Author: Dominic Berry
Hello all. Just a short post informing you that videos of the presentations given at the British Academy sponsored workshop 'Narrative Science in Techno-Environments' are now available for your viewing pleasure. They can be found here, and you can keep up-to-date with news from the network this workshop launched here.
Author: Andrew Hopkins
The entire report can be DOWNLOADED here and on the event page for this workshop.
Workshop held May 30-31 2019, at the Royal Institution, London
Organised by Dr Andrew Hopkins and Prof Mary S. Morgan
London’s historic Royal Institution played host to the fifth in a series of workshops organised by the Narrative Science Project. The event, held over two days at the end of May 2019, comprised fifteen presentations from a diverse range of disciplines from geology and biology to economic history and anthropology, and was attended by around fifty academics from Europe, North America and Asia.
In her introductory remarks, Mary Morgan acknowledged that while the Project was discovering instances of narrative in which time does not play a leading role, the starting point for this workshop was the recognition that the standard view of narrative, in science and elsewhere, is inextricably bound up with the passage of time. Scientists use time in narratives in a number of different ways: it may be an element in the way they write and explain their handling of materials, processes, practices and discoveries; alternatively, it may feature in accounts of causes, mechanisms, interactions, and developments in scientific materials; and it may be an important component in scientists’ theoretical and conceptual terms and discussions. Thus, there are many different sites and guises in which scientists use time in their own subject-based narratives.
Perhaps the most obvious loci for explorations of the role of time in scientific discourses are what are generally referred to as the historical sciences, that is, those that seek to reconstruct the past, which may be very deep, on the basis of what can be observed in the present, and several of the presentations at the workshop fell into this category. Meanwhile, a number of the cases looked at the importance or otherwise of temporal sequencing, with examples from both the natural and human sciences, while in other presentations, speakers wrestled with counterfactual “what if” questions. The first afternoon included a session on temporalities in scientific narratives from a philosophical perspective.
To stimulate maximum participation from attendees, each presenter was limited to a 20 minute illustrated talk which was followed by 25 minutes of question, answer and discussion. The format worked well for all of the presentations, and moderators regularly had to curtail questioners to ensure the workshop did not fall behind time. The workshop concluded with a “wrap-up” session at which attendees were invited to share their thoughts and impressions.
THURSDAY MAY 30th AM
Faraday's lines of force and the temporality of serial narration
Norton Wise (UCLA)
Lines of force in Faraday's (and Maxwell's) emerging field theory of electromagnetism in the mid-19th century were somewhat mysterious things that gradually became increasingly real for scientists. Looking aside from temporal processes involving the lines of force themselves, I want to look at how their believability was enhanced by Faraday's unusual process of serial narration over twenty years. That is, does the temporality of serial narration have interesting properties for thinking about the effectiveness of narrative in science?
Do we always need a timeline? The roles of temporal sequence in art narratives and science narratives
Elspeth Jajdelskar (University of Strathclyde)
Temporal sequence is at the heart of narrative theory, from linguists like Labov, who defines 'narrative' clauses as those whose order cannot be reversed, to anthropologists and folklorists like Bauman or Aarne & Thompson, whose narrative structures are defined by temporally ordered episodes. This is the case even if these episodes are narrated out of sequence, eg through flashback. The centrality of temporal sequence suggests that processing narrative requires us to form a mental timeline of events. In this talk, I explore how far this is so for processing of art narratives, which have the potential to transport readers/hearers, and how far art narratives might overlap in this respect with science narratives.
Mass extinction, narrative closure, and evidence
John Huss (University of Akron)
The finding by David Raup and Jack Sepkoski that mass extinctions as reflected in the fossil record exhibit a 26.2 million year periodicity, coupled with the discovery by the Alvarez research group of an iridium anomaly coinciding with the mass extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period had a transformative effect on the epistemology of the palaeontology of extinction. Linking periodicity with a possible extra-terrestrial cause for mass extinction altered the temporality governing paleontological research from one based on temporal sequence to one based on periodicity. The most fruitful way to characterize the resulting transformed epistemology is that the search for evidence, and the cessation of the search for evidence, is best explained as the pursuit of closure for the overarching narrative of cyclical causation of extinction.
THURSDAY MAY 30th PM
Special Session – Philosophy of Temporalities in Scientific Narratives
Narrative understanding: parts, wholes, and recombinable systems
Rosa Hardt (OPEN Scotland)
This talk explores the idea that our ability to understand narratives involves using a recombinable system. Conceptualising narratives as a sequence of events that can be told, retold and altered, brings us to consider narrative understanding as requiring a capacity to creatively organise parts into wholes.
Memory, imagination and narrative
Dorothea Debus (Universität Konstanz)
In this brief presentation, I ask what relations might obtain between an individual subject's memories, her imaginations, and her narrative approaches to her own past. I aim to show that it is only because a subject is able to tell autobiographical stories about events in her own past that she has reason to take it that her experiential memories actually do present her with how things were in the past. Thus, our ability to tell autobiographical stories about events in our own past turns out to play a crucial epistemological role.
Narratives in scientific argument and explanation
Paula Olmos (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)
In this paper I use the tools and framework developed within the field of Argumentation Theory to present a conceptual description of the way rational communicative practices (i.e. practices of giving reasons) combine argumentative and explanatory structures so that narratives may (and in fact do) occupy different functional roles in them. This is especially intriguing in scientific discourse which is not always simply “explanatory” but in which the “explanatory power/virtue” is always somehow involved. At least two main narrative models of reason-giving practices will be explored: the "narrative account of experimental activities in explanation-discussing practices" and the "narrative reconstruction of past trajectories in explanation-giving practices
Time and space in Alfred Wegener’s narrative arguments for continental drift
Andrew Hopkins (LSE)
Alfred Wegener’s arguments for the large scale horizontal displacement of continents, developed between 1912 and 1929, were ultimately unsuccessful in convincing the geological establishment, at least until they re-emerged in the context of the theory of plate tectonics during the 1960s. However, his arguments constitute an interesting study in how narrative explanations are used to build a case for a particular hypothesis in historical science. In this talk I will examine the roles of the temporal and spatial aspects of the narrative explanations that make up Wegener’s arguments.
Temporal detail and evidence in seismic source reconstruction
Teru Miyake (NTU, Singapore)
Earthquakes are often thought of as sudden and isolated events, but large earthquakes are extended processes consisting of sub-events that unroll over a period of several minutes over faults that can be hundreds of kilometers long. Earthquakes themselves can be thought of as sub-events in a larger narrative about tectonic processes that occur along particular faults and subduction zones. This talk will be a preliminary investigation of how narratives at different time scales are constructed in seismology, and how they are fit together.
FRIDAY MAY 31ST AM
Explaining the origin of eukaryotic cells between narratives and mechanisms
Thomas Bonnin (Université de Bordeaux)
This presentation investigates the nature of contemporary theories, in evolutionary biology, employed to explain the origin of eukaryotic cells. I use these case studies to assess the relevance, convergence and divergence of narrative and mechanistic explanations in this particular context.
When you can't get there from here: The importance of temporal order in evolutionary biology and ecology
John Beatty (UBC)
To give a Darwinian explanation of the characteristics of a species, it is not enough to show that those traits are appropriate for the environment inhabited. One must also show that the traits in question are more appropriate than the ancestral traits from which they are derived. But one must go further still. Even if there is no question that the derived traits are more appropriate, one must still specify the sequence of slight modifications leading from the ancestral to the derived traits. Which may be no small task. Often the Darwinian is in the position of the traveller seeking directions from the Arkansas farmer, who thinks for a while and finally declares: you can't get there from here. But get there you must. You need to know the order of left and right turns, so to speak, that will get you from "here," the ancestral state to "there," the derived. I'll give a couple of examples. Flatfishes are fun. Antibiotic resistance less fun but also instructive.
Using allohistorical narratives to envision alternative energy futures
Daniel Pargman (KTH, Stockholm)
Everything unsustainable is possible only until it isn’t any longer. Our use of non-renewable fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) is unsustainable but has for centuries increased both in relative and absolute terms and currently constitutes 85% of the global energy supply. We intuitively sense that the consequences of phasing out fossil fuels will be momentous, but it is hard to envision what the transition to alternative energy sources could look like since "prediction is hard, especially about the future”. We suggest that allohistorical (counterfactual) narratives can be used for that purpose and we explore a specific scenario in our 2017 paper "What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil”, the first in a planned series of papers about ”Coalworld”.
