Microscopes and Patchworks: An Introduction To Debates On Present-Centred And Whig History In The History Of Science

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Short paper examining the current state of historiographic debate concerning the state of Present-Centrism in the History of Science.

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<p>Tobias Bowman</p> <p>Microscopes and Patchworks: An introduction to debates on present-centred and Whig history in the History of science.Tobias Bowman</p> <p>The Study of Whig HistoryIncreasingly over the past half century, the History of Science as a broad discipline, has become more introspective.[footnoteRef:1] Hakfoort and others cite an awareness of the contemporary degree of change in the minds of Science Historians as one of the prompts for a more multifaceted approach to the History of Science, first championed in the 1930s by people such as Sigerist and Merton.[footnoteRef:2] This diversification into examining the sociology of science, the culture of experimentation or the economics of research arose predominantly out of this period of introspection. One of the primary effects of this change was to affect the way which older, more traditional historical inquiries into science, such as Gillespies The Edge of Objectivity, were regarded.[footnoteRef:3] Such pieces of work were now considered too vague, too selective, and crucially they were considered to be un-viable, because the perceived events and facts of the past had been unified into a contemporary philosophy.[footnoteRef:4] This use of the present context of a discipline or individual to convey meaning to past events was referred to first by Butterfield as Whig History and expanded upon latterly by Ashplant and Wilson as Present-Centred History.[footnoteRef:5] [1: C. Hakfoort, The Missing Syntheses in the Historiography of Science, History of Science, 29, 2 (1991), pp. 207-16; and also A. Barry, The History of Measurement and the Engineers of Space, The British Journal for the History of Science, 26, 4 (1993), pp. 459-68; and also A.M. Brandt, Emerging themes in the history of medicine, The Milbank Quarterly, 69, 2 (1991), pp. 199-214.] [2: Ibid pp.202; and also A. Cunningham and P. Williams, De-Centring the 'Big Picture': "The Origins of Modern Science" and the Modern Origins of Science, The British Journal for the History of Science, 26, 4 (1993), pp. 407-32; and also J. W. Leavitt, Medicine in Context: A Review Essay of the History of Medicine, The American Historical Review, 95, 5 (1990), pp. 1471-84.] [3: J. R. R. Christie, Aurora, Nemesis and Clio, The British Journal for the History of Science, 26, 4 (1993), pp. 391-405; and also C. C. Gillespie, The Edge of Objectivity (Princeton, 1960).] [4: A. Cunningham and P. Williams, De-Centring the 'Big Picture': "The Origins of Modern Science" and the Modern Origins of Science, The British Journal for the History of Science, 26, 4 (1993), pp. 407-32.] [5: A. R. Hall, On Whiggism, History of Science, 21, 1 (1983), pp. 45-59; and also A. Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, Whig History and Present-Centred History, The Historical Journal, 31, 1 (1988), pp. 1-16.] </p> <p>These three authors, Herbert Butterfield, Timothy Ashplant and Adrian Wilson are among the core contributors to the discussion of this historical trope (though the work of Hall and of Elton has been undeniably useful in this area of study also)[footnoteRef:6] indeed it could be argued that Butterfields identification of Whig History was the first to examine the unifying, zeitgeist oriented histories so common in History in general, but specifically within synthetic histories, in a negative light.[footnoteRef:7] [6: G. R. Elton, The Practice of History, (London, 1967), pp. 100-3; and also A. R. Hall, On Whiggism, History of Science, 21, 1 (1983), pp. 45-60.] [7: H. Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, (London, 1931).] </p> <p>It is to Butterfield then that we must turn first, as his book The Whig Interpretation of History is key to the study of Whig History. Butterfields term Whig History arose from his study of the typically liberal (or Whig) histories of Britain produced in the 19th century. These histories often examined the constitutional crises of 17th century Britain in the context of the contemporary growth of liberty, the rule of law and the spread of religious tolerance. Whig History took the events of the past and perceived them in such a way as to make them instrumental in the events of the more recent past or the present, even though the perpetrators of the activities or events described could have had no way of knowing the future they were supposedly forging and they were, in fact, motivationally autochthonous.[footnoteRef:8] As such, a definition as Whig History constituted a form of criticism, wherein the historical work constructed or inferred truths or relevancies to historical sources which they did not themselves have.[footnoteRef:9] This practice had, until the beginning of the 20th century, been commonplace, if not universal within the British histories which Butterfield was examining, and his open critique of this historical methodology was therefore fresh in that respect.