Alvargonzález on Whig history and the History of Science

David Alvargonzález, in his recent Is the History of Science Essentially Whiggish? (Hist. Sci. li, 2013) argues that Whig history is a necessary process of historical research.

Since the mid-1970s, the labels “Whig” or “Whiggish” have been frequently used in history of science jargon to denigrate and repudiate certain histories of science which accept the idea of progress as an idea of significant value. This jargon, favoring a more skeptic, sociological approach, uses “Whiggism,” “anachronism,” “triumphalism,” “presentism,” and the like as labels to denote a chronological snobbery considering all things past as inherently inferior. Studying the past with reference to the present, Whiggish history supposedly views the present as the inevitable product of the past. As such, past science is judged according to its contribution to theorems held as true in the present: the past is interpreted through current values, with a consequent dismissal of the problems and ideas of earlier scientists.

After telling us what, exactly, is problematic with Whiggish history, Alvargonzález borrows some terms from the cultural anthropological distinction between emic and etic studies. According to cultural anthropologists, the emic point of view corresponds to the perspective of participants; the etic standpoint is the observer’s perspective. According to Alvargonzález, historians of science should learn from anthropologists and seek out appropriate combinations of emic and etic perspectives.

Alvargonzález argues that if we deal with history of science emicly, it would be, of course, anachronistic to speak of non-Euclidean geometries when discussing Euclid’s Elements, anachronistic to speak of Watson and Crick when discussing Mendel’s laws, and anachronistic to speak of Newton’s mechanics when discussing Kepler. “Judging Kepler from Newton, Mendel from Watson, or Euclid from Riemann,” Alvargonzález asserts, “would be the most direct way to betray their original thought, the spirit of their time, and their own vision of the problems.”

However, argues Alvargonzález, emic history alone is too difficult to accomplish. First, there is the problem our distance from the past. Second, quoting A. Rupert Hall, Alvargonzález claims that “the most obvious of all historical questions is: How did we arrive at the condition we are now in?” Thus, despite the dangers of anachronism, presentism, and the like, there needs to be an etic perspective in studying the history of science. Finally, there is an inherent problem with doing emic history: for there is the need to apply some standard of demarcation to distinguish true science from pseudoscience—thermodynamics from necromancy, for instance—and so exercise a certain idea of science consolidated from the present, a certain updated, and therefore, etic, philosophy of science.

Alvargonzález goes on to give examples of progress in the sciences, from technical to technological progress. “Regarding techniques,” he writes, ” it seems impossible to deny the existence of progress.” The same is true when it comes to technological progress: “it is absurd,” he argues, ” judging from certain variables such as safety, comfort and speed, to deny the progress of aviation technology; it is impossible, taking therapeutic success as the standard, to disprove the progress of medical technologies.” Alvargonzález also argues that even some renowned  historians of science have too recognized, implicitly or explicitly, scientific progress when studying historical figures.

Recognizing progress in science, however, does not require adhering to an exclusively cumulative conception of the history of sciences. Again showing his debt to Hull, Alvargonzález maintains that “certain forms of presentism are undesirable and may be discarded, while others are legitimate and still others prove to be necessary evils.” It is therefore necessary, Alvargonzález concludes, to maintain both the backward and the forward perspective of the history of techniques, sciences and technologies.

Alvargonzález makes a cogent case for historians of science to pursue a balance between emic and etic histories. But in the final analysis he misses the point of the new historiography, and this is probably the result of little to no interaction with current scholarly conversation, as his notes reveal. The new historiography seeks to disclose modern myths. When Alvargonzález writes that “being selective…does not necessary mean being biased or finalistic,” what he is saying is true enough; but the question most historians of science are dealing with in their revisionist histories is When has it not been selective in the biased or finalistic way? Since the Enlightenment such macro-histories of civilization, of science, of progress, have had almost always a particular agenda, the construction of a narrative to pit one group of thinkers against another. In doing so, such histories have undeniably been selective, with the sole intent of discrediting and denigrating an “other.” What Alvargonzález argues is essentially a truism. He fails not in his argument but in taking stock of the choir of scholarly voices who have been discussing these issues for some three decades now.

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