As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”1
The Great Exhibition of 1851 excited curiosity in nineteenth-century contemporaries and continues to garner interest among scholars today. Attracting some six million visitors and comprising over 100,000 exhibits that filled 76,720 square meters of exhibition space, it entered media, memory, and historiography as an emblem of British industrial capabilities, free-trade ideology, and imperial globalization. Yet it is seldom discussed in relation to the consequential contemporaneous transformation of modern sciences into a set of powerful, highly institutionalized social practices.
T. S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions has had a profound and enduring impact on the social history of knowledge. It has provided an analytical template not only for the history of the natural sciences but also for the history of many other forms of systematic knowledge, including history itself. However, this very versatility has been an object of criticism. A central point of contention has been the central concept of a “paradigm,” which Kuhn understood to be (among other things) a “relatively inflexible box” of accepted scientific rules and procedures for defining and resolving research “puzzles,” whose solutions can be predicted and replicated.1 The question then becomes whether paradigms pertain uniquely to knowledge in the natural-science fields, in which the precise and regular operation of principles can be demonstrated experimentally. If so, the concept of paradigm becomes inappropriate as a guide to the history of humanistic disciplines (like history), in which issues of meaning and human value are central and knowledge is anchored in hermeneutic strategies of inquiry. The validity of paradigms is governed accordingly by the contrasting characteristics of the “two cultures” of knowledge.2
The object of these reflections is not to contest this proposition. It is instead to emphasize that the distinction between the natural and what became known as the “human sciences” has a history of its own (and how could it not?). Continue reading “Kuhn and Lamprecht”
Knowledge is not a static entity. It is not obtained by discovering universal truths. Instead, it is a process of creation and simultaneously an outcome. It is mediated, socially (re)defined, and accepted or rejected. It always contains an underlying sense of rationality, however understood, and is dependent on temporal and spatial contexts. This dynamic image of knowledge is not new, but how can it be reflected in a museum? How can the diverse factors and layers of knowledge production be made explicit in order to go beyond the mediation of factual information to the visitor? In addition, how can visitors themselves actively engage in a way that takes the dynamics of knowledge formation seriously? Finally, how can the museum bring academic and public knowledge creation together?
The polarizing contemporary debate on science in the United States could be extraordinarily interesting for historians of knowledge, if it were occurring in the past. Still, if we could divert our attention from the news for a moment, we might find it offers some food for thought.
In the midst of the current conversation, which is experiencing renewed fervor under the new administration, the Twitterverse is exploding with talk of “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fact-based journalism,” “fake news,” and “lies.” This rhetoric encompasses not just climate science but also everyday policy-making and “s/he said” – “s/he said” arguments. It is easy to get caught up in this conversation, whose ideological and epistemological battle lines seem so clearly drawn, but one thing gets lost—most of the time, anyway.