I'll be travelling for the next three weeks, and won't post again on this blog until the New Year. In the meantime I'm pleased to introduce Matthew Paskins, who will be writing a few posts in my absence. Matt is a PhD student in the STS department at UCL whose diverse interests include the historiography of science. Update: Matt will be contributing a series of posts on the theme of critical historiography, with the collective title "From vision to inheritence."
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
During the nineteenth century the institutional and social structure of the sciences was transformed in ways not even foreshadowed in the Scientific Revolution. Beginning in the 1780's and continuing through the first half of the following century, newly formed societies of specialists in individual branches of science assumed the leadership which the all-embracing national societies had previously attempted to supply. Simultaneously, private scientific journals and particularly journals of individual specialties proliferated rapidly and increasingly replaced the house organs of the national academies which had previously been the almost exclusive media of public scientific communication. A similar change is visible in scientific education and in the locus of research. Excepting in medicine and at a few military schools, scientific education scarcely existed before the foundation of the Ecole polytechnique in the last decade of the eighteenth century... These are the developments which first made possible and then supported what had previously scarcely existed, the professional scientific career...It is time [these developments] found [their] way into history books, but [they are] too much a part of other developments in the nineteenth century to be untangled by historians of science alone (287-288).This is fine summary of the technical, social and institutional developments that Kuhn called the “Second Scientific Revolution” and that he detailed in his “Mathematical versus Experimental Traditions in the Modern Physical Sciences” . The same article 1976 includes a thesis about the relationship between science and religion that is even more explicit in its externalist interests. This is Kuhn's conjecture that the ancient mathematical sciences (such as optics and astronomy) flourished mainly in Catholic contexts whereas the new experimental sciences (such as heat and electricity) flourished mainly in Protestant contexts. Historians will recognise this as an extension of a thesis advanced by the sociologist Robert Merton. The final antidote to the view that Kuhn was a hard-core internalist is that he has nice things to say about a new crowd of young externalists. These historians of science are, he says...
...turning more and more to the study of what is often described as external history. Increasingly they emphasize the effects on science not of the intellectual but of the socioeconomic milieu, effects manifest in changing patterns of education, institutionalization, communication, and values. Their efforts owe some thing to the older Marxist histories, but their concerns are at once broader, deeper, and less doctrinaire than those of their predecessors (299).These new-comers should be welcomed, Kuhn writes, because the sciences “provide a particularly promising area in which to explore the role of forces current in the larger society in shaping the evolution of a discipline which is simultaneously controlled by its own internal demands” (299-300). Skeptics will detect an internalist echo in this last quote. And indeed, Kuhn insists throughout this article that historians pay attention to the “internal demands” of specialised disciplines. Even as he writes about the relations between “science” and “technology" he urges that we treat them as two distinct entities. And he has no patience for externalist historians of science who ignore the technical details of the science they purport to explain. Nevertheless, Kuhn's stance in “The Relations between History and the History of Science” is a far cry from the narrow internalism that one finds in Structure and Black-Body Radiation. In the article he takes very seriously the project of uniting technical history of science with broader social and intellectual history, and he reminds us of his own attempts to bridge the gap. Postscript. Where does this leave my claim in the previous post that there is nothing wrong with internal history of science? Isn't Kuhn arguing for the kind of “hybrid” history of science whose primacy I questioned in that post? To a large extent Kuhn is arguing for that view, and insofar as he is doing so then I have to bite the bullet and say that he's wrong. He seems to not only argue for the importance of hybrid history of science, but also to place it on a higher rung than internal history—and that's exactly what I object to. However there are two important caveats. One is that Kuhn was writing at time when there really was a gap to bridge. As he says in the article, the best general historians of the time had a poor understanding of the technical content of science, and the best historians of science had little interest in anything else. Since Kuhn's article we have spent forty years bridging the gap, and now that we have done so we can remove hybridisation from the top of the discipline's agenda. The other caveat is that in practice Kuhn did not require that all works in the history of science try integrate science and society. In some of his works he did just that; in others, such as Structure and Black-Body Radiation, he had other fish to fry. So in practice he was an advocate of variety rather than a slave to hybridity. And that's precisely the stance I was arguing for in my previous post.  The best account of these four points, and one that I recommend, is Joel Isaac, Working Knowledge (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2012), chap. 6. Related points are made in Stephen Fuller, Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History of Our Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).  “Thomas Samuel Kuhn, 18 July 1922-17 June 1996.” Isis 89, no. 3 (1998): 505–515, at 511-512.  Daedelus 100, no. 2 (1971): 271–304.  Journal of Interdisciplinary History 7, no. 1 (1976): 1-31. Expand post.
Friday, November 30, 2012
The premise of the last three posts is that anachronism is back in fashion. By contrast, there is nothing but mustiness about the labels “internal” or “internalism.” Roughly speaking, internalist historians are interested in ideas and evidence rather than politics and institutions. A single article, let alone a single blog post, can't make internal history fashionable again. But at least it can say what a viable defense of internal history of science might look like. Here goes... Works not workers. We should try to avoid applying the label “internalist” to particular people and instead apply it to particular books and articles. This is partly for clarity's sake, since it is not uncommon for the same person to write both internalist and non-internalist works. But it is also to remind us that we should aim for variety not hybridity in the history of science (see below). Non-internalism not externalism. It is often pointed out that “externalism” is a bad label for works that are not internalist. The label conceals important distinctions such as that between explaining scientific theories in social or cultural terms, and simply describing the social and cultural side of science. The term also fails to capture the large number of “hybrid” works that are in some sense a mixture of the internal and the external. We can avoid these thorny matters by saying “non-internalist” where we used to say “externalist.” Unity not uniformity. Like non-internalism, internalism is a broad church. One author might study the technical details of a nineteenth-century optical theory, with little or no reference to outside events; another might study broad changes in the methods used in geology from 1700 and 1900, making passing reference to social and political developments. Internalism also has fuzzy borders. Is it internalist to write about Newton's application of the calculus to questions of biblical chronology, or to study Michael Faraday's metaphysics, or the experimental procedures of alchemists? We should not worry if we can't give definite answers to such questions. We live with historiographical distinctions that are no less fuzzy—try drawing a clean line between “macrohistory” and “microhistory.” And if it really was impossible to distinguish internalism from non-internalism then there would be no sense in opposing internalism, as many people have! Inquiry not intellection. Internal history of science is the victim of misleading pseudonyms. For example, internalists are sometimes described as giving “philosophical” or “epistemic” explanations of scientific beliefs. This is useful short-hand, but it implies that internalists are more concerned with a priori ideas about science than other historians are, and hence that internalists can never be as “naturalistic” as cultural historians of science. Certainly some internalists are interested in answering the questions posed by philosophers of science. But not all of them are, and in general they no more rely on present-day epistemology than social historians rely on present-day sociology. Two other unhelpful labels are “history of ideas” and “intellectual history.” Intellectual historians of science stress the role of religious, philosophical and metaphysical ideas in past science. Internal historians of science may share this interest (it depends how you define them). But internalists are also interested in experiments, instruments, and data-collection. They study scientific inquiry in general, not just intellection. Present value not past associations. It is often implied (although never stated outright) that the internal/external distinction should be abandoned because it is merely a product of Cold War polarities. This is a terrible argument. Its premise is false: internal history of science was practised long before the Cold War. And its inference is shaky: to reject internal history on the grounds that it is popular among anti-Marxists would be like rejecting the theory of natural selection because it is popular among social Darwinists. If there's really something wrong with internalism, its critics should not have to resort to guilt-by-association. Similarly, critics of internalism have to do more than point to the many internalist works that have been guilty of Whiggism or naïve inductivism or whatever. Critics have to show that those sins follow from the very nature of internalism. The reverse is also true: even if all non-internalist works published so far were sloppy and inaccurate, it does not follow that these ills are inherent in the genre. Continuity not catastrophe. Non-internalists are fond of pointing out that what counts as “internal” to science has changed over time. It is a short step to the conclusion that all internalist history is naïvely committed to present-day ideas about what science is. The non-internalists have a point. Internalists must recognise that their subject-matter—like that of historians of France or food or banking—has been defined in different ways at different times, and that at any given time there was disagreement about where its boundaries lay. But the problem is not as bad as it looks. The boundaries have not changed as much as non-internalists sometimes make out. Even if they have changed, the internalist is free to adopt the boundaries that prevailed in the time and place that interest her. Some of the best studies of the changing boundaries of science have been done by scholars who most people would count as internalists, such as Alistair Crombie and Larry Laudan. Finally, consider the histories of France, food and banking: no-one has suggested