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!
Fourth Narrative Science Seminar: How plague narratives made a science of epidemiology, and exploration and discovery narratives in Big Pharma
Author: Dominic Berry
We thoroughly enjoyed this seminar, which was the last of the Narrative Science seminars for 2018, and one which also had a particular slant towards the history and philosophy of medicine. The Narrative Science seminar series will continue throughout 2019, and the programme of future speakers and their titles is already available online. The following post offers a short summary of the talks from Lukas Engelmann and Sabine Baier and some of the discussion from the question period. As ever, these blog posts are not meant to offer a complete account of everything discussed!
Audio recordings of all of our first seminars are available to those who wish to write to us directly for copies. These will be deleted in the next few weeks, so get in touch soon if you are interested.
Lukas Engelmann (University of Edinburgh)
Epidemiology as Narrative Science: Outbreak reports of the third plague pandemic from 1894 to 1952
The first speaker, Lukas Engelmann, addressed the history of epidemiology with a particular emphasis on how practitioners made a science of epidemiology. Where in another line of research he had concentrated on mapping practices in public health, with a focus on AIDS, he here turned to a different period and global epidemic, the third plague pandemic from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century, and also to a different scientific medium, the written report. Collecting together the hundreds of written reports written by a range of different actors on the ground in the Indian states, Engelmann argued that narrative was an essential feature for making the third plague pandemic the first example of a global epidemiological investigation. In examining these kinds of report he acknowledged debts to the analyses of John Forrester, Olga Amsterdamska, Volker Hess, and Andrew Mendelsohn.
One reason that narrative mattered epistemically, is that it tracked the features of the phenomena, which was inherently processual and historical. In this respect epidemiology can be located amongst the sciences of the archive, and lends itself to future cross-comparative work with examples from geology, natural history, paleontology, and so on. A second reason that narrative mattered, is that it allowed epidemiologists to align very disparate and diverse forms of data. Finally, these narrative reports mattered for the development of standard epidemiological models, which became a subject of interest in their own right. Such models were often even of more interest to epidemiologists than the reports of cases from the pandemic, and were only made to work thanks to the incorporation of narratives. A strong revisionist component was also present in Engelmann’s talk. Where typically the history of epidemiology becoming a science has stressed the arrival of abstracting methods, particularly its mathematization and the growth of statistics in the field throughout the nineteenth century, Engelmann argued these were only one part of the process of scientization. Practices of evidence collection and recording that were grounded in narrative were equally important for the professionalisation and scientisation of the field.
It is unfortunate that we cannot cover the primary material that Engelmann then went on to discuss, which was very rich and varied. In the discussion period we wondered whether these reports change in their composition over time, whether something more standardised begins to emerge, the role of style in them, and so on. Engelmann responded that some of the first reports have a different kind of urgency in their writing style, and in their implication that a pandemic is imminent. These are often characterized by some over-exaggeration, but an over-exaggeration that does track the severity of the pandemic in those regions of India where the pandemic was severe. Over time repetition of earlier reports were recapitulated so as to align them with newer reports in this lineage. Then around 1910, as the notion that fleas on rats are the primary carriers of disease, the overwhelming emphasis that had once been given to human living conditions faded out and global attention seemed to focus on rats. Others pointed out how much understanding an epidemic is really an exercise in sociology, or geography, which was much better represented by attending to the narrative features of epidemiological reporting than to the statistics and tables. Engelmann agreed with this suggestion, but also emphasised that epidemiologists themselves did not typically see it this way, but rather understood themselves to be doing something very distinct. How and why they thought this is part of his fascination with the area.
Sabine Baier (LSE and ETH Zürich)
How Many Molecules Does It Take To Tell A Story?- Managing Epistemic Distances In Medicinal Chemistry
It was great to be able to host a talk from our collaborator Sabine Baier, who has been working with us for the past 6 months, and with whom we are co-organising a workshop to take place in 2019 on the topic of narrative’s role in navigating experimental space, particularly in the making of novel materials. In her talk we had a chance to glimpse where this research is taking narrative in/of/for science, with a particular emphasis on the planning and motivation of experiment in drug discovery.
