community.  Instead the consequence of the identified tension is the rise of mechanical instrumentation designed to measure physiological effects.  “The lesson of the story of self-evidence may … be that there is an intimate relationship between the trust placed in evidence of self-registering scientific instrumentation and the moral authority of the scientific intellectual” (362). (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…)

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…)

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

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History as Anti-Philosophy.
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In his useful essay review of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity in Isis, the philosopher Martin Kusch (formerly of Cambridge HPS, now of Vienna) notes that an important feature of the book’s argument is its twin commitments to combating “relativism” and “localism” (which causes him “unease”; more on this later).  I agree with his emphasis on these motivations as key to understanding the format of Objectivity‘s presentation, and believe the commitments are linked to the historiographical program of the Great Escape from the philosophy of science that began some 30 years ago.

If this story is right, once various forms and specters of epistemological determinism were removed from the history of science, local “contingency” became the watchword.  To understand why any view became established in the history of science, you had to go to the local archive and uncover all the nuanced negotiations that resulted in the “construction” of this or that concept.  This tended to be repellent to scientists and philosophers of science, not because it uncovered their dirty laundry, but because it tended to make the development of whatever concept was at issue appear arbitrary.  Even if constructionism did not imply arbitrariness, per se, it did leave plenty of room for socio-cultural bias, or, to put it another way, for the intellectual overdetermination of scientific knowledge through the “ladening” of observations with theory or values.  This overdetermination could be teased out by examining the archive, or simply by examining the “situatedness” of patronage (following the Marxists) and of the metaphors employed in scientific knowledge-building.

Even since How Experiments End (1987), Galison (not unlike fellow Escapist Latour) has been keen to defuse not only radical skepticist claims that knowledge is socially determined, but also more moderate claims attached to anti-positivist (more…)

Sociology, History, Normativity, and Theodicy August 9, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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“For my part I see no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but much literature in the social history of science has less of a connection with the sociology of knowledge than many apparently traditional exercises in the history of ideas.”

“Finally, there is a marked lack of rigour in much social history of science; work is often thought to be completed when it can be concluded that ‘science is not autonomous’, or that ‘science is an integral part of culture’, or even that there are interesting parallels or homologies between scientific thought and social structures.  But these are not conclusions; they are starting points for more searching analyses of scientific knowledge as a social product.”

—Steven Shapin, 1982

To my mind, Shapin’s “History of Science and Its Sociological Reconstructions,” (History of Science 20 (1982): 157-211) is perhaps one of the best articulations of how sociological methodology could augment historiography.  It is a manifesto for the sociology of knowledge program against critics (Joseph Ben-David, Rupert Hall, and Larry Laudan are specified).  It’s also an argument against more sterile sociology-based historiographical methods—the “social history of science”.  As pointed out in the quotes above, these methods draw no substantive connections between sociology and the intellectual production of knowledge: society is simply something that imprints itself on scientific institution-building, practice, and claims.

To put it another way, Shapin ought to be understood as an epistemological sociologist, one who in 1982 was apparently fighting against many of the same problems that bedevil us today.  No one, to my mind, better articulated how integral things like proper institution-building and proper etiquette have always been (more…)

Projects and Problems as Elements of History April 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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One important theme in the history of science profession is that there is a perceived need for increased methodological sophistication.  “We” (as a profession, and as a society) need to “think about science”, or more broadly, “think about knowledge and practice” in different and exciting new ways in order to really get at the history of science, and the relationship between science, technology, and society, and to avoid being misled by dubious scientific or anti-scientific claims.

Methodological sophistication is important.  It has only been methodological reflection that warns us against, for example, necessarily regarding “religion” as a “constraint” on “science”, when, for example, theological issues might have been a “resource” in a natural philosophical cosmology.  Or, we can now appreciate that the world did not “resist” Einstein’s relativity for some years, but rather that different communities did not understand it as important or germane to their physical projects (following Andrew Warwick on Cambridge physicists, or Peter Galison on Poincaré).

In my opinion, though, methodologically we are generally pretty sound, and have been for at least two decades, if not longer.  To continue to act as though methodology were still our most pressing problem is to ignore the question of how we might attain and retain understanding through better historiographical craft.  In this respect, there are some areas where we are doing very well, which need to be highlighted for those not working in them, and there are areas where we seem to be actually losing knowledge (as a community, anyway).

Rather than go into specific examples in this post, I would like to lay out what I view as the essential problems of good historiographical craft—the charting of the relationship between historical projects, “problems” in those projects, and the proper handling of the nature and role of context. (more…)

SEE Q&A (6): Science, Policy, and Certainty October 27, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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We continue our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project.  Once again, we note that Collins and Evans crafted their answers jointly.  This is not a spontaneous exchange.

Will Thomas: You begin the introduction to your book with the statement: “Science, if it can deliver truth, cannot deliver it at the speed of politics.”  The statement implies certain things about the nature of politics and the nature of science, particularly that politics seeks action where science seeks certainty (i.e. “truth”).  Yet, as Jasanoff has pointed out (say, in her “EPA” piece in the 1992 Osiris), it is politics that demands certainty of science, not science itself.  Science, absent a political imperative, tends to be used for the production of more science, rather than the production of solid claims.  Does science have a tolerance for uncertainty that politics does not?  Can science make legitimate decisions quickly if certainty may be discarded?  Does politics demand certainty (or at least the appearance of it) when taking action?  If not, what constitutes the requirements of a legitimate political decision?

Harry Collins and Rob Evans: It is not correct to say that science does not demand certainty of itself.  Thus Collins has spent decades immersed in the gravitational wave detection community and found it to be a community that is obsessed with the certainty of the results.  Collins often finds himself arguing with members of that community because of their hostility to the publication of any finding that is tentative—an argument described more systematically in Gravity’s Shadow as a tension between evidential individualism and evidential collectivism.  Most of the scientists in that field would agree that, unless something remarkable happens, even the first widely accepted published claim to have directly seen the (more…)