Higgitt’s historical heifer

[Cross-post from New APPS.] I want to recommend and to comment on a post by Rebekah Higgitt at her new venue Teleskopos.
She starts with a wonderful quotation from Augustus de Morgan (yes, that de Morgan), on the difficulty that ordinary readers may have in understanding the “merit of any new step in the advancement of a system”. In his biography of Newton (see also Essays on Newton p51), he writes:
Unless he be acquainted with the history of preceding efforts, he comes to the consideration of that merit from the wrong direction; for he reads the history from the end. He goes to the mail-coach, back from the railroad instead of forward from the old strings of pack-horses: from a macadamized road lighted with gas to the rough stones and the oil-lamps, instead of beginning with the mud and the link-boys.
Source: Good roads 3(1893):100
We all come in at the wrong end; the difficulty is that of having a beginning, of not being there all along. The ranks of the famous, for example, appear differently to each cohort. For anyone under thirty-five, John Lennon has always been dead; he is dead, of course, but for me he is also—not just by hearsay but in experience—the twenty-something Beatle who told the rich folks in Albert Hall to rattle their jewelry, the promoter of peace, the artist felled by bullets in 1980. So too the student of physics approaches its great discoveries from the wrong end, when they are completed, established, no longer at the quickening edge of science.
As Higgitt says, the ordinary reader lacks context (other than what is part of “general knowledge”): the “small guys surrounding the big ones”, the textbooks we no longer read, the decor taken for granted as de Morgan takes for granted lamps lighted with gas (rather new in the 1840s!), as Einstein took for granted synchronized clocks (his father designed them: see Peter Galison, Einstein’s clocks). To the mathematician Hamilton in 1853 De Morgan writes:
In reading an old mathematician you will not read his riddle unless you plough with his heifer;* you must see with his light if you want to know how much he saw [quoted by Higgitt].
Higgitt goes on to quote De Morgan’s review of Whewell’s History of the inductive sciences (1847; the review was published in 1849). Whewell, says De Morgan, “appears to have considered foreign to his purpose” inquiries into the when and even the by whom of scientific discovery. But
it is of great importance in the history of philosophy to show, that the germs of brilliant discoveries have often been long in the hands of mankind, unappreciated and little thought of, till some accidental association with a fertile principle or abstract truth, developed their nature, and gave them new value. The more we apply ourselves, with antiquarian industry, to examine the history of the human mind, the more apparent it will be, that the present accumulation of science, however massive, has grown particle by particle, and has never really experienced any sudden increase.
Is this, Higgitt asks, a plea for the cultural history of science avant la lettre?
The implication of her remarks is that we can’t answer that question merely by plucking quotes. That method, all too common, raises obvious issues of selectivity and bias. On the other hand, the mere fact that the historian must always be selective to some degree no more tells against the possibility of there being better and worse history than the scientist’s selectivity tells against positive progress in science.
[…] just as I can both deny that a story of necessary progress in science is at all helpful for our understanding its history and I can admit that there has been a clear accumulation of data, technological devices and better medical treatments, so I can acknowledge that 21st-century history is as much a product of its time and biases as [in] any other period of history and believe that we have more historical data available than ever before, a greater range of ways to understand it and that these facts can have a positive impact on how we understand and interact with the world around us.
As she rightly implies, too often the notion of progress simpliciter, that is of changes we judge to be improvements, gets mixed up with notions of necessary progress, fatally infected (as I would say) with teleology; and then those who deny that progress was necessary (which in this context would mean either determined or inevitable) are thought to deny progress altogether.
*“Plough with his heifer”? The phrase comes from Judges 14:18—“If ye had not ploughed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle”. The heifer is Samson’s wife, and the riddle is one that he sets before his companions as a wager. The most prominent prior citation I could find is in Elish Coles, A practical discourse of God’s sovereignty (1673, reprinted in 1831), in a passage on providence.
You might say that unaided intuition is enough to get a sense of the passage. But knowing its source or sources not only serves as a healthy check on intuition, it also shows De Morgan citing in a familiar way a biblical passage—which lets us know, among other things, that other obscure passages may well be illuminated by checking the King James translation of the Bible, and that the Bible was part of the shared understandings between De Morgan and Hamilton. You don’t throw a phrase like “plough his heifer” at someone without reasonable assurance that they’ll get it.
How much of the sense of the passage in Judges are we to apply to the situation at hand in De Morgan’s letter? The context of the passage is a discussion of whether Wallis could be said to have “made a commencement” on the geometric interpretation of complex numbers. A first guess is that the sense is intended to be that an intimate acquaintance with a person’s work is required to understand it, a household familiarity. De Morgan goes on to say, interestingly enough: “I am always afraid of virtual discoveries. Men usually tell all they definitely see. What we gather [from an old text] we frequently gather by our own act” (439). (That’s for Eric.)

LinkAugust 8, 2011 in History of Science · NewAPPS