The process of drug discovery is a long and tedious one. How do chemists make sense of work that more commonly than not produces compounds of no value or particular interest? In pursuing laboratory ethnography Baier saw first-hand precisely how repetitive this manner of research is, and also why narrative is playing a particularly important role for managing ‘epistemic distance’. The latter is her coinage and refers to the distance between the work one is doing right now, and the potential valuable finding that may occur down the line. Very few of the chemists that she was able to speak with had ever had a compound get close to clinical trialling, let alone marketing, and those that did were often treated with considerable reverence. When your experiments are largely producing negative after negative results, how can one make decisions in research? For Baier this is where narrative came in.
Researchers, who are constantly rationally reconstructing the trajectory and outcomes of their past work, place signposts in these trajectories that can later be activated as points of excitement (though experienced as anything other than exciting at the time). These presented themselves to Baier within the stories she witnessed being told by chemists to other chemists, explaining their work and findings. For example one chemist she worked with considered themselves an artist, looking at compounds and wanting to make more beautiful ones, telling her they would never pursue an ugly one. Another chemist thought of themselves as something more like a historian, aiming to contextualise any target given to them, finding as many similar and already investigated examples as possible. The enormity of the experimental space requires these kinds of positioning, one that chemists tend to set aside in preference for possible narrativized worlds.
In the question period we first wondered whether there would be similarities here between other scientific areas, such as in oceanography or geography, where people have to spend very many years mapping places that by and large have nothing particularly significant or interesting about them, maybe making the odd discovery here and there. Would these actors be worth looking at, to see if they are managing epistemic distance in a similar manner? Baier thought this was an interesting suggestion, but also worried that if it weren’t for her sitting alongside the scientists in this case, hearing them speaking to one another through these stories, there might not be any other record of them. From here the discussion moved to notions of chemical space, and whether chemists display similar behaviours to artists who pride themselves on working in particular media (oil, clay, lard, etc.). Baier responded that indeed on the the key points of storytelling is to achieve this kind of closing down of options, a creative restriction.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the seminar series so far, either as a speaker or an audience member. We look forward to seeing you at the 2019 seminars! Short reports for all the first seminars can be found in the links below.
SYNTHETIC BIOLOGICAL BEINGS AND THE NARRATIVE FUTURES OF CLIMATE SCIENCE
TIDAL NARRATIVE ORDERING FOR WHEWELL AND SAN FRANCISCO, AND INDEPENDENT DISCOVERY OF UTILITY NARRATIVES IN ECONOMICS
THE FUNCTIONS OF FAILURE NARRATIVES IN ENGINEERING, AND NARRATING CAUSALITY WITHIN EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY
Third Narrative Science Seminar: The functions of failure narratives in engineering, and narrating causality within experimental psychology
Author: Dominic Berry
So far our seminar series has guided us through cases of narrative science in synthetic biology, climate policy, philosophy of modelling, and economics. The speakers in our third seminar, Caitlin Donahue Wylie and Sigrid Leyssen introduced two additional areas, respectively engineering and psychology. As with all of the blog posts following these seminars, they are designed to capture some central elements of the presentations and audience interaction, and are not by any means a complete record of the event.
Caitlin Donahue Wylie (University of Virginia)
Narrating Disaster: A Method of Socialization in Engineering Laboratories
At the outset Wylie explained how this paper concerns a new project, one that builds on her previous work investigating the knowledge-making of laboratory technicians. Where once she had investigated lab technicians, recovering and unpacking their contributions to cultures of science and to knowledge, she is now instead interested in STEM students, though very much with the same kinds of question in mind. Narrative enters her picture thanks to extended periods of laboratory ethnography, in which she finds engineering educators, tutors, and lab assistants, making habitual use of narrative for diverse ends. Some of these are pedagogical, but others are equally about engineering identity: what does it mean to be a good engineer? The instances in which narrative manifests are often motivated by epistemic uncertainty, how to understand uncertainty, handle it, be prepared for it, and so on. In recognising the uses of these kinds of narrative she is reminded of Sharon Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes which includes, amongst many other things, an in depth analysis of ‘male tales’: the kinds of story told and shared ritualistically amongst male physicists that are intended to solidify a common understanding of what scientific excellence is, and who are the kinds of people that can be expected to attain it. Wylie certainly found partial evidence of male tales in her labs, but more importantly, most of the narratives being told and retold in engineering education spilled over these categories.
Through her examples Wylie then established and argued for the importance of ‘vicarious learning’, a form of instruction that involves a teller and a listener, or listeners. This relationship asks the teller and the listener(s) to enter into a moment of learning that is not simply an exchange of knowledge, or an instruction, but makes use of the tellers’ having once been in the listeners’ shoes. These moments are intended either to show the listener ‘what has always happened before’ or, ‘the mistake I always make is’, or ‘you have to watch out for’, and so on. In particular she finds failure or ‘disaster’ narratives particularly common in instances of vicarious learning, and here it matters that narratives are able to carry or build sympathies and normative assumptions along with shared understandings. Vicarious learning is fundamentally constituted by narrative because it recognises all of the participant’s auto-histories, how they have come to reach this moment, without stating those terms explicitly, precisely as we on the Narrative Science project have come to expect in the making of ‘tellable’ narratives.
In the question period the audience asked about the aspect of this kind of narrative that works to build a team rather than individuals, and also the extent to which narratives of disaster and failure might actually be quite different. It might be, for instance, that a disaster narrative builds a foundation for later greatness, overcoming something so terrible. Whereas failure narratives might just be a let down. Other participants asked whether the sharing of failure narratives actually had some downsides. Wylie could not think of any immediate negative effects, and could instead point to how in one of the labs where she has been conducting an ethnography, on hearing about her research, the students spontaneously decided to make a ‘disaster story shelf’, which showcases the results of their mistakes (broken beakers etc.). Another person wondered whether or not failure narratives were also inuring students to failure in large technological disasters, as something that engineers have particular authority over and are expected to master, rather than something that might require humility. This would be a case where engineering epistemology meets identity.
Sigrid Leyssen (Bauhaus Universität Weimar)
On the Experimental Phenomenology of Causality
Leyssen’s talk likewise took some of her previous work as a jumping off point in order to launch her brand new project on the history of the scientific experiments of the filmology movement, and experimental phenomenology, narrative providing a persistent feature of interest throughout. She began by looking at cases in the history of science where the fact of narrativity itself was the research object for scientists, in particular for experimental psychologists. Several psychological experiments could be read as studying narrativity in some of its most basic forms, for example, as merely causal relations between events. Nevertheless, the diverse terms on which someone might choose to understand something so apparently simple soon demonstrated the complexities of narrative knowing. Her primary case study was the work of Albert Michotte, which, starting in 1939, sought to find evidence of causal understanding directly in the perception of events, rather than as the result of a higher order cognitive process: narrative, or causation, as something that one just knows from witnessing it. For these purposes Michotte created a range of different experimental apparatus intended to prove his point, which he would travel with and demonstrate at international conferences. Some of the most charismatic include spinning wheels with different patterns, the motion of which seemed to imply a causal relation between the elements of the patterning. For an example of this kind of effect, see the following video.
Other contemporary examples of psychological experiments that could be interpreted as working on the narrativity question as a psychological problem are the investigations of Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel into how and why people read anthropomorphic narratives into abstract moving objects and shapes. For an example of the kind of movie they created for these purposes, see:
She also mentioned the earlier work of Frederic Bartlett – a good friend of Michotte – on memory. Bartlett worked with stories as his experimental material, studying where stories changed when people were asked to recount them.
In the second part of her talk Leyssen focussed on how Michotte’s work was taken to matter for scientists, philosophers, and filmmakers more broadly. Only able to bring his work to an international audience after the end of the Second World War, by this point Michotte had also become interested and active in the ‘filmology’ movement. Research questions in this emerging field included ‘how can people see events in fragments? What are the minimum number of gaps, or the maximum number, that enable or interrupt the perception of relations of temporality, spatiality, causality?’. These results mattered for psychology but also for those experimenting with film making and art, so we here have a history of narrative scientised and literised at once.