Stored and storied time in the Neolithic
Anne Teather (University of Manchester)
Radiocarbon dating is a key method for establishing archaeological chronologies as it is able to determine an absolute date of ‘death’ for organic artefacts such as human or animal bone. However, we are increasingly finding some artefacts are dated to be older than the dated material they are found with. This suggests that the date of physical death is not always equal to the social death of an artefact, although curation over thousands of years is improbable. This paper discusses the problems and opportunities for archaeology through this inclusion of already old material in Neolithic deposits (4000-2500 BC), that appears to be part of a Neolithic social strategy of deliberate and meaningful retrieval and reincorporation of material remains, from a Neolithic past.
FRIDAY MAY 31ST PM
Time and ethnographic generalisation in anthropology, with Chinese divination as an example.
William Matthews (LSE)
Anthropologists have long been concerned with time, in terms of both the historical representativeness of ethnography and of cultural variations in how it is conceptualised. This paper focuses on the latter, using examples from Chinese Yijing divination to argue that 'time' in a given context must be considered not only in terms of culturally-specific understandings, but on different levels of cognition. Whilst Yijing divination has been characterised as correlative rather than causal, this correlative logic in fact stems from a particular interpretation of explicit reflection rather than indicating a fundamentally different understanding of time and causation on the part of diviners. Moreover, these reflective characterisations vary between individuals through time and space, and cannot be generalised to a particularly 'Chinese' conception of time.
Why narratives matter in economic history: The case of Indian textiles in the long run
Tirthankar Roy (LSE)
The paper discusses a case from the history of the cotton textile industry in the non-western world (India) that illustrates why economic historians need narratives. Between 1850 and 1920, British cotton textiles captured the world market, causing a ‘de-industrialization’ in regions where a large artisanal textile industry flourished until then. De-industrialization has been used to illustrate how the third world fell behind in the race to join modern economic growth. Textile history research from India however, reveals that after an initial decline (1850-1890), artisanal textiles revived and grew again. This U-shaped trend is puzzling. It is not surprising that a machine should lose to one eight times faster than itself. It is surprising that a slower machine would get back to business again. The alternative to this de-industrialization story recognizes that cloth consumers had a strong quality-preference in a range of cloths. But quality is a dynamic thing. It shapes the economic history of the textile industry, but not through the external and quantifiable agency of technological shocks.
Closing session: Wrap up
In the final session attendees were invited to share their thoughts and impressions from the two-day workshop. The following list is an edited summary of the comments recorded.
• The direction of time is different in different projects (hindsight; foresight; periodic; circular; linear).
• Temporality can be important for establishing the passage of time or in terms of sequencing of events.
• There is a possible distinction between A time and B time (McTaggart). Time passes in one, but in the other it stands still.
• The workshop might have benefitted from a philosopher working on the metaphysics of time.
• The title of the workshop might have implied an attack on the notion that time was essential to narrative.
• Narratives can inform by unfolding and synoptically. Do each these conceptions of narrative pair with different notions of time? Do they need time?
• Many existing conceptual languages were in play when dealing with narrative. When bringing ‘narrative’ into the philosophy of science, we want to avoid narrative becoming a licence to say anything and everything.
• The significance of narrative closure was brought out in Huss’s presentation.
• Is it possible that a mechanistic closure is different from a narrative closure? There may also be an analytical closure in cases depending on continuity.
• Are narrative explanations and mechanistic explanations mutually exclusive? Do they live in different worlds? Narrative is good in the world of complexity.
• Are mechanism and narrative synonyms? Or perhaps are narratives needed to know how any given mechanism works?
• Is it the case that mechanism is related to law-like explanations, while narrative explanations may be seen as reason-giving?
• Non-scientific narratives typically involve some appeal to the emotions (as in Jajdelskar’s example of eating children). Physiology meets narration?
• Narrative has multiple valence. But we can also focus on narration.
• There is a need to increase the volume on the epistemic work of narrative explanation.
• What is the relationship between epistemology and rhetoric, and do we need to know more about the rhetoric of narrative?
• A better understanding of narrative argumentation would seem to be very fruitful.
• There can be narratives that structure an argument, the way it is argued, and also narrative as something written.
• Explanation v argument: these two kinds of discourse are arguably not organised around the same sorts of things.
• Sometimes the narratives produced seem highly exportable to other domains or cases, whereas others seem very tailored. We can push back on the notion of their specificity as a fundamental feature.
• The workshop refreshed the way some people looked at the history of a subject in science. Being forced to adopt a new lens as a challenging and fruitful method, and makes you attend to new things.
In this seminar we heard from three speakers, a double header from the British Library/University of Leicester team of Paul Merchant and Sally Horrocks, reflecting on the results of their ongoing oral history collecting as part of National Life Stories, and Sarah Dillon on her ongoing work at the intersections of literature, science and artificial intelligence. This post is intended to capture some of their key points and the discussion that followed but is in no sense comprehensive. As with all of our seminars an audio recording is available for those who write to me directly.
Sally Horrocks, University of Leicester - and Paul Merchant, British Library
Scientists’ narratives in An Oral History of British Science
To begin with Horrocks provided a brief overview of the Oral History of British Science project, which is dedicated to ensuring that science and engineering are better represented in the broader National Life Stories project. They are continuing to find ways to fund further oral history collecting, to ensure the widest possible range of sciences and scientific lives are recorded. Despite the extent and breadth of their materials, they often find that historians of science struggle to make use of them, perhaps due to unfamiliarity with the method. Her talk, and Merchant’s, were designed to make their value and usefulness easier to appreciate.
The Life Story method emphasises a biographical approach, rather than rushing toward a person’s education and scientific career. Their interviewees usually sit for multiple sessions, allowing for deeper and more open engagement, drawing out elements that a typical oral history of science skips over. Likewise the project tends to prioritise people who have never been interviewed at length before. Alessandro Portelli’s work in oral history was recognised as a point of inspiration, as it is for many oral historians. One of the first findings that Horrocks shared was that scientists tend to tell stories of their childhoods that emphasise certain standard patterns or narrative features: playing with Meccano, dangerous experiments at home, a chemistry kit acquired at a young age, etc. She then pointed to the oral historians’ theory of narrative and psychic composure, explaining the feelings of lack experienced by scientists without such experiences to draw on.
Putting the work of an Oral History of British Science in light of the Narrative Science project, Horrocks felt that insufficient attention had yet been given to the huge amount of material in interviews on the production of scientific knowledge itself. At this point she handed over to Paul Merchant.
Merchant wanted to flag some potential examples of narrative knowledge recorded in their interviews. To begin with, he pointed to the work of the British Antarctic Survey and its painstaking efforts to measure the condition of the ozone layer from 1956, using ground-based instruments at Antarctic research stations. Merchant argued that the scientist in charge of these measurements – Joseph Farman – found it difficult to motivate his team and secure ongoing funding in the absence of an exciting narrative (this all changed when the ozone hole was discovered in the early 1980s).
A second example concerned the importance of narrative for making sense of heterogeneous scientific evidence. Merchant pointed to the work of one interviewee – Richard West - completed in retirement, to produce a geological history of part of North Norfolk. West used very varied evidence, including old maps, conversations with farm workers, aerial photographs given to him by a tractor driver who happens to fly a glider at weekends, local guides, and measurements of sediments taken from his own collecting expeditions. West’s efforts to create a natural history of a puzzling geological situation involved the construction of a narrative that would draw together such materials in a coherent and satisfying way. West himself comments on the satisfactions of the story composed. Merchant’s third example returned to measurements of the ozone layer above Antarctica but now in the early 1980s, when dramatic ozone depletion had been recorded. This time his attention was directed to the ways in which data on ozone depletion were presented, especially the kinds of graphical innovation and labour that were regarded as necessary for a convincing narrative in the journal ‘Nature’.
In the question period one participant asked whether there are differences between the kinds of story told by different kinds of scientist. Horrocks pointed to a clear difference between scientists and engineers, the latter rarely having a pattern story to tell. The cultural narratives of scientific childhood, though appealed to by a wide range of scientists, were typically off the map for engineers. Another participant asked whether the material can speak beyond the ‘British’ sense of an ‘Oral History of British Science’? Horrocks and Merchant clarified that though they had to focus on people who had spent most of their career in the UK, this did not mean that only had to speak to people who were originally UK nationals.
Unfortunately at this point the dictaphone stopped recording because it was full! The further questions and discussion are therefore lost to us, providing a visceral reminder of the value of the work oral historians do.
