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.