[footnoteRef:10] This tendency could be most commonly seen within the commonplace and wide ranging Synthetic histories, including those of science,[footnoteRef:11] such as The Edge of Objectivity or The Origins of Modern Science, by Butterfield himself.[footnoteRef:12] Butterfield also argued that one of the main flaws in Whig History was one of filtering; that Whig historians were very selective in the evidence from sources that they chose to study, preferring instead to seek out and use those sources which backed up the philosophy or paradigm they were trying to expound.[footnoteRef:13] Though he would later go on to do this himself in The Englishman and his History, it does not diminish the validity of his initial assessment.[footnoteRef:14] Butterfield was, himself in many ways a Whig historian, having a traditional British education at Cambridge, and was teaching History at Cambridge when he wrote The Whig Interpretation of History. [footnoteRef:15] As was mentioned above, his recognition of the trend of driving historical enquiry towards a model of the present as a negative in historical practice, quite new at the time, arose within the context of reading and examining many of the traditional British histories during his study in Cambridge. Indeed his later works, when straying from the area of historiography to his other main historical interests; Christian History (he was a devout Protestant) in particular, were often highly Whiggish by his own definition. Butterfields personal context is crucial in understanding one of the major flaws highlighted in his work by Hall and, later still, by Ashplant and Wilson. [8: A. Cunningham, Getting The Game Right: Some Plain Words On The Identity And Invention Of Science, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 19, 3 (1987), pp. 365-389.] [9: A. Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, Whig History and Present-Centred History, The Historical Journal, 31, 1 (1988), pp. 1-16.] [10: A. Cunningham, Getting The Game Right: Some Plain Words On The Identity And Invention Of Science, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 19, 3 (1987), pp. 365-389.] [11: A. Cunningham and P. Williams, De-Centring the 'Big Picture': "The Origins of Modern Science" and the Modern Origins of Science, The British Journal for the History of Science, 26, 4 (1993), pp. 407-32; and also J. R. R. Christie, Aurora, Nemesis and Clio, The British Journal for the History of Science, 26, 4 (1993), pp. 391-405.] [12: H. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800, (London, 1949)] [13: A. Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, Whig History and Present-Centred History, The Historical Journal, 31, 1 (1988), pp. 1-16.] [14: A. R. Hall, On Whiggism, History of Science, 21, 1 (1983), pp. 45-59.] [15: M. Bentley, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: History, Science, and God, (Cambridge, 2011).] </p> <p>Butterfield argued that the best way to counteract or prevent Whiggish History was for Historians to report on their area of study in the greatest detail, likening the work of the historian to that of the microscopist.[footnoteRef:16] He believed that elucidating as much data as possible surrounding the circumstances of past events would limit the degree to which historians could impose their own contextual substrate, as well as restrict their ability to pick and choose facts to fit their preconceived version of events. Butterfields definition of Whig History, and this prescribed treatment, was not examined in any significant critical detail until the work by Hall in the 1980s.[footnoteRef:17] Those examining Whiggish History before Hall had little option but to use Butterfields work, his toolkit of historical microscopy as a basis for their investigation (Carr had criticised Butterfields analysis in 1964, but not in such a way to allow discussion of alternate theoretical methodologies[footnoteRef:18]), which Hall argued is flawed. The Whig Interpretation of History can be considered flawed in several ways. Firstly, it is itself highly Whiggish: Butterfield, when examining the phenomenon in history, considers the case only of white, upper class, English historians, and then applies those observations to History as a global discipline, thus Butterfield could be seen as a slave to the practice he sought to destroy.[footnoteRef:19] Secondly his work contradicts itself; by proposing a method by which Whig History can be avoided completely, whilst simultaneously (and very vocally in his later work The Englishman and His History[footnoteRef:20]) accepting that historians will always be influenced by the present in some ways. Butterfield is proposing a cure to an illness he admits cannot be cured.[footnoteRef:21] Thirdly, Butterfield assumes that the truths of the past lie in the historical sources (relics) of the past, and that the work of the historian was to illuminate said truth, even though past sources cannot possibly contain the entire picture of past events.[footnoteRef:22] Butterfield, it must be remembered, was writing within the academic context of a British traditional historian, with interests in Constitutional History and the History of British Christianity.