A generation ago scientific ideas floated free in the air, as historians gazed up at them in wonder and admiration. From time to time, historians agreed, the ideas that made up the body of scientific truth became incarnate: they were embedded into the fleshly forms of human culture and attached to particular times and places. How this incarnation occurred was a great mystery. How could spirit be made flesh? How did the transcendent and the timeless enter the forms of the (...) mundane and the contingent? Platonist and providentialist perspectives offered ways of speaking about the mystery, but, in general, it remained unresolved at the core of orthodox idealist historiography.1. (shrink)
This account of the conflict between phrenologists and anti-phrenologists in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh is offered as a case study in the sociological explanation of intellectual activity. The historiographical value and propriety of a sociological approach to ideas is defended against accounts which assume the autonomy of knowledge. By attending to the social context of the debate and the functions of ideas in that context one may construct an explanation of why the conflict took the course it did.
The sociology of scientific knowledge is one of the profession’s most marginal specialties, yet its objects of inquiry, its modes of inquiry, and certain of its findings have very substantial bearing upon the nature and scope of the sociological enterprise in general. While traditional sociology of knowledge asked how, and to what extent, "social factors" might influence the products of the mind, SSK sought to show that knowledge was constitutively social, and in so doing, it raised fundamental questions about taken-for-granted (...) divisions between "social versus cognitive, or natural, factors." This piece traces the historical development of the sociology of scientific knowledge and its relations with sociology and cultural inquiry as a whole. It identifies dominant "localist" sensibilities in SSK and the consequent problem it now confronts of how scientific knowledge travels. Finally, it describes several strands of criticism of SSK that have emerged from among its own practitioners, noting the ways in which some criticisms can be seen as a revival of old aspirations toward privileged meta-languages. (shrink)
The ArgumentIt is not easy to point to the place of knowledge in our culture. More precisely, it is difficult to locate the production of our most valued forms of knowledge, including those of religion, literature and science. A pervasive topos in Western culture, from the Greeks onward, stipulates that the most authentic intellectual agents are the most solitary. The place of knowledge is nowhere in particular and anywhere at all. I sketch some uses of the theme of the solitary (...) philosopher across a broad sweep of history, giving particular attention to its deployment in and around the scientific culture of seventeenth-century England. I argue that the rhetoric of solitude is strongly implicated in individualistic views of society and empiricist portrayals of scientific knowledge. Solitude is a state that symbolically expresses direct engagement with the sources of knowledge – divine and transcendent or natural and empirical. At the same time, solitude publicly expresses disengagement from society, identified as a set of conventions and concerns which act to corrupt knowledge. Hence, the study of the social uses of solitude adds further support to the notion that problems of knowledge and problems of social order are solved together. (shrink)
During the Scientific Revolution one important gauge of the quality of reformed natural philosophical knowledge was its ability to produce a more effective medical practice. Indeed, it was sometimes thought that philosophers who pretended to possess new and more potent philosophical knowledge might display that possession in personal health and longevity. René Descartes repeatedly wrote that a better medical practice was a major aim of his philosophical enterprise. He said that he had made important strides towards achieving that aim and, (...) on that basis, he offered practical medical advice to others and advertised the expectation that, taking his own advice, he would live a very long time. This paper describes what Cartesian medicine looked like in practice and what that practice owed to the power of modernist Reason. (shrink)
There is a crisis of readership for work in our field, as in many other academic disciplines. One of its causes is a pathological form of the professionalism that we so greatly value. “Hyperprofessionalism” is a disease whose symptoms include self‐referentiality, self‐absorption, and a narrowing of intellectual focus. This essay describes some features and consequences of hyperprofessionalism in the history of science and offers a modest suggestion for a possible cure.
