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Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 1 September 22, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This post continues our examination of Cold War Social Science, edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens.

One issue to look out for when addressing the history of the social sciences — and intellectual history more generally — is that scholars are apt to see themselves as in dialogue with the events about which they are writing.  As with scientists writing about their own disciplinary past, there is a felt need either to credit the past as prologue, or to distance oneself from the folly of one’s predecessors.  Such, of course, are the roots of whig history.

The implicit aim of a new whig history, which shapes much intellectual and social science historiography is, in broad strokes, to explain how anthropologists and their intellectual allies bested academic competitors, and can now lead society away from a myopic modernism toward a more harmonious, genuinely cosmopolitan future.

This narrative is fairly similar to the original Whig narrative diagnosed by Herbert Butterfield, which took history to progress away from authoritarianism to political, economic, and religious liberalism. However, the whiggishness of the present narrative can be difficult to acknowledge, because the phenomenon of whig history is actually incorporated within the narrative as an intellectual pathology arising from the same teleological modernism being cast as outdated.  It is counterintuitive that the narrative could be whiggish, because whiggism is a declared enemy of the narrative.


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…)

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…)

Primer: Adolphe Quetelet, Statistics, and Social Physics June 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874)

Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874)

Throughout the 19th century, the nature of social changes and regularities in social activity remained an intense concern as population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and political upheaval captured the attention of scientific and political thinkers throughout Europe and America.  As today, this thought necessarily spanned political, popular, philosophical, and scientific realms of thought as debates ensued concerning what could be said about societies and what could and should be done to affect how they function.

In the early 19th century, keeping and deploying statistics was already widespread, but their use as a tool of political discourse remained novel, and thus a subject of general and heated discussion.  The astronomer and essayist Adolphe Quetelet proved to be one of the century’s most singular and influential thinkers concerning the use of social statistics.  Born in Belgium in 1796 shortly after French annexed Austria’s Belgian provinces in the wars following the Revolution, Quetelet was educated in a French lycée, and as a youth took notice of the place accorded to the sciences in the Napoleonic empire.  After Napoleon’s fall in 1815, Quetelet taught mathematics in Ghent, earned a doctorate in the subject, and, after convincing the government to build an observatory in Brussels, he departed to Paris—still the intellectual center of the world—to learn astronomy.  Quetelet took up his post as director of the new Brussels Observatory in 1828, and the observatory began operation in 1832.

By no coincidence, it was in this same period that Quetelet first began writing about statistics and “social physics” (a phrase taken from contemporary “positivist” philosopher and social theorist Auguste Comte).  Principles of statistics and probability had been worked out by key figures in the development of the technical methods of astronomy in France who were also interested in social statistics, particularly Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827).  And, like many others writing (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.