Friday, August 02, 2013

A Lesson between the Lines: Teleology and Writing History

1. A history of concept-making practices — Checking the historian’s predicament; 2. Backward-looking history — Forward-looking imagination; 3. Imagination and hypothesis — How do we curb the vision of mechanism?

1.      In The Scientific Revolution, Steven Shapin evinces what Robert Brandom has called “fundamental pragmatism,” “the idea that one should understand knowing that as a kind of knowing how.” [1] For philosophers, this has been a very difficult idea to assimilate ever since Plato distinguished the knowing of philosophers from the doing of artisans, thus making ideas—idea, eidos—unchanging elements to be contemplated, epitomized in Plato’s Realm of the Forms. Fundamental pragmatism’s inversion of the Platonic scale of methodology is associated in the analytic tradition with the later Wittgenstein and Wilfrid Sellars, now sometimes called social-practice theorists of language, and who would applaud Shapin’s attempt to write “a history of concept-making practices” (4). [2]

One feature of practices is that they do not come into being randomly or without reason—practices are created for something, to do something. Shapin’s book is shaped to show how the efforts of the past were geared into the concerns of their present. [3] This is, itself, a historiographical lesson. History-writing has been the site of extraordinary theoretical pressures in the last 50 years. One effect has been the greater awareness of the dangers of writing Whiggish histories of progress. Such histories require that one posit in the past the seeds of a phenomena one wishes to praise in the present. This gives a lopsided view of how the past is, however, how it was in its wasness, as things unassociated with the contemporary telos you wish to explain the origins of are pushed from view, things that were possibly quite important to the actual historical actors. Such pessimism about stories of progress give way, however, to a more pervasive doubt about one’s ability to even select the phenomena you, the historian, wish to write about without corrupting the data with your contemporary concerns.

Shapin, in effect, shows how to diffuse this worry, what he calls “the historian’s predicament” (10). His explicit answer is a brusque “it is foolish to think there is some method … that can extricate us from this predicament” (10), before talking about such theoretical shibboleths as “respect [for] the vast body of factual knowledge we now have about the past” (10) and “the desire to make endless qualification to any generalization” (11). These are beside the point to the predicament Shapin has scared up, particularly as any revisionist historian—as Shapin, in the end, does aim to be—bloody well better not respect “the vast body of factual knowledge” we have, at least not if they truly want to change what we think that knowledge is. What Shapin runs up against here is what the earlier philosopher of science Norwood Hanson called the “theory-laden” nature of facts. If a historical fact is only constituted as such within some historical story, then “respect for the facts” can’t play a role when the problem is competing stories. [4] The theory-laden nature of facts simply restates the historian’s predicament. Shapin’s implicit answer is that it won’t do us any good to pose our anxiety at the level of epistemology—at the level in which we attempt to understand our concepts of concept-making. And so Shapin’s implicit answer to the worry about contemporary interests running rampant over the selective process used to tell the story is to take seriously the interests of the historical actors themselves. This is the check on the historian—not “the vast body of factual knowledge,” but sensitive treatment of the historical actor as having concerns of their own, of doing things for reasons that might not be our reasons for developing and employing a practice. Shapin’s selection of the “Scientific Revolution,” indeed as it is commonly understood and talked about, is a mark of his own contemporary interests—“how we got from there to here” (7)—but it is his third chapter that checks the encroachment of too much here into there.

2.      What is interesting about the story that Shapin tells is how it parallels the lesson I’ve just pulled out of Shapin’s practice as a historian, thus making Shapin’s story an adjunct to a larger story of cultural development. [5] Shapin gestures toward this larger story at the very opening of his third chapter, whose presence is intended to largely account for the book’s “originality.” Shapin says,
Seventeenth-century mechanical philosophers attempted to discipline, if not in all cases to eliminate, teleological accounts of the natural world. Yet as ordinary actors they accepted the propriety of a teleological framework for interpreting human cultural action, and with some exceptions so do modern historians and social scientists: the very identity of human action—as action rather than behavior—embodies some notion of its point, purpose, or intention. (119)
The unspoken implication of this passage, which is simply a segue into Shapin’s check against his selection process, is that what he’s selected is somehow antithetical to contemporary wisdom about the selection process. I believe there is no contradiction here, not even for one who thinks that the mechanistic model of nature has been and still is a boon to scientific study, but it does invite the telling of another story.