that these fields are catastrophic failures just because their subject-matter has changed over time. Quality not category. When we defend internalist works, should we focus on their quality as history? Or should we instead ask whether they count as the history of science as opposed to the history of something else? I suggest that we start with the former question because it tells us something about the scholarly value of internal history of science, rather than about which academic box it belongs to. Also, the second question tends to stack the deck in favour of internalist works, which are usually about science in a pretty obvious sense. Whichever of these two questions we answer, we should be sure to distinguish between them. Otherwise we end up with fruitless debates where internalists emphasise that they are writing about the history of science and the non-internalists reply that at least they are writing the history of science. History not philosophy. Internalist works are sometimes defended on the grounds that they help us to answer questions usually posed by philosophers of science, or because they are useful for science teachers, or simply because they are more interesting to scientists than non-internalist works. All this may be true, but it does not follow that internalist works are defensible as history. A historiographical defense of internalist works means showing that they can achieve all the normal virtues of historical writing, and avoid all the vices—or at least that they have just as good a chance of doing so as non-internalist works. Parity not priority. Internalists should give up arguing for the priority of their approach, as history, and instead argue for parity. (This leaves open the possibility that internal history is better as history of science). Parity is an obvious goal but it is rarely defended in print. Instead, some commentators complain that too much attention is given to one side of the internal/external distinction. Most other commentators urge us to transcend the distinction by writing “hybrid” works that collapse the distinction. Variety not hybridity. There's nothing wrong with hybrids (I write them myself). What I object to is the idea that that such works are inherently superior, as history, to works that are either strictly internalist or strictly externalist. The usual argument is that only hybrids do justice to the inextricability of social and epistemic factors in past science (or something along those lines). The obvious reply is that there are lots of other inextricable pairs that the historian should try to knit together—like theory and experiment, or mathematics and physics, or science in France and science in Germany—the list is endless. Given that no single work can hybridize everything, why should the science-society dyad be given special attention? To conclude, if we really want to “transcend” the internal/external distinction, we should stop measuring works according to where they stand with respect to that distinction. There are a variety of legitimate genres ranging from institutional history through trendy hybrids to hard-core internalism, and each of these genres can (and has) produced works of great care and creativity. Expand post.
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
A recurring theme over at Ether Wave Propaganda is what Will Thomas has called “professional theodicy” (see this post for a summary). This phrase refers to a multitude of sins, but mainly to the tendency of recent historians of science to distort the work of their predecessors in a way that amplifies their own insights. I share Will Thomas' impression that this tendency is quite widespread. But I want to draw attention to a striking counter-example, namely the papers by Nick Jardine discussed in my previous two posts. In these papers Jardine couples awareness of past historiography with a down-to-earth suspicion of radical novelty. Let me begin at the end of Jardine's paper “Etics and Emics,” where he issues a complaint that could have come from a post like this one by Will Thomas:
...historians of science have been all too ready to apply to their own discipline that simplistic model of linear progress whose application to the sciences they call in question—in the beginning was the age of triumphal narratives of progress, then the various sociological turns of the 'seventies and 'eighties, and now the all-conquering new cultural microhistories! (274)Earlier in the same article Jardine describes what looks like an example of the kind of historiographical amnesia that exercises Will Thomas. Jardine wonders why cultural historians...
...present past institutions almost entirely in terms of past agents' conceptions and perceptions, surprisingly little attention being paid to the nuts-and-bolts aspects of those institutions—their physical layouts, their memberships, their financial arrangements, etc.He then suggests—and here's the rub—that “there is a tendency to adopt a condescending attitude to the products of 'old-fashioned' studies of institutions, whilst making free use of their fruits” (269). In other words, old-style histories are dismissed with one hand and pilfered with the other. A related point is that historians' recent stress on the perils of anachronism is of a piece with the bias in favour of ideas instead of actions. As Jardine puts it, “the obsession with actors' categories is a hangover from an historiography of scientific ideas based on texts and doctrines” (261). One irony of this claim is that it traces a practice that has been much praised in recent years (sensitivity to actors' categories) to a practice that has been much maligned in the same period (over-emphasis on ideas as opposed to actions and materials). A second irony is that, in Jardine's view, one way to advance beyond our “obsession with actors' categories” is to look backwards—that is, to pay attention to the kind of institutional data that was once collected by our “positivistic” forebears (the term “positivistic” is Jardine's). Empirical data-gathering is not the only “old-fashioned” practice that Jardine hopes to revive. Another is the progress narrative:
...I suggest that historians of science should feel free to return to the long-spurned task of spelling out and explaining the progress of the sciences... Against the objection that such an approach commits anachronism of selection to the extent that it picks out scenes, agendas and doctrines ancestral to those of our sciences, the proper response is surely: so be it! The very existence of history of science as a discipline depends upon such selective anachronism, and there is nothing historically improper in attending to the causal processes that have given rise to our sciences (274) .Jardine has an eye not only for the good habits of past authors but also for the bad habits of more recent ones. Consider his remarks on...
...the dismal 'cultural studies' pick'n'mix style, which jumbles up emic categories with currently fashionable etic theoretical terminology--'habitus' from Bourdieu, 'episteme' from Foucault, 'figuration' from Elias, etc. In so doing, it gets the worst of both the emic and the etic worlds. As isolated anachronisms the words militate against emic interpretation and insight. But there is no payoff: plucked from their theories the etic terms lack the power to analyse or explain anything.Jardine also recognises that dead positivist historians were not the only ones who imposed an unsuitable theoretical framework on aspects of past science. The newer and trendier frameworks are prone to the same error:
We should not expect analytic and explanatory frameworks designed for the sciences of one period to be applicable to those of others. Why should interest theory, with its own historical roots in the era of political economy, be applicable to earlier sciences? Why should actor-network theory, with its paradigmatic applications to colonial science, be appropriate for analysing early-modern science? (“Uses and Abuses,” 263).Finally, Jardine reminds us that we are not the first to wring our hands over historiographical issues like anachronism. Ever since scholars began interpreting texts they have been worrying about whether or not they've done justice to the author's point of view. Jardine's example, drawn from a text published in 1697, is a good way to end this series of posts on anachronism in the history of science:
So we must be aware of lending our notions to the Ancients and then judging their discourse on the basis of these notions, as often happens. If we wish their thought to be understood, our opinions should be as if forgotten... We should not compare their sayings with the nature of the things about which they speak, so as to be able to say that their knowledge of them is greater or less than ours, but should as far as possible interpret them from their very words . Jardine's source here is a paper by Tosh, Nick. “Anachronism and Retrospective Explanation: In Defence of a Present-Centred History of Science,” Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 34, no. 3 (2003): 647–659. I hope to write a post on this interesting paper some time in the New Year.  Daniel Le Clerc, Ars critica (Amsterdam, 1697). Expand post.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Readers might conclude from what I've just said that Jardine's two papers have little of value to say about anachronism in the history of science. Nothing could be further from the truth. The papers may not solve my demarcation problem, but they contain many insights and much practical advice. I found the following points especially valuable. Firstly, we can learn a lot about the past from explicit contrasts between it and the present. This is what I take from Jardine's discussion of “false friends” such as the present-day “office” and the early modern “officium”:
Of course, the moral is not that such terms should be banned; on the contrary, reflective and critical employment of them, in which the historian spells out similarities and differences between our usage and earlier usages, may provide valuable access to past life-worlds (“Etics and Emics,” 271).The second lesson speaks for itself:
The example of the disputed time and place of formation of biology as a discipline illustrates what I take to be a general feature of disciplinary history, namely the mutual dependence of historical study and the elucidation of presuppositions. In most cases we cannot first ascertain the presuppositions of a disciplinary category and then, armed with the list of its presuppositions, check out the historical record to see where and when they were first realized. Rather, it the course of a historical investigation the presuppositions of the disciplinary category and the conditions of emergence of the discipline are progressively clarified (“Uses and Abuses,” 262).A third lesson is that there are many borderline cases of anachronism, but that this is easily solved in practice:
There are plenty of devices—the use of scare-quotes and of such locutions as “at a stretch,” “so to speak,” “in modern terminology”—that can be used to indicate partial legitimacy of application of categories (“Uses and Abuses,” 263).Finally, there is no one-size-fits-all rule about what counts as good or bad anachronism. It varies according to what one is studying and which kind of narrative style (eg. analytic or novelistic) one prefers. In general,
historians of science should become less fashion-conscious, less ready to fall for arguments which exclude whole ranges of investigation as anachronistic or scientistic or guilty of some other evil-ism (“Uses and Abuses,” 274-5).In the next post I consider a general virtue of Jardine's papers that takes us back to Jonathan Rée's suggestion that recent historians of science, along with many other late-twentieth-century intellectuals, suffer from delusions of novelty. Expand post.
