If not Whig history what then?

On my recent post on scientific method a commentator called Joachim who blogs at the Mousetrap posed the following question:

You’re so good at castigating Whiggishness, I’d appreciate if you could (or maybe you already did somewhere) once in a while explain the difference between Whig-history and something that seems to be an established method of history/philosophy of science to me (I have come across it rather regularly in publications concerned with history/philosophy of science and, hence, assume it’s an established method).

Since then he has posted his own brief thoughts on the subject at his own blog.

Now I’m probably the last person on earth to answer this enquiry as I’m on record as someone who basically rejects a set methodology or historiography. I one coined the aphorism, which kind of sums up my feelings on the subject:

Methodology becomes dogma, dogma blinds.

Now in reality I can’t and don’t totally reject some sort of methodological approach to researching and writing about the history of science and I’m very painfully aware that any form of narrative history, and I am a narrative historian (about which more in a minute), cannot totally escape from being to some degree whiggish, as William Cronon pointed out very nicely in his recent piece on the subject, Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History. Darin Hayton also takes a brief bite at the cherry in his piece, On Whigs and Whig History that also reference me and Cronon thus closing the loop.

Now there isn’t just one methodology or historiography in the history of science there is a whole boatload of them and anybody who is seriously interested in the strengths, weaknesses and areas of application of the varying historiographies should mosey on over the Will Thomas’ blog Ether Wave Propaganda where they can gorge themselves on Will’s excellent analyses of many different methodologies. However, they should take much time, concentration and patience with them, as there is much to read.

I said above that I am a narrative historian and in fact if asked to describe my approach to the history of science I call myself a contextual narrative historian. What do I mean by this phrase? My aim when writing about the history of science is to tell a story about a period, an aspect, a practitioner in the history of science as near as possible within the temporal, social, political, and economic contexts in which they originally occurred. I try not to view the story I am telling through my understanding of the present but try as far as possible to view the people and events as they themselves experienced them. A simple example that I have blogged about here and here is Bible chronology, viewed from our standpoint trying to reconstruct the history of the world on the basis of a literal belief in the truth of the Bible seems pretty stupid but for those who did so in the early modern period it was a rational thing to do and as I have commented in they past their work laid the foundations of modern critical history. Modern scientists, particularly those of a gnu atheist persuasion, mock James Ussher as a fool where they should praise him and his ilk for their contributions to the development of the academic discipline of history.

Cronon wrote a paragraph in his piece on Whig history that I found particularly appropriate:

Whenever historians seek to make their knowledge accessible to a wider world—whether in books, classrooms, museums, videos, websites, or blogs—they unfailingly abridge, simplify, analyze, synthesize, dramatize, and render judgments about why things happened as they did in the past, and why people should still care today. But they need not commit the worst sins of whiggishness when they do so. The characters in their stories need not wear white or black hats, and will feel more richly human for being understood on their own terms. Even when such characters are viewed as agents of progressive change, they need not be treated as if they were comrades in arms. The path they followed can honestly be seen as a winding one, with many an unexpected twist and turn, to serve as a reminder of the contingencies that prevent change from being inevitable. [My emphasis] Finally, we can be scrupulous in trying not to judge them by standards that would feel unfair even to us if plucked from our own futures and applied to ourselves. All these are among the lessons for which Butterfield’s book remains a compelling guide.

This paragraph basically sum up my own view on the subject in particular the sentence that I have emphasised concerning the winding path of progress. My own version of the thoughts contained therein is described in an analogy I call the drunken hotel guest theory of scientific progress.

A renowned academic is taking part in a conference in a large old European city that he has never visited before. Due to other engagements he first arrives in the city on the morning of first day of the conference. His hosts pick him up at the airport drive him to his hotel, wait while he quickly freshens up, then the drive together to the conference centre. The day is filled with lectures and plenum sessions and in the evening, as is usual on such occasions, the participants retire to the bar in the conference centre. Our professor, he of course is one at a leading university, spends the evening drinking the excellent local wine, refreshing old acquaintances and making new ones. Time slips by and it is now late. Nobody is now sober enough to drive the distinguished guest back to his hotel but they offer to call him a taxi. However, the man having established that his hotel is only about fifteen to twenty minutes brisk walk away from the conference centre declares that he needs to stretch his legs and it being a warm summer’s night he will walk back to his hotel. Obtaining directions from his hosts he bids the others good night and set off on his journey.