In the question period we focused on the kinds of controversy that surrounded Michotte’s arguments, whether, for instance, the argument that narrative works by compulsion was disagreed with. Leyssen explained that many of Michotte’s views on the perception of causation were heavily criticised, and that debate as to whether causation is based in recognition or perception continues today. Meanwhile Michotte is having a renaissance, many researchers in the past ten years taking up his assumptions and research programme. Another participant wanted to hear more about the context of the growth of phenomenology at this time, and if there are further examples of people investigating perception on these terms. While referring to the vibrant surge in philosophical phenomenology at the time, also at Michotte’s home institution, the philosophy institute in Louvain (where the Husserl archives had just moved), Leyssen could also point to the earlier work of Max Wertheimer, and the broader legacy of Gestaltist researchers in the parallel tradition of experimental phenomenology in the scientific psychology. This had its own impact throughout the sciences and arts. Attending film festivals, and attending to the structure of narrative there, was something that Michotte and others like him gave increasing attention to over the course of the century.
The final seminar of Term 1 took place on the 4th of December, and featured Lukas Engelmann on ‘Epidemiology as Narrative Science: Outbreak reports of the third plague pandemic from 1894 to 1952’ and Sabine Baier ‘How Many Molecules Does It Take To Tell A Story?- Managing Epistemic Distances In Medicinal Chemistry’. A blog post will follow soon!
We also hosted our latest workshop on the 10th of December on ‘Expert Narratives: Systems, policies, and practices’ organised by Dr. Mat Paskins and Prof. Mary S. Morgan. We are sorry to all those of you who applied to attend but missed out this time, numbers were necessarily limited. We have further workshops and conferences planned for 2019 so as ever, join the mailing list to keep up to date. A blog post following the Expert workshop will also be published here soon. Our considerable thanks to all the speakers and contributors to discussion!
Second Narrative Science Seminar: Tidal Narrative Ordering for Whewell and San Francisco, and Independent Discovery of Utility Narratives in Economics
Author: Dominic Berry.
These two talks furthered the Narrative Science seminar series, which will continue throughout 2019. For more details please see the Events page of the website. The first paper was presented by Julia Sánchez-Dorado and Claudia Cristalli, both of UCL, working in the mode of integrated HPS. The second was given by Prof. Mary S. Morgan, leader of the Narrative Science project, based on a presentation given a week earlier in Seattle at the History of Science Society annual conference.
Julia Sánchez-Dorado (UCL) and Claudia Cristalli (UCL)
Colligation in model analysis: from Whewell’s tides to the San Francisco Bay Model
One aim of the talk was to bring attention to the first philosophical articulation of ‘colligation’ by William Whewell, an idea that has been part of the bedrock of the Narrative Science project from the getgo, and which can be found in a number of articles in the 2017 ‘Narrative in Science’ special issue. They wished to preserve particular aspects of Whewell’s original conceptualisation which might otherwise be lost if we broaden the notion to simply mean ‘gathering things together’. Colligation as described in Whewell’s The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1847) arises as an ‘act of thought’ of bringing together empirical evidence and placing a novel conception onto them and their relations. Key features were then drawn out through Whewell’s work on tidology, the study of tides, for which Whewell thought colligation was essential, as without it one might never reach a systematic and law-like account of tidal phenomena. His state-of-the-art was to study times of low and high tides for different coasts around the world, as then known, to draw ‘co-tidal’ lines between points where low and high coincide, in the process finding global tidal relations. This was colligation in action, and for Whewell, was a way to begin generalising in a mapping practice what was otherwise a seemingly random phenomena.
Sánchez-Dorado and Cristalli then compared this kind of data collection and modelling with a C20th example, engineers and scientists trying to model tidal activity in the San Francisco Bay. This model was meant to capture the tidal activity of the area accurately enough that it could be used to predict the future effect of, for instance, building a damn ahead of the bay. But how to select the relevant features to model, and how to relate them? Here they find that colligation was again central, not only in deciding which features mattered for the model, but also for assessing how well the model mapped onto the behaviour of tides found in the Bay.
