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Hasok Chang and “Complementary Science” January 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Hasok Chang

In a nice coincidence, my look at “tactile history” winds toward its close with a discussion of historian and philosopher Hasok Chang, who, as it happens, is speaking here at Imperial on Thursday about how “We Have Never Been Whiggish (About Phlogiston)” (details here; also see his 2009 Centaurus paper of that title).

In this post, I want to talk specifically about Chang’s ideas on what he calls “complementary science” — a vision for a new relationship between the history and philosophy of science and actual scientific work.  You can read more about it on his website, “The Myth of the Boiling Point”.

Drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “normal science,” Chang supposes that in the process of scientific specialization “certain ideas and questions must be suppressed if they are heterodox enough to contradict or destabilize those items of knowledge that need to be taken for granted” in the day-to-day process of conducting science.  However, this process is “quite different from a gratuitous suppression of dissent.”  There are simply “limits to the number of questions that a given community can afford to deal with at a given time.”  Therefore, “Those problems that are considered either unimportant or unsolvable will be neglected.”



Rudwick and Newman & Principe and the Recovery of Meaning December 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, Tactile History.
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Metallic 'vegetation', from The Chymistry of Isaac Newton website

One of the most pernicious obstacles to effective historical research is a phenomenon I like to call “glazing over” — a tendency to dismiss references encountered in documents as unimportant or incidental simply for a lack of familiarity with them, or interest in them. You just glaze over until you run across something you are already interested in.

I suspect glazing over is actually extremely common, but that people don’t like to discuss it, because the lack of familiarity it implies with basic facts still smacks of professional incompetence, or, more snobbishly, interest in overcoming the problem implies a banal interest in empirical history. This is too bad, because not only does systematic glazing over likely skew and limit our historiography in more radical ways than our awareness of our “inevitably subjective perspective” supposes; it prevents historians from taking steps as a profession to readmit factual dexterity back into our practices after a long period of privileging critical reflection.

In today’s post, I want to discuss tactile history that works to restore a familiar or palpable meaning to documentary descriptions of natural or experimental phenomena by actively revisiting or recreating what the text refers to.


How to Run a Historiography, or: Chymistry Rides High July 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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I know, I know, my scholarly crush on the chymistry literature is probably getting a little embarrassing. But I want to make sure everyone is taking notes like I am, because William Newman, Lawrence Principe, and their crowd are really putting on a clinic on how to run a proper historiography. The latest lesson is in putting together a good Isis Focus section: “Alchemy and the History of Science”, organized by Bruce Moran, and available free of charge in the latest issue.

I’ve been very happy to see this specialty spring to success, receiving both scholarly praise and public exposure in places like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Economist, and the New York Times. I am a bit worried that this success will be held up as simply a product of the virtues of historical scholarship. To an extent it should be, for reasons I will discuss, but I also think it’s important that the rest of us — including those of us working in decidedly remote terrain like 20th-century science — pay close attention to what these scholars are doing particularly right.


Chalmers on Newman on Chalmers on Newman on Boyle May 13, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Alan Chalmers

There is a new entry in the dispute between Alan Chalmers and Bill Newman over the legacy of Robert Boyle (1627-1691): Alan Chalmers, “Understanding Science through Its History: A Response to Newman,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011): 150-153 (free).  For EWP’s previous coverage, see here and here.

Although the disagreements over Boyle stretch back further, this particular back-and-forth began as Chalmers criticized Newman’s characterization of Boyle’s contributions to chemical science as presenting a misleading portrait of progress.  Newman countered that Chalmers misreads his arguments about the place of Boyle’s chemical philosophy in the history of chemistry and natural philosophy.  Further, he argued that Chalmers’ portrait of Boyle’s failure to advance chemistry or an atomistic mechanical philosophy through his chemical experiments misreads the nature of Boyle’s philosophical project.

