Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Autonomy and Objectivity

The aim of this project is to foster a historiography that does justice both to the realization that scientific knowledge is constructed by local, contingent, and contextual processes, and the claims of science to objective validity.

James McAllister

Historians of science are routinely presented with a conflict between two intuitions about science. On the one hand, all scientific work is visibly carried out by people using artefacts in social settings. On the other hand, the conclusions reached by scientists purport, at their best, to be independent of place and time, and thus to transcend both context and the social setting in which the findings were reached. How a historian navigates between these intuitions does much to determine the character and content of a historical account of science.

In the period when these issues were debated in the conceptual apparatus of "internal" and "external" factors, historians tended to divide into two camps. Those privileging internal factors wrote history of science largely as the progress of a transcendental "inner logic" which made the details of the social setting irrelevant. Those privileging external factors, by contrast, wrote history of science primarily as history of social relations: they played down, or ignored, the question of the universal validity of scientific findings. Both these options presented historians with intellectual challenges. Internalism incurs the obligation to explain where the inner logic comes from, how scientists can become acquainted with it, and what is the basis of its validity. Externalists are faced with the challenge of explaining how science differs from social life at large, if the discipline of history of science is to retain a recognizable object of study. Comparatively few historians in either camp took up these challenges seriously.

The terms of the debate have since evolved. However, the intuitions continue to conflict. Scientists explicitly portray their findings as objectively valid throughout the universe, independent of their human and historical origins. Much present-day historiography of science, by contrast, is devoted to showing how scientific knowledge is constructed by local, contingent, and contextual processes

Project 3 is motivated by the conviction that historiography of science will benefit both from more sustained discussion of these issues and from a new resolution to this conflict, which does justice to both intuitions.

The working assumption of Project 3 is that the concept of autonomy offers such a new resolution. This concept provides a new language in which to express the various stances in the debate. To say that science has autonomy is to claim that it is able to transcend its origins in place and time and to generate findings that do not depend on context. To say that the autonomy of science is only partial, by contrast, is to posit limits to this ability, whereby the findings of science retain some dependence on the circumstances of production.

How may autonomy be achieved? It is instructive to retrace the trajectory of the concept in feminist scholarship. In Enlightenment philosophy, autonomy is a property of the self-validating, transcendental subject. Feminist scholarship has criticized this ideal for its individualized and abstract view of the self, at the expense of its relational qualities formed through social interactions. It has replaced this ideal with a view of autonomy as an embodied and socially embedded character of the subject, acquired through exercising skills and drawing on supportive social relations. This debate shows us that there is a viable conception of autonomy on which detachment and insulation from a social setting are not a prerequisite for an autonomous self.

Project 3 will explore the application of this new concept of autonomy to science and in historiography of science. First, we switch the initial focus from the autonomy of science as an institution to the autonomy of individual scientists. We hypothesize that scientists construct their own autonomy in a process of self-discovery, self-direction, and the exercise of skills in a social environment, familiar from feminist scholarship. The autonomy of scientists, while rooted in their social being, allows them to propose conceptions that are not merely determined by context. Second, we assume that science too has autonomy, which is derived from the autonomy of scientists. It is this process of constructing autonomy on both levels, and not some intellectualized "inner logic", that offers the clearest analysis and most realistic explanation of the validity of scientific findings beyond their context of production.

Throughout, Project 3 will apply its conclusions to historiography of science, showing how the notion of the construction of autonomy can provide the basis for more reflective and more realistic historical accounts of scientific development. The genres under study will be biography, prosopography, and big-picture histories. The aim is to foster a historiography that does justice both to the realization that scientific knowledge is constructed by local, contingent, and contextual processes, and the claims of science to objective validity.

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