Structure & Agency in the History of Science

Hank has been sending me text messages about not posting enough. He’s also encouraged me to pick a fight with him. Let me take up the challenge by making some critical remarks on something he wrote in a comment to a recent post. But before I do so I’d like to reiterate that Hank started it (!) so if this post has a slightly polemical feel you know who’s to blame. :-)

For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with the comments section of this blog, Hank’s claim is as follows: In the last couple of decades historians have “gotten pretty good at [describing] how individual actors [use] ideas and cultural resources as they grapple with the world.” My guess is he sees this as a good thing. However, he also says that in our effort to understand individual strategies we have come to neglect the “structures determining both those usages and what's available to use in the first place.” For this reason, he advocates a return to structuralism and suggests using “tools in the digital humanities” as a potentially new way to “access the structures of words and concepts out of which actors did all this crafting.”
To my mind, there are two ways we might read this suggestion. The first questions the appropriate scope of our historical narratives. Should we focus on individuals, institutions, or larger entities such as Bloch’s mentalit├ęs or Foucault’s epistemes. So we might say that Hank is staging a methodological intervention. But we can also take him to be staking a deeper, more ontological claim. Perhaps it’s a more fundamental question that’s got him worried, one about what causes us to behave in the ways that we do. It’s not really possible to say one way or the other with certainty judging from his comments alone. Still, to my mind his ultimate conclusion—that we turn to the digital humanities—tips the scales towards the former: his concern is more methodological than ontological.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest you can’t use tools from the digital humanities to lay the empirical foundation for a deep analysis of human behavior. Rather, my worry is that Hank’s focus on tools like online data mining or computer-aided textual analysis is just that: a focus on tools or methods rather than foundational issues. So although I do not doubt that performing statistical analyses on large datasets has the potential to yield powerful empirical insights I also do not think doing so can absolve us from the philosophical task of answering what I take to be ultimately more important questions, such as: How should we understand the nature of human agency? What is a culture and how does it structure our shared lived experiences? Or, what is the best way to situate a play by Shakespeare, a cantata by Bach, or a scientific theory by Galileo in its social and historical context?

I’ve tried to distinguish two different ways we might read Hank’s suggestion. Obviously ontology and methodology are not independent though. For example, perhaps we feel that Shakespeare was not just a genius poet with an uncanny gift for inventing characters who appear to lead rich inner lives. Perhaps we prefer to say he was the product of a remarkable time and place: London during the 1590s. If that is our view, then it would be historically misleading to interpret his plays as a timeless commentary on the human condition. To situate them in the local context of Elizabethan England would therefore not just be one among any number of attractive methodological options. Rather, doing so is our responsibility. This is just to say that decisions about the scope of our historical narratives are not will-o-the-wisp. They ought to depend on where we stand in a philosophical debate about the nature of human agency, individual creativity, social structures, and cultural institutions.

So, how should we write the history of science? It would obviously be presumptuous for me to pretend I have the answer to this question. But I will say that I don’t think we should let technological and methodological innovations do the job of making the decision for us.


Lukas: This is good stuff.

I've responded, first, to a previous post on the History of Science/Science nexus here:

Let me come back to this post tomorrow, so that I can completely obliterate it in subsequent posts!

Briefly, a sketch of an argument: methodological challenges are valuable precisely because they prompt the sort of ontological speculation you describe. One could equally say that too much scholarship is driven by another technology--the archive--which carries its own set of assumptions about agency, practice, etc., and is institutionalized in the profession not because of a continuing recommittment in the profession to an ontology based around individual actions. Just the opposite: we keep phrasing this as about individuals b/c those are the sources that our 24-year old graduate students keep getting shipped off to look at.

Thanks for this, Ben. You've captured what I know Lukas knows, too: that method-talk (on the part of the actors in my dissertation, or on my own part) is always a proxy for "deeper" points.

I like the point about the archive, too (and so did Joanna). I would add, though, that I think there is a "continuing recommittment to ... individual actions" at work - it's not just "technologically" determined.

Don't take this as backing down from my claim about structure, though - and this is where I want to link up to the other thread on scientists recognizing "themselves" in our writing. In telling stories we hope our actors (alive or dead) could recognize - and, indeed, in talking about "our actors" as first-order historical objects - we've already inscribed an unspoken theoretical bent into our work. My sense of it is:

As HOS has become more "H" and less "S" (and less "SSK") in a lot of places, we've gravitated from talking explicitly about the places where theory and methods meet (this is Lukas's point in a sense), and ended up just adopting the new-cultural approach in which our actors more-or-less-rationally manipulate cultural resources toward ends that they more-or-less understand themselves.

That is, we've moved, in a lot of places, from debating theory explicitly (think Actor-Network Theory) to adopting a shared theory implicitly (think Rational-Actor Theory, or some better handle I haven't thought of yet).

Whether or not we're in an "Age of Fracture", I think the state of things merits further attention. Sooner or later, this will shift - in my view, from agency back to structure - and (in full ironic mode) I'd like to be there manipulating my cultural resources to my advantage as those disciplinary structures change.

I guess I'm not sure I agree that we've all adopted a "the new-cultural approach in which our actors more-or-less-rationally manipulate cultural resources toward ends that they more-or-less understand themselves." In particular, I take issue with the words "rationally" and "understand themselves." Perhaps I'm misunderstanding your position, but it sounds like you think most of us who write cultural history think of our actors as being able to set clear goals and use whatever resources are available to them to achieve those goals. But especially in the history of science this does not strike me as where the historiography is at!

