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Perspectives on Science 7.3 (1999) 383-407

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Review Essay

Internal History and the Philosophy of Experiment

Davis Baird *

The Creation of Scientific Effects by Jed Z. Buchwald; Experiment and the Making of Meaning by David Gooding; The Mangle of Practice by Andrew Pickering

1. Introduction

Through the early 1980s the distinction between internal and external history of technology and science played a constitutive role in the historical work of scholars from various disciplines studying science. Internal history, the history of the growth of knowledge, was a central concern to philosophers of science and many historians of science and technology (Hacking 1983, pp. 122ff; Kuhn 1968; Lakatos 1978, ch.2). Since the early 1980s the vitality of internal history and, indeed, the viability of the distinction between internal and external history has waned. In part this can be attributed to a needed corrective to an elitist distortion in some internal history. In part, this can be attributed to a shift of focus from ideas to experiments and instruments. In what follows I examine three books which contribute to the history and philosophy of experiment and I argue that we can see a kind of internal history waxing in these works.

Many philosophers were drawn to an interest in science from an interest in epistemology. Science, if anything, seemed to provide examples of knowledge. Indeed, science might progress even faster if inspired by the methodological insights of epistemologist philosophers of science. And because of science's seemingly epistemologically privileged status, a social/political/ethical critique of science qua science seemed inappropriate. [End Page 383] Given any interest in history at all, philosophers of science were quite naturally drawn toward internal history.

Yet, internal history, as a story of the growth of knowledge--the progress of science--can turn into science boosterism. Extreme forms of internal history can seem oblivious to the real-time causal development of science (Hacking 1983, ch. 8; Holton, 1978; Lakatos, 1978). The sometimes nasty and increasingly important fund-seeking activities of much science, particularly in the recent era of "big" science, by and large are ignored or whitewashed in internal histories. The paths of power wielded in the name of science, internally arguable to be a natural consequence of science's success in finding knowledge, are not themselves internal history. It is as if "the story" of the Catholic Church was the story of the progress of our relationship to God. The story of the power and politics of our relationships with each other seems a side show to the main event--internal history. Such internal caricatures of science and technology have properly been called into question.

Two developments during the 1980s have helped to put such booster internal history of technology and science into doubt. During the 1980s interdisciplinary work in "science studies" became the vogue, and science study scholars began to focus on experiment.

The merging and redefining of interests that has been part of interdisciplinary science study scholarship has tended to expose the drawbacks of booster internal history. In addition, scholars coming to their study of science from disciplines outside philosophy frequently either have not shared the philosophical interest in epistemology, or have doubted the notion of a transcendental position from which to assess scientific (or any other kind of) knowledge (Bloor 1991; MacKenzie 1981). Indeed, a turn away from epistemology has characterized much "post-modern" philosophy (Rorty 1985).

Writing about experiment poses another problem for internal history. Classically conceived, knowledge is propositional in nature--justified true belief. It is the kind of thing that might be preserved in libraries. Experiments involve innovations in the material realm in an essential way; new instruments have to be created or existing instruments have to be modified and adapted to new needs. Much of the history of experimental science is the history of instrumentation (Anderson 1993; Baird and Faust 1990; Baird and Nordmann 1994; Franklin 1986; Galison 1987, 1997; Hacking 1983; Hankins 1995; Van Helden 1994; Wise 1995). Can this be internal history?

Here I answer this question in the affirmative and I do so by examining three books...


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