Sarah Dillon, University of Cambridge
“The Ineradicable Eliza Effect and Its Dangers”: Weizenbaum, Pygmalion and the Implications of Gendering AI
One of Dillon’s earlier research starting points had focussed on patterns in the literary habits of scientists engaged in work on artificial intelligence (AI), looking for common authors, themes, etc. This led to a range of categories covering the broad ways in which AI researchers made use of their leisure reading, including the making of an identity and research community. She felt there was potentially an overlap between the kinds of identity-making highlighted by Horrocks and Merchant (pattern stories and composure) and findings from sociological and literary analysis. Dillon suggested that the kinds of leisure reading engaged in by scientists can be understood as contributing to their narrative knowledge (their internalised repertoire of narrative possibilities). The latter seemed to her to lay more in the direction of the Narrative Science project. In the context of these wider thoughts, Dillon’s paper sought to follow the deep connections between literary sources and challenges faced by AI research over the course of the twentieth century, using specific pairings between literary texts and scientific texts and figures in AI. These could include figures such as, Alan Turing and Samuel Butler, Daniel Dennett and Richard Powers, and Marvin Minsky and Harry Harrison.
At present these particular cases aren’t ready for presentation, so instead she focused on Joseph Weizenbaum and George Bernard Shaw, particularly the former’s ‘Eliza effect’ (in which people come to respond to AI interlocutors as though they are human) and Shaw’s Pygmalion (in which a lower class woman is taught to pass as an upper class lady). Her interests concern, amongst other things, the gendered nature of the relationships evoked by these literary-scientific implications, and the kinds of social and epistemic results they bring about. Weizenbaum’s interpretation of the Eliza effect, and his reading of it as a problem, can be seen as a particular instantiation of a broader political problem, namely that of where power lies and to what we should recognise as human. Shaw’s play is full to the brim with this kind of commentary, Eliza falling in and out of different and competing definitions of humanity, or at least definitions of humanity worth regarding.
Later in the play, as Eliza learns more and more, she enters into the position of something like a personal assistant (before, that is, eventually taking off). This is significant given the emergence of a new norm in AI systems in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, making software adopt the name, persona, and voice of a woman. Recognising the back and forth between the literary and the scientific opens up new opportunities for critique, making very plain how the same kinds of critique and commentary present in Pygmalion can be applied doubly to Alexa, Cortana, and all the other female gendered AI personal assistants that, in being so gendered, serve to replicate the power relations and othering of women.
In the question period we asked for further insight into the relationship between the fictional and ‘factual’ narratives being explored here. Dillon is interested in making the strong argument that in as much as these literary narratives depend on and produce particular ontologies, ontologies that scientists are likewise guided by and guiding us towards, they are contributing to the world-building of science just as published journal articles do. Another participant pointed to an overlap between this talk and one given in the previous seminar, by Heike Hartung. Both Hartung and Dillon had paired George Bernard Shaw with particular scientific figures, so as to provide a vehicle for deeper analysis of the literary and scientific at once. Dillon explained that one of her next steps will be to look in more depth at Shaw’s wider output, to see what it might teach us about understandings of intelligence, just as we had seen in the previous seminar but there with attention to understandings of ageing.
The next seminar took place on the 28th of May and featured Emily Hayes and Dominic Berry (me). A blog post will follow soon. Also keep your eyes peeled for our first working papers, available for download on our website and circulated to members of our mailing list. We also recently hosted a variety of workshops concerning Time (30-31 May), Polyphony (3rd June), and Environment (18-19 July), about which further information will be shared soon. Remember if you want to keep up-to-date, just join our mailing list from the website home page.
Author: Kim M. Hajek
Workshop held 3 June, 2019
Organised by Dr Kim M. Hajek and Prof. Mary S. Morgan
In this one-day workshop, organised as part of the Narrative Science Project at the LSE, we examined how ‘voice’ and narrative have interacted in the activities of a range of sciences. In the human and observational sciences, in particular, it has often been the case that knowledge-making activities drew upon many ‘voices’, or in other words, that doing science involved ‘polyphony’—accounts of a storm given by different observers; patient voices incorporated into a psychological case history; myths transcribed by an anthropologist. What many of these examples share is that the information provided by each different voice forms its own little narrative. Yet scientists have also organised them into related groupings or broader narratives, as a way to elucidate particular research problems.
Speakers interrogated ways that narrative has helped scientists to configure multiple narrative chunks, to manage a multiplicity of voices in their enquiry, or to elicit a response from voices that might otherwise be silent or silenced. Each speaker presented a focused case-study of one concrete example, with extensive discussion allowing participants to explore questions including:
The day ended with a stimulating plenary discussion, in which participants and speakers reflected on the way that much of the polyphony in our case-studies tended to result in a ‘bringing together’ of different voices, or the dominance of one narrative or voice (often the expert’s). That is, the polyphony was ‘harmonic’, rather than ‘dissonant’; few cases involved a multiplicity of different voices interacting in counterpoint. This situation can have political implications, but is also sometimes the result of an active effort to negotiate between voices and arrive at a compromise (such as in the policy space or the courtroom). Where scientists did work to draw out one or many voices in their particularity, such as in anthropology, botany, or in historical witness seminars, that process involved careful preparations, protocols, or means of ‘amplification’.
Careful preparation by our speakers and the productive polyphony of enthusiastic participants combined to make a thought-provoking contribution to the narrative science project. Summaries of the individual papers, by their presenters, appear below.
Unheard Words. Franz Boas and the Anthropology of Voices.
Isabelle Kalinowski, ENS, and Camille Joseph, Université Paris 8
In his work on the Native American peoples living on the northwest coast of America, German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942) insisted on the importance of listening to native voices. In the field, it implied learning local languages, recording and transcribing texts in the original language, asking Indians to verify the ethnologist’s interpretations… But Boas also identified a limit to such focus on voices, one that is particularly difficult to overcome: the phenomenon of ‘sound blindness’, or the inability for uneducated ears to perceive some pronunciations.
Darwin, Entrainment, and the Ecology of Form.
Devin Griffiths, University of Southern California
Starting with his work on orchids in the 1850s, Darwin was fascinated by plants that suggest a deep continuity between animal and plant life, and he developed a sophisticated array of techniques that allowed him to establish dialogues with their behaviour. Notably, in Darwin's late work, The Power of Movement in Plants (1880), he developed tools of synchronization, or ‘entrainment’, that allowed plants to write themselves into his work. This involved ‘training’ plants to ‘draw’ the movement of their roots, for instance, as they wiggled across a smoked glass plate. But when such techniques had to be calibrated, Darwin’s solution was an interactive one: plant movement combined with human intervention to line up a tiny glass filament with dots on a standard plate. In other words, human practices and voices—in Darwin’s texts—amplified the plant ‘voice’, in a form of collective authorship. Not only was human involvement necessary, but it operated on particular temporal rhythms, which had to come into synchronisation with plant rhythms; the resulting ‘entrainment’ resembles the kind of interaction that also operates in what I have called ‘harmonic analogies’, where understanding flows both ways between terms in an analogical pair.
Silencing Suggestion? Narratives of Suggestive Psychotherapy in Hippolyte Bernheim’s Psychological Cases.
Kim M. Hajek, LSE
This case-study interrogates the place of the suggesting voice in a nineteenth-century collection of clinical observations of psychotherapy, in order to consider the way narrative helps to organise collections of particular units. The particulars in question are themselves small narratives, the cases of patients treated by suggestive psychotherapy by Hippolyte Bernheim in his hospital and private practice; 103 such cases make up the second part of Bernheim’s 1891 book Hypnotisme, Suggestion, Psychothérapie. They follow a set of clinical lessons in which Bernheim expounds his ‘Nancy School’ conception of the crucial role of suggestion in hypnotism, hysteria, and beyond—views which he propounded in opposition to Jean-Martin Charcot’s ‘Salpêtrière School’. The clinical observations were to demonstrate, ‘better than simple assertions’ (234–35), the ‘considerable role’ of suggestion in ‘aetiological, diagnostic, and therapeutic’ aspects of medicine (202). It is rather surprising, then, that the specific words of these suggestions are very often elided in the case narratives, particularly when it comes to therapeutic suggestions. That is, suggested words tend not to be narrated as direct or indirect speech, but are instead evoked through their effects, or merely noted as having occurred. Where particular suggestions do have a textual presence is in ‘experimental’ or more unusual therapeutic situations: when the physician’s words to his students serve to create artificial painful points in a patient (and thus to demonstrate the way a physician’s ‘unconscious’ suggestions can confuse diagnosis), or when ‘indirect’ suggestions are used to overcome a hysterical patient’s tendency to act counter to any direct suggestion. If the suggesting voice is frequently silent (or silenced) on the level of individual observations, the accumulation of the same clinical plot across the collection—cures by suggestion (or partial cures)—nonetheless serves to demonstrate the therapeutic benefit of this method. This is an example, I propose, of a scientific argument being made from particular observations, but through a generalised narrative form, rather than by drawing on the particular voice of suggestion in each observation.
The Case of the Sexological Patient: From Narrative Polyphony to Visual Affect and Fragmentation.
