On Selling Your Soul (As Far as the Scientific Content)

A popular post last week featured an interview with Betty Smocovitis, who delivered the Distinguished Lecture at the the Forum for History of Science in America’s meeting at HSS in Montreal. Joanna has already summed up that lecture, now being published in Genetics, so what I’d like to do instead is zoom in on aspect of the interview that got taken up in the comments.

The interview’s major thematic (as suggested in the title) is the juxtaposition between life as a historian and life as a scientist. The link between scientists and historians of science – whether biographical, as in the case of Smocovitis and others, or intellectual, in the form of readership and shared conversation – is an important one for our discipline, both historically and in the present.

By the end of the interview, the go-between role of the historian of science (between scientists and historians) is complicated even further. Historians of American science must also liaise between the smaller community of historians of science and the wider readership within history departments and beyond.

Smocovitis concludes by insisting that this liaison with history must be conducted “without giving up, without selling your soul, as far as the scientific content.” I was intrigued by this statement – so much so that I stole it for the title to this post – and will just touch on a few of the aspects that most intrigue me.

To me, the idea is that we can’t afford to sacrifice both mastery and exposition of the technical scientific content that has traditionally been the bread and butter of work in the history of science. This doesn’t seem objectionable – all historians should be able to explicate the “internal” workings of whatever it is they’re writing about.

Does Smocovitis fear that, as historians of science increasingly emerge from within history departments (rather than programs in science or even the history of science), they’ll be less likely to grasp the technical detail of the work or ideas on which they’re attending? If so, is this fear legitimate? Is there something about the content of science that makes its historians more likely, if given the chance, to slough off on learning what it is they’re actually talking about?

I guess this is possible – there is a sense in which scientific ideas are more difficult to grasp (due, perhaps, to complexity, but also to issues of jargon) than some other sorts of ideas – but shouldn’t all sorts of historical sub-fields be afraid of this? It would seem that whatever your material – from Wittgenstein to water polo – you should be able to explain how it works in present-day terms as well as how it was perceived to work at the time, and that, if you can’t, you’ve failed in some important way.

So, to me, “the challenge” with which Smocovitis concludes the interview is about something more than balancing technical detail against broad narrative exposition:

Her concern seems (to me) to be part of a more general angst about the disciplinary status of the history of science PL (post-Leviathan) – one that she shares with many of her colleagues. I don’t mean, by PL, to confer any special (much less sacred) status on that particular text. Rather, I’m using it as shorthand for a rough turning-point after which historians of science have broadly given up trying to define “science” (normal, revolutionary, or otherwise) and have focused instead on symmetries, parallels, and interconnections with other, “non-scientific” enterprises and ways of knowing.

As the walls come down, what justifies an institutional distinction between historians of science and historians of other sorts of ideas (philosophical, political)? If there’s nothing that separates the history of science from the history of everything else, what justifies the institutional infrastructure that our predecessors have bequeathed to us?

This is to end pretty melodramatically, but I really am interested in this question of disciplinary identity and the shifting shape of institutional and professional affiliations in the history of science in America (and elsewhere).* Is the fear of “selling your soul, as far as the scientific content” a fear of failing to write good history or a fear for the special status of that history vis-à-vis kindred sub-fields in Clio’s wider web?

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*Note: In a subsequent post, I’ll address the recent disagreement between Lorraine Daston, on one side, and Sheila Jasanoff and Peter Dear, on the other, over the nature of a different disciplinary divide: that between the history of science and STS. This has already been touched on by our friends at The Bubble Chamber, but it merits special attention since the latest issue of Isis (out this week) carries a “Critiques and Contentions” response by Dear/Jasanoff to a piece Daston wrote recently for Critical Inquiry. Stay tuned for links and for connections between this debate and the history of science in America…

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