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.