Birgit Lang, University of Melbourne
In the nineteenth century, Central Europe became the hub of studies of human sexual behaviour. The psychiatric framework of this new field of knowledge and its empirical concerns led to the prominence of a new case study modality—the sexological case study compilation. With its dichotomic structure including scientific discourse and patient-centred casuistry, this genre represented a polyphonic yet hierarchical means for doctors and patients to negotiate their encounters.
The close reading of case 112 of the seventh edition of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis from 1892 provided me with an opportunity to investigate why Krafft-Ebing insisted on starting his discussion of homosexuality with the ambivalent case of a gay man who was also a convicted paedophile. The narrative effort needed to justify this choice—Krafft-Ebing did not believe homosexuality and paedophilia to be related—was driven by a thirst for empiricism. The fact that the individual in the case was a physician and claimed to have had over 600 sexual partners, made him a reliable witness to one of Krafft-Ebing’s key scholarly insights, namely that there was only a very tangential connection between biological sex and sexual orientation.
In a second step, I hypothesized why the visual turn that engulfed the case study compilation in the 1910s in all likelihood would not have led to the inclusion of photographs related to case 112. In the 1910s, photography was used by sexologists to document visual alterity, such as by Magnus Hirschfeld in Das dritte Geschlecht, or—in the legal context—as visual evidence of violent crime, in particular homicide. Further research might well identify the visual turn in sexology as one of the precursors to those wider societal developments, but there are many questions that remain to be asked regarding the impact of photography, including the discourse of bodily fragmentation—such impacts on the sexological patient have remained uncharted so far.
Voices at the Table: Reflections on a Witness Seminar on the History of Experimental Economics.
Harro Maas, Centre Walras-Pareto, University of Lausanne
In 2010 Andrej Svorenčík and myself organized a witness seminar on the history of experimental economics in Amsterdam. Laboratory experimentation is a relatively new phenomenon in economics that only really took off from the 1990s onwards. The seminar examined the period from the early 1960s to halfway through the 1990s, and we invited twelve experimentalists and a moderator to talk about four themes we had selected in advance: the emergence of the laboratory as a dedicated site of research, the development of the skills of the experimenter, the emergence of a community, and funding. Witness seminars have been used to great effect, amongst others by the Wellcome History of Twentieth Century Medicine Group and the Institute for Contemporary British History. My main contribution consisted of a discussion of our preparations of the seminar, its actual unfolding, and our interventions during the seminar to ensure a polyphony of different voices at the table would contribute to a communal oral conversation about this new scientific practice in economic research.
On Narrative Competition in Coastal Policy Development: The Case of the Sand Engine Pilot Project.
(Lotte Bontje and) Jill Slinger, TU Delft
A large scale sand nourishment was implemented for flood defence and liveability purposes on the Dutch coast. The manner in which different narratives were employed to realise the innovative pilot project, the potential development of the narratives and the roles of different ‘voices’ in this process are analysed. We interpret the results in terms of a conceptual model of narrative competition in policy development (Bontje 2017), shedding light on the active use of storytelling to engender support for policy change. Negative voices die down as the ‘winning story’ is proclaimed, and the use and confirmation stage of the narrative competition begins. The strong recognition accorded to the pilot project narratives by actors in the coastal policy community and the ease with which they reflect upon narrative dynamics indicates the promise of applying narrative methods to the fields of coastal engineering and policy development.
Weaving Narratives from Data and Myth: Multi-Vocal Heritage Interpretation at Glastonbury Abbey.
Rhianedd Smith, University of Reading
Glastonbury Abbey is rumoured to be the burial place of King Arthur and multiple overlapping narratives regarding subjects as diverse as goddess worship, ley lines, and the Holy Grail are told to visitors by both official and unofficial sources. It has also been a site of archaeological research over some thirty-six seasons, whose data and findings have only recently been interpreted, in many cases. All these narratives intersect most clearly around the site of the Lady Chapel, site of the first church at Glastonbury—‘ground zero’ in terms of both spiritual significance and archaeological research. It is therefore an apt focus for interpretation in terms of ‘multi-vocal archaeology’ or ‘co-curation’, as its heritage interpretation is negotiated between archaeologists, curators, and the public, not to mention unofficial guides drawing on a range of spiritual myths. Other voices can conflict with archaeological interpretations, especially when they challenge various origin myths, yet it must be recognised that archaeology, too, does not speak with a neutral voice. And indeed, if these narratives do not necessarily weave together into one coherent account, they tend to co-exist in relatively harmonious polyphony, for the Lady Chapel and Glastonbury more broadly.
Ordering Cyclones: The Courtroom in the Making of Meteorological Sciences in Colonial India.
Debjani Bhattacharyya, Drexel University
This paper explores the development of nineteenth-century ‘cyclonology’ to argue that it emerged out of the complex interplay between narrativization and occlusion. Exploring the records of the Marine Court in Bengal and the writings of Henry Piddington, a cyclonologist who also served as the President of the Marine Court, this talk argues that two key modes of narrativization were central in the making of atmospheric science: the legal bracketing of contingencies in the courtroom, followed by the narrative patterning of wind movements in Piddington’s writings. Throughout the nineteenth-century the oceans functioned as a ‘field’, a ‘laboratory’, and an ‘archive’ of geophysical and meteorological sciences (Naylor, 2015). As distinct domains of doing science, the field, the laboratory, and the archive had different instruments for narrating, documenting, and disseminating knowledge. Storms and wind patterns were documented and narratively ordered in ship logs, cyclone memoirs, scientific publications, and court decisions. As my archival work reveals, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Marine Court cases pertaining to shipwrecks were a central archive for the science of cyclonology. Indeed, the search for a ‘plausible narrative’ about shipwrecks, captain’s duties, and responsibilities in the courtroom was deeply embedded within its socio-political context. How then do we understand the traffic between legal and scientific narratives? I conclude by showing that legal narrative operated as a scaffolding for the semantic ordering of wind patterns as cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes.
Author: Dominic Berry
This post reports on a seminar that took place long long ago, back at the end of April. Very sorry indeed for the delay, but we have a number of events taking place in May, June and July that have required my attention. Our two speakers were Neil Tarrant and Heike Hartung. As ever, this post is only intended to capture key parts of their talks and a flavour of the discussion they inspired. An audio recording of their talks is available for those who write to me directly.
Neil Tarrant, University of York
The Roman Index and Arnald of Villanova: The Rejection of Albert the Great’s Astrology
This talk focussed on one part of Tarrant’s larger project on censorship in science of the sixteenth century. The case of Arnald of Villanova, a fourteenth century physician and philosopher whose works on the proper uses of talismans would come to be censored in the sixteenth century, can teach us not only more about talismans, but how they were thought to work, the broader epistemologies they were a part of and were capable of transgressing, and the intellectual foundations for what would eventually become natural philosophy. Why was it that Arnald’s astrological works would come to be censored? What precisely made them suspect? The debate about the legitimacy of talismans hung on whether or not their use necessarily involved a communion with demons, or whether they provided orthodox access to nature and its powers.
Some influential thirteenth-century theologians, notably Albertus Magnus had accepted that it was possible to make astrological talismans. Others, including Albertus’s student Thomas Aquinas argued that they could not possibly have any natural power, but merely opened up the user to potential demonic encounters. His reasoning being that though the actual inscriptions placed on talismans (which most commonly were bits of metal or stones marked with symbols and words) could have no actual power, they could nevertheless attract demons who - seeing the effort to make markings - might interpret them as evidence of ungodly irreverence. By the fourteenth century, the argument over legitimacy of talismans was still unresolved. Albertus’s view actually seemed to predominate – especially in many universities. Arnald of Villanova for instance could argue that talismans functioned by natural means and were acceptable to Christians. His practical work as a physician incorporated talismans, and his publications explained how they could be made and their occult powers used to rid demons and improve health.
Even by the time of the sixteenth century, the status of talismans remained ambiguous. A repertoire of Christian arguments existed that could be used to justify the use of talismans, and Albertus’s defence of talismans kept open a possible path to good talismans. This changed with the establishment of the Roman Inquisition, which began to sharpen definitions of orthodox practice by returning to the arguments of Aquinas and giving them a renewed currency. By choosing Aquinas’s view over Albertus’s, the Roman Inquisition defined which of these two theological authorities was correct. By extension they determined which account of the natural world and the use of talismans was ‘true’. These kinds of argument - building an epistemology out of philosophy and theology - would have a legacy in the eventual formation of natural philosophy, providing early modern natural philosophers materials by which to begin anew the work of distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge.