The ArgumentThis paper is a study of the role of language in scientific activity. It recommends that language be viewed as a community's means of patterning its affairs. Language represents where the boundaries of the community are and who is entitled to speak within it, and it displays the structures of authority in the community. Moreover, language precipitates the community's view of what the world is like, such that linguistic usages can be taken as referring to that world. Thus, language (...) connects on the one side to a community's practical life, and, on the other, to the reality on which it “reports.”The example treated is Robert Boyle's view of the language proper for experimental practice, and his arguments against the value and legitimacy of mathematical representations within the experimental community. Boyle argued that the use of mathematics was inappropriate because (i) it would restrict the number of potential participants; (ii) it would give rise to unwarranted expectations of the certainty and accuracy to be expected of real physical inquiries; (iii) it would suggest views of natural law and God's relations with the natural world which were incorrect and possibly dangerous; and because (iv) the world upon which the experimentalist operated was not such as was represented by mathematical idealizations. I try to establish that decision about the appropriate language for the experimental community was a moral choice. (shrink)
This is a historical survey of how and why the notion of the Ivory Tower became part of twentieth- and twenty-first-century cultural vocabularies. It very briefly tracks the origins of the tag in antiquity, documents its nineteenth-century resurgence in literary and aesthetic culture, and more carefully assesses the political and intellectual circumstances, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, in which it became a common phrase attached to universities and to features of science and in which it became a way of (...) criticizing practices and institutions deemed to be ‘irrelevant’. The paper concludes by reflecting on the tag's relationship to pervasive cultural tropes and how its modern history may be used to appreciate better where science and its academic setting now stand in the ancient debate between the active and contemplative lives. (shrink)
The institutionalization of natural knowledge in the form of a scientific society may be interpreted in several ways. If we wish to view science as something apart, unchanging in its intellectual nature, we may regard the scientific enterprise as presenting to the sustaining social system a number of absolute and necessary organizational demands: for example, scientific activity requires acceptance as an important social activity valued for its own sake, that is, it requires autonomy; it is separate from other forms of (...) enquiry and requires distinct institutional modes; it is public knowledge and requires a public, universalistic forum; it is productive of constant change and requires of the sustaining social system a flexibility in adapting to change. Support for such an interpretation may be found in the rise of modern science in seventeenth-century England, France, and Italy and in the accompanying rise of specifically scientific societies. Thus, the founding of the Royal Society of London may be interpreted as the organizational embodiment of immanent demands arising from scientific activity—the cashing of a blank cheque payable to science written on society's current account. (shrink)
Ever since Greek antiquity "disembodied knowledge" has often been taken as synonymous with "objective truth." Yet we also have very specific mental images of the kinds of bodies that house great minds--the ascetic philosopher versus the hearty surgeon, for example. Does truth have anything to do with the belly? What difference does it make to the pursuit of knowledge whether Einstein rode a bicycle, Russell was randy, or Darwin flatulent? Bringing body and knowledge into such intimate contact is occasionally seen (...) as funny, sometimes as enraging, and more often just as pointless. Vividly written and well illustrated, Science Incarnate offers concrete historical answers to such skeptical questions about the relationships between body, mind, and knowledge. Focusing on the seventeenth century to the present, Science Incarnate explores how intellectuals sought to establish the value and authority of their ideas through public displays of their private ways of life. Patterns of eating, sleeping, exercising, being ill, and having (or avoiding) sex, as well as the marks of gender and bodily form, were proof of the presence or absence of intellectual virtue, integrity, skill, and authority. Intellectuals examined in detail include René Descartes, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Ada Lovelace. Science Incarnate is at once very funny and deeply serious, addressing issues of crucial importance to present-day discussions about the nature of knowledge and how it is produced. It incorporates much that will interest cultural and social historians, historians of science and medicine, philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists. (shrink)
A distinction between the “hard” and “soft” scientific disciplines is a modern commonplace, widely invoked to contrast the natural and the social sciences and to distribute value accordingly, where it was generally agreed that it was good to be “hard,” bad to be “soft.” I trace the emergence of the distinction to institutional and political circumstances in the United States in the second part of the twentieth century; I describe varying academic efforts to give the contrast coherent meaning; I note (...) the distinction’s uses in disciplines’ reflections on their own present and possible future status; and I document the consequential circulation of the antonym in settings where resources for science were distributed. To follow the history of the “hard–soft” distinction is to open a window on changing sensibilities about what science is, what values are attached to it, and what it is for. I conclude with speculations about more recent changes in the value-schemes implicated in the “hard” and the “soft” and about pertinent changes in the place of the “soft” human sciences in governance and production. I envisage a possible future in which the commonplace distinction might wither away. (shrink)