Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The Resistance of the World

This project will construct an inventory of possible conceptions of the resistance of the world to scientists’ claims and theories.

Jeroen Bouterse

The crucial concept concealed behind much writing in history of science is that of resistance: the resistance opposed by the world to the claims and theories of scientists (at its most extreme, the idea that nature shouts "No" to scientists’ proposals). Tracing the extent, locus, and form of this resistance is an implicit task underpinning virtually all research in history of science. It determines how the historian interprets and explains scientists’ actions, where he or she locates contingency and freedom of choice, and how he or she appraises scientists’ findings. In sum, the character of a historian’s account of an episode is determined largely by his or her view of the resistance opposed by nature.

For example, a history of the 1989 cold fusion controversy could attribute the failure of the research programme to the nonexistence of cold fusion. Alternatively, it could remain noncommittal about the phenomena, report the conflicting interpretations of the empirical data, and ascribe the failure to the opposition of the big physics laboratories on the East and West coasts of the United States.

Virtually all historians today agree that the resistance of the world should play some role in the history of an episode. Historians are divided, however, about the extent of this role. Some portray scientific practice primarily as a process of accommodation to the world; others, while acknowledging that the world puts up some resistance, take the network of social relations as the primary causal and explanatory category. Most works of historiography, furthermore, devote no general discussion to the conceptualization of the resistance of the world that they adopt, let alone to the comparison of different possible conceptualizations. There remains a vagueness about how nature is supposed to influence scientists and how this influence interacts with the actions of other agents.

In an earlier period, these issues would have been discussed in terms of the distinction between internal and external factors. Internal or cognitive factors were supposed to convey the constraints that nature posed to theories, whereas external or social factors were seen as embodying the degree of conventionality of scientific findings. These terms have now largely lost credit, for good reason. It is debatable to what extent internal and external factors can truly be distinguished: it seems plausible to maintain that certain factors come to be constituted as cognitive through a social process, and that social factors act on scientists only through the mediation of cognitive factors.

There is, therefore, a need of systematic discussion in historiography of science about ways of conceptualizing the resistance opposed by the world. This discussion would provide a more differentiated and subtle historiographic view of the way in which scientists reach their findings and how these findings are determined. The aim of Project 1 is to place the concept of the resistance of the world to scientists’ claims and theories in a historiographic context at the centre of attention.

Project 1 will:

  • Construct an inventory of possible conceptions of the resistance of the world to scientists’ claims and theories. This inventory will be built up partly on the basis of systematic considerations, and partly by surveying works in history of science.
  • Give a philosophical discussion of the merits and shortcomings of each of these conceptions, both as elements of a general philosophical account of science and as heuristic and interpretative tools for use in historiography of science.
  • Evaluate the existing history of science literature for its use of these conceptions, with special attention for conceptions that seem promising but which have been underexploited.
  • Develop an overall philosophical account of how the resistance of the world to scientists’ claims and theories should be conceived, and discuss how this account can be implemented in historiography.
  • Test the account developed by writing a history of an episode embodying it and comparing this to existing histories.

Key to Project 1 will be to consider how the resistance of the world can be regarded as flowing (in all directions) between empirical data, scientists’ cognitive acts, and scientists’ findings. On one partial model, scientists first encounter the resistance of the world in empirical data, and adjust their cognitive behaviour and findings accordingly; on another model, the resistance of the world manifests itself initially in cognitive acts, which constrain the interpretation of data and thereby the findings; on a third, the world is constituted or structured by scientists’ findings, prior to which talk of the "resistance of the world" is problematic. Project 1 will disentangle these partial models and discuss their possible integration and contribution to historiography of science.

By adopting such terms, Project 1 will both address the issues that lay at the heart of the internalism–externalism debate in a new form, and attain a deeper level of conceptual sophistication than is common in historiography of science.

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