...provided biographical details for great discoverers and credited them with genius and exemplary adherence to scientific method; but [which] rarely paid attention to the ways in which [the discoverers] themselves conceived their 'scientific' activities (272).My question is whether the no-fantasy condition is strong enough to rule out histories that are Whiggish in this sense. After all, the whole point of examples like the Tycho case is to show that historians can go beyond the actor's “conceptions of their activities” without falling into historical fantasy. At times Jardine suggests a stronger condition. It is not enough that the etic part of a study is innocent of fantasy; the emic part of the study must also be sufficiently great. As Jardine puts it, “[e]tic history of science without emics is empty, if not anemic, because it fails to engage with the life-worlds of past practitioners of the sciences” (275). This condition, though stricter than the no-fantasy condition, may still not be strict enough to rule out the Whiggism that Jardine considers vicious. Do we really think that the classic Whiggish works—the books of George Sarton, for example—say nothing at all about the “life-worlds of past practitioners”? It would be more plausible to say that the difference is one of degree rather than of kind: old-fashioned historians captured some of those past life-worlds, but not as much as later historians have. But plausibility comes at the expense of precision. How much emic history is enough, and how much is too much? Who is to say that we have got the balance right, whereas Sarton et. al. did not? Jardine writes that “[a] history of science properly respectful of the differences of the past must seek out combinations of emics with etics appropriate to its various subjects and aims” (275). Why not extend this pluralist spirit to the subjects and aims of historians like Sarton? I conclude that these two papers by Jardine do not solve the demarcation problem introduced at the end of my previous post and re-stated at the start of this post. That is, they do not give us a principled way of distinguishing good anachronism from bad. This would be fine if we agreed to exclude all anachronism from the history of science. But it is this precisely this blanket ban on present-day concepts that Jardine rejects in these two papers. Expand post.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
|Which planks of the Whig platform are rotten, and why?|
Thursday, November 8, 2012
|Frederic L. Holmes(1932-2003)|
“Despite the slogan that science advances through experiments, virtually the entire literature of the history of science concerns theory” (Peter Galison, 1987) “Experiment is a respected but neglected activity ... the process of experimentation is taken to be either unproblematic or uninteresting” (David Gooding, Trevor Pinch and Simon Schaffer, 1989) “...little attention has been directed at how experiments are actually done, and how they come to be regarded as meaningful” (Jan Golinski, 1990)Holmes then gives a list of counter-examples to these generalisations. For example, Henry Guerlac declared in 1959 that it was “fallacious to make an arbitrary distinction between ideas and experience, between thought and action, and to treat ideas as if they had a totally independent life of their own, divorced from material reality.” Other historians practised what Guerlac preached. I. Bernard Cohen published a book in 1956 called Franklin and Newton: An Inquiry Into Speculative Newtonian Experimental Science and Franklin's Work in Electricity as an Examble Thereof. Soon afterwards, Guerlac himself wrote a book called Lavoisier--the Crucial Year: The Background and Origin of his First Experiments on Combustion in 1772. The authors of both books made a point of focusing on experiments as much as, or more than, theoretical speculation. The next generation, partly inspired by Guerlac and Cohen, went one step further by studying the drafts and lab notes of past scientists rather than their published articles. Others studied long-term changes in scientific domains, with an emphasis on instruments and institutions. Holmes discusses the following books, all published before the three quotes at the beginning of this post:
L. Pearce Williams, Michael Faraday (1966) Mirko Grmek, Raisonnement expérimental et recherches toxicologiques chez Claude Bernard (1973) Holmes, Claude Bernard and Animal Chemistry (1974) Gerald Geison, Michael Foster and the Cambridge School of Physiology (1978) John Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (1979)  Robert Frank, Harvey and the Oxford Physiologists (1980)  John Lesch, Science and Medicine in France (1984) A number of articles picked more or less at random from the journal Isis between 1957 and 1966.Holmes could have gone on. He could have discussed books by Mauric Daumas on the cabinets de physique of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or those by William Middleton on the histories of the thermometer and barometer. Nor should we forget the Harvard Case Studies in Experimental Science, which whatever their flaws certainly contain descriptions of experiments. There is also Stillman Drake's work on Galileo's experimental apparatus, Alistair Crombie's Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science, 1100-1700, and Holmes' own Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life: an Exploration of Scientific Creativity—all of which predate the three quotes at the start of this post. Many more examples can be found under “Scientific Instruments and Special Techniques” in the Isis Critical Bibliographies from 1955 onwards. But that's not all. If Heilbron's Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries counts as a study of experiment rather than theory, then so do a large proportion of the histories of science written before 1900. Take the first book-length history of electricity, Joseph's Priestley's History and Present State of Electricity, the first edition of which appeared in 1767. The contents page of the third edition can be viewed here, and anyone who glances at it will note that for each figure in his history Priestley promises to describe their “experiments and discoveries.” And indeed, in the body of the book he describes both. As a work of history, Heilbron's book is greatly superior to Priestley's. But the difference between them is certainly not that Priestley focuses on theory whereas Heilbron focuses on experiment. Granted, Heilbron goes into more detail than Priestley for each major eighteenth-century electrical experiment; but Heilbron also goes into more detail than Priestley for each major theory of that period. Heilbron himself has written that the “experimental turn” is overrated. Here is the first paragraph of his review of two books from 1989, The Uses of Experiment and The Development of the Laboratory .
