History of Knowledge

Seminar Series : :

Symposium, organized as part of the History of Knowledge Seminar Series @ Utrecht University

Organizer by Lukas M. Verburgt and Elske de Waal

Date: Friday 21 May 2021
Time: 9:30-17:30 (CEST)
Location: Online (Microsoft Teams)

> Theodore Arabatzis (Athens)
> Peter Burke (Cambridge)
> Lydia Patton (Virginia Tech)
> Kapil Raj (EHESS Paris)
> Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (MPIWG Berlin)
> Suman Seth (Cornell)  

> Hasok Chang (Cambridge)
> Jim Secord (Cambridge) 
> Katherina Kinzel (Utrecht)
> James Poskett (Warwick)
> Massimiliano Simons (Ghent)
> Meredith Palmer (Cornell) 


9:25 Walk-in

9:30-13:00 SESSION 1 (with a short introduction by Lukas Verburgt)

9:30 Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (MPIWG Berlin): ‘Historical Epistemology, Then and Now’ + response by Massimiliano Simons (Ghent) 

10:20 Peter Burke (Cambridge): ‘Emancipating the History of Knowledge’ + response
by Jim Secord (Cambridge)

11:10 Short break

11:20 Theodore Arabatzis (Athens): ‘Integrated HPS as a Form of History’ + response by Hasok Chang (Cambridge)

12:10 Plenary Discussion #1

13:00 Lunch break

14:00-17:30 SESSION 2

14:00 Suman Seth (Cornell): ‘You Can’t Get There from Here: A Postcolonial Theorist on Decolonizing the Academy’ + response by Meredith Palmer (Cornell)

14:50 Lydia Patton (Virginia Tech): ‘Dynamics of Reason’ + response by Katherina Kinzel (Utrecht)

15:40 Short break

15:50 Kapil Raj (EHESS Paris): ‘For a Global History of Science: New Playing Field, New Goal Posts, New Rules...and an Example’ + response by James Poskett (Warwick)

16:40 Plenary discussion #2

17:30 End


︎︎︎ Please click here to attend the meeting!

Recent decades have seen the emergence of a number of promising new approaches to the historical study of the sciences. These include, among others, history of knowledge, historical epistemology, integrated HPS, global and postcolonial studies of science, and neo-Kantian theory. All share the goal of understanding the dynamics of scientific knowledge, but each does so in its own distinctive way: created against different backgrounds and in response to different problem situations, they orient themselves around different questions and answers. This raises the issue of how they could best collaborate. 

Rather than seeking unity, this symposium aims to explore historiographical overlaps and articulate common challenges, with the expectation that future collaborations between the new approaches will ultimately contribute to their shared goal. Bringing together leading historians of both older and younger generations from across the Western world and beyond, it investigates how historical research into science is responding to current developments in society - such as digitization, globalization and environmental concerns - as well as in humanities and social sciences, such as the ‘material’ and ‘visual’ turns. More than an overview of contemporary thinking in historiography, the symposium offers an insight into historical methods in the making. 

Main topics to be discussed include but are not limited to: 

- What is the current state of affairs in the different approaches?
- What are the approaches’ main challenges and prospects? 
- How do the approaches understand their own disciplinary boundaries? Or do they present themselves as inherently multi- or transdisciplinary? 
- What role do current topics outside academia, such as social injustice and climate change, play in the approaches? How could each of them help foster a better historical understanding of such topics?
- How do the approaches connect to the older discipline of the history of science and how do they think about this discipline’s future? 


︎︎︎Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (MPIWG Berlin): ‘Historical Epistemology, Then and Now’

The paper rehearses the development of historical epistemology over the course of the twentieth century. The argument is that historical epistemology, although originating to a good part in the French tradition of philosophy of science, is best to be understood as a broad movement of historicizing of how the sciences are assumed to approach the world, and which means they use to do so. The essence is that if the sciences are assessed in their historical changeability, this assessment itself is also to be seen as a historical process.

︎︎︎ Peter Burke (Cambridge): ‘Emancipating the History of Knowledge’

As is well known, studies of the history of knowledge, formerly neglected, have proliferated in the last thirty years or so, accompanied by centres (from Lund via Berlin to Western Australia) and more recently journals. This approach to the past emerged, principally though not exclusively, from the history of science and was in part a response to a certain discomfort on the part of scholars studying the knowledge of nature outside the West or before the 17th century and reluctant to call that knowledge either ‘scientific’ or ‘unscientific’.

Many of these studies follow the model of the history of science, focusing (thanks to Foucault et al.) on spaces of knowledge (with libraries and seminars joining clinics and laboratories) or (thanks to Kuhn) on paradigms and revolutions (in history or sociology as well as in physics or biology). Despite the existence of some excellent studies of this kind, I believe that the time has come for the history of knowledge to emancipate itself from the history of science, to leap out of the maternal pouch. I made this claim in a recent article and would now like to take at least a step or two towards making that claim good.

