Constructivism

 

Both Prefaces & Introduction to Making Natural Knowledge, Jan Golinski

            In her prefaces and introductory chapter, author Jan Golinski states her goals in writing Making Natural Knowledge and gives an outline of the development of the “constructivist” outlook and its implications for the practice of the history of science. She defines constructivism as an approach that emphasizes the importance of the role humans play in the creation and distribution of scientific knowledge, and she tells the story of how these views came to be important and influential in history through the works of Thomas Kuhn through Bruno Latour (including many members of the field of sociology). Constructivism has encouraged a departure from the traditional view of science as a goal-oriented progressive process, instead pointing the study of the history of science in directions that address the roles of language, motivation, instruments, networks, laboratories, and other social factors in the construction of scientific knowledge.

 

“Visualization and Cognition: Thinking with Eyes and Hands,” Bruno Latour

            Bruno Latour suggests a new method for investigating the history of science in his article on visualization and cognition. He posits that the increasing power of science is due not to the modern age’s development of “more rational” scientists, or even to the institutional and social influences emphasized by the sociologists of science, but to the tools, particularly inscribed or visual ones, at their disposal. Articulating knowledge in a way that conforms to what Latour terms “optical consistency” allows it to be mobile without risking alteration; anyone (or institution) can then superimpose or reanalyze the flattened data to form cascades of knowledge, each more influential than the last. In this way, theories garner empirical and human support and become increasingly difficult to contest and as a result become more powerful (in both predictability and practicality).

 

“De-Centring the ‘Big Picture’: “The Origins of Modern Science” and the Modern Origins of Science,” Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams

            Authors Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams make a convincing case for restructuring the “big picture” of the history of science in a very big way. They first argue that it is worth doing; grand narratives have pedagogic value that outweighs their problematic implications. The authors find certain aspects that constitute the traditional narrative of the history of science, namely the idea of the “scientific revolution,” out of date and misleading, part of a past narrative whose constructors’ motivations are no longer those of the field. Their proposed novel narrative would, instead of telling the story of the development of something in the present, inform students of the history of many things, placed in context. In order that future students of the history of science be made aware of the contingent place our culture holds in the grand scheme of things, the authors suggest three forms of a process they call “de-centring” – recognizing egocentrisms and biases and opening up minds to the reality that many things are peculiar to a nation, ethnicity, class, culture, etc.

 

“Continental Philosophy and the History of Science,” Garry Gutting

            Garry Gutting begins his outline of Continental developments in the history and philosophy of science by juxtaposing them against the Anglo-American positivist approach; that is, he claims, assuming that scientific knowledge is the only true source of knowledge. He outlines three fields’ contributions, beginning with those of the Phenomenologists and the Existentialists. They emphasize that science is derivative of the “life-world,” and assert that the tendency of scientists is to lost sight of this and view the knowledge they garner from their abstractions as absolute; this, they claim, leads to crises (moral and scientific) when scientific theories cease to explain the world. The second philosophical tradition outlined, the Marxists, identify themselves as directly opposed to positivists. They allege that the problem with the traditional construction of scientific theory is that it is objective, and instead propose critical theory, which gives human interests (rooted in what is essential for human survival, namely communication) the decisive role in what problems science will attempt to solve. Lastly, Gutting summarizes the French network of philosophers; they looked to history to discover the nature of reason, and their analyses lead to their acknowledgement of scientific progress but not continuity.

 

“Cosmologies Materialized: History of Science and History of Ideas,” John Tresch

            “Cosmologies Materialized” begins with a recapitulation of the historical relationship between the history of science and intellectual history. They shared similar ideas when the history of science concerned itself primarily with establishing the “big picture” narrative that categorized science as a single idea, but with the launch of the sociology of scientific knowledge, historians of science rejected the history of ideas as an impediment to analyses that were newly based on political, institutional, technological, and social factors, to name a few. Author John Tresch then gives an account of the state of the history of science today — quite fragmented and without a narrative at all — and suggests that it return to its earlier place in line with the history of ideas. He proposes that the history of science once again embrace the idea of a “cosmological” view of science as an idea, and he insists that this can be done while still thinking about all of the gaps and inconsistencies within the concept of “science.” Tresch believes that this reorientation of the field will enable it to answer modern pressing questions more ably.

The reading this week has primarily stimulated thought on grand narratives, their reason for being, and the changes that have rendered them scarce in recent scholarship. I understand on a deeper level now why McClellan and Dorn’s Science and Technology in World History, with all of its problems, is still in common use in introductory courses to the history of science; there simply are not many options available due to the destabilization of the field. The reaction, a reaction almost every reading attributes (at least as an instigator) to Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to the grand narrative that was perpetuated for so long, was (and is) extremely severe. That being said, there are historians who are attempting to pick up the pieces and resume the field’s duty of establishing a general narrative — Bowler and Morus’s Making Modern Science, if it can be judged on its introduction, seems to be a good example of a valid attempt — and they are trying to be as inclusive as possible.

My biggest question after this week’s reading is this — what does deconstructing science to the point that it is unrecognizable do, realistically, to improve the methodology employed by historians of science? The reaction against the admittedly unjust portrayal of science as a linear progression has been extremely severe, but it has produced little in regards to constructing a narrative that represents science as it is — a framework for understanding the world that, like all others, is human, flawed, unobjective, and not deterministic. While historians and philosophers squabble over the minutia of what constitutes and creates “science” and “scientific knowledge,” the public is left with the goal-oriented “big picture” that everyone was so discontent and horrified with half a century ago.

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