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’.