Listeners may wish to know in advance where I am speaking from. I have never been a historian of science. The first discipline some of whose history I attempted to write was that of historiography. Since innovations and turns in historiography take place in different ways and in different reasons from innovations and turns in (say) chemistry or mathematics, a case-study of these changes may be illuminating.

︎︎︎ Theodore Arabatzis (Athens): ‘Integrated HPS as a Form of History’ 

The debates on integrating history and philosophy of science (HPS) have focused on the relevance of historical case-studies to the philosophy of scientific development. In this talk I would like to discuss the converse question: How can philosophical reflection on science enrich the historical understanding of past scientific practice? I will argue that this question can be addressed at two levels. First, at a meta-historical level, where philosophical analysis can be brought to bear on the elucidation of historiographical problems, such as the elusive object of history of science. And, second, at the level of particular case studies, where philosophical insights into, say, scientific discovery, experimentation, and epistemic values can be deployed in the service of narrative construction and historical interpretation.

︎︎︎ Kapil Raj (EHESS Paris): ‘For a Global History of Science: New Playing Field, New Goal Posts, New Rules...and an Example’  

In the light of the rise of science, in the course of the 19th century, as the principal arbiter of every aspect of human life, defining what is natural and what is rational, the history of science emerged as a discipline at the turn of the 20th century. From its — disciplinary — beginnings with George Sarton’s journal, it took until the mid-20th century, and the Cold War, for the domain to find a place in higher education curricula which presented modern science as having an undisputed origin in the Western European « Scientific Revolution » in mathematics and physics of the 16th and 17th centuries invented in 1939 by Alexandre Koyré. And although the conception of the nature of science, and the study of its history, underwent a radical make-over in the 1970s and 80s with the rise of Science Studies, the conceptions of its material practices still remain Eurocentric. The «Non-West » is then presented with the choice of either conceiving itself as the receiving end of diffusionism, or else of telling their own stories within the « Area Studies » paradigm. This talk questions the legitimacy of this vision of science by subjecting it to historical scrutiny. It will show that the so-called « Scientific Revolution » in mathematics and physics did not characterise the bulk of the knowledge-making practices labelled as science. And while the latter also underwent transformations during this period, these were much more global in nature, and not certainly not geographically limited to Europe. This in turn calls upon historians of science to exchange their Eurocentric framework built around the Scientific Revolution for the more global historical « Early Modern ». They also need to re-examine their conception of the « spaces of science » to include practitioners with civilities other than those of the European metropolis. In order to illustrate this ontological change, the talk will end with case-study from southwestern India in the 17th century.

︎︎︎ Lydia Patton (Virginia Tech): ‘Dynamics of Reason’ 

Reason supplies two needs of historiographical research: continuity and constitution. Michael Friedman’s Dynamics of Reason proposes solutions to the irrationality of theory change in science: how to demonstrate continuity between one paradigm and the next. The questions of constitution raised by the dynamics of reason are less often emphasized. Friedman appeals to Reichenbach’s constitutive a priori operative in physics. This paper begins by analyzing a broader notion of ‘constitution’ in the context of the history of philosophy and science. It will identify two contexts in which ‘constitution’ arises in historiography: (1) how a subject, or a research community, is conceived with respect to general historical concepts or principles (in Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer; analyzed by Ursula Renz); and (2) how scientific and philosophical results are developed in a way that is accepted by other people (e.g. in the work of Ludwik Fleck, Frantz Fanon, and D. A. Masolo). It will conclude with a brief comparative analysis of the philosophies of culture of Ernst Cassirer and D.A. Masolo. This analysis will be used to sketch rival responses to the classic question: if knowledge is constituted within a community, how can it be analyzed as a rational development?

︎︎︎ Suman Seth (Cornell): ‘You Can’t There from Here: A Postcolonial Theorist 

This paper offers an analysis and exploration of decolonial and postcolonial approaches to the history of knowledge. I aim to provide both positive and negative arguments. Many of the criticisms of postcolonial theory, I show, simply will not stand even basic interrogation. Postcolonial theory is not now nor ever was only concerned with populations who are no longer colonized; postcolonial theory always recognized distinctions between settler and non-settler colonialism and studies of settler states were foundational to the field. That said, newer articulations of precisely what is different about settler states should inform studies of colonialisms and their forms of knowledge. Most profoundly, however, it was first within postcolonial studies that the fundamental limits of academic logics for grappling with alternative ontologies became clear. As this has been a central argument for what decolonial frameworks might bring to the table, the lessons from that earlier debate would seem crucial.