In the question period we asked Tarrant to go deeper concerning the kinds of narrative present in and evoked by talismans. He emphasised the importance of the images inscribed, which could be quite elaborate, and could indeed be done deliberately to attract demons, though the philosophers he studies often self-censored when it came to this kind of question! Another audience member wondered whether or not there is an element of competing narrative understandings in play when it came to the markings: when, for instance, the Inquisition began prohibiting particular talismans, was that because they had different understandings of how these marked objects fitted into a cosmological, theological and philosophical relation with the world? Tarrant argued that there is a rediscovery of much of this kind of argumentative culture precisely as a result of the new Inquisitorial activity emanating from Rome in the sixteenth century. Different versions of Aquinas’ thought could contribute to different Thomist agendas, that can be distinguished by their increased emphasis on the possibility and danger of tacit pacts, and of indiscriminate inscription or narrative making.
Heike Hartung, University of Potsdam
Longevity Narratives: From Life Span Optimism to Statistical Panic
Our next speaker had a background in literary and cultural studies, a perspective she applied to debate and discussion of ageing from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. What longevity is, and whether the extension of average human lifespans is a worthwhile goal, are controversial subjects. Whereas debate and discussion in the eighteenth century focussed on the importance of overcoming restrictions on ageing to demonstrate man’s increasing prowess, in the nineteenth century discourse shifted to deeper concerns about the role of heredity and the environment in determining life expectancy. Theorists also began to distinguish between life expectancy, a statistical average available to members of a population, and lifespan, the greatest possible age that a person could achieve.
Hartung then shifted to two twentieth century figures, one from the science of senescence and the other from literature. Putting them in dialogue provided means to reveal important assumptions underpinning discussion of ageing that continue to influence contemporary debate. American psychologist G. Stanley Hall's Senescence was published in 1922, and is considered foundational to age research thanks to its multidisciplinary approach and embrace of a wide range of generic forms. The psychological approach drew on elderly people as interview subjects, on the grounds that they possessed better knowledge and understanding of the ageing process than had typically been assumed up to that point. In his view, senescence was a particular stage of life, beginning in a person’s early 40s, a category that he had long entered. In doing so, Hartung pointed out, he not only created older people as a category apart from everyone else, but also established himself as uniquely expert. This grounding did not lead to any narrow range of prescriptions, but rather lead Hall to propose a wide range of interventions and solutions for European society ranging across problems of political disillusionment, to the crisis of modernity, pension reform and evolution.
The dystopian potentials of this collection of themes and approaches were mirrored by another work published only the previous year, George Bernard Shaw's play cycle ‘Back to Methuselah’ (1921). This monster of a play spans thousands of years in great leaps, and sees human society as only able to survive thanks to efforts to expand life expectancy to dramatic lengths, so that ‘ancients’ might eventually gain sufficient knowledge to avert catastrophe. Here too ideas of evolution, the natural order, and the political possibilities opened up by extended lifespans are the stuff of narrative in the face of a world’s otherwise impossible complexity.
In the question period we sought further clarity on the comparison being made between Hall and Shaw, and the extent to which they diverged. Hartung clarified that the key feature she is interested in, that longevity offers up new kinds of wisdom, is something that really characterises them both, and which is not otherwise readily found outside of the earlier Enlightenment texts. Shaw himself did not want people to focus on the fantastical element of his play, but rather use it as a worthwhile intellectual exercise. Another participant wanted to ask about how increasing complexity of society is paralleled in both cases by an increasing need for longevity. Hartung reflected on how strange it is that both focussed on the importance of key individuals to solving problems, given Shaw’s own commitment to socialism.
The next seminar has already long been and gone, and featured Sally Horrocks, Paul Merchant and Sarah Dillon. A blog post will follow hot on the heels of this one!
Author: Dominic Berry
We have bundled the summaries of the presentations given over the past month into one blog post, as unfortunately one of our speakers, Sarah Dillon, had to cancel and we have rescheduled her talk for next term. Here we provide a brief overview of the talks given by Vito De Lucia, Marco Tamborini, and Staffan Müller-Wille, including parts of the discussion they provoked. As ever, we have audio recordings of all of their talks and if you would be interested in receiving them please get in touch.
Vito De Lucia, The Arctic University of Norway
Reading law outside of the legal text: legal narratives
De Lucia began by explaining that we can understand law as a system of rules, the application of which will be different in different jurisdictions. Laws cannot therefore be understood outside of the apparatus for their interpretation. The latter turns out to be a highly fertile place for narrative. But this is not something that most lawyers receive any training to deal with; addressing this gap is part of his motivation for studying the narratives that make laws operational.
He was particularly interested in environmental law, which is steeped in narratives of the exploitation of nature. Where others have already addressed ‘interstitial norms’ such as ‘sustainable development’, because they seem to be both legal and non-legal, De Lucia is focused on how interstitial norms function thanks to their narrative form. Particular examples of interest are ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystems services’, both of which support legal structures by telling a story about the environment. He belongs to a group of scholars attempting to displace such existing interstitial norms with an ‘ecocentric’ approach. So De Lucia is learning about narrative in order to make use of it for those purposes.
In the discussion period we sought to pin down a distinction between arguments (which may or may not have a narrative form) and narratives. De Lucia sees narratives from all sorts of different origins being drawn in and relied upon to justify the making of legal arguments. Another audience member wanted to ask about textual production and reproduction: where are these narratives being encoded, if anywhere, or are they produced only in the background? De Lucia replied that it is a bit of both, they are sometimes laid out in court documents, decisions, and so on, but also certainly in the background for those articulating different arguments in environmental law. In that respect, De Lucia looks at a wider set of documents than is usually the case in legal scholarship to explore the role of competing narratives in shaping law.
Staffan Müller-Wille, University of Exeter
From Travel Diary to Species Catalogue: How Linnaeus Came to See Lapland
Müller-Wille is currently planning a project, in close collaboration with Elena Isayec from the University of Exeter, that aims to “re-work” Linnaeus’s Laplandic Journey. By working on a new online translation of the travel journal in collaboration with local experts, they hope to understand better how such expeditions happened, what they were for, the kinds of knowledge they relied on or produced, and the issues they raise today (for more detail, see https://linnaeus-in-lapland.net). He began his talk by drawing on Lévi-Strauss’s distinction between engineering and the bricolage. According to Lévi-Strauss, you are involved in the latter whenever you are to some extent constrained by the material you happen to have at hand, only able to progress by making the best of what is available to you. By contrast the engineer will analyse the problem in ways that matter for all sorts of different projects. Müller-Wille finds this distinction helpful for understanding how Linnaeus constructed his manuscript travel account and extracted information from it for a whole series of print publications.
The Lapland expedition took place in 1732, and the journal Linnaeus produced has gone on to be regarded as establishing a paradigm of modern anthropological travel writing. The trip was funded by a local scientific association in Uppsala, who also provided him with a long list of questions to pursue during his travels. The journal also contains a map that Linnaeus drew of the area of Lapland he travelled through (or in some cases failed to travel through), which Müller-Wille highlighted for its contribution to the overall narrative of the journal. But the main narratively interesting feature that he wanted to draw out was Linnaeus’ numbering system for the observations he collected. Each was designated a number, which was then collected on separate paper sheets as part of a detailed index. The inclusion of this system allowed Linneaus to switch back and forth between the register of the bricoleur and the engineer, and produce a whole series of publications from information stored in the journal, ranging from taxonomic catalogues to detailed descriptions of insect life cycles.
During discussion, we first asked about how Linnaeus in the journal is influencing Staffan’s planned re-working of the Laplandic Journey. Is the emphasis going to be placed on the trickster Linnaeus, who pursues his own aim with cunning and misrepresentation, or on the scholar-scientist engaged in objectifying nature and culture for the purpose of colonial exploration? Müller-Wille agreed with the identification of Linnaeus as a trickster, and felt this also helped position him within a distinct anthropological tradition. As for the question of colonial expansion, he pointed out that what a colonial project consisted of was under construction at this time. There certainly were features of this expedition that centred around mapping, charting, and exploring possible transformations of the landscape, transformations that would eliminate much of the extant culture. But at other times Linnaeus was so directly dependent on his Sami guides that the power dynamics could shift considerably. Another participant asked about the extent to which these practices of recording and arranging were aiming at something encyclopedic? Müller-Wille shared that though the overall journal was never published, Linnaeus used all of this information across around 20-30 different articles and books, including those with an excyclopedic aim as Species plantraum (1753).
Marco Tamborini, Technical University Darmstadt
Narrating the Deep Past
Tamborini’s talk concerned how scientists are able to narrate the deep past. He focussed on practices that allow paleontologists to proceed from the known present to the unknown past. Where others have already argued that narrative knowledge is essential to paleontology, Tamborini additionally sought to emphasise the extent to which scientific understanding in paleontology has been dependent on technologies, everything from paper technologies to computer simulations.
