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Archive for December, 2010

Ten Problems in History and Philosophy of Science

By ucrhmpa, on 3 December 2010

The second meeting of the History of Science reading group discussed Peter Galison’s paper “ten problems in history and philosophy of science.” It was a larger group, of philosophers historians and sociologists: whatever the merits of Galison’s specific proposals, his name and his example certainly bring different disciplinary approaches together.

The ten problems described in the paper are as follows:

Problem 1 – what is context – how does a contextual explanation work?

Problem 2 – purity and fundamentality – what counts, at different times, as a ‘pure’ science?

Problem 3 – historical argumentation – when the foucs is on scientific practices, what are the concepts tools and procedures needed at a given time to construct an acceptable scientific argument?

Problems 4 & 5 Fabricated Fundamentals –

  1. Making things: it is increasingly hard to separate the made from the found

  2. What should we make?

In Galison’s view this seems to be a new change brought about by nanotechnology and genetic-modification. We wondered about what the role of historical analysis would be for understanding fabricated funamentals: would we want to relate genetic modification to earlier examples of animal and plant breeding, or nanotechnology to synthetic chemistry or other techniques of making new natural things? What is the role of the ‘break’, the terrible beauty which is born with new techniques of modification? And what does this have to do with the ethical turn of problem five? Do history and philosophy of science have meaningful things to say about the ethics of artificiality in this sense? Some of us felt it would be hard to base ethical arguments about fabricated fundamentals on an historical basis.

Problem 6 Political Technologies – privacy/ surveillance // what is politics of these new technologies

Problem 7 Locality: what do microhistories towards, or add up to?

We recognised this as ‘bar-talk’ for historians and philosophers of science – that very local studies have proliferated and it is sometimes hard to see how to fit them into broader arguments and patterns. Some of us felt this was less of a problem for historians, who are perhaps more willing to contextualise – than micro-philosophers.

Problem 8 – globality – what aspects of scientific practice simply do not reduce to the local

We wondered what aspects were not captured by local studies: perhaps legal and regulatory aspects, as a broader field of action? And the way in which the claims made about different historical periods fit together, or fail to.

Problem 9 Relentless Historicism – is it possible to write a history and philosophy of science in which the story told truly I historical?

Problem 10: Scientific Doubt.


From Imitation to Invention

By ucrhmpa, on 3 December 2010

The STS Department’s new History of Science reading group has had two meetings so far, and very lively discussions. In the first, we discussed Maxine Berg’s paper “From Imitation to Invention”. Berg’s paper takes the question of ‘imitation’ as part of a consumer-focused and global history of processes of industrialisation. It builds on De Vries’ notion of the ‘industrious revolution’, a reorientation of households towards newly intensified forms of production, and the connection of this to the consumption of new commodities. It is an account of the interrelations between consumerism and production. Berg rescues the idea of imitation as a creative process – not mere copying, but a translation and transformation of materials and processes which she traces across the world. Inventive imitation is an ancient and vital part of the trade of processes and ideas: from bronze age skeuomorphs – objects or features which copy the designs of similar artefact in different materials – described by archaeologists, to the attempt to develop a distinctively English style of luxury in imitation of Chinese and Japanese imports.

With no economists in the group we weren’t completely clear on the use of hedonic, another technical term which Berg employs. The way Berg seems to intend it is to describe the different pleasure-giving properties of commodities, and to analyze commodities as bundles of these proprties. We were taken with this emphasis on the experience of physical properties, and the central place this account gives to aesthetics.

Some of us felt parts of Berg’s argument were over-extended and too Eurocentric. For example, Berg argues that the changes in materials in Etruscan burial goods led to the spread of new luxury techniques. This is perhaps a partial and luxuriant way to analyze the burial goods themselves, which in their own cultural setting are ‘essential luxuries’, indispensable to the rites of mourning and the dead. The meaning and attraction of materials – and their transmission from one place to another – may have cultural meanings which are poorly captured by economic histories and a very sunnily aesthetic approach. We speculated on other ways in which you might capture other properties and relations between human bodies, cultures, and materials – this suggested some future reading, but we came to no conclusions.