Labels and the History of Science

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I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts bring with it consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it... (Calvino)
Certain recent events have left me thinking about labels. Unfortunately (and ironically?) "label" doesn't capture quite what I mean, but let me try to illustrate it by describing a few of the things I've run into lately.

Names were in the air at "STS: The Next Twenty," the conference convened at Harvard last weekend that was part stock-taking, part provocation, and part rethinking of the state of the field in Science and Technology Studies (these were all terms with which the organizers welcomed participants).

I was only able to be there for the first half of the three-day event, but much of the conversation to which I was privy centered around metaphors for understanding what STS has been or could be: is STS a discipline, field, or umbrella? Is it an arena for discussion or a way of seeing all its own? One participant characterized it (fondly) as a "swamp," opposite the "desert" of jurisprudence; tool-metaphors were rampant, too. These are things I've been thinking about, and it was fun to see a big group go through it, too.

The cause of my early departure from Cambridge was the Joint-Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology, held at Yale that same weekend. It's always a great meeting, and this time our very own Lukas gave a well-received paper connecting dinosaurs, museums, and larger structural changes in the American economy. I won't dwell too long on our days in New Haven, since I know Joanna is planning on writing up her thoughts and Nathaniel Comfort has already given us some reflections to chew on.

As Nathaniel points out, the annual stock-taking conversation with which the Joint Atlantic concludes revolved around questions of disciplinary identity and boundaries. While he (echoing what Dan Kevles had to say) suggests it's about passion for the subject matter ("the history of science") and not professional or disciplinary concerns ("The History of Science"), younger scholars in the room weren't ready to abandon concerns about self-identification and project-choice in the interest of securing jobs and starting careers.

Like I said, I don't want to go too far into it, but some of the themes we've been dealing with on AmericanScience were heavy in the room both at STS 20-20 and at the Joint Atlantic: from the identity of the scientist/historian (not to mention the scholar/citizen) to selling your soul on scientific content, and including questions of writing (about which I know Nathaniel is passionate) and the boundaries between historical work and present politics (I and II), there was a lot to think about - and I won't even go into the David Brooks event held the following Tuesday.

Rather than continue in this vein - which has dominated much discussion here and elsewhere - I'd like instead to point out from these conversations to another issue I ran into recently at a neighboring blog. Over at U.S. Intellectual History, there's been an ongoing discussion of Dan Rodgers' new book, Age of Fracture. In one post, David Sehat put forward a label with which we might understand Rodgers' approach: "neo-pragmatist."

By connecting Rodgers' new book to an earlier one (Contested Truths) - or, rather, by quoting heavily from the former in support of two earlier posts (here and here) on the latter - Sehat means to pick out Rodgers' Rortyean elements. In the comments, a discussion of the utility of labels emerged, ending in something of a dispute over whether labels for the content of historical analysis ("science," for our purposes) differ from those for the method (e.g. "neo-pragmatist"), and why.

This seems particularly germane for our ongoing discussion of what it is to do the history of science, and what HOS is the history of - messy terrain indeed.

Some historians of science feel a content-affinity, such that early-modern astronomy and 21st-century nanotechnology have enough in common as objects (or ideas, or practices) to justify a common conversation. Others, it seems to me, would hold these subjects apart as historical phenomena but would address one another on the level of methods - how best to characterize ideas or embed them in their contexts, how to impart technical detail in a readable way, &c.

This question of method vs. content has come up before on our blog - and elsewhere. It's at the heart of questions about whether present-day practitioners should "recognize themselves" in historical work; embedded in accusations of whiggishness and attendant concerns about presentism; and even embroiled in current debates within the wider arena of social and humanistic studies of science ("Philosophy, anyone?").

So, what's in a name? The questions about Sehat's dubbing Rodgers a "neo-pragmatist" are key. Does it matter if Rodgers would reject or accept the label? Why do we need to find a word or phrase with which to pin him down? If we are natural label-makers, as Sehat asserts, does this mean we shouldn't question the impulse to do so? What are the consequences of labeling, and what possibilities and dimensions does the effort leave out?

Since such things come up so often, I'm tempted to conclude that these meta-level concerns fit the definition of philosophy offered up by a good friend of mine: "The questions are obvious; the answers are impossible." But one thing we might take away (at the risk of looping, reflexively, one more time) is an attention to the act of labeling itself.

While this sounds like yet another ratcheting up into the meta-sphere, I think there's something here. Rather than (or in addition to) dedicating conferences, journal issues, roundtables, and blog-hours to questions about who we are (questions to which we try to post new and better answers), we might burrow down into the queries themselves to find the impetuses at their roots.

In doing so, we might come to find that labels and labeling aren't just stock-taking or provoking or rethinking; instead, labels might be answers to questions we'd be better off abandoning. If our answer to the question of what differentiates the history of science from history more generally comes down to a difference in the content on which we attend, then we'd do well to recognize the consequences of such disciplinary labeling for the ways it forces us to prize the past apart as well.

Labels for present practice do, it seems, entail labels for past phenomena: and, as we continue to worry about the former, recognizing their connection to the latter might help ground future discussions.

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