Looking twice at the history of science

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How did things get this way? Part I

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In previous posts we have seen what Will's picture has to say about what historians do, why this is wrong, and why they do it anyway. But how did things get this way in the first place? What trends in the mid-late twentieth century led historians of science to practice their discipline in the way they now do? Will's picture includes some preliminary answers to these questions. The first is what WT calls The Great Escape, and is the topic of this post. The next post deals with the second answer, which I will call the Brush with Sociology. Expand post.


  1. The Galison-K. Staley debate continues to be of interest. I'm revising an article right now that adopted some of the material from those posts, and I ultimately came to the conclusion that Staley was gesturing not toward a historical logic (à la Lakatos's rational reconstructions) or an underlying psychology, so much as a partially articulated and sporadically invoked standard of scientific argumentation. I'm not so sure that this shows whether philosophy makes for good or bad history, so much as it suggests that the philosophical project is not invalidated by the historian's work (as Galison seems to suggest). I do think some of Staley's criticisms of Galison's image-logic distinction are valid, though I wouldn't necessarily say that those proceed from his philosophical argument for unity. I mention this here, because it is looking likely that this discussion will be cut from the paper, and any supplementary blog posts will not appear for many months.

    I also think it's important to not slot Daston entirely into the "socio-epistemic imperative" though it clearly informs the "historical epistemology" that she and others at the MPI practice. There clearly is a strong chronological macro-narrative at work there as well.

    I believe her emphasis on this chronological component is the basis of her disappointment -- not unlike Galison's "localism" point in his "Ten Problems" -- with what she thinks of as the "microhistorical" turn in HoS, which she regards as an event following the field's departure from its alliance with science studies. (As you point out, I view this as a remnant of that alliance, though I agree the alliance is not presently *active*.) I'm actually keen to advertise that aspect of her thinking, because it is one of the few strategic visions presently at work in the field relating to what historians' goals should be.

    1. Thanks Will for the clarifications.

      1. "I'm not so sure that this shows [a] whether philosophy makes for good or bad history, so much as [b] it suggests that the philosophical project is not invalidated by the historian's work."

      I originally read the post in question as asserting [a] and not just [b]. That is, I read it as asserting that by insisting on the radical disunity of science Galison was led into a historical error--perhaps a small one, but a historical one nonetheless, and one rooted in his excessive suspicion of a past philosophical programme (namely the unity of science programme).

      2. On Staley's appeal to unity, I had in mind the following passage from your post: "Staley, in the end, might have overplayed his hand a little bit, primarily because he considers the statistical and epistemological affinities between image and logic traditions to be indicative of a “unity” of scientific method -- a phrase he repeats and emphasizes..."

      3. On Daston and the socio-epistemic imperative I had in mind the following part of the post in question ( "To address the socio-epistemic imperative is practically what it means to be a post-1980s historian of science, regardless of whether or not one is making any active contribution to some overarching socio-epistemic theory. Indeed, Daston feels that this is what still needs to be done..."

      I agree with you that Daston goes beyond the socio-economic imperative insofar as she goes beyond micro-history. In the terms that I have been using in this series of posts, she avoids case studies but is still interested in combating ideologies (in the sense of intellectual prejudices about the general nature of science).

  2. Good point on (1). Yes, Galison does make his own epistemological claim, which impacts the history he tells, so, yes, in this case, a negative philosophical argument at least opens the way for better history. Ostensibly, the positive content of philosophy could contribute a vocabulary that could be used to describe some of the deeper reasoning that actors used (though in many cases, the depth of vocabulary will not be necessary).

    (2) Staley does indeed make a case for unity, but I don't think his philosophical arguments against Galison proceed from it. I think the positive philosophical content, which we can use to derive better history is more of a potential than a reality. (As we were discussing in person, the notion that this potential exists may be why many historians interested in intellectual or "internal" history look to a reconciliation with philosophy.)

    From a philosophical point of view, I think there may be a case to be made for Staley's brand of unity, but I also think that both historians and philosophers will have to contend seriously with the prima facie disunity that interests Galison.

    (3) Yes. I think Daston envisions historical epistemology as satisfying both epistemologists' and historians' needs. As near as I can discern, the "ideologies" that we are talking about tend, in her view, to be a) singular in their vision of scientific validity, and b) derived from history, but c) in denial of their historicity. Her approach would be to destroy (c), in order to permit acknowledgement of (b), and thus to destroy (a), and thus open up a multiplicity of visions of validity from which we may choose.

    But this leads to just the point I would like to stress: I believe scientists already make these choices, depending on what sort of argument they want to make (and that we only fail to see this because we arrange our case studies in such a way that suppresses their historical existence). I further don't think we have a very good account of how these choices are actually made from field to field, and from scientist to scientist. If we hope for our work to be normatively compelling, we first have to arrive at a full appreciation of the ideas that govern those choices.

    This actually feeds over into the discussion we're having at EWP. Within the discipline & ontology perspective, the idea that singular visions of scientific validity are at play will be read into the historical record (and, along with them, a fetishism for those visions that should be overcome). According to the "project" view, the historical actions and choices that we are looking at play out according to the rules of projects that we do not yet fully understand, and will not understand so long as we continue to think that we are witnessing battles over proper ontology.

