Looking twice at the history of science

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.


  1. Ernst Mayr (1990) also defended himself against the accusation. Journal of the history of ideas 51(2): 301-309 []

    1. Thanks for reminding me of Mayr's work on this topic. Having read over the article again just now, I see that Mayr was trying to do there what I tried to do in this post, ie. to distinguish different strands of whiggism in order to say which are illegitimate and which merely appear so.

      Mayr's idea of "developmental histories" is an interesting one. A developmental history is similar to what I called present-directed narratives, insofar as it describes the past in order to explain the emergence of present-day concepts and theories. But Mayr further specifies that developmental histories deliberately ignore the dead-ends and blind alleys of past science.

      At some point I'ld like to write a post on the scuffle between Mayr and the historian of biology Peter Bowler that took place in the 1980s. Bowler rejected developmental histories, apparently on the grounds that dead-ends and blind alleys can make major contributions to the present-day consensus--for example, by forcing the partisans of that consensus to clarify their ideas and arguments. In other words, Bowler's point is precisely that present-directed narratives need not be, and sometimes should not be, developmental narratives.

  2. There is surely a difference between claiming that X was ignorant of a fact Y, and imposing a present conceptualisation onto the past. Thus, it is not anachronistic to claim that Leibniz did not know about Leibniz's simultaneous work on fluxions; if (to indulge a counterfactual) we went back in time and told Leibniz about it, he would have agreed that he didn't know about Newton's work (before we told him).
    On the other hand, to look for Paracelsus' empirical evidence is to impose our conceptualisation of the world – our language that is incomprehensible to him – onto what he did. It would be very difficult, moreover, for us to decide what counts as empirical evidence by examining his manuscripts, since they were not made with the category 'empirical evidence' in mind. And even if we define empirical evidence in a way that allows us to decide, the judgment we arrive at would be entirely anachronistic and cannot contribute to our interpretation and explanation of Paracelsus' work, which did not follow our conventions of empirical evidence.
    A rejoinder might be that the case of Newton and Leibniz is irrelevant because we are not introducing a fact from a later period and thus a different paradigm/conceptualisation, and, more generally, that any distinction between what is a fact and what is a feature of language or conceptualisation is up to us. We would become circular then to say (as implicitly historians seem to do) that a conceptualisation is such a thing that, if imposed on people in the past, would be meaningless - viz. an anachronism.
    This is evident in a marginal case. Gauss didn't know the Jordan Curve Theorem, at least not as a rigorously-proved result, and his ignorance that must affect our interpretation of his proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra. But is the theorem a fact or a feature of how we conceptualise the world (and Gauss didn't)? It is not at all clear whether Gauss's supposed lack of rigour does not reflect the different standards of rationality and evidence of his time, that can only be 'fixed' by a conceptual change, rather than something that can be 'fixed' by a fact.
    In general, though, it seems the problem with present-based, Whiggish histories is that they tell us nothing very useful about the past, so there's little lost, even regardless of whether we gain anything, by not doing them.