Looking twice at the history of science

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Guest blogger

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

Was Kuhn an internalist?

Thomas Kuhn
50th anniversary celebrations are in full swing, and my internalist manifesto is on the table. So it seems like a good time to look at Thomas Kuhn's attitude to internalism in the history of science. The standard view, I take it, is that Kuhn was a pretty uncompromising internalist who was much more interested in the dynamics of specialist communities than he was in the larger political or social scene. This view gets some support from the book being celebrated this year, Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). But some of his other writings paint a different picture. Expand post.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A manifesto for internal history of science

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... Expand post.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Professional theodicy in the history of science: a counter-example

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. Expand post.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Post-script on Jardine on anachronism

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. Expand post.

Jardine on benign and vicious anachronism

Nick Jardine
“Is it permissible for an historian to describe past deeds and past works in terms that were not available to the agents themselves?” So asked Nick Jardine at the beginning of a brace of papers published in the early 2000s on the place of anachronism in the history of science. One reason to take a look at these papers is that Jardine, a venerable member of the HPS department at Cambridge, has probably published more words than any other historian of science on the state of the field. Another reason is that Jardine is part of what I have called the Cambridge School in the historiography of science. But the main reason is that in these two papers Jardine tries to solve a problem that came up in the last post: where is the line between good anachronism and bad? This is one way of asking the second of my ten questions: what gains have historians of science made between about 1900 and the present day? Expand post.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Different kinds of Whig history are wrong (or right) for different kinds of reasons

Which planks of the
Whig platform are rotten, and why?
There has been some noise in the blogosphere lately about "Whiggism," a term of abuse often used by historians of science against popular, old-fashioned or journalistic histories of science. Commentators agree that the term is confusingly vague, and that it is important to untangle its different meanings in order to say which forms of Whiggism are harmful and which just appear so. But I've not seen a systematic effort to distinguish the various forms and to say which ones are objectionable and why. This post separates eight strands of Whig history, with this result: not only are there different forms of Whiggism, some objectionable and some not, but those that are objectionable are objectionable for different reasons. It is important to separate the good reasons from the debatable ones, so that we can focus our debates on the latter and not waste time and righteousness on the former. Expand post.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Holmes, Porter and Hacking on the Experimental Turn

Frederic L. Holmes
In my previous post I discussed Jonathan Rée's view that many late-twentieth century intellectuals over-reacted to the excesses of their modernist predecessors. In this post I suggest that something similar may have happened with respect to experiment in the history of science. It is said that past historians studied the ideas of science rather than its materials, its software rather than its hardware. But these claims are overblown, and partly because their authors take a small number of recent idealists as representative of the discipline. I want to flesh out these assertions by looking at a book by the philosopher Ian Hacking and at papers by the historians Frederic Holmes and Roy Porter. Expand post.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Jonathan Rée on the vanity of historicism

Jonathan Rée
I should have known that it would be a tall order to get married and maintain a bilingual blog over the same summer. But I'm pleased to say that after a few months of inactivity posting will now resume on this blog. I regret to add that it will no longer be bilingual. The reasons for this are the obvious one that translation is time-consuming, and the less-obvious one that the bilingualism so far practiced on this blog has already done its job of improving my French. At least a bit.


I have some things to say on the much-discussed topic of Whiggism, but as a warm-up here are some remarks on an intriguing paper from two decades ago: Jonathan Rée, "The Vanity of Historicism," New Literary History, 1991, 22(4), 961-983 (paywall).

The paper is intriguing for three reasons. Firstly, it presents an outsider's perspective of the history of science--Rée was a professor in philosophy when he wrote the article, and is now better known as a freelance writer and historian. Secondly, Rée endorses a thesis that is part of Will's picture, namely that recent historians of science tend to suffer delusions of novelty. Thirdly, Rée gives a general and plausible explanation of why those delusions exist. I'll say what Rée's views are and then say what I think of them, in general and with respect to the discipline of the history of science. Expand post.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What do I think of Will's picture? Part II

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. Expand post.