  3. I think we're now on the same page wrt (1), (2) and (3).

    Regarding your last paragraph: I was going to ask about the relationship between "Will's picture" as I have been summarising it in these posts, and the new distinction between "ontology-based" and "project-based" approaches in the history of science. In particular, what is the difference between "definitions or ontologies" and "ideologies"?

    There seem to be a number of *similarities* between the two notions. Both of them refer to general beliefs about the nature of science or the world. In both cases historians take their task to be to display the role of these general beliefs in past controversies, while drawing attention to the falsity or at least disputability of these same general beliefs. Finally, in both cases you suggest that this historiographical project is ill-conceived, partly because those general beliefs -- whether labelled "ideologies" or "ontologies" -- are absent or at least idle in many key episodes in the history of science.

    Would you agree that the following are among the *differences* between the two notions? Are there any other differences?

    1. "Ideologies" are general beliefs about *science* (whether it is local or universal, whether it admits crucial experiments, etc.). By contrast, "ontologies and definitions" also include general beliefs about *nature* (whether the history of the earth is uniform or catastrophic, whether the mind is a rational calculator, etc.)

    2. "Ideologies" are prejudices that are held in common by many scientists. Precisely because few scientists are free from these prejudices, they engage in bitter controversies (eg. one might argue Newton and Hooke engaged in a bitter dispute about the nature of light precisely because they both believed in the existence of crucial experiments). By contrast, "ontologies and definitions" are things that vary between scientists. Indeed, the bitter controversies in which scientists engage are controversies *over* these different ontologies and definitions.

    1. My picture and the "discipline & ontology" corollary are, I think, pretty closely related, in that the misconceptions about science are taken to result in misconceptions about ontologies and their fixity.

      To begin, we should probably distinguish two types of ideologies, call them Hidden Ideologies, and the Ideology of Science. Then, let's bring in the point you were bringing up about methods vs. ontologies. Basically, a method is something that establishes some sort of ontology, either because the method results in a statement about the ontology, or -- and this is maybe a new point in the discussion -- the ontology is presumed in the method (think an economic model that reinforces the idea of a rational actor because the model comprises rational actors, not because it concludes that actors are rational).

      So, a Hidden Ideology is something that inhabits a method. Maybe the Hidden Ideology is derived from an ontological commitment that authorizes the model because the model reproduces the ontology (essentially, a confirmation bias). Or perhaps the Hidden Ideology is a particular epistemic commitment like Daston and Galison's epistemic virtues, say a belief that photographic evidence is particularly reliable, or that evidence arising from a trusted source is beyond question. These ideologies will result in certain kinds of ontological conclusions, which people who do not share that ideology may not share.

      To answer (1), then, yes, the Hidden Ideology inhabits a particular vision of method, and, yes, an ontology is a belief about nature, or reality more generally. That said, particular ideologies result in particular beliefs about nature, and, furthermore, commitment to particular beliefs might, in fact, be the source of the ideology in the first place.

      To answer (2), I would say it could go either way. It may be that scientists engage in bitter disputes because they hold different ideologies (I believe in photographs, you believe in mathematical proofs) which result in different ontological beliefs, or it may be, as you suggest, that they jointly hold a naive view of method that, in fact, allows room for irreconcilable disagreement about ontology even though the disagreement were not predicated by divergent methodological commitments.

      Less ambiguous on this point, though, is the Ideology of Science, which is the thing that prevents us from seeing Hidden Ideologies. The Ideology of Science is a master narrative that science is something devoid of ideological commitments. It is most definitely commonly held, and is most definitely a naive view.

      So, let's say you and I both believe that photographs produce reliable scientific evidence; this would be both a Hidden Ideology and a naive view, which, when we produce contradictory photographs produced dispute. However, it is our naive Ideology of Science that keeps us from seeing the limitations inherent to our Hidden Ideology, despite the fact that those limitations should have been evidenced by our failure to come to agreement. It is the Ideology of Science that would hide the underlying causes of a mundane dispute, and cause it to grow into a bitter, historically noteworthy dispute.

    2. That's a useful clarification. Just to get it clear in my head:

      Ideology of science = "master narrative that science is something devoid of ideological commitments." A belief about science, not about nature. Causes controversy because it is held in common by the disputants.

      Hidden Ideology = a belief (perhaps implicit) about how science should be done or how it works. Scientists may well hold different hidden ideologies.

      Ontology = distinct from Hidden Ideologies because about nature rather than about science. But a particular Ontology may result from, or even give rise to, a particular Hidden Ideology.

    3. Yes, that's a pretty good summary. The ideology of science hides other ideologies that inflect science, and science produces belief about reality. Those beliefs are (or could be) controversial because they are produced by ideology-ridden science, which is falsely assumed to be non-ideological and authoritative.

      There are complications, but that's the simple core of it. I think we only really need "ontology" if we're going to worry about this or that component of reality.