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  • Writer's pictureSeb Falk

Hasok Chang and the disgruntled internalists

Updated: May 13, 2020

Regular readers beware: there are no astrolabes in this post!  Instead we’ll be engaging with some hardcore historiography.  Comments welcome!

The “Histories of the Sciences” seminar series convened by Professor Nick Jardine at Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science is generally a low-key affair: at each session one or two texts, by important thinkers who have influenced the way the history of science is studied and written about, are introduced and discussed.  There’s half a dozen students and rarely any controversy.

But Monday’s session was different: a tense, packed room awaited the appearance in person of the important figure we were discussing: Professor Hasok Chang, who had come to discuss his keynote address at July’s International Congress in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM).  For anyone who wasn’t in Manchester in July and hasn’t watched the address since, here it is:

We were examining the issues raised by Chang alongside a critique of his arguments.  This wasn’t in a published paper: in what may well have been a first not only for this seminar series but the whole Department, it was a blog postThat post was by Michael Bycroft, who recently graduated from this Department.  Because he is now working in Berlin, Dr Bycroft asked me to write up some notes from the seminar.  That’s the reason for my current foray into shark-infested historiographical waters.

I don’t have room in this post to explain Chang’s paper (you’ll have to watch the video or wait for its publication in the BJHS).  But suffice it to say that it was entitled Putting Science Back into the History of Science.  Put extremely simply, his argument was that greater focus on the technical content of past science would be of benefit both to history, and to current science.

Bycroft’s critique made three main points (again, apologies for simplifying to the point of misrepresentation):

  1. Chang could have defended purely internalist (content-focused) history of science more strongly against context-focused history.  In some ways he ended up defending a sort of hybrid.

  2. Writers of internalist history of science should defend their work as a valid and valuable form of history.  They should not try and argue that its focus on content makes it superior to other ways of writing.

  3. Internalist history can display many of the virtues normally ascribed to hybrid history of science.  For example, it can demonstrate the contingency of science (i.e. that science tackles problems that exist – or appear to exist – in the here and now, rather than advancing along a straight line towards The Truth).  And it can be a form of cultural history – after all, science is a cultural product.

In introducing his paper, Chang accepted these points, while stressing that he was not trying to suggest that internalist history of science was necessarily superior to other ways of doing history of science.

The Seminar

The discussion during the seminar was free-flowing, and I did not take any notes.  As I only have my vague memories to go on, I will not attempt to reconstruct it blow-by-blow.  Rather, I will try to group the points that were made under 4 general themes.

1.  Cultural history vs. rationality: a false dichotomy?

One point that was made focused on the early part of Chang’s address, in which he set out to dismiss four false dichotomies that he believes are widespread misconceptions in history of science.  The third of these was between cultural history, which “treats our own civilization in the same way that anthropologists study alien cultures” (Robert Darnton), and the idea that scientists behave rationally.  Put simply, Chang’s argument (at 9:53 in the video) was that rationality can still be meaningful even though we acknowledge that it is “fully embedded in and dependent on social, political and institutional settings.”

The question that was raised was: what kind of rationality? Whose rationality?  Can we be rational historians writing in the twenty-first century and still aim to approach (or imitate) the rationality of people in the past?  The quite strident answer seemed to be that that is precisely what historians should be doing.  Our particular skill as historians must surely be to straddle two time zones.

2.  How can history stimulate science?

In my view, the most controversial claim Chang made (at 28:34 in the video) was that history of science can and should be looking to contribute towards new discoveries in science.  This point was not addressed directly but it was noted that there were few historians in university science departments, and we rarely look to push ourselves in that direction.  And even if history is rarely going to produce new scientific knowledge (and it’s certainly arguable whether that should be its aim), it is surely a good idea for practising scientists to learn from history about the contingent development of their discipline (a point made fully by Chang at 20:43).

So perhaps it is in science departments that history of science can be most useful to society.  Where it is in them already, it seems to perform mainly a sort of ornamental function, helpful for PR purposes but totally divorced from any involvement in or effect on the main business of inevitable scientific progress.  Chang has argued in many papers that the history of science can play an important role in science education – and has practised what he preaches by talking to schoolkids about historical experiments in which water didn’t boil at 100°C.  But historians are mainly reduced to carping on the sidelines as scientists fill the airwaves and the public consciousness with a view of history of science that is as embarrassing for real historians as Intelligent Design is for most evolutionary biologists.  (Rebekah Higgitt and others have written about how historians of science sometimes seem just to be spoiling everyone’s party.)  Perhaps we can do better if we focus our efforts more at scientists.

3.  Isn’t this all just obvious?  The insecurity of historians of scienc

Always one for practising what he preaches, Chang has just launched a new reading/discussion group called Coffee with Scientists, which aims to bring together scientists and historians, to the benefit of both.  It was one of those scientists who raised the commensense objection: DUH! Of course history of science needs to have science in it!  What’s the point of studying something if you’re not prepared to engage with its content?  This question, and those that followed along the same lines, occupied most of the seminar.

A key question was: if you engage with content, how critical can you be?  Chang himself had made the analogy with historians of art (at 14:29) – they have no problem being historians and art critics at the same time.  But historians of science feel uncomfortable exercising judgment in the same way, for fear of being branded “Whiggish“.  Against this, Chang says (at 16:47) “we only need to make sure that our view of past science is not dictated by current scientific orthodoxy.  It is not necessary to abandon all judgment.”

There was a sense from some in the seminar that historians of science are too insecure, and spend too much time justifying what we do.  We are obsessed with theorising our own discipline, and perhaps we should just get on and do it!  But it is precisely our desire to change things in the present – changing people’s views of science – that forces us to justify ourselves, which is what theory seems to be for.  To take mainstream political history as an example: most of the time it is not especially interested in changing the present, so political historians look for little theoretical support.  But post-colonial history often has an explicit political agenda, and so tends to have far more theoretical baggage too.

4.  Is internalism superior?  Prove yourself!

This brought us back to internalist history of science, which was then presented as a solution to historians’ insecurities.  Do we need to prove that we know what we’re talking about?  A point was raised that had been made in a comment on Bycroft’s blog post: the depth principle, which states that we need to know a lot more than we write about.  But should we have to wear that knowledge like a scout badge?

As time ran out in the seminar, the suggestion was made that we should emulate some notable historians of science, who have written one absurdly complex internalist work at the beginning of their career.  Their scientific credentials thus established, they have spent the rest of their working lives writing contextualist, cultural history of science – and no-one has dared accuse them of ignorance.

What’s the conclusion?  I don’t know.  I may come back and add one once I’ve had some more time to mull over the issues raised in the seminar.  For now, please join the debate and add your own comments.  And if you were at the seminar and feel I’ve missed, misrepresented or misunderstood something, please say so!

Edit: Click here to read the comments on my original blog post.

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