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Aurora, Nemesis and Clio

  • J. R. R. Christie (a1)

This essay offers some preliminary and general considerations of big picture historiography of science, attempting an introductory specification of the topic by means of narratological analysis. It takes no strong, substantive position either pro or contra big pictures themselves, preferring an approach which is more diagnostic and heuristic in nature. After considering what may be meant by a term such as ‘big picture’ and its cognates, it interrogates the kind of desire which could lie behind the wish expressed by the conference title ‘Getting the Big Picture’: namely, that a big picture may be worth getting. It proceeds by way of a limited enquiry into what seems to be felt as a relative absence of big picture works in contemporary historiography, criticizing one very general historicocultural thesis which accounts for such an absence, advancing instead evolving features of the professional history of science community over the last thirty years as reasons for this relative absence. Concludingly, it turns the issues raised thus far on their head, in some measure at least. In trying for a more precise specification of the contemporary historiographical formation, we will discover eventually a situation not so much of relative absence of big pictures, rather one where there exists both frame and title for the picture, together with some distinguished painters' names; but where the canvas is only minimally marked, a partial and shadowy sketch, stylistically disjoined. Although this sounds paradoxical, a concrete paradox is not intended. The existence of frame and title enclosing mainly empty canvas indicates only the limitations of the pictorial metaphor for describing complex and developing sets of historiographical practice. What is instanced concludingly is less a theoretical paradox than an intelligible sequence and form of development which issues in a potential problem of practice.

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1 The comments of Caspar Hakfoort have been particularly helpful in rewriting this essay for publication. A chief source of insight for me in developing narratological analysis of historiography has been Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative (tr. Mclaughlin K. and Pellauer D.), 3 vols., Chicago and London, 19841988.

2 Coincidentally, at the venue of the Big Picture conference, the Science Museum in London, there was also a footwear exhibition, sponsored by the manufacturing company Nike. Nike, winged goddess of victory, ought emblematically at least to join the trio of this essay's title.

3 Whewell W., History of the Inductive Sciences, from the Earliest to the Present Time, 3 vols., London, 1837; Mason S. F., A History of the Sciences, New York, 1962 (originally Main Currents of Scientific Thought: A History of the Sciences, New York, 1953); Gillispie C. C., The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas, Princeton, 1960.

4 Hakfoort C., ‘The missing syntheses in the historiography of science’, History of Science (1991), 29, 207–16. A proof copy of this paper was a timely aid in the composition of the original version of this essay.

5 Christie J. R. R., ‘The development of the historiography of science’, in Companion to the History of Modern Science (ed. Olby R., Cantor G., Christie J. and Hodge J.), London and New York, 1990, 20–1.

6 Turney J., ‘Bookends’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 11 1989.

7 What follows draws upon and synthesizes a variety of reading, not all of which is strictly relevant to history of science. But see, generally, Lyotard J. F., The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (tr. Bennington G. and Massumi B. G., foreword by F. Jameson, series Theory and History of Literature, vol. 10) Manchester, 1984; Bauman Z., Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Post-Modernity and Intellectuals, Oxford, 1987; Harvey D., The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford, 1989; the essays by Anderson, Moretti, Jameson and Ross in Section III, ‘The politics of modernity and postmodernity’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (ed. Nelson C. and Grossberg L.), London, 1988. More closely focused on science, see Haraway D., ‘A manifesto for cyborgs: science, technology and socialist feminism in the 1980s’, Socialist Review (1985), 80, 65107; and Galison P., ‘History, philosophy and the central metaphor’, Science in Context (1988), 2, 197212, especially section 4, ‘A critical “postmodern” model’; and Rouse, ‘Philosophy of science and the persistent narratives of modernity’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science (1991), 22, 141–62. Of the latter three, the approach of Rouse via narrative is more congenial to this essay's narratology than Galison's philosophical metaphorics. Not having read Rouse's essay before composing the original of this essay, I was pleased to note a certain overlap of approach and conclusion, and interested to note the divergnces.

8 Gillispie, op. cit. (3), 89.

9 E.g. Bernal J. D., Science in History, London, 1954. More especially, Needham Joseph's Science and Civilisation in China, 6 vols., Cambridge, 1954, bids fair to remain the biggest, and in some scholarly senses, most distinguished picture of science in a civilizational epoch ever produced. Its highly individual blend of Marxism, Taoism and Christianity, and its devotion to Eastern rather than Western culture, creates a very particular place for it in big picture historiography, most specifically as something of a disruptive counter-model to the thoroughly Western civilizational reflexes that inform so much other big picture writing. Rather than treat Needham's enormous and complex work inadequately in this essay, I hope to return to it in detail on another occasion.

10 Gillispie, op. cit. (3), 9.

11 See Rouse, op. cit. (7), for an informative discussion of post-positivism.

12 Hakfoort, op. cit. (4), 210–11.

13 For Whewell, see Cantor G. N., ‘Between rationalism and romanticism: Whewell's historiography of the inductive sciences’, in William Whewell: A Composite Portrait (ed. Fisch M. and Schaffer S.), Oxford, 1991, 6788. For Metzger, see the essays by Bensaude-Vincent, Golinski and Christie in History of Science (1987), 25, 71109. For Foucault's placement with respect to the ‘Parisian tradition’, see Gutting G., Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Scientific Reason, Cambridge, 1989, ch. 1.

14 Koyré A., Etudes Galiléennes. A l'aube de la science classique, Paris, 1939, 67. Notice how the terms inveighed against by Koyré here (active, action, operative, homo faber, domination) nowadays reappear, in a context discussed in the latter stages of this essay.