For starters, natural historical phenomena are recorded on and ordered by paper technologies. Assembling large numbers of examples (typically fossils, which become treated as stable starting points), tabulating them, proceeding through comparative analysis, and eventual representation as graphs, can be understood as a narrative making enterprise. Today this kind of work is carried out through software packages, which also enable an additional virtual approach through consideration of possible paleontological worlds. Possible geometric reconstructions of, for instance, shell shapes or dinosaur body forms, enable counterfactual exploration of actual shapes and forms discovered. In a different sense narrative also matters for the display and representation of natural history in museums, for purposes of patronage, prestige, and science communication.
In the question period one participant asked about what was involved in ‘making’ fossils into stable starting points. These seem to gain their stability through specificity, that is by being one example within a group, a range, which is put together by technological means (paper or otherwise). It was not clear whether that arrangement itself produces something that we would call a narrative, or whether a narrative was something produced in geological practice. Another audience member wanted to ask, considering his examples range across the C19h and C20th, whether there was something about the narrative space of paleontology that changes over time. Tamborini elaborated that the range of kinds of narrative available to paleontologists has changed as their technologies have changed.
Upcoming workshops and seminars
We are soon to announce a whole host of workshop events, addressing time, polyphony, and the environment, as well as the next round of seminar speakers. Please join our mailing list to keep up to date, which you can find on the homepage of our website, or check the upcoming events section.
Eighth Narrative Science Seminar: Metaphor reconfiguring physiology and plotting nineteenth century geology
Author: Dominic Berry
Our two speakers this week tackled physiology and geology in the nineteenth century, the former being addressed by Annamaria Contini, the latter by Adelene Buckland. Summaries of their talks and the questions they generated can be found below, but it is also worth mentioning that our own Mary Morgan first met Annamaria at a conference organised by the ‘Centre for Narrative Science’ in Switzerland led by Hans Fuchs, which you can learn more about on their site. Also that Annamaria herself leads the ‘Metaphor and Narrative’ research centre at UNIMORE .
Annamaria Contini (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia)
Metaphor as narrative reconfiguration: an example in the French physiology of the late nineteenth century
Contini began with the observation that metaphors and stories as tools for thinking. One of the most important functions that metaphors play is building connections between two different domains or subjects. Here she built on the interactionist interpretation of Max Black, particularly in his Models and Metaphors (1962). The purpose of the talk was to explain a little more about how metaphors work, according to people such as Black, and also Paul Ricoeur, and then demonstrate such reasoning in the sciences.
Max Black divided metaphors into two parts. First, the focus (or secondary subject), and second, the frame (or primary subject). The focus for Black is the metaphorical expression, while the frame is the remaining part of the sentence in which the focus is inserted. Contini talked us through the example of the phrase ‘Man is a wolf’ in which the focus would be the wolf, and ‘what a man is’ would be the frame. Black’s analysis therefore puts different subjects in an interactive relation (hence ‘interactionist’). Where others had left the nature of these interrelated subjects at the level of ideas, or between the meanings of two sets of words, instead Black emphasised their significance as different semantic systems. I.e. ‘man’ has a set of meanings that revolve around it, as does ‘wolf’. So what is happening in a metaphor is that the audience is being asked to put two different sets of meanings into dialogue with each other. Doing so requires drawing out only the most salient and valuable or meaningful interconnections, a process that Contini likened to filtering or sorting. Working out what might be implied by metaphors, filtering and sorting the meaningful tensions from the unhelpful or less meaningful, often involves telling oneself a story. The connections between metaphors and stories is a subject she has recently addressed elsewhere with co-authors. New knowledge emerges from these initial ‘heuristic-fictions’ that the metaphor put in play i.e. that there is some meaningful relation to be found between these two otherwise unrelated things and that stories are involved in figuring out this relationship.
The talk then shifted to seeing how this operates in the sciences. For starters, we know that theoretical models are used to acquire further new knowledge in a range of ways, but in particular by allowing us to transfer from well-known cases to little-known cases. Models are themselves then a way of reaching into the unknown from the known. This is the heuristic-fiction in action. To give a more concrete example Contini turned to nineteenth century French physiology, and the figure of Claude Bernard. Defining life as creation, while avoiding mechanistic or deterministic conceptions of biological function, Bernard explicitly resorted to a metaphorical model of ‘creativity’ as a fundamental feature of life. He explicitly acknowledges in his writing that a physiologist cannot confer objective reality to terms like “vital creation”, “guiding idea”, “creative idea”, terms which he sought to use to describe life’s fundamental features, but nevertheless that can be used both for convenience of language and also to represent certain phenomena better. Pursuing a more thoroughgoing investigation of Bernard’s writings, Contini argued that it seems clear that the ‘focus’ here is artistic creation, through which he ‘framed’ biological processes. “Bernard projects onto the ‘primary subject’ (organic creation) some properties and relationships that characterize the ‘secondary subject’ (artistic creation).” Narrative science is therefore operating both within and through Contini’s case.
In the question period we sought for more of a distinction between the small kinds of story that Contini saw as playing a role through heuristic fictions, and a more general role for metaphor as being just an essential and inescapable part of discourse. One person appreciated how the interactive element of this approach to understanding the practice of working with models, which had tended to ask ‘what is similar between these two’, ‘what is dissimilar between these two’, and then only attempt to make productive use of whatever remains. Whereas on an interactionist view two different cases can be brought into direct relation. This seems a key pay-off for focusing on the semantic level rather than through the physical etc.
Adelene Buckland (King's College London)
Plot Problems: Geological Narratives, Anti-Narratives, and Counter-Narratives in the Early Nineteenth Century
Buckland began by explaining it has been a pleasure to revisit some of the arguments she articulated in her first book, Novel Science, which the invitation to this seminar provoked. She explained that she saw her project in that book as both building on and also reacting against certain features of Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots. Extending this approach to geology, Buckland argued, was not as straightforward as many had otherwise believed. For instance, the putative distinction between uniformitarian and catastrophist geologies, which otherwise has a whole host of significances attached to it (including a supposed embrace or refusal of evolutionary narratives), did not actually hold within the period it is supposed to describe. Narrative and its role in scientific thought and practice has been a casualty of a too speedy willingness to project back onto the early nineteenth century a putative distinction that only emerged later.
Instead Buckland wanted to show how key geologists often deliberately avoided giving big public announcements on grand geological narratives, full stop. Charles Lyell, a central figure in the professionalization of geological science, perceived geology as being undermined by too close a relationship with narrative and storytelling. Instead geology needed to set the big picture to one side and focus on the steady accumulation of fact. Such a commitment was indeed built into the Geological Society of London when it was formed in 1807, explicitly embracing ‘enumerative induction’. Lyell would take geologists to task for straying from this method in his hugely influential Principles of Geology, which Jim Secord has called an “anti-narrative”. What this refusal did not entail, so explain Buckland, was a dismissal of narrative as an epistemic tool. Indeed it was precisely the ability to identify and set aside moments of ‘progressive’ narrative, or accounts dependent on teleological reasoning, and knowing how to replace them with something else, which Lyell saw as making geology such an imaginative science. The poverty of geology’s evidentiary sources should not result in the creation of fanciful and unexaminable narratives, so argued Lyell, but instead accounts that gathered ruptures, reversals, ill-fitting stories and so on, these should be prized instead.
For Lyell, and those like him, an attention to ruptures etc. were signs of a very healthy and well cultivated epistemological skepticism, one that helped build up geology as a science. His preferred literary hero was then Byron, an author he admired for effectively getting rid of plot, instead having characters and stories that wander, not knowing where they might be leading next. Ultimately Buckland argued that these kinds of analysis, and the deep appreciation that geologists had for narrative as a way to think things through, are only recoverable by thinking of narrative as a scientific practice, a move that we already habitually make for map making, model making, and so on. Narrative is not, in Buckland’s words “a belated representation of knowledge”, but “a form of scientific practice in the moment of producing knowledge itself”. This perspective helps to illuminate narrative knowing. Plots, or kinds of plot, could and were explicitly suppressed by different geologists in order to promote their different hypotheses, but for Lyell this was not about denigrating narrative, but using it to think through the problems and pitfalls that come with making an historical science. Narrative, what it is and how to use it, was a conscious part of the nineteenth century geological enterprise.
In the question period we wondered about the way in which Buckland sees the science of geology as unfolding as part of different literary and discursive cultures in particular genres. She responded that “scientific genres are developing in a literary marketplace in the period”, and publishers shared by scientists and literary authors are a helpful way to think about this. Elsewhere she has looked at Dickens and his responses to science, in particular to Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and also a review he wrote of The Poetry of Science. There is much more to be discovered here. This led her to say more about the ways in which geologists had a productive wariness of how to use narrative properly, as did literary authors.
The next seminar took place on the 12th of March and featured Vito De Lucia. Unfortunately Sarah Dillon’s talk is having to be rescheduled. A post summarising De Lucia’s talk will follow soon!
