This is one of those blog posts where I do some thinking out loud. I not really sure where it’s going and it might not end up where I intended it to. I shall be skating on the thin ice of historiography. The dictionary defines historiography as follows:
- The wring of history
- The study of the development of historical method, historical research, and writing
- Any body of historical literature
I’m using the term in the sense of definition (2) here. Formulated slightly differently historiography is the methodology of doing history, i.e. historical research and the reporting of that research in writing. Maybe unfortunately there isn’t just one historiography or methodology for doing history there are historiographies, plural that often conflict or even contradict each other, dividing historians into opposing camps indulging in trench warfare with each other through their monographs and journals.
On the whole I tend to view historiographies with a jaundiced eye. I have a maxim for historiographies: ‘Historiography becomes dogma and dogma blinds.’ I like to mix and match my methodologies according to what I happen to be engaged in at any given moment. A single methodology or historiography is just one perspective from which to view a given historical topic and it is often useful to view it from several different perspectives simultaneously, even seemingly contradictory ones.
Since I have been involved in the history of science, and I realise with somewhat horror that is a good half century now, one of the on going historiography debates, or even disputes, within the disciple has been Internalism vs. Externalism.
Definitions are very slippery things but if I was asked to explain what this means my first simple answer would be internalism is the historical study of the facts, hypotheses, theories etc. that science has produced and externalism is the historical study of the contexts in which those facts, hypotheses, theorems etc. were discovered, developed, formulated etc.
To give an abstract example from the history of mathematics an internalist would be interested in when mathematician X first proved theorem Y and the technical method that he used to do so. They might investigate on whose or which work X built his own work and also possibly, who picked up on X’s proof and extended it mathematically; anything extraneous to that wouldn’t not be the concern of our imaginary internalist. An externalist would, however, be at least as interested in the context in which X carried out his mathematical endeavours. They would possibly look at X’s biography, how X came to be doing this work at all, what were X’s motivations for this particular piece of research, in which context (university, court mathematicus, insurance mathematician etc.) X was carrying out this work, who was financing it and why etc., etc. From this brief description it should be clear that the perspective of the internalist is a very narrow, very focused one, whereas that of the externalist is a very broad, very sweeping one, although any given externalist investigation might only concentrate on one or two of the various perspectives that I have listed.
Extreme internalism assumes that just presenting the ‘facts’ in the history of science is adequate because science is somehow independent of the world/society/culture in which it arose/developed/originated. Science is totally objective in some way and doesn’t need a context. Extreme internalism also tends to be highly presentist. That is it looks back through history and selects those events/developments in science that can be identified within science, as it exists today. It sees science as cumulative and progressive even teleological. It’s destination being some sort of complete truth.
Externalism sees science at any given point in time as a product of the world/society/culture in which it arose/developed/originated. The externalist historical picture includes all the bits the researchers of the period got wrong and were subsequently jettisoned somewhere down the line on the way to the present. Externalism sees any period of science, as not just embedded in its world/society/culture but as an integral part of the whole of that world/society/culture that cannot and should not be viewed independently.
To give just a couple of very simple examples out of my own main personal historical area of interest: An internalist is only interested in Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion as results that are still valid today. They are not interested in the complex twists and turns of Kepler’s battle to find the first two laws, which he outlines in great detail and great depth in his Astronomia nova. As for the third law, they take it gladly and ignore all of the remaining five hundred pages of the Harmonice Mundi, with its bizarre theories of consonance and dissonance, and cosmic harmony. As for Kepler’s distinctly unscientific motivations, the internalist shudders in horror. For the externalist everything that the internalist rejects is an interesting field of study. They are not just interested in Kepler’s laws as results but in how he arrived at them and what was driving him to search for them in the first place.
Turning to Newton, it is now a commonplace that he devoted far more time and energy to studying alchemy and theology that he did to either physics or mathematics. For the internalist these ‘non-scientific’ areas are an irrelevance to be ignored, all that matters are the scientific results, the law of gravity, the calculus etc. Externalists have shown that the various diffuse areas of Newton’s thoughts and endeavours are intertwined into a complex whole and if one really wants to understand the man and his science then one must regard and attempt to understand that whole.
Where do I stand on this issue? I think it should be obvious to anybody who regularly reads this blog that I am a convinced externalist. I am, however, happy to admit that when I first became interested in the history of mathematics as a teenager I was to all intents and purposes an internalist. Who discovered this or that theorem and when? Who developed this or that method of solving this or that type of problem? These were the questions that initially interested me. I also had strong presentist and even Whiggish tendencies. For those who have forgotten or maybe don’t know yet, the Whig theory of history is the belief that human existence or in this case science, is progressing towards some sort of final truth. Over the years, as I learnt more, my views changed and I became slowly but surely an externalist. This change was, at the latest, completed as I worked for many years, my apprenticeship, in a research project into the history of formal logic. This project was official called, Case Studies into a Social History of Formal Logic, where social is a synonym for external.
As I see it extreme internalism is not just too narrow, too focused but is actually distorting. The internalist history of mathematics, for example, when considering antiquity tends to concentrate on what could be called higher mathematics–the Euclids, Archimedes et al– who only represent a very small minority of those engaged in mathematical pursuits in their period and whose results were only interesting to an equally small minority. In doing so they ignore the vast majority of mathematical practitioners surveyors, bookkeepers extra, whose work actually contributed more in real terms to their societies than that of the ‘star’ mathematicians. A good example is the much-touted Babylonian mathematics, which was largely developed by clerks doing administration not by mathematicians. This fact is simply ignored by internalist historians of mathematics, who are only interested in the results.
Turning to the High Middle Ages and Renaissance, traditional internalist history of mathematics tend to simply ignore this period as having no mathematics worth mentioning. In reality it was the mathematical practitioners of this period–astrologers, astronomers, geographers, cartographers, surveyors, architects, engineers, instrument designers and makers, globe makerset al.–who created the mathematics that drove the so-called scientific revolution.
Having being very rude about internalist history of science I should point out that I by no means reject it totally, in fact exactly the opposite. Anybody who opens Newton’s Principia for the first time, even in the excellent modern English translation by Cohen and Whitman would probably understand very little of the mathematics and physics that they would find there. They have a choice either to spend several months chewing through Newton’s masterpiece or alternatively to turn to Cohen excellent internalist guide to the contents. The same is true of virtually any historical STEM text. Close internalist readings and interpretations help the historian to comprehension. Having gained that internalist comprehension they should, in my opinion, embed that comprehension into its wider externalist context.
Historians of science should be simply historian, in the first instance, investigating the breadth and depth of a discipline within its social context. However this also implies a solid understanding of the science involved, i.e. the internal aspects. You can’t investigate the role of a scientific discipline within a social context if you don’t understand the science. This means for me, that a good historian of science must be both an internalist and an externalist, weaving together both approaches into a coherent whole.
All of the above is of course my own subjective take on the dichotomy and they are certainly other viewpoints and other opinions on the issue. As always, readers are welcome to ventilate their views in the comments.
For any future historian, who might be interested in my motivation for writing this post, it was inspired by a request from a reader to write something on the ‘conflict’ between internalist and externalist histories of science and illustrate it with examples of the two different approaches with reference to my own blog posts. I’m not sure if that which I have written really fulfils their request and as should be obvious I, as a convinced externalist, can’t really supply the desired examples. However I am grateful to the reader for having motivated me to write something on the topic even if it not really what they wanted.