Thomas Kuhn and Big Historiography

My goal for the week-after-next’s Big History seminar is to bring up two things: phlogiston, and Marxism. Because so what if we’re ostensibly apolitical scientists who would never dream of constructing knowledge*, we’re at Berkeley! We’ve got to talk about Marxism! If there’s time I’ll shoehorn in some Foucault, too – we’ll see if any of the paleontologists are able to call me on my horrific secondhand misreadings. The designated topic is paradigms, and the operative analogy as follows:

science studies : historiography :: Kuhnianish paradigms** : ???

Not that anyone’s mentioned Kuhn yet, but if we talk about scientific paradigms without discussing The Structure of Scientific Revolutions the universe will owe me a beer. Or several beers.

Typically, I have severely limited seminar-derailing talents. I was actually asked to prepare a little something for next time on Marxism as a Kuhnian paradigm for historians***, but still I’d peg the odds of making it to Foucault as about a dinosaur’s chance in Chixulub. Anyway, I suspect but cannot prove that everyone in this class, myself especially included, needs a good thwack upside the head with some basic theory on the construction of knowledge. Can one of you humanitiesistes recommend a good Brief History of Historiography for Dummies and Scientists?

Today’s lecture was about historical contingency again, and exactly how improbably unique a snowflake every one of us is. And y’know, contemplating the improbability of my own existence strikes me (when sober) as slightly less interesting**** than contemplating the details of Brownian motion (which might at least result in an Infinite Improbabilty Drive). Am I less than fully human?

*It’s plucking theorems from the Very Real Platonic Realm of Forms for us, yes it is!

**Quoth my local humanitiesiste:

Paradigms! That was word of the year at New College, like, three or four years ago! Actually, no, it was five years ago, I’m pretty sure.

So you see, we are woefully behind on our course reading.

***Our Glorious Leader (paraphrased): There’s “deep time” and later plate tectonics in earth history, and Darwinian evolution and genetics in life history, but is there anything for human history?
Me: Isn’t that what the Marxists were after?
OGL: That’s a great thought, would you follow up on that for next time?

****Can I invoke Lacanian desire here? Huh huh huh can I can I please? Pretentious bloggers need to know, without going through the bother of reading and understanding Lacan!

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  1. Bitch | Lab » Theoria on 31 Oct 2006 at 11:19 am

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  1. kerrick wrote:
    Barbelith does not know all… but, typically enough, it sure as heck thinks it does.

  2. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Has it been experimentally determined that comprehanding all this philisophical mishmash actually allows one to do better research?
    As far as I’m concerned, paradigms died from obsolescence at the end of the 20th century. Here’s why.
    When I was doing my Ph.D., my advisor had an honors student. This honors student was trying to use the trace element geochemistry of various detrital minerals to determine their provenance. Specifically, he was looking for those related to certain types of mineral deposits.
    His first attempt involved using the accepted models and theories of trace element behavior to guess at what ratios and relationships might be correct. His second attempt involved feedin all the data into a monster algorythm and asking it to spit our statistical correlations. When tested against and independent sample of unknowns, the second method proved to be much more reliable.
    The student was given a second class by the graders, as they felt his approach lacked intellectual rigour. So instead of spending the next 4 years of his life living in a squalid share house and eeking out a living as a grad student, he got snatched up by an exploration company. They flew him all over the country, paid the big bucks, and he lived happily ever after.

  3. yami wrote:

    LL: Good lord no! But then again I suppose it depends how tautological you’re willing to go with your definition of “better”. Paradigms may have died, but they’re not dead – they’re undead, and zombie paradigms still love to munch our spicy academic brains.
    Ideally, having some grounding in the philosophy of science would enable us to notice when we’re making a judgment that’s primarily aesthetic, rather than scientific. Not that aesthetics have no place in science, but they’re easily overrated. I’m too cynical to really put my faith in the efficacity of philosophy in producing a good cultural balance between aesthetic/heuristic considerations and ruthless empiricism, but that’s the pie in the sky.
    The other thing is that this particular seminar is developing a tendency towards “hey, we’ve got spicy science brains, let’s see if we can use our paleontology skillz to solve historians’ problems for them – without bothering to first discuss relevant prior work in historiography!” which should be nipped in the bud. Which is where the Foucault and the thwacking enter the picture. Finding ideas that usefully inform our practice as earth/life historians is just gravy.

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