The shape of the conceptual story is this: Shapin’s third chapter is the specifically backward-looking moment in his story. It doesn’t matter if we care about theological problems or not—they do, and that’s all that matters for getting the history right. [6] However, Shapin’s juxtaposition of Descartes and Boyle in that chapter gives us a picture of how to be forward-looking. Here is the crucial passage that sharpens the distinction:
On the one hand, Descartes proceeded by imagining a hypothetical natural world that God might have created, a world wholly amenable to mechanical explanation: this was the world the natural philosopher was to explain. On the other hand, such writers as Robert Boyle and John Ray were concerned to trace the evidence of God’s purpose and design in the world he did create. That is why they were comfortable with the philosophical propriety of giving explanations in terms of purpose when, as they reckoned, the evidence of nature unambiguously supported such conclusions. (156)
Shapin’s account of Descartes here displays, whether Descartes intended to or not, how to be a visionary, looking forward to a time not fully comprehended: “by imagining a hypothetical natural world.” The irony of this situation is that the English are known for being philosophical empiricists as opposed to those on the Continent being rationalists in this time period, [7] and it is empiricism that is so often thought synonymous with science and scientific method. However, in this juxtaposition we see Descartes the visionary pursuing the outer limits of this new metaphor’s effects on human understanding, whereas it is the English who stop at the limits of common sense, which is whatever is denoted as “obvious” or “unambiguous.”

What is at work to create this irony is what philosophers like Wittgenstein and Sellars have now told us about how language works. Underlying the empiricist framework is what Sellars called the “Myth of the Given”—that sense-perception gives us a conceptual content that is unaffected by our interpretive apparatus, e.g. words or theories. [8] If we follow Sellars in thinking that this is a philosophical myth, and that our facts are always already theory-laden, then the “evidence of nature” that Boyle and Ray think obvious and unambiguous is a function of loyalty to the past. For if social-practice theorists of language are right, then facts are a function of the language we’ve been taught to state them in and the force of facts is a function of the authoritative hold we still accord them.

3.      The convenience of Shapin’s language in the above passage on Descartes is that it bridges the gap between imagination and reason. Still to this day in philosophical stories, the two are opposed. The distance, however, is not as great as we might imagine. The notion of the “hypothetical” has a history, but the short way to my point is to first point out that in Kant’s time, he still referred to the logical connective we call the conditional (the “if, then”) as “hypothetical judgment.” The conceptual shape of what Descartes was suggesting was the fantasy of supposing X to be true, and then working out its consequences (“if X, then Y”) without regard for whether X was actually true. The axe comes down on the distinction between imagination and reason when we note, with Sellars and Brandom, that the conditional is the basic unit of inference, of reasoning. [9]

What Shapin’s story suggests is why Boyle and Ray followed what we might call an “intellectually conservative” strategy toward mechanism. It is not that they cared more for preserving God’s province, though that is a plausible candidate and a viable motive in respecting the authority of past reasoning. [10] I take it that Shapin’s comment on Newton displays it: “it was not philosophical, but its opposite, to ‘feign’ (or imaginatively concoct) hypotheses, even and especially mechanical causal hypotheses, when the senses and the intellect could not securely discover them” (157). The enemy here, the foe to be curbed, is the Poet of Book 10 of Plato’s Republic. With the conceptual understanding I’ve unfolded in hand, one sees that neither “the senses” nor “the intellect” securely discover anything by themselves. For so gerrymandered in Shapin’s gloss on Newton, all the senses tell you are what you’ve already been programmed to say in response to perceptual stimuli and all the intellect tells you is what you’ve already been programmed to concede as consequences once you’ve disallowed new possible premises in reasoning—which is what is ruled out by “‘feign’ (or imaginatively concoct) hypotheses.”

To put it in an idiom I can only suggest, the conservative intellectual impulse is here created by a fear of romanticism, a kind of generic romanticism we can trace back to the ancient Greeks. To try and pull together some of these threads, we can see Shapin’s stance toward science—as a sociological phenomena, which is an outcome of what I called his fundamental pragmatism—as the outcome of an ongoing search for how to curb the vision of mechanism: not by how they in Chapter Three did it (God knows), but by how he views effective historical explanation. Effective explanation of action requires us to use a concept of purpose, telos. [11] And since the shape of the story of the Scientific Revolution Shapin tells is in broad terms designed to show the unresolved conflict between mechanical explanation and teleological explanation (which takes its final form in the beginning of modern philosophy, Descartes’ dualism between res extensa and res cogitans), there is a larger story to be told about just what we should do with the metaphor of mechanism. This larger story, I can only suggest, is that romanticism takes the place of religion in a conflict with scientific empiricism, and that romanticism’s successor on the plane of philosophy is first pragmatism and then social-practice theories of language. This makes Shapin’s theoretical views about how to write history the heir of Descartes’ rationalism, which is what saved him from the Boyle-Ray empiricist attempt to curb the visionary expanse of a new metaphor. [12]


[1] Brandom, Perspectives on Pragmatism, 9

[2] Social-practice theories of language also distinguish the kind of Hegelianism pragmatists like Brandom and Richard Rorty are willing to countenance. “Postmodern theory” has made a bad name for itself by promulgating such slogans as “all we have is discourse.” I think it’s important to distinguish what Shapin, Brandom, and Rorty are saying from this. This slogan has led to too many pratfalls by theorists (e.g., deconstructionists who want to say that meaning is impossible) and too many openings for hostile critics (e.g., “There is no thing other than a text? Really?”). The problem with both is poor communication, where whatever good point was meant to be made gets bogged down (e.g., the foolish idea that Derrida was some Berkeleyan idealist).