Now Newman’s portrait of Boyle’s seems secure, and there is no question that working out historical actors’ projects is a valuable line of historical inquiry.  Instead, tables turned, Chalmers draws a programmatic distinction between his and Newman’s historical projects, and defends his project’s legitimacy: his “kind of history is not the only legitimate kind … it is an important and informative kind that does not” — contrary to Newman’s allegations — “involve a misguided integration of history and philosophy of science.”  The central question seems to have become whether histories of scientific work can be valid when divorced from an interest in projects that actors explicitly pursued.


Wang on the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), Pt. 1 August 6, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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Though a visible and important office in American policy history, and though, historically, it has been much discussed, PSAC has garnered surprisingly little analysis by historians.  Thus Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America (Rutgers UP, 2008) automatically constitutes a valuable contribution to the historiography.

PSAC’s predecessor body, the Science Advisory Committee of the Office of Defense Mobilization, was established in 1951 during the Korean War.  Although comprised of highly respected members of the scientific community, that committee was a marginal body, and it was replaced by PSAC following the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite and reconsideration of American government’s management of its scientific and technological resources.  PSAC’s chair served as the science adviser to the President until 1973 when Richard Nixon dissolved PSAC.  In 1976 Gerald Ford established a new organization, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Though its exact structure and function have varied from administration to administration, that body still exists, and its director (currently John Holdren) serves as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology.  Wang’s book covers this whole history, with the OSTP period as an epilogue.

In my own experience, the further one gets from World War II, the more convoluted and confusing the terrain becomes, the less helpful the historiography becomes, the more difficult it becomes to write good, coherent history.  Wang’s book flips this on its head.  (more…)

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.”


The Newman-Chalmers Dispute, Pt. 1: Chymistry and Natural Philosophy May 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Click to go to the excellent Robert Boyle Project site

I haven’t talked about it much here, but I’ve mentioned once or twice my admiration from afar of the recent revival of an alchemy/chymistry sub-historiography spearheaded by Indiana’s Bill Newman and Johns Hopkins’ Lawrence Principe.  At a glance, this literature traffics in older methodological currents of intellectual history, but far from a musty antiquarian pursuit, those writing in it ask pointed, well-targeted questions and, sure enough, find revealing answers.  I suspect a strong case could be made that this corner of the history of science literature has been the most intellectually productive one of the past decade.

One sign of liveliness is the prospect of dispute, and it turns out there is an interesting and current one between Newman and philosopher Alan Chalmers of Flinders University in Australia about the experimental and philosophical practices of Robert Boyle (1627-1691).  The citations of present interest are at the end of this post, though the dispute has a longer historiography which you can find in the footnotes to those papers.

At one level this is a classical historian-philosopher conflict about how to read the historical record responsibly, but the dispute also has deeper currents that have a lot to say about a question in which this blog has recently dabbled: the historical characteristics of natural philosophy.  While I programmatically agree with Newman here, and while I ultimately side with him on the specifics, the specific case is not open-and-shut, so I thought I’d discuss it as well as I can make it out here in Pt. 1 of this post. (more…)

HSS Highlights November 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Only a few cacti were seen in downtown Phoenix, and I am jealous of those who got a chance to get out of the city.

In the narrow space between my HSS trip, and an upcoming Thanksgiving trip, I wanted to quickly fit in a quick recap of some of the highlights of HSS.

Indiana University’s Bill Newman introduced the winner of this year’s lifetime-achievement Sarton Medal, John Murdoch.  Murdoch works on medieval and ancient science in a history of philosophy vein.  He came to Harvard in 1957, and when I was there (2002-07) his courses were of a rather different mode of pedagogy than the rest of the department.  As a 20th-century historian, I didn’t know him very well personally, but it was good to see HSS sustaining its effort to recognize and promote intellectual and philosophical history, and to bring it back into the mainstream of what we do.

[Edit, October 2011: John Murdoch died in September 2010.  An eloge written by Newman (paywall) appears in the September 2011 Isis.]

One of the big difficulties of keeping specialized intellectual history in the mainstream of a profession that has—rightly—branched out into cultural history, is how to make that work understandable and usable to those who aren’t intensively engaged with it.  On this note, I was enthused to learn about Newman’s web project,  “The Chymistry of Isaac Newton” (aka chymistry.org). (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…)