HET vs. SSK etc. etc… It’s (very) old hat

Maybe I am slow or we have just collectively ignored the fact that the debates we keep having about internalist vs. externalist history, SSK vs Traditional History of Economics, Context vs theory-focus, was resolved many many years ago. Maybe no-one bothered telling us? At least that’s what I get from the third edition (!) of a rather excellent book on The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2008: 7):

The discipline of the history of science used to be riven by warfare between internalists and externalists (c. 1930-59). The internalists were supposed to have believed that science, or possibly an individual sub-discipline within science, was a system of thought which was self-contained, self-regulating, and developed in accordance with its own internal logic. The externalist, on the other hand, was supposed to believe that the development of science was determined by the sociopolitical or socioeconomic context from which it emerged. In fact, neither position seems to have been properly established as valid or viable (Shapin 1992: 345-51), and it wasn’t long before a professed eclectic approach became all the rage (c. 1960). Effectively, this eclectic approach is still dominant.

I am happy to plead ignorance on this one, but having heard this sort of debate at many a conference, across several blogs (ours is no exception, even if this memorable debate was not explicitly about externalists vs. internalists), I get the feeling it isn’t just me. At some level I wish I had had John Henry’s book a few years ago, but better late than never. Also, I’d recommend it as a good introductory read – it’s 179 pages is not strictly correct, as only 114 are content (the glossary – especially his definition of ‘whiggism’ – and references are excellent too), and it is a ‘small’ book, A5 size. Worth getting, now if only I was still going to teach that course this semester. Dammit.


5 thoughts on “HET vs. SSK etc. etc… It’s (very) old hat

  1. Benjamin: I think you have misread this argument. Externalist vs. internalist arguments were indeed those from long ago, but that is not what is associated with HE historiographical disputes. The former were most specifically concerned with whether ideas were cause or effect, with effect being a result of the material conditions of society and the stage of capitalist development, a la Marx. Externalist history was to show how the science resulted from the economic substrate. These disputes show up, for instance, in response to Struik’s history of mathematics, and other 1930s scholarship in support of the CP/left objectives of the time. It certainly was inflected by the entire Bernal group in the UK. (For sources, see “Setting up a discipline: conflicting agendas of the Cambridge History of Science Committee, 1936-1950”; Mayer, A.K. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science; 2000 Vol. 31, p665-689, 25p; and also “Setting Up a Discipline, II: British History of Science and ‘The End of Ideology,’ 1931-1948” Mayer, Anna-K. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science; 2004 Vol. 35, p41-72, 32p.)

    In economics, or HE, this kind of stuff only appears in neo-Marxist histories like those that suggest that mainstream economics, via its historian apologists, exists to extend capitalist systems to the rest of the world. This kind of history is still found in third rate sociology journals, but not in places like HOPE, JHET, & EJHET.

  2. Dear Benjamin and Roy:
    I am sure all the young and the restless want just to get past all those interminable historiographic disputes, and just get back to the sandbox, but I think it is both too convenient and premature to pronounce them long banished and dissolved. And anyway, its time to juice up a blog that has grown a bit somnambulastic… Let’s take it in stages…
    First, there is the situation in the history of science community. Roy is certainly correct to point to the root of the internal/external problem in the Marxian problematic of the 1930s; and it is true that Shapin performed invaluable clarification of the topic in 1982. I would add the often neglected work of Michael Dennis here as well. Yet the Henry book is doing what all textbooks do, to a greater or lesser extent: it is just wishing away a very serious problem it doesn’t want to acknowledge or deal with. The complex of repressed questions (some might say contradictions) lives on in the history, although now mostly cut loose from any Marxisant considerations. See, for instance, Will Thomas’ valuable posts in December concerning the Latour/Schaffer controversies in his EtherWave Propaganda blog. His point, crudely, is that nothing really got resolved there. To appeal to ‘ecclecticism’ to shut down anxieties is nearly as bad as economists’ appeals to some ill-specified yet rock-solid orthodoxy in order to short circuit methodological questions.