During the last few years, a few historians and sociologists of science have made the discovery that experiment and measurement are important and problematic parts of the scientific enterprise. The dazzle of this illumination carried conviction of its novelty; and the editors of The uses of experiment open their preface with the astonishing claim that “experiment is a respected but neglected activity.” A few lines later they specify not experiment, but “the process of experimentation" as the neglected subject, only to return immediately to their gambit: “the neglect of experiment is symptomatic of a prejudice against practical activity in favour of speech acts.” Being editors, however, they are condemned to commit speech acts. These include calling attention to rhetorical devices by which scientists put forward arguments based on experiments and emphasising the logical and epistemological difficulties of confirmation and corroboration of results of experiments and instrumental tests. These themes are important; they receive incisive treatment; but they do not have the freshness advertised.*** Holmes suggests in passing two explanations for the false advertising that Heilbron describes. One is that the self-proclaimed innovators are studying new aspects of experiment rather than newly studying experiment itself. This becomes apparent in the second part of Holmes' article where he contrasts his own approach to experiment with the “newer” approach as represented by that of Leviathan and the Air Pump, a book that many subsequent historians of experiment have taken as a guide. Holmes draws the contrast with respect to Robert Boyle, the man whose air pump features in the title of the book in question:
Shapin and Schaffer portray an assertive Boyle, mobilizing literary resources to secure assent for matters of fact he has produced through a material technology [ie. the air pump]. I portray a playful, exploratory Boyle, performing experiments that seek answers to questions he poses, often tentative and uncertain... (133)In other words, the new historians of experiment focus on how experimental knowledge is disseminated rather than how it is acquired. Holmes is interested in the latter, as per the title of the paper under discussion. Holmes seems to say that the former approach is genuinely new, and he rightly admires Schaffer and Shapin's book. But he denies that it represents an increased emphasis on experiment. At most it is an increased emphasis on a particular aspect of experiment, an emphasis that complements traditional accounts but in no way replaces them. The new approach has its own dangers, he says, such as focusing on a small sample of a scientist's experiments and thereby tearing them from “a rich tapestry of intermingled experimentation and reasoning” (126). Another of Holmes' suggestions is that often it seems to be philosophers rather than historians who are accused of neglecting experiment. At the same time, Holmes would not have written the article if he did not think that historians were among the targets of the accusation. Two possibilities arise, although Holmes does not discuss them in this particular article. One is that philosophers really have neglected experiment, but that the so-called innovators have unjustly tarred past historians with the idealistic brush. Another possibility is that the new historians of experiment are writing a kind of meta-history of experiment: one which considers experiment at a more abstract level than historians usually do, and therefore has new things to say about experiment even though it differs little from traditional accounts at the level of basic description. *** There are grains of truth in all of these suggestions. But another explanation, and perhaps a more far-reaching one, is that much of the talk about a neglect of experiment is directed at a small but influential group of recent historians and philosophers of science. This group can indeed be said to have neglected experiment (although they should also be credited with showing just how much experiment depends on theory). The claim that experiment is a new topic—whether that claim is made in 1983 or 2013—is often an error based on an unwarranted extrapolation from this group of recent idealists to all historians and philosophers of science who preceded them. A glance at two pieces, one by a historian and one by a philosopher, can help to substantiate this thesis. The first is an influential chapter by Roy Porter, a wonderful and much-mourned historian of medicine, Britain, and the eighteenth century. His “The Scientific Revolution: A Spoke in the Wheel?” appeared in 1986 in Porter and Teich, eds., Revolution in History (CUP). The title of the chapter says that it is about the idea of the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, but it is also about how that idea shaped the discipline of the history of science between about 1940 and 1970. The Scientific Revolution, Porter writes, was
...initially the brain-child and shibboleth of a specific cluster of scholars emerging during the 1940s, including the Russian émigré Alexandre Koyré, [the Cambridge historian Herbert] Butterfield, whose outline history popularized Koyré's work, Rupert Hall, who was Butterfield's pupil, and, a little later, Marie Boas [Hall]. Their scrupulous scholarship and prolific works of synthesis animated an emerging discipline, and laid down a coherent framework for future research (295). For these historians, science was essentially thought – profound, bold, logical, abstract...Thus idealism has been pervasive, and its implications run even to the interpretation of detailed episodes [such as Alexander Koyré's claim that Galileo didn't perform many of the experiments he described] (296).The first passage answers the “who” question clearly enough, and the second gives an idea of what sort of “idealism” they had in common. It is precisely the kind of idealism that could justly be accused of neglecting experiment, as the example of Koyré suggests. Granted, Porter's article does not make any bold claims for a turn towards experiment; and he explicitly acknowledges that the idealism of Koyré and his English counterparts was a recent and local phenomenon. But by focusing on those idealists and saying little about their predecessors he sets them up as the chief foil to revisionist accounts of the Scientific Revolution, and by extension to revisionist histories of science in general. Compare Porter's targets with those in an influential book in philosophy, Ian Hacking's Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Science (CUP, 1983). A fair summary of the book is that “representing” is a problematic activity that philosophers have written too much about, and that “intervening” is a promising activity that they have written too little about. Hacking makes some bold claims at the beginning of his discussion of “intervening”:
History of the natural sciences is almost always written as a history of theory. Philosophy of science has so much become philosophy of theory that the very existence of pre-theoretical observations or experiments has been denied. I hope the following chapters might initiate a Back-to-Bacon movement, in which we attend more seriously to experimental science. Experimentation has a life of its own.This is one of the most cited passages—by historians and sociologists as well as by philosophers—in the “new” literature on experimentation. For example, the first two sentences are quoted near the beginning of Leviathan and the Air Pump to show that “even philosophers are beginning to admit the anti-practice and pro-theory prejudices of their discipline” (17). Having read a fair chunk of the recent literature on experimentation, I am confident that a citation analysis would reveal many more examples. However on reading Hacking's ideas about “intervening” it becomes clear that his main targets are not philosophers of science per se but Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Imré Lakatos. He criticises Popper for thinking that observations are usually made to confirm or refute pre-conceived hypothesis (155); he criticises Kuhn for preferring a theoretician over an experimenter in a book that Kuhn was editing (151-152); he criticises Feyerabend for saying that all observation is theory-laden (173); and he criticises Lakatos for implying that there is no such thing as a crucial experiment (254-261). Hacking's chief conclusion—that there is such a thing as “pre-theoretical observations or experiments”—is novel with respect to this sequence of recent idealists. But with respect to many earlier philosophers of science, from Robert Boyle to John Stuart Mill, it is a statement of the obvious. Encouraged by Hacking's polemical passages, like the one quoted above, historians and sociologists of science have supposed that his chief conclusion is a piece of earthquake-like novelty that will totally reform the way we do the history and sociology of science. There are some new ideas in Hacking's book, but fewer than is often supposed (and insofar as they are new they are controversial, such as the idea that active experiment furnishes powerful arguments for scientific realism that passive observation does not) . The broader lesson of this post is that historians should be clear about who they are accusing of what. The three quotes at the beginning of this post make claims about a large number of past historians of science. But the books and articles in which those quotes appear do not attempt anything like a systematic survey of the books and articles that they indict. The closest approximations that I have seen of such a survey are by those who reject the indictment, like Holmes, Heilbron, and Brian Baigrie . Among those who make the indictment, the one who supplies the most evidence seems to be a philosopher (Hacking, in Representing and Intervening) rather than any historian. If politeness is the reason for this reticence, it is laudable but misguided: better to be openly critical than to confuse the issue with unsupported insinuations.  To be fair, these two books are sometimes acknowledged as precursors of the experimental turn (eg. Leviathan and the Air Pump, 15).  Medical History, vol. 34, no. 3 (1990), 335 (paywall).  This last point generalises. I am not claiming that there is nothing new about the experimental turn, just that the novelty has been exaggerated and poorly defined and that claims to novelty have not been backed up with much historiographical evidence.  Baigrie, “Scientific Practice: The View From the Tabletop,” in Jed Buchwald, ed., Theories and Stories of Doing Physics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), chap. 5. Expand post.