Rather, what I see is an honest attempt to steer clear of the Scylla of individualist hagiography while avoiding the Charybdis of cultural determinism. The behavior (and theories) of our scientists are not merely a simple reflection of their cultural / political / social context but neither do they operate outside of that context. Once you've granted that you obviously face a very hard question of trying to figure out what it means to 'operate' in a cultural context. You seem to think that most of us think it is some sort of means-end rationality. But again I don't see it that way. Rather, I read the contemporary historiography as advocating a view in which culture sets the conditions of possibility, or, as you put it, the resources for though, action, etc. Our historical actors needn't have a lot of choice in how they handle or manipulate those resources. Indeed, in may ways they are ruled by them.

Take the case of a scientific theory as an example. We can ask the question why some theories succeed and others do not. One unsatisfying answer is that the successful theories are the true ones. But to my mind it is equally unsatisfying to say that empirical adequacy has nothing to do with the success of a scientific theory. So what are we left with? Something more subtle in which we try to figure out what the standards of proof, evidence, argument, and, indeed, empirical adequacy are in a particular time and place. These (and probably some others) set the conditions which make it possible for a theory to succeed or fail, but nobody is saying that scientists are in a position where they can calculate exactly how they have to design their experiments and formulate their results in order for the theory to succeed. So casting them as rational agents in a free market of ideas seems to me such an obviously idealized picture that I can't imagine it's taken very seriously by cultural historians worth their salt.

But the thing that's got me the most worried still is what I take to be an instrumentalist motivation to your view on these things. You say so yourself: "I'd like to be there manipulating my cultural resources to my advantage as those disciplinary structures change." That was my original complaint in the post above: it sounds like you think the pendulum is shifting just because that's what disciplines do. If you assume as much and you want to be ahead of the curve it makes sense to begin casting about for methods (and technologies) that will put you where you want to be. Now as I said I too see lots of potential in the digital humanities but I object to the idea that we can avoid what to my mind really ought to be a philosophical discussion about structure and agency.

Thanks for this, Lukas - many good points. I think we might actually agree more than you allow, so I'll stop short of my initial idea of casting your position as orthodox (Ayn) Randianism, and will instead focus on the point where I think we diverge.

I agree that cultural historians (of science) are navigating an Aegean impasse of the sort you describe. Where I disagree is (a) your dismissal of my basic means/ends characterization of current theory and (b) your suggestion that such a view is an alternative to a "conditions of possibility" approach.

An injunction I hear quite a lot is: "Well, what did he think he was up to? What did X mean to him? How did he think adopting X or Y could help him with Z?" - the focus is on the actors, even when your point about the "conditions of possibility" being this or that way applies.

Let me elaborate, using the "case of a scientific theory" you suggest. Yes, we should try to ascertain "the standards of proof, evidence, &c." in a time and place; but I think we do this more often in terms of how those standards were constructed, or used, or navigated (Scylla and Charybdis again!), rather than on those standards, &c. themselves.

In moving from "theory" to "practice," from "ideas" to "tools," and from institutions to self-fashioners - all part of a move away from philosophers of science and toward cultural historians, and an important move at the time! - we have privileged stories about agency and choice over stories about structure and texts.

I think Objectivity and other works in historical epistemology are an exception here, and so I do take your point that the historiography is in a certain sense moving in the right direction. That said, I think the resistance within more "mainstream" cultural history to digital tools is precisely a resistance to altering underlying philosophical assumptions about structure and agency.

Which is to say: I'm the last person who wants to avoid "a philosophical discussion about structure and agency," so prying instrumentalism/careerism apart from theoretical discussion just doesn't work - I hold both in the air at once, or try to.

When Hank says that historians in the last couple of decades have “gotten pretty good at [describing] how individual actors [use] ideas and cultural resources as they grapple with the world" -- which historians is he actually thinking of?

Hi Thomas: If you'll allow that the Pfizer Prize from HSS is sufficiently laudatory to justify my use of "good," then I'll cull the list of recent recipients for examples of the sort of approach I'm talking about, restricting myself to books with which I'm at least passingly familiar.

From the last decade or two, I'd enroll (in reverse chronological order, and to varying degrees) Antognazza, Kaiser, Burkhardt, Newman/Principe, Browne, Terrall, C. Smith, Findlen, P. Smith...

I didn't include Galison, but I'd say that the "trading zone" metaphor (and indeed much anthropological borrowing, on which a great deal of the cultural-historical model I'm describing is based, and for which my current institution, in a past life, is much to blame) fits the same bill.

Is that list objectionable? Anyone on there you don't think fits? Happy to discuss particular books or authors, or to elaborate the point using one of them as an example.

Yes, Thomas, I could not agree with your question more.

Hank: I don't think Thomas was asking about what books you read for your general exam. I think he was implying the you misunderstood those books.


Ha - sorry, Thomas, for my creative misprision of your comment.

Lukas: pick one and let's discuss. Wanna start with Leibniz?

"At the centre of the huge range of Leibniz's apparently miscellaneous endeavours, Antognazza reveals a single master project lending unity to his extraordinarily multifaceted life's work."

Order out of chaos!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

back to top