15 Koyré A., ‘The significance of the Newtonian synthesis’, in idem., Newtonian Studies, London, 1965, 324.

16 Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences, 2nd edn, 3 vols., London, 1847, i, ‘Preface to the first edition’, p. xix.

17 Bernal, op. cit. (9), 1018, 27–9.

18 Ibid., 22–5, 31–4, 866–80, and Table 8, 929–32.

19 Kuhn T. S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, 1962.

20 Kuhn, ibid., 2nd edn, 1970, 108.

22 Ibid., 108–9. It is worth remembering that Structure is of course not a big picture, and would tend historiographically towards the generation of relatively fragmented and smaller scale narratives. Kuhn's own attenuated big picture is of the seventeenth century producing revolutions in the classically established ‘mathematical’ paradigms of astronomy, mechanics and optics, followed by paradigm formations in the eighteenth century for ‘experimental’ sciences such as electricity, followed by a ‘second revolution’ of nineteenthcentury professionalization. See Kuhn, ‘Mathematical versus experimental traditions in the development of physical science’, in idem., The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, Chicago, 1977, 3165. For the ‘second Scientific Revolution’, see Cunningham and Williams' essay in this issue, also Brush S. G., The History of Modern Science: A Guide to the Second Scientific Revolution, 1800–1950, Ames, Iowa, 1988, and Bellone E., A World on Paper: Studies in the Second Scientific Revolution, Boston, 1980.

23 Gillispie, op. cit. (3), 52–3.

24 Heilbron J., Electricity in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Berkeley, 1979, 500.

25 See Young R. M., ‘Marxism and the history of science’, in Companion (ed. Olby et al. ), op. cit. (5), 7786, for a more thorough account of this process.

26 E.g. Shapin S. and Schaffer S., Leviathan and the Air-pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life, Princeton, 1985. For references to Collins and Latour, see 15–16, 226, 281, 340.

27 Hakfoort, op. cit. (4), 209.

28 Christie, ‘The ether and the science of chemistry: 1740–1790’, in Conceptions of Ether: Studies in the History of Ether Theories (ed. Cantor G. N. and Hodge M. J. S.), Cambridge, 1981, 85110; and Christie, ‘William Cullen and the practice of chemistry’, in William Cullen and the Eighteenth-century Medical World (ed. Passmore R. and Doig A.), Edinburgh, 1992.

29 Heilbron J., op. cit. (24); Webster C., The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform, 1626–1660, London, 1975; Rudwick M., The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists, Chicago, 1985.

30 This composition of the perfect historian's attributes is undertaken in less than analytical spirit; it is meant to be neither exhaustive nor exclusive.

31 Ophir A. and Shapin S., ‘The place of knowledge: a methodological survey’, Science in Context (1991), 4, 1516.

32 Barnes B., The Nature of Power, Oxford, 1988; Latour B., Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, Milton Keynes, 1987; Aronowitz S., Science as Power: Discourse and Ideology in Modern Society, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1988; Harding S., The Science Question in feminism, Ithaca and London, 1986; Rouse S. J., Knowledge and Power: Toward a Political Philosophy of Science, Ithaca, 1987; Foucault M., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings, 1972–1977 (ed. Gordon C.), Brighton, 1980. Note how, with the exception of Foucault, all these works appear in the three years 1986–88. For a highly informative joint review of Barnes and Rouse, see Turner S., ‘Depoliticizing power’, Social Studies of Science (1989), 19, 533–60. See, in addition, Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge (ed. Law J., Sociological Review Monograph No. 32), London, 1986; Paul H. W., From Knowledge to Power: The Rise of the Science Empire in France, 1860–1939, Cambridge, 1985; Brown R. D., Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700–1865, Oxford, 1989.

33 Bacon, ‘The New Atlantis’, in The Works of Francis Bacon (ed. Spedding J. et al. ), 14 vols., London 18701874, iii, 125–66.

34 Gillispie, op. cit. (3), 89.

35 See Ricoeur, op. cit. (1), i, especially chs. 2 and 5 for exposition relevant to ‘configuration’. The particular meaning I intend here is of ‘grasping together’.

36 Aronowitz, op. cit. (32), especially ch. 12.

37 Harding, op. cit. (32), ch. 10.

38 Latour, op. cit. (32), prefers a more neutral vocabulary of ‘action’ and ‘control’: ‘we need to get rid of all categories like those of power, knowledge…’, p.223. However, his own literal militarization of science, p. 172, surely must make the topic of power unavoidable and central for his work.

39 Latour, op. cit. (32), 168–73, 215–19.

40 Focault, op. cit. (32), ‘Truth and power’, 107–33.

41 Barnes, op. cit. (32), ‘Introduction’, p. ix; Latour, op. cit. (32), 219–32.

42 Foucault, op. cit. (32), ‘Body/power’, 5562. See also The Foucault Reader (ed. Rabinow P.), London, 1986, 169329, for this and other Foucauldian perspectives on power.

43 Latour, op. cit. (32), ch. 1.

44 Shapin and Schaffer, op. cit. (26), e.g. 42–3, 48, 60–9.

45 Latour, op. cit. (32), appendix 1, ‘Rules of method’, Rule 7, 258.

46 See Latour's sub-title (note 32); also Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science (ed. Knorr-Cetina K. and Mulkay M.), London and Beverly Hills, 1983; and Shapin's exemplary review of Latour, ‘Following scientists around’, Social Studies of Science (1989), 18, 533–50, which emphatically distinguishes Latour's project from that of more traditionally or conventionally conceived sociological and historical explanation.

47 If it does so, historiography of science may only be following developments in the historical profession generally. An article on the Princeton History Department in the New York Times (19 04 1987, section 6, p. 42), emphasizes its recent shift from a focus on social history to a renewed enthusiasm for the historical narration of power.

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