Sunday, October 28, 2012
[F]irst, they have substituted relativism for skepticism; next, they have mistaken historicism for historicity; and finally, they have vastly exaggerated the scale of what they were trying (rightly, no doubt) to turn against (976-7).These claims require some explanation. By relativism Rée means the view that values--whether moral, intellectual or aesthetic--cannot be justified absolutely but only relative to a given historical situation. Rée makes short shrift of relativism, noting that it is self-defeating and that--despite the good intentions of its advocates--it is not a "true friend of the marginalized and the oppressed" (965). These are stock arguments against relativism, but the distinction between "historicism" and "historicity" is Rée's own invention. Historicity is an appreciation for the strangeness and particularity of the past, for "the sheer singularity of places and times" (961). Rée urges us to "respect the historicity of things, the fact that they take place without benefit of an enveloping historical plot" (976). By contrast, historicism is the insistence on a plot, or at least a particular kind of plot. For Rée, the prototypical historicist is the historican of philosophy who believes that all past philosophers were addressing the same set of "perennial questions," and that his job is to assess their answers. Such a historian ignores or misreads all statements that do not seem like answers to a pre-fabricated schedule of questions. As a result such historians "offer you the comforting assurance that nothing you encounter in history will be really unfamiliar or alien to you." The third and related problem on Rée's list is the delusion of novelty I mentioned in the introduction to this post. The relativists "believe in the originality of their theme, its audacity, its scurrilousness, and even its radicalism." Rée thinks that in fact it has been around for centuries, in the work of Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Simone de Beauvoir, and 1940s existentialists, as well as in the "languorous, snobbish cosmopolitanism which likes to smile at the intuitive enthusiasms of simple folk." Rée concludes that relativism "is more like a recurrent ideal of high cuture than its belated comeuppance" (965). The history of science is a special case of this amnesia. "The new historians of science have supposed that everyone before Kuhn believed in a single scientific method, which was somehow supposed to control the whole of the history of science" (977). This judgement of "the new historians of science" is similar to claims made over at Ether Wave Propaganda, such as that "historians of science have themselves become appallingly poor historians of their own profession so as to amplify the significance of recent insights" (see the end of this post for a summary of this line of thought on EWP). But whereas EWP writes about the history of science, Rée levels the accusation against everyone who has taken the "historical turn," including political and literary theorists. How does Rée explain such widespread hubris among late-twentieth-century intellectuals? By appeal to their early-twentieth-century counterparts, the modernists. The relativists think they are subverting the entire history of Western thought (the argument runs) but really they are simply reacting to the excesses of modernism circa. 1910-40. That period witnessed the rise of professionalized disciplines, the members of whom...
...saw themselves as the inheritors of a set of comforting pieties about God and human dignity which, in the stark and unillusioned world in which they now found themselves, could be seen to be empty, anthropocentric, self-indulgent, and prescientific: in short, no longer possible. They developed a kind of higher sentimentality about their own stern refusal to be sentimental. They were, that is to say, modernists, and they sought to construct hardedged, antitraditional, professional research communities which would put an end to the timewasting of the past to produce solid, context-free, cumulative, scientific knowledge. This is what the historical turns have been turning against.There is much I disagree with in this set of claims. It is very strange to accuse relativists of engaging in historicism, as Rée defines the latter term. Consider two of the people he calls relativist, Quentin Skinner and Thomas Kuhn. Both of these men were opposed to that brand of historicism that treats all past texts as so many answers to present-day questions. Indeed, this is one of the reasons they get called relativists. Rée seems to recognise this at the end of the article, when he quotes Skinner as arguing for "a non-anachronistic reconstruction of the alien mentalities of the past" (978). So is Rée on Skinner's side after all? Apparently not, because Rée then goes on to accuse Skinner and his ilk of being too sensitive to the strangeness of the past; Rée then urges historians to embrace anachronism. The upshot is that Rée gives a set of cogent arguments for opposite conclusions, without much attempt to reconcile those conclusions. The same can be said of Rée's discussion of relativism. On the one hand he says that relativism is a long-standing feature of intellectual life that has nothing subversive about it; on the other hand he argues that relativism may be "foundationalist, transcendental, and even totalitarian" (966). So is Rée rejecting relativism or not? Perhaps he would say that the question is too crude. Very well, but if there is a more nuanced question that he is answering I'm not sure what that question is. *** Despite such oddities, Rée is surely right that those involved in the "historical turns" in the late 20th-century often claimed to be doing something very novel. If such claims were systematically overblown then we need to explain why they were so, and Rée offers an interesting explanation. The question I want to finish with is: does the explanation apply to the discipline of the history of science? I think it does, but not in the way Rée suggests. It is not hard to find people who flourished in the period 1910-1940 (Rée's dates for modernism), who were keen on building a professional research community in the history of science, and who act as a foil to present-day historians of science. The outstanding example is the Belgian chemist George Sarton (1884-1956) who founded the field's flagship in 1912 and worked in many other ways to build the field. He also had ties to Paul Otlet, another Belgian now known as the father of the information age for his promotion of "rational bibliography"--an archetypal modernist project. But Sarton did not see past history of science as Rée says a modernists saw their predecessors. That is, Sarton did not see past historians of science as "empty, anthropocentric, self-indulgent, and prescientific." How could they have been prescientific when almost all of them were scientists? Certainly Sarton thought that his field was fragmented, under-resourced, and in need of unification. But he did not think it was excessively sentimental. Moreover, historians nowadays are not delusional when they assimilate writers like Sarton with all historians of science before him. Sarton is not just a modernist anomaly--in many respects it is reasonable to group him with his predecessors and contrast that group with present-day history of science. Take a look at the last ten winners of the book prize for the History of Science Society, a society that Sarton co-founded. Most of them are the sorts of books that could not have been written prior to about 1970. Another "but" is that it is easy to identify pioneers of the field in the period 1910-1940 who had a rather non-modernist view of science, if modernism means thinking of knowledge as an empirical, cumulative affair. Neo-Kantians such as Hélène Metzger and Alexander Koyré thought of science as a mental, epochal affair in which whole systems of thought rose up then fell away. The American philosopher Edwin Burtt not only lamented the de-humanised world that he inherited from seventeenth-century science, but tried to work out an alternative. These and other writers forged a discipline around the idea of the Scientific Revolution, ie. the idea of a dramatic change in ways of understanding the natural world that occured between about 1550 and 1700. If Rée's account is applied to the history of science, it should be applied to the historians who rejected the neo-Kantians. Burtt, Metzger, Koyré and their followers were genuinely novel in their treatment of the history of science as a sequence of coherent world systems. There were precursors, as there always are. But Burtt et. al. were as novel with respect to their predecessors as recent winners of the HSS book prize are with respect to their predecessors. The backlash against these authors consisted in rejecting their idealism, ie. their emphasis on abstract ideas as opposed to what we now call "scientific practice" or "material culture." This backlash goes wrong when it takes the neo-Kantians as representative of all past history of science. One can say of this backlash, as Rée says of relativism, that "the orthodoxies against which [it is] in revolt have a quite short and particular history." To sum up, Rée's idea of an over-reaction to modernist excesses may help to explain some forms of relativism, but it does not apply to the history of science. It fails to apply because the really new historians of science in the early 20th century were not the ones with modernist sympathies (like Sarton) but the ones who scrutinised those sympathies (like Burtt). There have been over-reactions to short-lived past excesses in the field of the history of science. But the over-reaction has not been to the excesses of modernism, but to those of Burtt, Koyré and their followers. The next post will provide some badly-needed evidence for my claims in this post. Expand post.
