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Charles Weiner and the Oral History of Physics February 1, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Having just submitted an article in which oral histories conducted by Charles Weiner play a major role, I was surprised and saddened this morning to learn of his death a few days ago at the age of 80.  I did not know Weiner personally — for an overview of his life, and personal recollections of him, please see this very good post written by his son-in-law, Scott Underwood.  I would, however, like to take a moment to reflect on his work in the oral history of physics.

Weiner was the director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics from 1965 to 1974, before moving to MIT where he spent the rest of his career.  I was a postdoctoral historian at the Center from 2007 to 2010 (albeit at a new facility in College Park, Maryland; not the New York City offices where Weiner worked).  During my time there, the co-located Niels Bohr Library and Archives began putting its oral history collections online, and I was asked to pick out some audio samples to complement these.  Spencer Weart, Weiner’s successor and still the director of the Center at that time, suggested that Weiner’s interviews were engaging, and would certainly provide good material.  And indeed they were, and they did.


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…)

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…)