    Second, there is the situation of historians of economics. While it merely evokes a frisson of rebellion to question the relationship of the life world to the body of thought in a science like physics, it is an almost unavoidable topic of non-insider conversation in a field like economics. At the most unsophisticated level, the theory putatively concerns society (should such a thing exist), and therefore what can be so strange about society shaping the very content of what becomes accepted as economic knowledge? Let me just point to two contemporary examples of this, from which HET has as yet kept its distance.
    (1) There is the Paris School doctrine of ‘performativity’, which seeks to bridge thought and lifeworld by asserting that theory reflects the economy because the economists intervene to make it so. This stuff is wildly popular in economic sociology, although one might have thought the current crisis would have embarrassed its less sophisticated proponents. (But then the crisis itself has not unduly inconvenienced the American economics profession, judging from attendance at the latest ASSA in Atlanta.) My point here is that this school attempts to scratch an internal/external itch that has little to do with Marxism (although Bourdieu might be another matter).
    (2) Then there is the reams of commentary which tries to understand why so little has been changed by the worldwide economic crisis. Look at Simon Johnson over in BaselineScenario.com, who has gotten a lot of airplay by asserting that the economics profession has suffered ‘intellectual capture’, playing upon notions of regulatory capture of the Virginia School.
    His point is that the current profession seems curiously disinclined to face up to serious debilitating flaws in the current post-crash environment. Now, even though there is no discernible Marxism involved, how does this differ so greatly from the notion that the economic orthodoxy just follows the money?

    I’m just saying, let’s not pretend persistent problems have gone away just because we have averted our gaze from them.

  3. All good points. Like Phil, I believe that Henry’s summary is at the very least dubious, if not dishonest. It presents two caricatural positions – without mentioning anyone who has actually said that – and then states that none is valid, so that truth must lie somewhere between the two. In fact we encounter that kind of arguments all the time in recent debates on the future of HET, when people say that SSK is fascinating but potentially harmful, so that we should tolerate some moderate aspects of it but not the full blown thing and so on or the rhetoric of diversity – it is always better to have a wide variety of approach, etc. I quite agree with Roy that what Henry is referring to is a simplistic view of the world, which is to be found only in bad sociology journals. But I doubt that this was what Henry had in mind. I remember that in her class Barbara Herrnstein Smith operated a very insightful distinction between social constructionism and constructivism. While the former argues that science is shaped by socio-economic factors, the later repudiates the dualism between science and society, arguing that the scientific community is a society within society. This is the latter position I identify as the externalist approach. For a long time, I thought Bourdieu was a social constructionist but in reading Cusset’s book I reviewed in a recent post, I realized that his thoughts on the scientific community are less structuralist than I thought. I wonder whether Henry’s depiction of the externalist approach is a a straw man. If so, then his trick proves that the debate is not over yet.

  4. Phil Mirowski encapsulates my point on HoS here very nicely. The appeal to ecclecticism creates the appearance of solved methodological problems. Here ecclecticism usually means a multi-disciplinary approach that combines studies of literature, art, science, etc., in the study of the history of ideas (usually described as a history of practice, since the ideas are understood as inherent in the practice rather than as the subjects of treatises).

    In practice, the methodology is more-or-less uniform, and vastly downplays the importance of classical concerns like intellectual context. This is definitively not to say that ‘externalists’ have won some methodological dispute. Rather, it’s simply that, again in practice, the internal very seldom plays much of a role. Thus the nature of the methodological disputes that should be occurring is mainly a matter of how the resolution of prior methodological disputes (if indeed they ever existed) plays out in the creation of a living, breathing historiography. It is not a question of some deep philosophical disagreement.

    This in turn speaks to the issue of personal responsibility to the broader historiography, which is very touchy because the community tends to be highly libertarian as far as this issue is concerned.

  5. Doubting that methods ever advanced by decree, I turn cold to reading these matters treated in prefaces or in back-of-envelope-meta-social-theory.

    Only slightly off topic, I would suggest Melvyn Bragg’s latest series on the Royal Society:http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_royal_society.shtml
    The final episode is particularly interesting in its contrast with the previous three, a debate erupts between the experts, prominently Schaffer and Jardine about science’s role in society and its purity. Schaffer describes it as “Janus faced,” which is a very Latourian take. And we hear Jardine pleading that more science will save us from hordes of global warming skeptics. All very difficult to fit into the internalist/externalist axis since this public apologists of science, current day internalists, owe much of their ideology to Bernalists. They were the most energetic apologists of a science managed society that for them was the definition of socialism and only realizable under socialism. Drop the socialism and replaced it by a moral liberalism, read the latest Shapin, and voila! (why my final twist is in french, I cannot justify)

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