Looking twice at the history of science

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What do historians of science do now?

version française -----------------------------------------------
The short answer to the question in the title, according to Will's picture, is that historians of science use case studies to display the evils that ideologies have caused and the people and events that ideology has hidden. In doing so they prefer sociological over philosophical explanations. They also hope to use the resulting insights to enlighten the public. I'll deal in turn with ideologies, case studies, anti-philosophy, and public enlightenment. Expand post.


  1. Michael,

    I'm sure we'll have a lot to talk about as you move through this series on my picture. I'm of the opinion that engagement with someone's ideas, even or especially in a critical way, is a higher compliment than simply saying that you enjoyed someone's work. I really wouldn't have thought that anyone would ever bother to pull this much depth from the EWP archives. And I think you've gotten the picture pretty well correct, though there is probably room for clarification here and there. It's a really fine, and well appreciated compliment.

    For the moment, the only thing I would hasten to point out is the descent of many of what we might call "motivating ideas" in the historiography into the subliminal, and with it, a moderation or dilution in the meaning of concepts (and thus often a migration in terminology as well).

    So, "ideology" makes particular sense if you start rooting around in the historiography of the '70s and '80s, where the Geertz citations are a lot more dense, but it also transmutes into things like "ideals" or "values" or trust-enhancing rituals, or "epistemic virtues" which seem to have little to do with "ideology" as one might tend to think of it, but function similarly in historians' inquiries. Likewise "evil" (which mainly comes from the utility of "theodicy" as an analytical term, which I owe to Chris Donohue) tends to damp down into "controversy" or even "negotiation" or some other thing that doesn't necessarily have obviously bad consequences, but that is nevertheless considered, in some sense, "hidden" or "invisible", and so comes with some sort of imperative to reveal or highlight it.

    I think it's important to emphasize that my critique is of general argumentative forms, which make historiography function inefficiently (but not necessarily illegitimately). Different terminology or different aspects of the critique will ring more or less true in different instances. The thing I would like to do is create a more productive historiography, not challenge a particular Theory, or challenge fighting evil as a motivation for researching history.

    Finally, I should clarify that the "cult of invisibility" posts were not so much a summary of my picture as they were an attempt to define a notion I had used in other posts at greater lengths, and to plug it into the picture I had been developing. The "socio-epistemic imperative" (which is really just the final term for a concept I'd been grappling with to that point) is still very much at the heart of my picture. Lately it has become more clear to me just how this imperative came to be through a collapsing of distinctions between the projects of history, sociology, and anthropology (and, of course, the expulsion of philosophy).

    Thanks again!

  2. Will,

    Thanks very much for your paying a visit. I agree on the importance of genuine engagement with other people's views, including the bit about "even or especially in a critical way."

    1. I take your point that terms like "ideology" and "evil" are not necessarily used by present-day historians of science even if they are useful tools for analysing current practice, and even if we now have terms that serve the same function as terms like "ideology" and "evil."

    The big question is: just how much can one infer from such things as analytic utility and functional similarity? Should we infer that "epistemic values" and "ideology" differ only in name? And if we are not saying anything that strong, what *are* we saying?

    For the moment I'll carry on using terms like "ideology" and "evil", and invite readers to make whatever inferences they like from the utility of those terms in analysing current practice, and from their functional similarity to terms in current use.

    2. "I think it's important to emphasize that my critique is of general argumentative forms, which make historiography function inefficiently (but not necessarily illegitimately)."

    I'm not sure what to make of this hedge. In what sense can a historiography be "legitimate" if it is "inefficient"?

    Do you mean that current practices are inefficient only with respect to *some* legitimate goals of history-writing, while being efficient with respect to other legitimate goals of history-writing--and that we really should try to be efficient with respect to all of these goals.

    Or is your view that current practices are inefficient with respect to the legitimate goals of *history-writing*, but efficient with respect to extra-historiographical goals such as political advocacy?

    Or, finally, is the idea that there are lots of goals of history-writing, all of them just as legitimate as each-other; and that your own historiographical goals just happen to be different from, but no better or complete than, those of most current historians of science?

    I can understand if your view is one of the first two. But if it's the third view then I must be mistaken about your whole project on EWP. For the third view implies that there is no sense in which current practices are wrong, and no sense in which they should change. Yet I had gotten the impression that EWP was genuinely critical of (some aspects of) current practice, and that according to EWP some things should change.

    3. "Lately it has become more clear to me just how this imperative came to be through a collapsing of distinctions between the projects of history, sociology, and anthropology (and, of course, the expulsion of philosophy)."

    I hope to summarise this too, if you don't mind! It will come in a post titled "How did they [historians of science] come to do it this way?" Of course, this will have to be a summary of your work-in-progress.

  3. 1. The crucial thing is to understand links between how the concepts are used, which might not be a priori obvious. Understanding how "ideologies" operate in historical actors' efforts to define the implication of scientific knowledge for social policy, or within intellectual programs of things like economics or eugenics is one thing. Understanding how "Victorian values" can operate in rhetorical efforts to bolster this or that metrical standard is another. An aestheticized "epistemic virtue" informing differing notions of what makes knowledge objective or valid is a third. Ostensibly, there is no strong theoretical thread running through A) concept formation employing presumptions from social thought, B) using rhetoric to drum up support for a project, and C) interpreting evidence based on aesthetic considerations. At the same time, the three things can be considered related because they are things historians are apt to find interesting because they could be considered "hidden" in standard stories, yet are taken to be elemental to the success or failure of historical knowledge-building projects.

    It would, therefore, be useful to consider how and why historians might preferentially focus on these issues, and how they write about them in similar -- perhaps too similar -- ways. If you've abandoned studies of "ideology" and "theory" for studies of "practice" and "experiment" (something SSK was supposed to accomplish) but it all just ends up boiling down to boundary negotiations of one kind of another, it's good to figure out why that is.

    2. My view is probably closest to your first point. In my view, the only way for history to lose legitimacy is if it is manifestly false. While I think present history-writing craftsmanship often leads to misleading or incomplete pictures, historians have become clever at downplaying their individual responsibility for contributing to historiographical syntheses, while still producing legitimate works. (This is kind of like our conversation about the Shapiro-Schaffer dispute concerning Newton's prism experiments -- I didn't buy the claim that Schaffer was simply wrong in "Glass Works", but I did think Shapiro's treatment was more constructive in the long-run)

    Ultimately, I believe, this downplaying of synthetic responsibility devalues synthesis as a historiographical goal, while not outright rejecting it. Historians can choose to be satisfied with what synthesis manages to drip out of a historiography where no one is responsible for that synthesis. If we devalue synthetic knowledge, while still accepting its validity, then we pursue synthesis (and other historiographical benefits to be reaped from it, such as addressing questions that only arise in the act of synthesis) inefficiently, while still doing legitimate work on a day-to-day basis.

    I believe that historians can choose to be satisfied with this situation while still avoiding accusations of professional malpractice. My objective in working out how our arguments and historiography operate is to show why we should probably be less satisfied.

    3. Looking forward to it!