Seventh Narrative Science Seminar: Frozen technoscience and mythmaking in Giorgio de Santillana’s history of science
It is becoming a recurring feature of this seminar series that, despite our best efforts to put together speakers with very distinct interests and from different backgrounds, they nevertheless end up having much to say to one another. In this case our speakers, Alfred Nordmann in his talk concerning the philosophy of technoscience, and Eleonora Loiodice in her overview of the life and work of historian of science Giorgio de Santillana, turned out to share an interested in art and science, figures from myth and legend, and the dismantling of caricatured ideas of science as distinct from all else. A recording of these talks and the discussion that followed is available. As with all of these posts, much more was said in the talks than can be recorded here!
Alfred Nordmann (Technical University Darmstadt)
Developing a philosophy of technoscience, Nordmann is interested first in what constitutes a ‘work’. This he distinguished from out-right ‘thing knowledge’ (as most well developed by Davis Baird) by an emphasis on parts working together in a whole. That they can be made to work together is the signal that a working knowledge is held by the knower. How to compose, maintain, repair, and so on. To some extent this perspective was inspired by, and consistent with ‘a feeling for’ conceptualisation of knowledge. Working knowledge is therefore a very different kind of knowledge from earlier dominant philosophical approaches, here Nordmann built a contrast with Wittgensteinian emphasis on propositions and representations. For a philosopher of technology the world cannot be understood as the totality of facts, because technology does not develop by the putting together of ideas but of things. A world comes to be known by knowing its works.
The talk then moved on to flesh out working knowledge further by putting it in relation with art. Musical composers learn, for instance, the grammar of music, to get a feel for what combinations will or will not work. Rules of design are also present in architecture, and the development of such grammars can matter in fields of science, such as synthetic biology. In recognising the existence of these grammars of works in art and science, we can also recognise that these constrain the kinds of works they are capable of producing. Here Nordmann called upon a famous debate amongst philosophers and art historians concerning the statue of Laocoön and His Sons. “Why”, so the argument went, “does Laocoön appear almost serene in this moment of utter pain and anguish?” Some believed it to do with Greek nobility, but the philosopher Gotthold Lessing instead focussed on genre to provide the answer. In the genre of the heroic statue, it would not be possible to increase the level of pain, to contort the mouth further and so on, without undermining its status as art. In other genres, such as the poetic and the literary, Laocoön is indeed depicted as howling. Different genres then, are not only dependent on their own grammars of works, but are also more or less well suited for developing distinct species of understanding. A statue, to be a statue, has to take a moment pregnant with meaning and freeze it as best it can, with no room for excess meanings to flow on and on (as in the series of pages in a book). In the final part of the talk Nordmann swung this back around to technical works. Technical works create numerous pregnant moments that scientists and engineers can freeze, in order to read their structure, connections, their blueprint. Inspecting a statue and learning to read them, to know how they can and should work, is not so different from the kinds of pedagogical focus in engineering, where students learn to read how a composition will work.
In the question period we tried to find more of the narrative in the reading of works. Might it, for instance, be productive to swap out what Nordmann had called the ‘grammar’ of works, for a ‘narrative’ of works? In reply he explained narrative may well be a good way to draw out the anticipatory aspects of works, the way things seemed to suggest the leading between one another, but that at the same time, it may only be thanks to the presence of an initial grammar that a narrative could be developed at all. Another participant asked about these pregnant moments as leading to deductions, and whether or not these deductions are able to work independently of prior knowledge and recognition of similarities between the present form and earlier ones. Nordmann admitted this is a long standing debate he is having with various people, about aesthetic, and why the Laocoön status was chosen for this debate at all. For earlier art critics this statue mattered because artists had the skill or producing effect, which is a very different ground for appreciation from that in contemporary art criticism, which focuses instead on interpretation. Part of Nordmann’s return to the statue then, is to also return to those modes of appreciation, and the extent to which materials themselves direct and constrain interpretation. An immanent knowledge.
Eleonora Loiodice (Università degli Studi di Bari)
Science as a creation: Giorgio de Santillana’s approach to history of science
This paper built on Loiodice’s PhD thesis research into the work of Giorgio de Santillana (1902-1974), a historian of science who is otherwise often forgotten or marginalized in the telling of the intellectual and professional development of the history of science. In contrast to other scholars, such as Thomas Kuhn or George Sarton, de Santillana placed considerable emphasis on understanding the history of science as continuous with knowledge making practices and cultures from the ancient past to the present. Accordingly, de Santillana became fascinated with myths and mythmaking as ways in which knowledge of, for instance, astronomy, could be communicated through societies predating any science of the stars.
As one would expect, this breadth was also reflected in his teaching plans and proposals for a history of science course at MIT, where he worked and was made Associate Professor in 1948. Eleonora is putting together a new account of de Santillana’s life and work thanks to an almost overwhelming amount of archival material that she found to be preserved at MIT, totalling around 60 boxes. While the most important features of this new history are still being developed, Loiodice was able to share some key insights into the distinctiveness of his approach. On his terms, for instance, scientists are the latest embodiment of a form of posture that can be taken to the world, which at other times in the past was taken by prophets, religious leaders, mystics, and so on. Their pursuit of knowledge was directly related to their social and cultural significance. Such parallels were designed to point directly to the social and political significance of contemporary scientists. In addition, de Santillana saw continuity between the language employed by scientists and that of art and poetry, because they each pursue and depend upon abstraction. It is for these reasons that he described science as something creative and created.
In the question period one participant commented that actually there seemed to be a lot of similarity in these positions with that of George Sarton, who was firmly committed to the unity of scientific thought, and concern that there was a fracturing and over-specialisation underway in science in the twentieth century. Loiodice explained that de Santillana had studied with Sarton, and that to at least some extent his plans for a history of science course at MIT was styled on, or inspired by, Sarton’s more well-known project. Another asked for more information about de Santillana’s reception, and why we may have lost sight of him in the historiography. Loiodice believes that his increasing interest in and attention to mythology, including later collaborations with Hertha von Dechand resulting in Hamlet’s Mill, took him too far out of the mainstream of HPS as it developed subsequent to the second world war.
The Narrative Science seminar series will continue on the 26th of February with Annamaria Contini on ‘Metaphor as narrative reconfiguration: an example in the French physiology of the late nineteenth century’ and Adelene Buckland on ‘Plot Problems: Geological Narratives, Anti-Narratives, and Counter-Narratives in the Early Nineteenth Century’.
Sixth Narrative Science Seminar: Narratives in the making of modern psychology and its significances for historical sciences
Author: Dominic Berry
Our two speakers addressed the topic of narrative in science from historical and philosophical perspectives. The first paper ‘Narrating an unfinished science: Scientific psychology in late-twentieth century textbooks’ was given by Ivan Flis on work he had conducted as part of his recently completed PhD thesis. The second, ‘History is peculiar’ was given by Adrian Currie and constituted an overview of a soon to be completed book project on the historical sciences, building on his earlier Rock, Bone, and Ruin (2018). As with all of our seminars an audio recording is available, simply write to us here and a link can be supplied. The recordings are deleted around a month after they become available so if you’re interested do not delay.
Ivan Flis (University of Utrecht)
Narrating an unfinished science: Scientific psychology in late-twentieth century textbooks
This talk was based on an extensive survey of psychology textbooks in the second half of the twentieth century, with an emphasis on those published in America due to their international influence. Flis focussed in on the several editions of Ernest Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology, first published in 1953. Given the size of these textbooks, which intended to be encyclopaedic, and the number of available editions (13), Flis decided to look in detail only at the introductory chapter of each. In these, he found a recurring structure, split into three sections: the ‘pitch’ or the ‘hook’ in which the author tries to explain why the textbook and the discipline are worthwhile; second the overview of the materials and the discipline; and last a methods section. Narrative plays a role here in making up the discipline of psychology on the terms of textbook authors.
Narrative has operated in this case to project coherence onto a discipline self-conscious about its growth and development. This allowed psychology to draw from a wide range of disciplines and methodological approaches from across university campuses without losing its definition. A second thing that these narratives do is provide an imaginary of the future of science. The notion of psychology as something unfinished or not yet finished was a recurring theme throughout. Third, the reliance on narrative was a way to satisfy multiple audiences, not only students, but also teachers, editors and publishers.
In the question period one thing that we drew out was the extent to which psychology’s understanding of itself and its development owes a debt to changes in the history of science that ran in parallel throughout. This came out through questions concerning how psychology dealt with its status as a science through these textbooks, comparing these textbooks with, for instance, textbooks in physics, which rarely told stories of theoretical plurality in the ways that these seemed to. Flis’ favourite way to answer this question was to point to the extent to which psychologists were avid readers and users of Thomas Kuhn, despite what he had to say about psychology’s current status. It was through a Kuhnian understanding of science that psychologists often felt they were making the discipline a science. The possibilities for epistemic importance of narratives of narratives of science are exciting ones.