Saturday, July 21, 2012
version française -----------------------------------------------
This is my last post on Will's picture, but by no means the least. My aim here is to identify gaps or inconsistencies in Will's picture, with a view to exploring these issues on this blog in the future. This post ends with a list of ten questions for future posts. Moderates One self-acknowledged gap in Will's picture is the coverage of “moderates”: historians who have defended older ways of doing the history of science or expressed reservations about newer trends. Examples are Geoffrey Cantor, Charles Rosenberg, and Frederic Lawrence Holmes. These are good examples, but without looking at historians such as these in more detail, it is hard to know whether they were isolated voices or whether they formed coherent traditions. In my view there are two traditions that are worth a closer look. One could be called the “Kuhnian school”: it is represented by writers such as Holmes, John Heilbron, Jed Buchwald, and Russell MacCormmach; and its main organ is the journal currently known as Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, of which Heilbron and MacCormmach have been long-term editors. It specialises in fine-grained studies of individual discoveries and in more wide-ranging accounts of the evolution of scientific disciplines. The second might be called the “Cambridge school.” It is linked to the school of the same name in the history of political thought, a school named after the UK university that was once home to Quentin Skinner, the most well-known member of the school. The history of science version of the Cambridge school specialises in quasi-philosophical discussions on how to do the history of science, with special emphasis on the problem of understanding alien cultures. It is more fashionable these days than the Kuhnian school, and more concerned with methodological questions in the history of science. These traditions raise an issue that WT does not deal with in much detail. Suppose that WT is right that some recent historians and sociologists of science have exaggerated the methodological gains that the discipline has made since about 1970. In that case, what are the real gains that historians made before and after that point? Both the Kuhnian school and the Cambridge school have opinions about what these gains were. One of my interests on this blog is to assess those opinions. Presumably the history of science that comes out of those two schools is better than history of science in, say, 1900. But in what way is it better, exactly? Real gains versus fake gains. A related question is how the exaggeration occurred in the first place. By what rhetorical procedure have real gains been transformed into over-blown gains? The question is important because if we could identify the procedure we could apply it in reverse in order to recover the real gains from the hyperbole. One general procedure that WT identifies is not so much to exaggerate the gains but to exaggerate their novelty. As WT put it: “Historians of science have themselves become appallingly poor historians of their own profession so as to amplify the significance of recent insights.” Another general procedure is to write history itself (rather than the history of the profession) in such a way as to lend a kind of world-historical importance to recent gains. WT has suggested that this role may be served by the “theodicy of modernity” – the idea that “scientific progress had outstripped moral progress, leading to the incidence and prospect of various evils.” I suggest that another general procedure has also been widespread in recent decades. It consists in presenting thematic gains as methodological gains. A thematic gain consists in identifying an aspect of science that has been neglected so far by historians and that can in principle be applied to a wide range of cases throughout the history of science. There is a long list of such themes: architecture, diagrams, pedagogy, instruments, objects, geography, bodies, laboratories, standards, conversations, food... Often these gains are genuine: the theme is genuinely interesting and has been genuinely neglected. The gains only start to ring false when they are presented, explicitly or otherwise, as gains in method. That is, when they are presented as fundamental changes in the way the we do the history of science, changes to which one must adhere on pain of doing bad history. Internal history of science One of the bad habits of present-day history of science, according to Will's picture, is a tendency to downplay the intellectual side of science in favour of social, political, and cultural factors. This part of WTs view came through most clearly in his spirited defense of a call (by the outgoing President of the History of Science Society) for putting the “science” back into the history of science. There and elsewhere WT appears to argue for what used to be called “internal” history of science. In my view Will's picture leaves three unanswered questions about internal history of science. The first question is terminological. WT does not often use the terms “internal” and “external” history. Usually he writes about “epistemological” as opposed to “sociological” history, about “philosophy” versus “anti-philosophy”, or about “intellectual history” or “the history of ideas.” Do all these terms have different meanings, or are they different names for the same thing? If they have the same meanings, why not stick with the old-fashioned distinction between “internal” and “external” history? If they mean different things, and hence refer to different historical projects, which of these projects (if any) are better than the others? I suspect that this terminological question is related to the following more substantial question: how we can justify internal history of science after everything that has been learnt about past science over the last forty years or so? WTs defense of internal history of science is, I think, two-fold. Firstly, as claimed here, it is simply obvious that intellectual factors like reasons and evidence are part of any complete explanation for the beliefs and actions of past scientists. Secondly, as claimed here, historians can legitimately “abstract” these factors from the many non-intellectual factors that are also (just as obviously) part of any complete explanation of past science. I agree with this defense as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn't go very far. What historians have discovered over the last few decades, according to a common view, is precisely that intellectual factors are much more closely intertwined with non-intellectual factors than historians of science used to think. WT seems to share this view, acknowledging for example the “clear and powerful links between scientific methods of argumentation and the moral economy in which those arguments took place.” The conclusion that is often drawn from this common view is that the process of abstraction that WT recommends is not legitimate. So the question remains of how to reconcile the legitimacy of internal history of science with the fact that much recent progress has been made by apparently denying its legitimacy. The third question concerning internal history of science is one about the “brush with sociology” that I summarised in this post. WT suggests, roughly, that sociology forged an alliance with history by artificially dividing historians of science into “internalist” and “externalist” camps. The question is whether this division really was artificial. Did sociologists like Stephen Shapin and Barry Barnes exaggerate the degree to which historians before circa. 1975 had separated themselves into these camps? Or was there a genuine separation, with genuine hostility between the two separated groups? Answering this third question would mean looking in detail at the evidence that Shapin and Barnes presented, and the evidence they left out. Understandably WT has not had room to go into such detail. But without the detail it is hard to credit this part of WTs explanation of the current state of the discipline. Social construction versus the cult of invisibilty WT does not have much time for debates about whether “knowledge is relative” or whether “science is socially constructed” or whether “the beliefs of science are caused by nature.” Such questions were discussed in the so-called science wars of the 1990s. And in WTs view “most everyone now agrees that the science wars were absurd … What had been achieved [in these debates] were anodyne solutions to a set of historiographical non-problems.” A consequence of this view is that in the present day historians have little to gain by taking a particular position in the social construction debate. On WTs view, we will not become better historians by persuading ourselves (for example) that science is not socially constructed after all. The root of current bad practices is not social constructivism but the "cult of invisibility" ie. the project of unveiling the harms caused by, and the things hidden by, the intellectual prejudices that past actors held about science. So instead of revisiting the SSK debate, WT advises that we search for the origins of the cult of invisibility, perhaps by tracing the history of “ideology” as an analytic term in social science. I am not so sure that there is nothing to gain by revisiting aspects of the SSK debate. My suspicion is that the core of the “intellectual prejudices” that historians of science now set themselves against are just the beliefs that social constructionists set themselves against. Social constructionists tend to say, for example, that science is “exquisitely sensitive to its social context”, or that “experimental results can in principle always be challenged”, or that “the power of science lies in relations of trust and authority between scientists.” Much current research in the history of science can be seen either as an affirmation of such claims or as a consequence of them. One of those consequences may be the generalised suspicion of the scientist's self-image that WT sees as widespread in the discipline. Perhaps another consequence is be the proliferation of themes that I noted above: social construction encourages the search for new themes insofar as it rules out the old themes (like data, evidence, and argument) as explanations for the beliefs of scientists. I take WTs point that settling debates about the general nature of science is not the main job of the historian. But clearly a historian's beliefs about the general nature of science can sometimes effect the quality of the history they write. For example, historians who believe that all published scientific articles are outright lies are likely to do bad history of science. Moreover, as that example suggests, the denial of a general claim about science need not itself be a general claim. To deny that published articles are outright lies one does not need to assert that they are all innocent truths. To sum up, it is possible that social constructionists sometimes use bad philosophical arguments to support false views about science, views that in turn effect the way we do the history of science. If that is the case, historians of science can benefit from any good philosophical arguments that replace those false views with truer ones—or simply from arguments that show a broader range of defensible general views about science than those endorsed by social constructivists. Unity or decontextualisation? Sometimes WT approves of historians who find similarities between the science of different epochs, and sometimes he disapproves of historians who find similarities that don't really exist. In principle there is nothing wrong with this double-edged criticism. But sometimes I have trouble seeing the difference between the works that are thus praised and criticised. For example, in a collection of studies of scientific errors, Jed Buchwald and Allan Franklin suggest that the errors of Ptolemy can be usefully compared to those of Newton, despite the great gaps of time and culture between those two thinkers. WT seems to approve of such comparisons on the historiographical ground that they “[allow] us to establish historical explanations of why historical actors were able to come to intellectual agreement.” So far so good. But in a different example, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have tried to compare the styles of representation of scientists widely separated by time and culture. Far from approving of this project, WT suggests that it succeeds only through an “unduly biased reading of the historical record.” WTs complaint is that “for the act of representation to be understood adequately, associated practices and argumentative ideas must be taken into account, which requires the historian to look beyond the act of representation to the particulars of the socio-intellecutal problems that the image is intended to resolve.” It is not clear to me why this complaint can be levelled against Daston and Galison but not against Buchwald and Franklin. Perspectivism versus repetition There is another apparent inconsistency in Will's picture. One of WTs criticisms is that current history of science is too repetitive, constantly recycling a small number of basic insights; it worships the “repetitious image.” The other is that it is too diverse, accommodating a wide range of perspectives that make it hard to build up any coherent picture of the long-term development of science. Is it consistent to say that the current historiography of science is both repetitive and diverse? *** Ten questions Here are ten questions that have arisen out of my survey of Will's picture, and which have been discussed in this post. The later posts on this blog will fulfill their aim if they can give at least partial answers to at least some of these questions. 1. What is the nature and evolution of “moderate” traditions like the Kuhnian school and the Cambridge school? 2. What are the opinions of these traditions about the real gains that historians of science have made in the course of the twentieth century? What do we make of these opinions? What are the merits and demerits of “pre-historic” histories of science, ie. those written before about 1960? 3. What are the thematic gains that historians of science have inflated by presenting them as methodological gains? 4. Do we need a replacement for the old terms “internal” and “external” history, and if so why? 5. How can we reconcile the legitimacy of internal history of science with the fact that much recent progress has been made by apparently denying its legitimacy? In particular, if internal history of science involves abstraction, is it any worse than the abstraction that historians of all kinds routinely perform? 6. Did sociologists like Barnes and Bloor really exaggerate the division between “internal” and “external” historians of science? 7. What do we gain from thinking about the recent historiography of science in terms of a “cult of invisibility” instead of in terms of “social construction”? 8. Are there any widespread prejudices among historians of science that can be corrected by doing better philosophy of science? 9. Is there a principled way of distinguishing themes that historians can fruitfully track across widely separated historical contexts, from themes that cannot be studied in this way? 10. Can historians of science reasonably be criticised for being both repetitive and diverse? Expand post.
