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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Critical Historiography of Science: Rajan Gurukkal

The following write up by Ann Mary is based on the lecture on Critical Historiography of Science delivered by Rajan Gurukkal,  at Centre for Contemporary Studies, (CCS), Indian Institute of Science, (IISc) Bangalore on 29 April 2012. Thank you Ann for making the talk available for others.

The talk began by defining historiography. Historiography is understood as a story about doing history.This talk traced out a historiography of science by locating the field around two dominant positions.

1.From the perspective of the Scientist:  The Scientist , who “does” a history of science usually asks the following questions : Who, What, When and Where. This practice is useful for a familiarization with the vocabulary/ language of the field within which the Scientist is working.

2.From the perspective of the Historian : A Historian attempts to create an explanation for the above questions by asking “ How” and “Why”. This practice, within history of science, often becomes a  mere social history of scientific practices.

Both of these positions have shaped methods and debates in the field of enquiry known as the history of science.

1. Boris Hessen’ works in 1927:  Disciplinary beginnings of history of science.The questions about method from the earlier mentioned two viewpoints are already seen here in its initial forms. The Internalists believe that the scientist engages in an activity which works in an autonomous sphere of knowledge production. The Externalists believe that all the activities of scientists are driven by socio- economic (external) conditions.

2.Robert Merton: Moves the influence of external factors into the activity of research itself. External factors here refer to the sociological factors (like the influences of the teacher on the student as motivation) which constitutes the field of scientific knowledge production. Sociologist influences history of science.  The scientist’s centrality continues in this tradition but the “protective belt” around knowledge begins to become visible.

3.Ludwig Fleck (1935): Possible to associate with Merton. Views scientific facts as products of a “thought collective “(Denkkollektiv) . The historian of science can thus study scientific fact as a sociological “product.” (Denkstil)

The Manhattan Project and the World War II are an important phase for the history of science. The scientist as engaged in a child like “innocence” in the pursuit of “truth” is reaffirmed. It is easy to see the association with the apoliticality of the chronological list of “Inventions and Discoveries” that the Scientist begins to  see as a “history of science”. The relationship with “external”  consequences/ causes is rearticulated as new debates of the “Big Science”.

Thomas Kuhn’ s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) shakes the foundational idea of “truth” as the end of the march of reason. Talks of the social construction of “truths”.  

There gradually emerges a way of producing knowledge about science which is more conscious about uncertainties than the earlier certainty about truth. Heisenberg and Gellman demonstrate this in their insistence on the denial of predictability as the ends of scientific activity.

With the emergence of postmodernism within academics, history of science further discusses how orders are created to impose form on unpredictability. Thus, narratives and grand narratives are taken up for study as constructive acts. A shift towards the subjectivities of the scientist leads to attempts at producing  knowledges like “ a non European history of science”.

Certain trends within history of science are now once again reaffirming the division between the two points of view of the historian and the scientist. An insistence that this distinction needs to be maintained is noted in the works of historians of science.The lecturer perceives this to be a back to basics situation (useless for epistemology within history of science).

How do these intellectual traditions affect the historian of science who is attempting to write a history?

The notion that inventions arise by building up on previous “related” inventions deters the historian of science. This notion can be associated with the belief that science is the progress of reason. But when the historian of science attempts to reconstitute a history by deriving from this idea of linearity (which translates as chronology of “Inventions and Discoveries”), there are huge gaps which cannot be explained.

These gaps arise because of several factors. Two of them are:

a) Accidental inventions and discoveries : An attempt is made to “explain” these by fitting them in with previously produced knowledge.

b) Incompleteness as cause for producing new knowledge: Scientific discoveries sometimes emerge from certain systems of thought and branch off into completely unrecognizable new forms.  
For Example : Einstein’s work can be perceived as an attempt to rework and provide examples for  Newton’s classical physics. But the establishment of Einstein’ s work became a groundwork in itself for new work. A lot of Newton’s work remains to be explored even today.
(Like  Derrida’ s 1966 lecture when he tried to give a tribute to Strauss. Ended up questioning the very assumptions of Strauss’ thought)

How does the historian of science reconsititute knowledge then?
The historian of science needs to perceive events (The inventions and discoveries list, the social history of scientific catalogues) as  evidence to reconstitute the processes at work.

A Deleuzian analogy was used here. The historian of science sees “the spots on the surface” But when the historian digs deeper, she reached crossroads and needs to consciously choose trajectories that she can best justify. Here is where the subjectivity of the historian comes into play (including theoretical preferences).

The historian must be aware of theory as an illusory unification that gives wholeness to the visible and ill fitting parts.
(The analogy of the arc of a circle was used. The arc becomes cognitively identifiable and useful only if the illusion of the circle is conceptualized. It is this activity that a critical historian of science would engage in)

The historian must be beware of the possibility of constituting speculative evidence.
Example :The Indian Philosopher Kanika was aware of the potential of the atom. (Sphota model) But can the historian  of science who is writing the story of nuclear physics in the 19th century use this information? No. Because the association is nearly impossible to support with evidence (as far as we know now).

The historian of science , must work with “an absent cause” ( Analogy: The historian does not even have the smoke but only the ash to work with, fire needs to be re raked). Must abandon the idea of writing the “one “ true story of the history of science.

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