[footnoteRef:23] In this way Butterfield can be seen, even if writing historiographically, and on the practice of History, internally. His interest and knowledge are limited to academically accepted (White, male, upper/middle class, Christian, British) historians, and uses that understanding to form his argument.[footnoteRef:24] Butterfields later acceptance of Whig History as unavoidable, and coming to actively practice it in The Englishman and His History and later works reflects his realisation within the field of the traditional historical establishment in England, and specifically Cambridge (where he taught until his death in 1979)[footnoteRef:25], he could not function within his academic (and resultantly, social) sphere without it. [16: A. Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, Whig History and Present-Centred History, The Historical Journal, 31, 1 (1988), pp. 1-16.] [17: A. R. Hall, On Whiggism, History of Science, 21, 1 (1983), pp. 45-59.] [18: E. H. Carr, What is History?, (Harmondsworth, 1964).] [19: A. Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, Whig History and Present-Centred History, The Historical Journal, 31, 1 (1988), pp. 1-16.] [20: H. Butterfield, The Englishman and His History, (London, 1944) pp. 73.] [21: A. Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, Whig History and Present-Centred History, The Historical Journal, 31, 1 (1988), pp. 1-16.] [22: Ibid, pp. 7.] [23: M. Bentley, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: History, Science, and God, (Cambridge, 2011); and also B. Hancock, Gifford Lectures: Herbert Butterfield, Accessed 18 November 2013. http://www.giffordlectures.org/Author.asp?AuthorID=32,] [24: A. Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, Whig History and Present-Centred History, The Historical Journal, 31, 1 (1988), pp. 1-16.] [25: M. Bentley, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: History, Science, and God, (Cambridge, 2011).] </p> <p>The Study of Present-Centred History</p> <p>Hall and subsequently (and far more resolutely) Ashplant and Wilson attempt to reassess the practise of Present-Centred History whilst crucially trying to find a new standpoint on challenging it.[footnoteRef:26] Hall argues that as historical fact in practice approaches infinite proportions, the filtering of historical sources (considered the bane of Whig History by Butterfield) is necessary to all historical enquiry.[footnoteRef:27] Not only that, but as he considers a random selection to both be impossible and not particularly useful, he advocated that we examine how we select areas to study, rather than trying to study everything, in order to understand how to limit selecting sources to fit the thesis, this was especially important with Synthetic Histories.[footnoteRef:28] Ashplant and Wilson took Halls work, which set a precedent for examining Butterfields model and solution critically, and used it to define their new understanding of the nature and response to the same problem which Butterfield attempted to define as Whig History, Present-Centred History.[footnoteRef:29] [26: A. Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, Present-Centred History and the Problem of Historical Knowledge, The Historical Journal, 31, 2 (1988) pp. 253-74.] [27: A. R. Hall, On Whiggism, History of Science, 21, 1 (1983), pp. 45-59.] [28: Ibid, pp. 46.] [29: A. Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, Whig History and Present-Centred History, The Historical Journal, 31, 1 (1988), pp. 1-16.] </p> <p>Present-Centred History, like Whig History, is broadly considered something to be avoided in modern historical writing; Ashplant and Wilson assert that the categorisation of past events into contemporary contexts introduces bias and distortion to historical research.[footnoteRef:30] Present-Centredness pervaded a great deal of work, particularly synthetic histories, in the History of Science; Natural Philosophers and Alchemists of the past were traditionally painted as pioneers in the field of science at the time, devoting their life to research and the study of the universe, as a step on the path to modern age, regardless of the truth or falsehood of that statement. Like Butterfield before them, but unlike Butterfields earlier historical detractors like Carr, Elton and Hall,[footnoteRef:31] Ashplant and Wilson attempted to set out a toolkit by which one might minimise Present-Centred Histories.[footnoteRef:32] Butterfield, as mentioned above, suggested a method of going into intense detail on every topic studied, thus allowing the reader increased agency of interpretation. Ashplant and Wilson, on the other hand, argue for an awareness of the tendency on the part of the historian, and a clearer understanding of the local, contextual motivations of those creating the data being studied (i.e. the primary sources).[footnoteRef:33] Both however agree (oxymoronically in Butterfields case, pragmatically in Ashplant and Wilsons) that this process can only be one of limitation; that the historian by their very nature is writing within the context of...</p>