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Cultural History of Knowledge and Post-Marxist Social History of Science April 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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The Edinburgh Science Studies Unit in the early 1980s; Steven Shapin is second from the left in the back row; David Bloor is first on the left and Barry Barnes is second from the right in the front row

Circa 1980, “social” historians who explored the connections between scientific work and its political, social, and economic milieus showed an interest in how scientists selected their objects of inquiry, in the allocation of scientific research effort, and in the social function of scientific work.  Unlike many historians of science, they showed comparatively little interest in the development of scientific knowledge itself.  In 1982 Steven Shapin wrote that he saw “no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but,” he observed, “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” (my emphasis).

At that time, Shapin was a key figure in a movement that was opposed to a traditional philosophy-inspired history of science, which sifted “science” out of history and narrated its progress; to a Mertonian sociology of science, which delineated the conditions in which “science” takes place; and indeed to the social history of science, which linked lines of research to social interests, but which often took research results for granted.



Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 1 March 20, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post is a response to this comment by Michael Bycroft on a 2009 post on Simon Schaffer’s well-known 1989 “Glass Works” paper, which brought to my attention a reply published seven years later by historian of optics Alan Shapiro: “The Gradual Acceptance of Newton’s Theory of Light and Color,” Perspectives in Science 4 (1996): 59-140.

“Glass Works” was itself a commentary on a large body of Newton scholarship, most especially Richard Westfall’s biography, Never at Rest (1980).  It explicitly made use of Harry Collins’ sociology of “calibration”, which pointed to the necessity that instruments and experimental procedures gain trust before assertions based on experimental results can be accepted.  Schaffer and Steven Shapin had previously used this insight in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) to call attention to the basis of Thomas Hobbes’ criticism of experimental philosophy as well as to the intellectual, literary, and sociological strategies Robert Boyle used to gain assent over experimental results.

Unlike Schaffer’s commentary, Shapiro assembles a synthetic history of the acceptance and replication of Newton’s important experiment showing the elongation of the light of the sun when passed through a prism, as well as his two-prism experimentum crucis, which demonstrated that white light was composed of differently refrangible rays.  (more…)

Neglected Connections between the Histories of Science and Economics, Pt. 1 January 17, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Although historians of science have not traditionally shown a strong interest in the history of economic thought, developing such an interest would make good professional sense, in particular because epistemological issues in economics and the natural sciences have long been intertwined in less than obvious ways.  Historians would do well to familiarize themselves with historical epistemological debates around economic thought, such as the Methodenstreit of the 1880s, because important ideas like “science”, “objectivity”, and “impersonality” have meanings that, in much of the historical commentary on them, were specifically associated with debates surrounding the validity of social scientific abstraction, and the important distinctions that were made between the goals of theorization and normative practice.

Aside from brushing up on the historical meanings of certain terms, historians of science also have an opportunity to lend additional clarity to the historical connections between thinking about science and thinking about politics, society, and economy.  Intellectual historians and philosophers of economics, and of science more generally, have studied the more explicit historical debates surrounding political economy and its connections to the methods of science, say, in the thought of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) or Karl Marx (1818-1883).  Additionally, the transfer of metaphors between domains has received good attention, particularly in the area of evolutionary theory: from the economics of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), or from evolutionary theory back into Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) social theory (on this blog, also see Chris Renwick’s discussion of Patrick Geddes).

There is further important work to be done in straight-up intellectual history, but additional opportunities may be found in the history of intellectual practices that provide the context in which ideas make sense. (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.


Boundaries, Interests, and Traditions in the Management Thereof September 12, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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When I posted on boundary studies in the history of science earlier this summer, I had in mind narratives focusing on epochal conflicts between groups, and the likelihood that we will learn little from the conflict that will help us understand the groups themselves.  In reaction to that, Amy Fisher (a PhD student from the University of Minnesota who has been doing some work for us at the AIP History Center) told me that for her the most interesting boundary problems were “on a smaller scale, as it connects to issues of identity.”  This was a good point, and I have had to go through a number of other posts before I felt I had my thoughts in order enough to address it adequately.

What boundary? This bridge has been here for years!

These smaller-scale boundary problems usually deal with individuals attempting to build lives, careers, or ideas, and having to situate their actions and beliefs within the strains of competing interests.  Natural philosophers might have had to reconcile their arguments about nature with their beliefs about religion.  Museum exhibitors might have to reconcile their desire to educate the public about certain kinds of scientific knowledge with the interests and expectations of that same public. In the twentieth century, physicists might have had to reconcile their desire to pursue their research interests with their ability to acquire funding by appealing to military, government, or industrial patrons.  Etc.

My response here is that in these cases the most relevant boundaries are not necessarily well-portrayed by the historiography.  Historians will typically portray actors as having to “negotiate” a compromise position on their own through a sort of an ad hoc process.  I would argue that it is here where historians’ aversion to reconstructing various long-term traditions is damaging, because it does not take into account established patterns of identity development and institution-building, which become models for a successful and legitimate resolution to the many many situations in which conflicts of interest arise.