Ceci est mon dernier post sur la vision de Will, mais il est loin d'être le moins important. Mon but ici est d'identifier quelques questions ou problèmes qui surgissent de la vision de Will, en vue de les examiner plus en détail au long de la vie de ce blog. Je termine ce post avec une liste de questions pour des posts à venir. Quelles ont été les avancées réelles? Une lacune que WT a lui-même remarquée dans sa propre vision concerne les “modérés” qui ont soutenu des styles d'histoire plus traditionnels ou qui ont émis des réserves sur les tendances nouvelles. Trois exemples que WT a notés sont Geoffrey Cantor, Charles Rosenberg, et Lawrence Holmes. Mais sans examiner des historiens pareils plus en détail on ne peut pas savoir s'ils constituent des voix isolées ou au contraire des membres d'une tradition cohérente. A mon avis il y a deux traditions qui valent un coup d'oeil. La première est ce que je nommerais “l'école de Kuhn.” Elle comporte des historiens comme Holmes, John Heilbron, Jed Buchwald, et Russell MacCormmach, et son porte-parole principal est la revue qui s'appelle actuellement Etudes Historiques des Sciences Naturelles (Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences). Elle est spécialisée dans des reconstructions denses des découvertes scientifiques renommées, et également dans des études plus larges de l'évolution des diverses disciplines scientifiques. La deuxième tradition et ce que j'appelle “l'école de Cambridge.” Elle est liée à l'école du même nom dans l'histoire de la pensée politique, laquelle est associée à l'Université de Cambridge en Angleterre et compte Quentin Skinner, John Pocock, et John Dunn comme ses partisans principaux. La partie scientifique de cette école est spécialisée dans des articles quasi-philosophiques sur comment faire l'histoire des sciences, lesquels mettent l'accent sur le problème de la connaissance des cultures étrangères. Cette école est actuellement plus à la mode que celle de Kuhn, et plus préoccupée que la dernière par la méthodologie de l'histoire. Ces deux traditions font naître une question dont WT ne traite pas vraiment. Supposons que WT ait raison en disant que les historiens et les sociologues ont exagéré les avancées méthodologiques de la discipline depuis (disons) 1970. Cela posé, quelles sont les avancées réelles que les historiens ont faites avant et après 1970? Les écoles de Kuhn et de Cambridge ont toutes deux des opinions sur la nature de ces avancées légitimes. Un des projets de ce blog est d'évaluer ces opinions. Comment aller d'avancées réelles à des fausses? Une question liée à la dernière est comment cette exagération s'est déroulée en premier lieu. De quels procédés rhétoriques a-t-on fait usage pour transformer des avancées réelles mais modestes en des avancées sur-éstimées et trompeuses? Cette question est importante parce que si on pouvait identifier ces procédés on pourrait les inverser afin de récuperer les avancées réelles. Un des procédés dont WT a parlé est moins une façon d'exagérer la valeur de nos propres idées qu'une façon d'exagérer leur nouveauté. Comme WT l'a écrit: “Les historiens des sciences sont devenus des historiens lamentables de leur propre profession afin d'amplifier l'importance des idées récentes.” Un deuxième procédé est d'écrire l'histoire elle-même (plutôt que l'histoire de sa profession) de telle façon à conférer une importance presque historico-mondiale aux idées récentes. WT a suggéré que ce rôle a été joué par la “théodicée de la modernité” – l'idée que “le progrès scientifique a dépassé le progrès moral, déclenchant un grand nombre de maux actuels et potentiels.” Je suggère qu'il y a un autre procédé qui a récemment connu un grand succès. Il s'agit de présenter des avancées thématiques comme des avancées méthodologiques. Une avancée thématique consiste à identifier un aspect de la science qui a été négligé jusqu'à présent par les historiens et qui à priori peut être appliqué à n'importe quel cas dans l'histoire des sciences. Il y a une grande liste de thèmes de ce genre: l'architecture, les graphiques, la pédagogie, les instruments, les objets, la géographie, le corps humain, les laboratoires, la metrologie, la conversation, la nourriture... Souvent ces avancées thématiques sont réelles. C'est-à-dire que le thème en question est souvent réellement négligé et réellement intéressant. Elles ne commencent à être trompeuses que quand elles sont presentées, explicitement ou pas, comme des changements fondamentaux dans la manière dont on fait de l'histoire des sciences, des changements auxquels on doit s'inscrire sous peine de ne pas faire la vraie histoire. L'histoire interne des sciences Une des mauvaise habitudes de l'historien des sciences typique d'aujourd'hui, d'après WT, est sa tendance à minimiser l'aspect intellectuel de la science en faveur de ses aspects sociaux, politicaux, et culturaux. Cette partie des idées de WT est mise en évidence surtout dans sa défense animée d'un appel récent pour “réinstaller la science dans l'histoire des sciences.” Là et ailleurs WT paraît affirmer la valeur de ce que on appelait l'histoire des sciences “interne.” Après avoir lu la vision de Will il y a trois questions qui me restent sans réponse concernant l'histoire interne. La première est une question de terminologie. WT n'utilise pas souvent les mots “interne” et “externe.” D'habitude il parle de l'histoire “épistémologique” par opposition à l'histoire “sociologique”, ou de la “philosophie” et de “l'anti-philosophie”, ou de l'histoire “intellectuelle” ou de “l'histoire des idées.” Tout ces termes ont-ils un sens différent, ou sont-ils tout simplement des noms différents pour la même chose? S'ils ont tout le même sens, pourquoi ne pas utiliser les termes anciens “interne” et “externe”? Et s'ils n'ont pas le même sens, et se rapportent tous à des projets différents, quels sont les projets qui méritent notre attention? Je me doute que cette question de terminologie est liée à une question plus considérable, à savoir: comment peut-on justifier l'histoire des sciences interne après tout ce qu'on appris pendant les dernières décennies à propos de la science? D'après ce que je comprends, WT est pour l'histoire interne pour deux raisons. Premièrement, comme il le constate ici, il est tout simplement évident que les causes intellectuelles font partie d'une explication complète des actes et des croyances des scientifiques du passé. Deuxièmement, comme il le constate ici, les historiens ont le droit d'extraire ces facteurs intellectuels des facteurs non-intellectuels qui font aussi partie d'une explication complète de la science du passé. Cette défense en elle-même n'est pas mal, mais il en faut plus. Car ce que les historiens ont découvert lors de ces quarante années est justement que les facteurs intellectuels sont beaucoup plus entremêlés avec les facteurs non-intellectuels que ce qu'on croyait avant. La conclusion qui est souvent tirée de cette idée est qu'on n'a pas le droit d'isoler les facteurs intellectuels comme WT le propose. La question demeure: comment réconcilier la validité de l'histoire interne avec le fait qu'on a fait beaucoup de progrès réels en niant sa validité? La troisième question concerne le contact entre l'histoire et la sociologie que j'ai raconté dans ce post. WT a suggéré que les sociologues ont forgé une alliance avec les historiens dans les années soixante-dix et quatres-vingt en éxagérant les différences entre les historiens “internes” et les historiens “externes.” Mais ont-ils vraiment exagéré cette différence? Pour répondre à cette question il faut examiner en détail les données que les sociologues ont exposées sur le sujet, ainsi que les données qu'ils ont ignorées. Sans ces détails je ne suis pas convaincu par cette partie de l'explication que WT donne de l'état actuel