The good point of the slogan “all we have is discourse” is that meaning only occurs within language, so if you have “thing,” you have a “discourse.” However, people like Shapin, especially, want to go one step further. They want to say that not only are “things” embedded in “discourses,” but “discourses” are embedded in practices. The reason why this is an important move to make, philosophically, is because it closes the loop between you, your community, and the world. Stopping at “discourse” makes one look like an idealist, which makes some people fear we’ve lost the world for the sake of philosophical laziness (for it is hard to make a realist theory of truth-as-correspondence work—i.e., no one’s done it satisfactorily). “Practices” puts us back in touch with the world in a very obvious sense. It also helps move us closer to why material emblems like clocks weird us out when we wonder whether the clock is a symbol for time or is time itself. Like chasing the horizon, such gestalt hiccups merely punch up how entwined meaning is with practice, semantics with pragmatics.

[3] Shapin says that “if there is any originality” in his book it “flows from its basic organization” (12).

[4] I take it that Shapin himself isn’t nearly this naïve, and this theoretical lacuna is a result of his writing a book suitable for non-professionals.

[5] Though, admittedly, size is relative to perspective.

[6] I use the literary present tense, “they do,” partly because I think it is helpful to think of the “other in the past” as a conversation partner, much like we do a contemporaneous other we wish to talk to and understand, such as an Australian aborigine, French political operative, or Arizona Diamondbacks fan. I suspect that this has been common sense for historians for some time.

[7] It might suffice for this old doxographical chestnut to point out that the Three Great Empiricists, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, are all from the British Isles and that the Three Great Rationalists are Descartes (French), Spinoza (Dutch), and Leibniz (German).

[8] Sellars’ attack on the Myth of the Given is from his “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” which one can find in his collection Science, Perception, and Reality or as a standalone book from Harvard UP with an introduction by Richard Rorty and a study guide by Brandom.

[9] Technically the conditional is the basic unit of self-conscious reasoning, but that is part of a much different story.

[10] I think this is true in Descartes’ case—I take it that, even from just the evidence Shapin displays, that Descartes was a true believer and wanting to display loyalty to God as much as Boyle. However, in terms of possible motivations, concern about one’s relationship to established Church practices and patterns of thought is certainly a distinct possibility in a way that, for example, it wasn’t in Athens in the first century or most intellectual centers in the United States in this century.

[11] For an articulation of the difference between action and behavior in the context of a discussion of what intentionality is, see Section 4 of “Posthumanism, Antiessentialism, and Depersonalization.”

[12] This larger story isn’t as kooky as it seems when it’s just kind of thrown out there. It is roughly coordinate with the kind of story M. H. Abrams tells about romanticism in Natural Supernaturalism, Leo Marx tells about American romanticism in The Machine in the Garden, Rorty tells about pragmatism in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and Brandom tells about social-practice theories of language in Tales of the Mighty Dead and Reason in Philosophy. The interesting conclusion of Brandom is that some of the roots of the pragmatist philosophy that Rorty espoused went back to not only Kant, but Leibniz and Spinoza. For a discussion of Brandom's reinsertion of rationalism into pragmatism and his relationship to romanticism, see “Pragmatism as Enlightened Romanticism.”


  1. How would a historian writing about the Civil War handle Whitman? For me, it was just facts and figures prior to getting caught up in some of his images.

    1. I guess it would depend on what kind of history you were writing. Historians like Eric Foner might mention personages like Whitman or Emerson, but they don't figure any more importantly in the story than others--like, say some soldier fighting in it, surviving, and leaving a document of testimony to be incorporated into our understanding of the War. But to a literary-critic-turn-historian like David S. Reynolds, literary texts can be an important source of understanding the zeitgeist. (I'm thinking of his Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, which is about much more than just Whitman. Also good is the older book by Daniel Aaron, The Unwritten War.) And those images, as you imply, need to be carefully handled.

      This turn toward close reading, I guess one would have to say, as a means of getting into the thick of cultural understanding is actually indebted quite a bit to Foucault. But given the already venerated status of "the classic," the political impetus of breaking open the literary canon that occurred in English Departments in the 80s and 90s dovetailed with close reading the non-obvious testifier--like my imaginary soldier above. Not that setting Whitman in the context of the War suffered as a focus of study.

      The problem you're pointing at, I think, is what Ralph Ellison called the unfortunate tendency of the social sciences of giving a "statistical interpretation of our lives." Our great historians will, perhaps, always be sensitive to imagery, but it might be that the discipline of history as a whole is just after something a little different--and that it might not be a bad thing to have on hand. Statistics and who fought who when can be illuminated with flashes of lighting from people like Whitman, but you can't shine a new light on things you don't have--we need the facts as much as the illumination that turns those mute facts into a living cry.


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