When he gets outside in the fresh air he suddenly realises that he is actually quite drunk and he can’t really remember what those directions back to his hotel were. Was that, “the second right and then left at the traffic lights” or maybe “the second left and right at the traffic lights”? Never mind, thinks our intrepid academic through the fog of the wine fumes in his brain he had never yet met a problem that he couldn’t master and sets off in what he thinks must be the right direction. Both conference centre and hotel are in the old quarter of the city full of winding streets, narrow alleyways, cul-de-sacs, small squares between tall buildings and little parks enclosed with iron railings. What should have been a fairly straightforward walk turns into a strange night odyssey.

Our academic wanders through the streets sometimes going in the right direction other times making unnecessary detours. A couple of times he goes round in a complete circle returning to a point he had passed minutes before. One time he realised what had happened another time he remained unaware of his circular progress. At one point tired and feeling the effects of the wine he sits for a few minutes on a park bench and nods off, waking, without really realising that he has slept, half an hour later. At times he manages to pull himself together and sets a fine pace along the pavements at others the wine takes hold of his body and he barely manages to stagger along. After many wrong turnings and much, much more time than the estimated quarter of an hour he finally, almost more by luck than judgement, finds his hotel. Entering he says goodnight to the night porter goes up to his room and falls into drunken stupor.

In the morning, after several cups of coffee and a couple of painkillers to dampen the effects of his hangover, he borrows a street map from reception and manages to halfway reconstruct his drunken night journey. At the same time he discovers from the map the route he should have gone.

The drunken walk in the night parallels the path that scholars take when they make a new scientific discovery. That path has many detours and blind alleyways. Sometime progress is good and at other poor. Sometimes they make no progress at all like our professor sleeping on his park bench. Sometimes they even go backwards rather than forwards and at others their efforts only result in a circle leading back to a starting point.


I think it is the job of the historian of science to try and reconstruct that journey with all its detours and setbacks. The Whig interpretation of history reconstructs the direct route leaving out all the messy and “unnecessary” bits turning the winding night odyssey into a linear march of progress.





Filed under History of science

6 responses to “If not Whig history what then?

  1. johnpieret

    It happens in science too. Think the “horse series” that we used to have in museums compared to what we have now. No matter how linear and clear we’d like the world to be, it still insists on being circuitous, tangled and frustratingly complicated.

  2. Might I ask for advice in how to avoid the worst mistakes in providing historical background, particularly in the context I need most often of trying to explain in the course of a lecture who something is named for and why it was named for them? (And sometimes, why something is presented in one form rather than another.)

    The bits of human interest do much (I like to think) to help students understand mathematics as a living thing that people actually build, and I try to emphasize that it’s pretty near never a singular moment of brilliance in a world of darkness and rather a lot of exploration that finds useful parts.

    But I’d like to know better how to show enough of the stories to make them interesting, when it’s not able to be the main focus of the lecture, without being false to the stories.

  3. Thanks very much for the directions.

    The answer to my initial question on your blog, whether the method of putting upt a contrast and viewing the past through this contrast, as I figured out in the meanwhile, would have been: It’s not Whiggis, if the contrast existed back then.

    What you called my “own brief thoughts on the subject” were about a difference in approach between historians and researchers that should lead to an in-built conflict between researchers and historians. Your parabel of the drunken professor captures the same idea, I think, and much at my blog (labelled misquotation) can be seen as cases of what might results from this sort of bad retrospective in the worst case.

  4. Pingback: If not Whig history what then? | Possible posts | Scoop.it

  5. Pingback: William Newman demonstrates alchemical transmutation – with a few notes on whiggishness « Heterodoxology

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