Tuesday, 19 December 2006

a mighty wind

I take it as a given that there can never be a complete history of anything. There's just too much out there to talk about; everything is eventually related to everything else and too many people are involved. Nevertheless, I take it the goal of history is to come to some approximation of completeness. The fundamental contribution of the past few generations was to realize that history shouldn't just be about elites. But then, what should it be about? It can't be "just" anything--not just men, not just women, not just Europeans, not just non-Europeans, not just oppressed, not just oppressors,.... Some general organizing principles have been suggested. Perhaps history is primarily about power differentials, for example.

If I were to offer my own single organizing principle for history, it might go something like this: history is about tipping points; how accretions of individual actions eventuate global change. Since I study science, it's about how various scientific modes or practices or ideas become dominant and change and get replaced. But isn't this a study of elites? Ideas that catch on, rather than ideas that get discarded? I'd like to think that an appropriate study of any given episode in the history of science contextualizes the notions that eventually dominate within the sea of ideas that don't. In other words, it tells the story of the elite, but does so by explicitly examining the nature of its elite-hood. Newton's gravitational theory is instantly credible because it comports with observational data. At the same time, it is mysterious, because it doesn't seem to explain anything, at least under the current notion of explanation. The story of science in the eighteenth century is the story of how Newton's theories grow to dominate natural philosophy. That's not the only story, of course, but if history is like a bunch of air molecules moving around separately, then Newtonianism is the gust of wind they inhabit.

No comments: