On contingency in history

This is a reply to a post by Eric Schliesser on New APPS.
ES: Daston’s response to this situation is to promote an agenda to chart the growth and transmutation of reason and the accompanying techniques and epistemic virtues through the ages. (One sees some of this in her book with Galison on objectivity.) While this (Foucault-lite genealogy) is certainly a philosophic project in so far as philosophy is the science that also reflects on itself and its (historical) presuppositions (one can say that reason is partial without historical self-understanding), the philosophy to be found here is skin-deep. Its results will provide a lot of information, and, perhaps, a healthy skepticism about the nature and sources of science’s self-image.
But it lacks philosophic ambition because it has fully embraced the cult of contingency. It can’t even bring itself to use this historical knowledge to ask what the necessary conceptual, social, mathematical or technical pre-conditions are or may be for the way (scientific) reason develops in society. That project, first hinted at by David Hume (in his treatment of justice) and widened by Adam Smith, Hegel, and Marx, was revived and transformed by the early Foucault in The Order of Things (original title: Les Mots et les choses), while Kuhn, Popper, Feyerabend, and Lakatos were having their epic debates during the 1960s. The problem with Foucault’s archeology is that he never appears to have seriously engaged with the citadel of science: physics. Now a half century later there appear to be few ambitious historically informed projects left.
“Cult of contingency” [a phrase used by ES to denote the position he opposes] is a nice bit of rhetorical icing. But where’s the cake? In response to comments pointing out that some historians regard their work as having provided evidence for contingency, you reply that their methods make it impossible to see anything but contingency.
The structure of your argument so far is: those who hold that the history of science exhibits no regularities (that, I gather, is what you mean by the “contingency” part of “cult of contingency”; you seem to agree that no-one has discovered “laws of development” in the history of science: but in your view there are or may be regularities of some weaker sort?) do not have sufficient evidence for their claim because they have not looked for evidence for the counterclaim that there are regularities.
Whether that is deserving of the propaganda label “cult”, I don’t know. Sounds like garden-variety confirmation bias to me. (How many providentialist historians devoted serious effort to disproving contrary hypotheses?) I suspect the original impetus behind the predilection for contingency that many historians of science do exhibit was owing to a reaction against presentist progressivist history (rather than against Marxist theories of history, say). Writing the history of old science as the slow but inevitable march from darkness and ignorance to our present condition of enlightenment and knowledge resulted quite often in lousy history.
I agree that to force a choice between historical laws and mere chance is fallacious. But it seems to be very difficult to find grounds—even when you do look for them (and I think you need a lot more evidence to support your claim that people have not)—to deny contingency over the long run, because events like the publication of The Origin of Species depend on a whole host of earlier developments such that if you remove one or some of them, it’s not at all clear what “would” have happened subsequently.
Imagine 18th-century natural history in the absence of discoveries from the New World, Asia, and Africa; consider whether Darwin would have had models for the transformation of species had there not already been a lot of thinking about “development” in the late 18th and early 19th century, in cosmology and geology especially; or to what degree his evidence-gathering relied upon extensive worldwide networks of correspondence such that the existence of the technologies supporting then was contingent with respect to the character of biological thought in the period.
In short: changes in the sciences (and a fortiori in philosophy) tend to depend on complexes of active causes (e.g. the agencies behind the Human Genome Project) and causal conditions (knowledge concerning polymerase chain reactions?) that seem to be contingent (or “chance” in the Aristotelian sense of logically contingent meetings of causal sequences which taken in themselves are owing to the natures of the objects involved in them, and are therefore not “chance”). That, and not some supposed “cult of contingency”, would be the grounds for denying that strong global regularities are likely to be found in the history of science (or philosophy: but perhaps philosophy is a special case? if so, how?).
ES: “I am not against the claim that history is contingent; I am against a methodology that enshrines contingency into its ideological core, so that very different understandings (note the plural) of history are ruled out in advance. (Ones in which history has a meaning, a function, a political craft, a regulative ideal, etc.)”.
It seems to me that several quite different issues are conflated here. One is whether history—i.e. the past, considered as the object of the discipline of history—is contingent, i.e. devoid of regularities of its own (that is, not already belonging to psychology, biology, etc.). That is a matter to be settled by the evidence. Does science do better in free-market societies? How are scientific disputes brought to an end—by crucial experiments, or what? Those are perfectly sensible empirical questions. [Added here: And if they were answered in the affirmative, then the history of science would have regularities of its own.]
Another is whether there are long-term narrative “arcs” in the history of science or the history of philosophy. I think there are, but I think it takes tremendous work to (i) formulate reasonable claims while
In an ideal world I would be working on a long-term arc concerning authority and authorities—the breakdown of the system we see in the late Middle Ages and even into the early seventeenth century, a system in which each discipline was based around a few authoritative texts, teaching took the form of commentary on those texts, and innovation occurred within what was ostensibly an exposition or extension of authoritative, authorized opinion; followed by a sort of interregnum (the 17th century, more or less), followed by a reconstitution of authority. That’s an arc that, if I included some account of the rise of the older system (taking off from H. I. Marrou and others on knowledge-systems in antiquity), would extend over 1500 years or more. It wouldn’t be a story of progress, necessarily; nor do I know in advance whether the succession of systems of authority has an explanation of the sort that would exhibit it as other than contingent—as perhaps a progression rather than a mere succession. It doesn’t seem to me that I’m ruling that out. (Or that in Physiologia I was ruling out the insertion of its story into some larger story about the rise of modern science. But I did want to make that larger story harder, or ideally impossible, to tell without taking late Scholasticism seriously, which does eliminate certain triumphalist narratives resting largely upon ignorance of those sources.)
(ii) avoiding partiality and the “déformations professionelles” that result from knowing some sciences better than others, and (iii) satisfying that good old Hempelian total evidence requirement.
A third issue concerns the function of historical narratives (I think we can agree that the history we have in mind is mostly narrative history, which by its form alone—even if you don’t go so far as Hayden White—is already conducive to attributing intentionality or purposiveness to historical change). History as political craft, I take it, would be a sort of Mirror for Magistrates: it would use accounts of the past as a basis for practical advice. Nothing wrong with that.
History as a regulative ideal? I don’t know what you mean, unless you’re thinking of e.g. the progress of humanity toward universal peace as a sort of lens through which to examine historical change. History as propaganda, I suppose, is what it amounts to: the sort of reading that certain Christians engage in to show that the eschatology of Revelations has been realized through the ages and is being realized in the present. I have my doubts as to whether historians of that sort are likely to satisfy the rather strict requirements you place on the contingentists: are they required to refute contrary hypotheses too? I don’t deny that good history—and perhaps the most memorable sort of history—can be written under the guidance of an ideal; but I’m not sure that we need more of it.

LinkApril 2, 2011 in History of Philosophy · History of Science