Invisibility, Underdocumentation, and Positive Portraiture September 6, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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In historiographical discussions, a key concern is whether certain problematics prejudice historical portraiture.  By “problematics” I mean the dialectical process that determines what topics are researched, how they are investigated, and how the results of investigations are presented.  By “portraiture” I mean the sum total availability of information about the various aspects of history, apart from any analytical statements made about it and from our ability to navigate within the resulting historiography.  In other words, how do the questions we want to ask about the historical record both expand and limit our summary and publication of the record’s contents?

For at least a half a century, one way that professional history of science (and history more generally) has consistently attempted to distinguish itself is by pointing to its ability to recognize and correct for earlier historians’ and non-professionals’ prejudicial limitations in their portraiture.  Hagiographic biographies discount major historical actors’ flaws.  Positivistic accumulations of scientific contributions discount scientific “wrong turns” and the importance of theoretical frameworks.  Intellectual histories of science discount the culture of science.  Philosophical accounts of the historical establishment of claims discount the sociological work necessary to secure assent around them.


Initially, criticisms of prejudicial portraiture emphasized that important constituencies have been rendered invisible through various forms of bias.  Social history in the vein of E. P. Thompson emphasized bias against histories of common people in favor of interest in political figures, cultural leaders, and other heroic or otherwise individually influential figures identified through what we might think of as a problematic that emphasizes concerted action.  Along these lines, portraiture of disempowered and marginal constituencies has flourished (although sometimes these retain a concerted-action problematic, choosing to emphasize actors who are on the fringe but who, within the confines of their particular sphere, are influential nonetheless).  Historians who discover new classes of invisible things stand to gain significant cachet.


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…)

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…)

Life at the Boundary June 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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For decades now, historians of science and their allies in science studies have had an enduring fondness for boundary studies.  The “boundaries” in question are taken to be places where agreements that define what constitutes a legitimate claim no longer clearly apply.  In Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the “paradigm” (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962), arguments across paradigms cannot be decided based upon evidence, because the standards of interpretation that would allow a decision to be made differ.

Kuhn’s point spoke to a potential philosophical irreconcilability, but sociologists would adopt the basic idea to discuss the importance of social coalition-building in knowledge-building, which could be hidden beneath an apparent epistemological smoothness where arguments were well-accepted, but which became visible in instances of controversy along coalition boundaries.

Harry Collins wrote in 1981, “In most cases the salience of alternative interpretations of evidence, which typifies controversies, has acted as a level to elicit the essentially cultural nature of the local boundaries of scientific legitimacy—normally elusive and concealed” (“Introduction” to a special issue of Social Studies of Science 11 (1981): 3-10).  Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer wrote in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985):  “Another advantage afforded by studying controversy is that historical actors […] attempt to deconstruct the taken-for-granted quality of their antagonists’ preferred beliefs and practices, and they do this by trying to display the artifactual and conventional status of those beliefs and practices” (p. 7).


The Newman-Chalmers Dispute, Pt. 2: History, Philosophy, and Demarcation May 31, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Pt. 1 of this post discussed the latest entries in a dispute, which appear in the current and upcoming issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.  The papers are by Alan Chalmers and Bill Newman, and they argue over whether Robert Boyle’s “chymistry” could have proceeded without being framed within his mechanical philosophy.  The immediate issue, the nature of Boyle’s work, seems ultimately to turn on fairly subtle points about how, in the 17th century, experiment was understood to relate to natural philosophy, and how knowledge of chemical phenomena related to natural philosophy and other orders of knowledge.  As I understand this issue, one would not have thought at that time that one could understand “chemistry” to be a self-contained body of knowledge, a fundamental way of looking at nature.  While one certainly could develop a practical understanding of chemical transformations at that time, such a knowledge would not have been thought relevant to the higher natural philosophical questions that most concerned Boyle.

Outside of this main historical issue, Newman stresses the importance of reading Chalmers’ particular claims in light of his “larger agenda … concerning the nature of scientific knowledge as a whole, an agenda I do not share.”  Chalmers is primarily interested in the ability to demarcate “science”, which founds knowledge on an experimental basis, from “philosophy”, which accommodates experiment into its theoretical schemes.  While Newman waxes skeptical about the philosophical project’s validity for even the most recent period of history, in his response (entitled “How Not to Integrate the History and Philosophy of Science”), he concentrates on the ways this philosophical lens affects historiography, claiming it narrows the scope of possible questions to those that can be framed within the structure of the central demarcationist concern.  Chalmers’ approach is “binary,” a “dualist methodology”, a “toggle-switch model” of history: if a historical event cannot be classified as proper “science”, it is of no further historical concern.  This methodology “allows for no gradual development or nuance over the course of history”, it “does not give sufficient credence to reorientations in scientific reasoning and experimental practice that laid the groundwork for later fruitful developments,” and it does not “allow for any significant heuristic application of theory”.  Chalmers’ evaluative rubric allows “little room indeed for disinterested analysis of arguments, determination of the real issues at stake, or the tracing of sources and intellectual traditions, which I view as the historian’s primary responsibilities.”