Peter Galison: Practices, Places and Material Culture in the History of Science


by Silvia, Nicola, and Elisabetta


The second conference planned for the afternoon session was held by Peter Galison, who outlined an overview of the project in which he is currently involved, that is “a material history of the present.” This approach looks to the contemporary scene by investigating the scientific practices in their materiality and visualisation. Indeed, the “material history” is related not only to philosophical and intellectual issues in sciences, but also to practical ones. Galison took the example of physics, which in the last hundred years took a dual direction : on one hand, physics devoted itself to classical Kantian questions, while becoming, on the other, a matter of State as well as a large scale political economy issue. Now, what is at stake in Galison’s approach is to question where physics is happening in contemporary society and what is its contemporary impact. Methodologically, it is a matter of applying historical methods in order to understand contemporary physics starting from the period around 1900.

Galison emphasized that material phenomena makes history local and links specific, it makes choice more evident, it provides proportion and crossing of scale, and makes contingencies more apparent by historical analysis. This entails inevitably a political issue: to analyse choices that are already made, indeed, means to understand choices in the past, and this is intended as a way of offering us choices now. Actually, to see current events as contingencies of history prevents us from considering them as inevitable. Moreover, it lets us develop a sense of proportion, since many aspects of contemporary physics involve taking into account “out of human sight” dimensions. There exist thus historical as well as political reasons for adopting a material and visualisable approach and transforming thereby transhistorical transcendentals into something graspable in practice. To substantiate further his argument, Galison pointed out the importance of understanding the history of the history of science, i.e. the history of the very idea of knowledge. Ernst Mach, for instance, was convinced that knowledge should be grounded in accumulation of observations and that scientific theories were to be seen as mere bookkeeping devices. The same attitude towards theories, along with the belief that the language of science and perception was reducible to atomic bits, was shared by all the upholders of logical positivism, like Otto Neurath, Gottlob Frege or Bertrand Russell. This philosophical school, remarked Galison, played a heavily progressive political and social role at its beginnings, since it fostered cooperation between epistemologists and scientists from various nations (above all France and Germany), while fighting against idealism and hegelianism. For logical positivists, especially the austro-german ones, stripping away metaphysics from philosophy amounted to fight against reactionary stances, both political and cultural, as well as upholding an anticlerical, antifascist and antinationalistic agenda.

Thirty years later the situation had been completely reversed, as logical positivism had come to be seen as stronghold of intellectual conservatism, drawing attacks from such philosophers as Gerald Holton, Norwood Russell Hanson, Mary Hesse and Thomas Kuhn. According to them, positivistic epistemology was deeply flawed because it failed to recognize that scientific observations are always conditioned to theories, which do not serve only as codifying directories for experience, but actually form it.

Thomas Kuhn, inspired among other sources by Gestalt psychology, questioned the existence of atomic bits of reality, as well as neutral sense pre-percepts, and the ideal of a single neutral observation language. His contributions to the history of science were instrumental in shifting the attention from observations to theories, along with replacing the concept of continuos knowledge accumulation by those of epistemic break and incommensurability. This shift resulted in a blow for a relativist conception of scientific knowledge, on the model of the boasian school in social sciences, which reached its apogee with the birth of science and technology studies in the early 80s . Knowledge was regarded a sort of inland empire and science historians, as an antidote to teleological thinking, were trained to recognize the solidity of every system.

Concerning the history of physics, this attitude took the shape of an emphasis put on major theoretical breakthroughs, like the publication of Einstein’s papers on special relativity. Peter Galison clearly distanced himself from this stance as he pointed out that the history of physics is marked by big breaks, but not by overall change. In his opinion, believing this would be paramount to committing a logical fallacy, since, from the absence of a single scientific language capable of crossing all theories and all periods, it does not follow that there is no way of comparing two different theories. As Galison pointed out further, there exist three different material cultures within physics, each of them reposing on a particular conception of what it means to demonstrate something : the theorists, the experimentalists and the object makers. By doing so, he equated theory to all other forms of scientific practicing, like manipulating objects or constructing instruments. These three levels are not hierarchically superposed and epistemological breaks can occur at any level, since it is always possible to check a new theory with an already existing procedure and vice versa. Another important feature of Galison’s standpoint is locality, i.e. the requirement of considering every scientific issue within its particular context, rather than aiming at drawing a cultural history of Zeitgeist at different ages. This approach is supposed to allow historians to focus on what really holds together different material subcultures within a given scientific discipline. Scientific theories, argued Galison, are like natural languages, i.e. they do not transition from each other abruptly, but undergo a series of complex hybridisation processes resulting from verbal exchanges between agents that do not share a common language. In this framework, for instance, biochemistry can be contextualised as a sort of pidgin – a functional exchange language aiming at making possible particular applications – originating from negotiations taking place between biologists and chemists. Moreover, while some processes of hybrid end up freezing in structures that are able to survive, not every hybrid evolves into a full blown language. Exchanges of this kind give birth to “trading zones”, where scientists from different backgrounds interacts with the goal of solving certain given problems. These trading zones involve partial exchange for working together through a language of coordination, such as in the case of nanotechnologies, computer simulation, string theory and environmental arenas.

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