Looking twice at the history of science

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Saving the symmetry principle IV: from symmetry to asymmetry

The symmetry principle has been a central tenet of the history of science since at least the 1970s, and in my view it is a sound and valuable principle. However it is often confused with principles that are neither sound nor valuable, some of which are positively harmful for the study of past science. For example, the symmetry principle is sometimes expressed as the view that “truth” cannot explain the beliefs of past scientists. My main aim in this series so far has been to show that this view is hopelessly vague, and that on many readings it is false. In this post I will say the same about another aspect of the symmetry principle, namely the claim that historians should explain true and false beliefs “in the same way.” I’ll run through five readings of this claim, only the first of which deserves to be called the symmetry principle. Expand post.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Spring revival

Many months have passed since I blithely announced that regular blogging would resume in autumn. Summer is nearly upon us, and I have no good excuses for this long hibernation except that my day job as a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute has been busy and stimulating.* It is still busy and stimulating, but I now have a little more time on my hands and intend to roll out the posts that I promised way back in August. That is to say, I will finish off my series on the symmetry principle, extend my series on Thomas Kuhn’s legacy for historians, and deal with some methodological issues that came up in the course of writing a paper I published last year.

After tying up those loose ends, I intend to take the blog in a new direction. So far my stance has been critical of some aspects of current practice in the history of science--fair and constructive, I hope, but critical nonetheless. In this respect I have followed the example of Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda, whose picture of the discipline I reviewed in my first few posts on this blog. But there is also a positive side to Will's picture, one that is concerned with creating navigable archives, attending to chronological questions, and describing mesoscopie traditions of practice. One way to promote these goals is to review books that achieve them. Another way is to choose a period or theme and synthesise the work on that period or theme as it appears in the pages of relevant journals. I hope to experiment with both of these methods over summer and into autumn.

*For those who are interested, my main business in Berlin has been to start a new project on early modern gemology in France, a project that has led to talks that are summarised here (see the first two talks on the list). Along the way I have expanded on my PhD dissertation with papers on the relationship between science and the rococo in eighteenth-century Paris and on the analysis of mineral waters in the early Académie Royale des Sciences.