Looking twice at the history of science

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How did things get this way? Part II

version française -----------------------------------------------
Why are even the best historians of science shy about doing history for its own sake? According to WT, part of the answer lies in a game of leap-frog that history played with sociology between about 1970 and 1995. In the first leap, sociology vaulted forward on the back of history. On the second leap, history returned the favour. This exchange did some good for historians. But it also did them harm—some of which historians could have anticipated if they had been more clear-eyed in their application of sociology to history. Expand post.


  1. Reading this over again, I have a couple of clarifications to make. First, I don't think it's quite right to say that Shapin clearly seized on the insights of the externalists. Shapin's work is marked by its desire to transcend petty disputes (e.g., externalism vs. internalism), and this is what is to mark the difference from the old from the new historiography. You rightly picked up on my use of the adjective "high-strung" to describe proponents of a "new" historiography's descriptions of the old.

    The effort to eliminate, or at least finesse the boundary between the external and the internal is critical to understanding what was understood to characterize methodological thought in the '80s. It is at the core of Latour's project, and Shapin likewise viewed SSK as against not only internalist history, but against Marxist or otherwise "social" history of science as well. It was meant to turn specifically away from social context, and toward the social content of knowledge production processes, which is why Collins's work was so central.

    Less importantly: the "entente cordiale" was intended to describe not Schaffer's early work on natural philosophical cosmologies, but his post-1990 work. This goes back to his 1980 Ferment of Knowledge piece where he specifically says that anthropological approaches can be especially productive in understanding the argumentative structure of pre-1800 natural philosophy, and he contrasts this perspective with Shapin's perspective, which is supposed to be applicable to the science of any era. When Schaffer more or less comes to buy into Shapin's position without remark later on, this is the "entente cordiale". I also toyed with using the term "grande entente" to describe the methodological peace (stagnation?) that had settled over the profession by the late 1990s at the latest.

    Finally, on the subject of alarm bells, there were many, well-articulated warnings about historiographical damage ca. 1980, and not just from ardent anti-SSK types. I would point, in particular, to the warnings of "moderates" like Charles Rosenberg and Geoffrey Cantor. I've always meant to write more about the moderate critics, but have never gotten around to it.

  2. 1. I agree with your characterisation of Shapin's work as an effort to "eliminate, or at least finesse the boundary between the external and the internal." But at the same time I think that it is no less accurate (or at least a good first approximation) to say that Shapin "seized on the insights of the externalists", as you put it.

    The reason that I think both characterisations are defensible is that the term "externalist" is used in different ways by Shapin and by others. There are the externalists in the style of Robert Merton, who study the social but not its influence on the beliefs of science; externalists in the style of Boris Hessen, who certainly study the influence of the social on scientific beliefs, but perhaps in a course-grained and normative manner; the externalist historians that Shapin tends to appeal to (such as Paul Foreman and Robert Young), who are thought to be like Hessen except non-normative and more fine-grained; those like Harry Collins who study the social factors that are "internal" to scientific communities; and finally those like Latour who make radical-sounding claims about the desires and intentions of door handles.

    I have seen the first four of these groups labelled as "externalists" by different authors, and sometimes by the same author; and I have seen all of them, with the possible exception of Merton, described as having "transcended the internal/external distinction" (or words to that effect).

    A more substantive issue is that Shapin seems to waver as to which of these groups of externalists he is praising and which he is opposing. I think he is consistent in opposing Merton-style and Latour-style externalists, but in various places he is friendly to Hessens, Foremans, and Collins', variously lining up those "new" groups against the "old" historians.

    To see how these issues played out in the "first leap" I described in my post, I had a look at one of the key papers in that leap. The paper is Barnes and Shapin's “Where is the Edge of Objectivity?”, appearing in British Journal for the History of Science 7 (1977): 61-6.

    In that paper, the use of the terms "internal" and "external" is indeed confusing. On the one hand the authors refer to "sterile debates about the role of 'external' and 'internal' factors in the history of science" (63).

    On the other hand they characterise the "new" historiography of science, which they endorse, as "externalist" (65). They also cite with approval, and by name, the Marxist historians who have "a programme for interpreting intellectual activity in a social context" (63).

    Moreover, at the end of the review they seem to imply that it is an open question, to be decided empirically, whether it is "impossible or unimaginable [that] ... scientific knowledge in modern societies [could be] independent of interests in social control." If this question is open, it surely cannot be called "sterile."

    All this suggests that there is more work to be done (perhaps on blogs!) in identifying the different ways that historians of science have used the term "externalism", and the different ways they have proposed to "transcend" the internal/external distinction.

    There is also the further work of deciding whether those different senses of "externalism" really are distinct, whether they really have been practiced by past historians (and by whom), which of them (if any) are superior to the others, and which (if any) are superior to the various forms of internalism that one could identify.

    2. Thanks for your clarification about Schaffer and the "entente cordiale." I've changed the paragraph in question in the above post.

    3. I've added a final paragraph in the above post in response to your remarks about people ringing alarm bells.

  3. OK, yes, I would agree with that characterization of invocation of the accomplishments of "externalism", particularly in view of Shapin's praise of works like the Forman thesis, as well as his and Barnes's and MacKenzie's interest in the relations between the social implications of methodologies and specific knowledge claims. I was thinking of externalism as a pure, Hessen-like externalism, rather than as anything contrary to a purely internalist, intellectual approach, but that, of course, plays into Shapin's self-characterization as having at last arrived at a reasonable middle position.