de l'histoire des sciences. Le constructivisme social contre le culte de l'invisibilité WT ne supporte pas les débats sur des questions telles que “le savoir est-il relatif?”, “la science est-elle une construction sociale?”, etc. Ces questions ont été posées pendant les soit-disants “guerres de science” dans les années quante-vingt-dix, et d'après WT “presque tout le monde est d'accord que les guerres de science étaient absurdes.” Le résultat de ce point de vue est qu'aujourd'hui les historiens des sciences n'ont rien à gagner en reprenant ces debats. D'après WT on ne va pas devenir des historiens plus efficaces en se convainquant, par example, que la science après tout n'est pas une construction sociale. L'origine des pratiques actuelles n'est pas le constructivisme social mais le culte de l'invisibilité, c'est-à-dire le projet de dévoiler les choses qui ont été cachées, et les maux qui ont été causés, par certains préjugés intellectuels à propos de la science. Alors au lieu de recommencer les guerres de science, WT nous conseille plutôt de trouver les origines du culte de l'invisibilité, peut-être en esquissant l'histoire du terme “idéologie” dans les sciences sociales. Je ne suis pas sur qu'on n'ait rien à gagner en revenant sur quelques aspects du débat sur la construction sociale de la science. Je me doute que la plupart des “préjugés intellectuels” auxquels les historiens des science s'opposent actuellement ne sont que les croyances auxquelles les constructivistes s'opposent. Les constructivistes ont tendance à dire, par exemple, que la science est “très sensible à son contexte sociale”, que “n'importe quel résultat expérimental peut être nier”, ou que “l'efficacité de la science découle principalement des relations de confiance et d'autorité entre un grand nombre des scientifiques.” Beaucoup de recherche actuelle dans la discipline peut être considérée soit comme une affirmation de telles idées soit comme leur conséquence. Les conséquences sont peut-être plus importantes que les affirmations directes. L'une des conséquences est peut-être la méfiance vague de l'autoportrait des scientifiques, une méfiance qui semble être très répandue dans la discipline. Une deuxième conséquence est peut-être la multiplication des thèmes que j'ai remarqués ci-dessus. Le constructivisme social soutient la recherche de thèmes noveaux dans la mesure où il élimine les thèmes traditionels (les données, les preuves, etc.) comme explications d'actes et des croyances de scientifiques. J'avoue que je suis d'accord avec le constat de WT que la tache principale de l'historien des sciences n'est pas de participer aux débats sur la nature générale des sciences. Mais il est évident que les idées d'un historien sur la nature générale de la science puissent (je ne dis pas “doivent”) avoir un effet sur la qualité de ce qu'il fait en tant qu'historien. Par exemple, les ouvrages d'un historien vont souffrir s'il croit que tous les articles qui ont jamais été publiés par les scientifiques sont de parfaits mensonges. En bref, il est possible que les constructivistes sociaux utilisent parfois de mauvais arguments pour soutenir des idées fausses sur la nature générale de la science, et que ces idées aient parfois un effet défavorable sur l'histoire qu'on écrit. Cela posé, les historiens des sciences peuvent tirer profit de bons arguments qui aident à remplacer ces idées fausses avec des idées plus vraisemblables – ou du moins ceux qui montrent la variété des idées défendables sur la nature générale des sciences. L'unité ou les idées sans contexte? Parfois WT est en faveur des historiens qui trouvent des ressemblences entre la science de différentes époques. Ailleurs il s'exprime contre les historiens qui insistent sur des rassemblences qui n'existent pas réellement. En principe ces deux jugements ne sont pas contradictoires. Mais parfois j'ai du mal à apercevoir la différence entre les ouvrages qui sont ainsi loués et critiqués. Par exemple, dans un livre sur l'histoire de l'erreur scientifique, Jed Buchwald et Allan Franklin ont suggéré que les erreurs de l'astronome Ptolemée peuvent être utilement comparées aux erreurs de Newton, malgré le grand écart entre le Grec du deuxième siècle et l'Anglais du dix-septième. WT est pour de telles comparaisons parce qu'elles “nous permettent de fournir des explications historiques sur comment les scientifiques du passé sont parvenus à être d'accord sur des questions intellectuelles.” Jusqu'à ici, tout va bien. Mais dans un autre exemple, Lorraine Daston et Peter Galison ont essayé de comparer les styles de représentation des scientifiques qui sont presque aussi écartés les uns des autres que Newton l'est de Ptolemée. Loin de louer ce projet, WT suggère qu'il ne peut qu'aboutir à une “interprétation partielle des documents historiques.” WT explique que “pour bien comprendre un acte de représentation, on doit tenir compte des idées et des pratiques associées à cet acte, ce qui oblige l'historien à chercher derrière l'acte lui-même les détails des problèmes socio-intellectuels que la représentation a été créée pour résoudre.” Ce que je ne comprends pas est comment cette critique peut être valable contre Daston et Galison mais pas valable contre Buchwald et Franklin. La répétition et le perspectisme Un dernier problème, ou du moins un problème apparent, concerne deux autre critiques que WT addresse aux historiens d'aujourd'hui. Une de ces critiques est que l'histoire des sciences est trop répétitive, étant toujours en train de réutiliser un petit nombre d'idées. L'autre critique est que l'histoire qu'on écrit est trop variée, entretenant un grand nombre de styles, d'intérêts, et de perspectives qui rendent difficile la formation d'une idée cohérente de telle ou telle époque dans la science du passé. La question est évidente: comment l'histoire des sciences peut-elle être em même temps répétitive et variée? *** Dix questions Voici un résumé des dix questions qui ont surgi de ma vue d'ensemble de la vision de Will, des questions dont j'ai parlées dans ce post. 1. Quelle est la nature et l'évolution des traditions “modérées” comme par exemple l'école de Kuhn et celle de Cambridge? 2. Quelles sont les opinions de ces traditions sur les avancées réelles que les historiens des sciences ont faites tout au long du vingtième siècle? Ces opinions sont-elles deféndables? Et quels sont les qualités et les défauts des ouvrages “pre-historiques” sur l'histoire des sciences, c'est-à-dire des livres écrits avant environ 1960? 3. Quelles sont les avancées thématiques que les historiens des sciences ont exagérées en les présentant comme des avancées méthodologiques? 4. Avons-nous besoin d'une remplacement pour les termes “interne” et “externe” par rapport à l'histoire des sciences? Si la réponse est “oui”, pourquoi? 5. Comment pouvons-nous réconcilier la validité de l'histoire des sciences “interne” avec le progrès qu'on a fait en insistant sur sa manque de validité? 6. Les sociologues comme Barnes et Shapin ont-ils vraiment exagéré l'écart et le conflit entre les historians “internes” et les historiens “externes” de la science? 7. Quel est l'avantage à comprendre le passé récent de l'histoire des sciences en termes d'un “culte d'invisibilité” au lieu du “constructivisme social”? 8. En particulier, y a-t-il des préjugés repandus parmi les historiens des sciences qu'on peut améliorer en mieux faisant la philosophie des sciences? 9. Existe-il une façon cohérente de distinguer les thèmes que les historiens peuvent étudier utilement à travers des contextes radicalement séparés, des thèmes qu'on ne peut pas étudier ainsi? 10. Peut-on reprocher aux historiens des sciences d'être au même temps trop répétitifs et trop diverses? Si la réponse est “oui”, comment peut-on le faire sans se contredire? Agrandir ce message.