Adrian Currie (University of Exeter)
History is peculiar
Currie’s talk was concerned with key differences in how to understand historical phenomena, taking examples from paleontology and geology. Explanations of these features of the earth often rely on narrative in order to pick out particular parts of a set of events or objects that are thought to be more significant than others. In the talk Currie wanted to go deeper into what narrative is doing in these areas in order to develop a fuller philosophical explanation of its usefulness.
Currie built on work by Arthur Danto and Paul Roth as a foil. These philosophers argue that the significance of historical events are recognised by historians in terms of their role in later events. For Roth and Danto, historical events are then defined in terms of later events. This matters because, as Roth has argued, if narrative explanations involve sentences which combine both the thing to be explained and its explanation all as one, then they are logically different from explanations which take the form of deductive arguments (such as Hempel’s ‘Deductive Nomological’ account). The suggestion that one is fundamentally unable to pull these two things apart, and so translate these sentences into deductive nomological statements, on the one hand can motivate the decision to see historical sciences as distinctive from other kinds of science, or alternatively, to challenge whether or not they really can be pulled apart. Currie wanted to argue that the strategy of making distinctions between explanatory programmes according to the distinct logical structures that they embody is problematic.
The first concerns realism. Currie was uneasy about any analysis that seemed to suggest what we can say of the past is fundamentally dependent on, or to some extent constituted by, what is also being said of the present. Second, he suggested that this kind of starting point does not capture enough of the ways in which scientists working on historical phenomena actually set about arguing with each other. Narrative sentences can be agreed on by people disagreeing, and orders of events can be shared, nevertheless explanations can be vastly different. Third, this approach, attending in particular to sentence structure and argumentation is out of step with some of the most recent work in the philosophy of science. What explanations are and how they work has been greatly expanded, so starting with these particular ones becomes more arbitrary.
Currie instead suggested we could profit from a turn taken by John Beatty, asking more about what narratives are good for. In this respect it is the contingency of historical events themselves that drive analysis rather than how we make statements about them. The past can thereby be rendered as more or less complicated branching trees of events and consequences. But whereas Beatty wants to find particular kinds of choice point, Currie worried that this view may be biased towards those particular kinds. Specifically, an emphasis on choice points may elevate big important events that produce considerable change, rather than those moments of stasis.
In the question period one participant wanted to get a sense of where causality played a role in this talk, and what his talk could say to it. Currie explained that one reason he sidestepped the term is that the concept plays too heavy a role in some philosophies of history, being a way to distinguish between different kinds of history making. As he did not wish to risk bringing that debate to the surface in his talk, one which was much more invested in narrative, he simply wanted to leave it to one side. Another participant asked for further clarity on Currie’s view that we can and should challenge the notion that Danto sentences cannot be rendered into DN statements, eliminating potential grounds for the distinctiveness of historical sciences. He reiterated his view that yes, on his terms, the putative distinction between historical and non-historical sciences really only does boundary work, and discipline building work, but is otherwise too coarse for the kind of epistemologies and practices he is interested in.
The next seminar featured Alfred Nordmann on ‘A Feeling for the Mechanism’ and Eleonora Loiodice on ‘Science as a creation: Giorgio de Santillana’s approach to history of science’. A blog post will follow very soon! Please see our events page for details as to time and place for the next seminars. And remember, do get in touch if there is something you would like to know more about!
Upcoming public event - Queering the history of science
This week, on Thursday 21st of February, we are co-organising a public event as part of LGBT History Month. Please see this page for details.
Fifth Narrative Science seminar: Uses of counterfactual narrative in political science and the parallels between philosophies of narrative and mechanism
Author: Dominic Berry
New year, new seminar speakers! This term we started with two papers that appeared extremely different on their surface, but which ended up having a great deal to say to one another. The first ‘Counterfactual Narrative in Political Science’ was given by Sharon Crasnow, and the second ‘Mechanism and Narrative’ was given by Phyllis Kirstin Illari. As ever we are very grateful to our speakers and the audience members. The following post offers a short summary of the talks and some of the discussion from the question period. It is not meant to offer a complete account of everything discussed. An audio recording of the session can be made available, please do contact us directly if you are interested.
Sharon Crasnow (Norco College)
Counterfactual Narrative in Political Science
Crasnow’s talk built on her existing interests in the uses of narrative knowledge in political science. The focus here though was on political scientists’ use of counterfactual reasoning, and in their case based work. These approaches are sometimes thought particularly useful when political scientists have limited access to data, exploring the space of possibilities by adoption of a counterfactual approach. Other times they are associated with a comparative approach between experimental groups and control groups. In contrast, Crasnow finds narrative and counterfactual reasoning operating far more broadly. For instance, being able to show that each given part of an overall causal story (often delivered as individual cases) can fit together and work more or less in unison, offers a narrative form of argumentation that makes essential epistemic contributions to the field.
As an illustrative and widely known example Crasnow made use of Frank P. Harvey’s controversial Explaining the Iraq War (2011). In a work that addresses the question of whether or not the US would have instigated the Iraq War without George W. Bush as President, we find a number of different uses and appeals to counterfactual argument. Sometimes this is to explore a space of possibilities, to see if evidence is available that would rule out potential causal accounts, other times, to identify ‘hinge’ events where clear alternative paths were available. The significance of individual cases in political science are largely built out of explicit or implicit assessments of their contingency, ramifications as hinge events, or as something necessary resulting from path dependence. These aspects of the work of political science therefore clearly evidence narrative knowledge.
This talk provoked a range of different questions. One participant wanted to know more about how an overall narrative that fits together different cases, relates to (or does not relate to) the cross-comparative work mentioned at the start of the talk. Is it the case, for instance, that providing an overall account is a way to intervene on such variance-based research? Crasnow suggested that the making of a good mechanism might direct you back to the comparative cases, telling you new things to look for. Others wanted to ask about the status of counterfactual reasoning in political science, hinting at the ways in which these approaches compete with historical analyses. Crasnow responded that though large counterfactual analyses such as Harvey’s are somewhat rare, the forms of reasoning she had discussed are widespread.
Phyllis Kirstin Illari (UCL)
Mechanism and Narrative
In this talk Illari reflected on her ongoing research into the philosophy of mechanism in light of the narrative science proposal. From the outset she highlighted that many of the things she was going to argue about what mechanisms are, and how they are evidenced, resonated with Crasnow’s talk, particularly regarding the fitting of things together. For instance, Illari’s preferred definition of mechanism, which identifies objects, the things they do, and how they are organised to bring effects about, was very similar to the previous talks’ emphasis on identifying hinge events and arguments about how they can be fitted together to produce particular outcomes.
Some of the particular work Illari focussed on included her work on evidenced based medicine, and more recent attention to ‘Infosec’ (information security). One idea from literary theory that struck Illari as being worthy of closer attention was that of Genette on points of view, and the distance between reader/viewer that different narrative arrangements can produce. When thinking about evaluation of different kinds of evidence for instance, it is essential to think about different kinds of audience, and the purposes to which the evidence is to be put. This concern is not only about how to make information and arguments legible, but also - in the case of Infosec - to know how to disguise knowledge or keep it secret (certain kinds of knowledge about how international computer networks actually work has a protected legal status).
In a recent co-authored article, focussed on how Infosec experts explain and evidence the primary mechanisms by which system attacks are carried out, she emphasised how this work requires assessments of what features of the overall network are stable enough to be worth considering (given how often technologies and infrastructures can change) and what can be openly debated (given legal restrictions). One way in which they can deal with these constraints is through the use of visualisations which provide an overall narrative, picking out key features, without necessarily going into details about causal connections. Indeed Illari and her collaborator, Jonathan Spring, were themselves compelled to translate some of the materials produced within Infosec into a diagram (created by Jonathan and which can be found in their article).
During the question period we focussed on some key elements. The first question focussed on the features of some of the Infosec diagrams, some of which seemed to be both ordered and spatially connected, while others were only ordered. Illari responded that these diagrams were often most useful for generating narratives that explain the ways in which an attack has been carried out. Others asked about the complexity of mechanisms in relation to the general and the particular: in the cases discussed, are practitioners moving from the particular to the general, or the particular to the particular? Illari responded that it is commonly both, and also admitted that though some philosophers like to find strong distinctions between claims in the general and in the particular, she finds it hard to separate the two. This kind of issue may well rest on the question a practitioner is pursuing.
The next seminar will feature Ivan Flis on ‘Narrating an unfinished science: Scientific psychology in late-twentieth century textbooks’ and Adrian Currie on ‘History is Peculiar’. Please see our events page for details as to time and place.
And remember, get in touch if there is something you would like to know more about!