In the question period we focussed on different notions of colligation, for on the one hand the making of a series of observations and their compiling in a model, and on the other the use of the model to answer particular questions. The extent to which narrative mattered in these two senses could be clearer, and more work could be done to draw out the importance of narratives for using models as opposed to making them in the first place. Others wanted to know more about the process of using colligation in producing things like co-tidal lines, where idealisms and visuality come into what Whewell is producing. In response we heard that there were two primary competing theories of tides in the C19th, the one that argued tides worked synchronically - i.e. independent of one another - the other that the globe should be thought of as essentially a large box full of water which sloshes about creating patterns of regularity. Colligation mattered in particular for bringing together all the high tides to create a visual picture of patterning, in the process exaggerating and idealising the lines he ‘saw’, but this was only one part of Whewell’s search for regularities.
Mary S. Morgan (LSE)
Simultaneous Discovery or Competing Concepts? Economists's Notions of Utility in the Late 19th Century
This paper focussed on narratives in concept formation, Morgan deriving evidence of multiple kinds of small or large narrative being involved in the making of concepts of utility used by C19th economists. Kicking off slightly earlier, Mary emphasised how Adam Smith’s argument that wealth creation is the result of divisions of labour was effectively a large narrative about the interrelations of states. Smith’s labour theory of value became one of the most important and influential narratives available to C18th economists and well into the C19th. Labour was seen as a key constituent of what makes use value and exchange value, which are consistently explained through short simple and idealised real-life examples, such as use of labour in the hunting of deer and bears and the exchange value of their hides relative to the labour it takes to kill them. Smith’s ideas would be overtaken in the late C19th by the notion of ‘marginal utility’ established independently by at least four different economists working at this time; Carl Menger, John Bates Clark, William Stanley Jevons and Léon Walras. Their publications are classical foundational texts for modern economics. With marginal utility what matters more is the extent to which any given person ranks the value of a good for themselves, which may or may not have anything to do with the amount of labour that the good embodies.
Morgan points out how each of these authors attempted to establish marginal utility as a concept, often relying on narrative for these purposes. For example Jevons’ utility curve measures the increase or deterioration of a good’s desirability as more is consumed, which as with the earlier generation of economists, he illustrates through short literary accounts. One example is the ‘paradoxical parable’ of the value of water in contrast with diamonds, which he explains as not actually problematic or paradoxical because there is loads of water available but diamonds are scarce and produce a different experience for the acquiring consumer. In Jevons alone there are other narratives of human behaviour, which he mathematizes, and further thought experiments regarding, for instance, how to decide the apportioning of food on a ship lost at sea. A great many more narrative examples can be found in all of these authors, all of which Morgan argues contributed to the making and refining of concepts of utility.
In the question period the audience wanted to know more about the range and functions of the short narratives used by economists to illustrate differential ranking of need and value. Did they, for instance, ever reflect on the normative or moral components of these short real-life examples? Morgan has yet to find any evidence of this kind of reflexivity! Morgan also took the opportunity to clarify a clear difference between the earlier examples associated with Smith, which are clearly designed to draw the reader in and have a lot of rhetorical power, whereas the later examples from Jevons et al. which tend to get more intricate and are focussed on how to think through a given problem. Others asked about the extent to which all of these little narratives are doing different kinds of work, and whether any two economists alighting on a particular narrative necessarily means they are talking about the case for the same reason. In response Morgan points out how widespread were some of these examples, which could be seen as forming a crucial part of the discursive element of the development of economic theory. Robinson Crusoe for instance is picked up and applied by most economists working at this time. Nevertheless she agrees that the uses to which such narratives were put could vary widely.
We have already hosted the third Narrative Science seminar, featuring Caitlin Donahue Wylie and Sigrid Leyssen, about which a blog post will soon follow.
The next Narrative Science seminar, which will be the last one for this term, will take place on the 4th of December and features Lukas Engelmann on ‘Epidemiology as Narrative Science: Outbreak reports of the third plague pandemic from 1894 to 1952’ and Sabine Baier on ‘How Many Molecules Does It Take To Tell A Story?- Managing Epistemic Distances In Medicinal Chemistry’. As ever, please see the Events page for their abstract and information about timing and location.
We have also recently announced a call for applicants to attend our next Narrative Science workshop, Expert Narratives: Systems, policies and practices. Spaces are limited but we will attempt to accommodate as many of you as we can. You should also know that we have made available 4 PhD student travel bursaries, details for applicants are all found on that same workshop notice.