What does “constructivism” mean these days for historians of science? As near as I can tell, it is simply the idea that each scientific claim has a complex causal history that involves people. But there is nothing new about this idea, as we see once we drop straw-mannish views about old-fashioned internalist historians of science. The real novelty is not constructivism but social constructivism, or something like it. Nor is this the only way that old-fashioned historians are short-changed by the way "constructivism" is sometimes portrayed nowadays. Fortunately, there are some simple steps we can take to solve these problems. Let me explain. But before I explain, let me disclaim. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with what is called “constructivism” or “social constructivism,” or that there is nothing new about those approaches. My views on the internal/external distinction are, I think, fair on both sides. My target is not the historical work of constructivists but the way that work is sometimes portrayed. And I am less interested in knocking down constructivists than I am in giving some credit to their predecessors. Current definitions of constructivism Now I'll explain. Here are two recent definitions of constructivism from historians of science.
By a 'constructivist' outlook, I mean that which regards scientific knowledge primarily as a human product, made with locally situated cultural and material resources, rather than as simply the revelation of a pre-given order of nature" (Jan Golinski, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science, xvii).
Most historians are constructivists. Most constructivists take for granted that both the givenness of the experience and phenomena presented in experiental narratives and the aboutness of the language that describes them can be explained as the product of human agency--writing and theorising as well as manipulating (and designing the manipulation of) material objects and agents (David Gooding, in Radder ed., The Philosophy of Scientific Experimentation, 261).Here is another statement which looks like an implied definition of constructivism:
[F]or [Simon] Schaffer, myself, and others, it is one of the signal virtues of science studies to have localised the production of knowledge, and to have shown that agency is involved in the production and dissemination of that knowledge" (Peter Galison, in The Disunity of Science, 29).If you think I've cherry-picked these examples, consider how often how words implying human agency—like “work,” “production” and “making”—appear in close vicinity to the word “constructivism.” Or consider a statement that introduced many historians to constructivism back in the roaring '80s:
Knowledge, as much as the state, is the product of human actions (Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump, 344).What these quotes have in common is the idea that the main products of science need to be explained by reference to human activity. They have other themes too, like the local nature of science or the importance of the dissemination of scientific ideas. But the main one they share is that the products of science can be (at least partly) explained by human action. Current definitions of non-constructivism If this is constructivism, what does it mean to not be a constructivist? The first quote above suggests an answer, since it contrasts constructivists with those who regard science “as simply the revelation of a pre-given order of nature.” This answer is not unique to the author of this quote. Sometimes the answer is put poetically, as when old-fashioned writers are said to have thought that “the truth shines by its own light.” Another common formulation is that, in the eyes of old historians of science, “scientific knowledge spreads because it is true.” I'm not making these up. The suggestion seems to be that, for a non-constructivist, scientists are people who sit around, not performing any actions, waiting for nature to be revealed to them. Eventually, through some combination of luck, patience and providence, they acquire true beliefs. There are no non-constructivists I do not know of any historians of scientists who are non-constructivists in this sense, and nor do I expect to ever meet any. Let me begin with William Whewell. He is a good case to consider because he wrote a long time ago, he wrote in English, and he is one of the historians of science least likely to be called a constructivist. Consider an excerpt from William Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences. The first edition of this book, to which my page numbers refer, was published in 1837. The section I happen to have in hard-copy is called “Promulgation of the electro-chemical theory by Davy” (v.3, 154-162). The main scientific product here is Humphrey Davy's theory that “chemical and electrical attractions were produced by the same cause, acting in the one case on particles, in the other on masses.” By my count Whewell describes 18 separate human actions in this section, an average of two per page. These actions include such things as:
--Alessandro Volta's execution of an experiment in 1800, in which he placed the two ends of a Voltaic pile in water and observed streams of gas rising from each wire, gasses that were identified as oxygen and hydrogen --Davy's acquisition of a pile of great power in 1801 --Davy's conjecture that in all cases of chemical decomposition using the pile, the chemical products might be related to each other as electrically positive and negative --William H. Wollaston's demonstration that the action of the Voltaic pile was always accompanied by oxidation or other chemical changes, and his inference that the pile could not be explained solely in terms of the contact between different metals --Davy's equivocations about exactly what he meant by his electro-chemical theory.Nowhere in this section does Whewell say that Davy believed his theory just because it was true. In fact, throughout the section Whewell stresses that (in his words) “[Davy's] view was far from obvious.” At the beginning of the section Whewell even reminds us how perplexing and difficult it is to arrive at a new theory:
In the newly-acquired provinces of man's intellectual empire, the din and confusion of conquests, pass gradually only into quiet and security. We have seen, in the history of all capital discoveries, how hardly they have made their way, even among the most intelligent and candid philosophers of the antecedent schools: we must, therefore, not expect that the metamorphosis of the theoretical views of chemistry which is now going on, will be effected without some trouble and delay.Examples could be endlessly multiplied of historians of science who describe a great deal of human activity but who have never been called “constructivists.” I'll just give one other example of constructivism in an unexpected place. It's probably my favourite example, so I quote at length:
When the taps of the beak break the shell of the egg and the chick breaks from its prison, the child might imagine that this rigid and immobile mass ... has suddenly taken life and produced the bird that runs and squeaks. But where the childish imagination sees a sudden creation, the naturalist recognises the final phase of a long development ... The vulgar see the birth of physical theories as the child sees the hatching of the chick ... He thinks that it was enough for Newton to watch an apple fall in a field, for the effects of the fall of heavy bodies, the movements of the earth, the moon, the planets and their satellites, the trajectories of comets, the flux and reflux of the sea, to suddenly be summarised and ordered in this single proposition: any two bodies attract eachother in proportion to the product of their masses and the inverse square of the distance between them (Pierre Duhem, La théorie physique: son objet, sa structure, 337-338, original pagination, my translation).Constructivists like to compare scientific theories to black boxes in need of opening, and to ships in bottles. Duhem makes the same point by comparing a theory to a newly-hatched egg. Yet I doubt that Duhem has ever been included in a list of constructivists. Another more general point is that so-called non-constructivists are often criticised for espousing one or other scientific method. But a method is a human activity, pretty much by definition. For example, in the book just cited Duhem describes four successive operations that physicists carry out on the way to a physical theory: finding simple physical properties and attaching mathematical symbols to them; combining these symbols to give a small number of hypotheses; using algebra to create a theory that is consistent with these hypotheses; then deriving predictions from these hypotheses and testing them against experiment. What are these operations if not human actions, and what is the result if not the product of work, effort and agency? Interlude: replies to some possible objections It might be objected that writers like Whewell and Duhem are not proper constructivists because they focus on the long-term development of scientific ideas. They don't go into detail about the mundane, day-to-day actions of someone like Davy or Newton. To which the reply is two-fold. Firstly, there are historians of science who do go into that sort of detail, but who are rarely called constructivists. My staple examples are Jed Buchwald's Creation of Scientific Effects and Larry Holmes' Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life. There are plenty of other examples. Secondly, why are microhistories superior to macrohistories, when it comes to showing the work or agency that goes into any given scientific product? After the passage about the chick and the egg, Duhem gives a history of Newton's law of gravitation that goes all the way back to Aristotle. We tend to dismiss such narratives as Whiggish. If we were consistent, we would praise them for showing the vast amount of work, effort and agency that was required to produce something as simple-seeming as Newton's law. (By the same token, we would criticise microhistories for seeing scientific theories as the child sees the newly-hatched chick.) Some might object that Whewell and Duhem are only constructivists in a perverse, legalistic sense. After all, neither of them do what self-identified constructivists do today. They don't describe how scientific beliefs emerge out of the ambitions and interests of scientists, and out of the laboratories, cultures and training regimes in which scientists are embedded. But this is just my point. The difference between Whewell and, say, Steven Shapin, is not that one includes human agency in his histories while the other does not. The real difference is that Whewell focuses on one kind of human agency whereas Shapin focuses on a different kind. Whewell writes about people speculating, hypothesising, carrying out experiments, and gradually refining their concepts. Shapin writes about ambitions, interests, training regimes, etc. Two related grievances My conclusion so far is that there is nothing new about including human agency in histories of science. Contrary to a familiar line, old-fashioned historians did not believe that “truth shines with its own light.” Traditional historians have two other reasons to feel somewhat short-changed by the self-portrayal of self-identified constructivists. One is that the latter sometimes depict old-fashioned historians and philosophers as living in fear of human agency. Here is an example from a book that is so well-known that the paragraph is worth quoting in full:
There is nothing so given as a matter of fact. In common speech, as in the philosophy of science, the solidity and permanence of matters of fact reside in the absence of human agency in their coming to be. Human agents make theories and interpretations, and human agents therefore may unmake them. But matters of fact are regarded as the very 'mirror of nature.' Like Stendhal's ideal novel, matters of fact are held to be the passive result of holding a mirror up to reality. What men make, men may unmake; but what nature makes no man may dispute. To identify the role of human agency in the making of an item of knowledge is to identify the possibility of it being otherwise. To shift the agency onto natural reality is to stipulate the grounds for universal and irrevocable assent (Leviathan and the Air Pump, 23).This passage seems to say that, according to received wisdom, the best way to make people believe something is to convince them that no humans had any role in the formation of that belief. Neither Whewell nor Duhem, nor any other historian I know, considered it inappropriate for scientists to carry out experiments, make calculations, or derive predictions. Perhaps such historians were hostile to other kinds of human agency in science, like endorsing a theory just because your job depends on it, or like omitting counter-examples from a published paper. Probably they also thought that instruments do certain jobs better than humans can. But that's a long way from having a generalised suspicion of all human agency. Sometimes self-identified constructivists do discuss the human actions that interested Whewell and Duhem, such as carrying out experiments and making inferences. The odd thing—and here is the second way that old-fashioned historians are short-changed—is that nowadays these sorts of actions are sometimes presented as if no-one had written about them before. Consider, for example, Jan Golinski's discussion of a lecture Davy gave on the Voltaic pile in 1806, before the Royal Society of London. Golinski points out that the first part of Davy's lecture was devoted to a defense of the Voltaic pile. For the rest of his findings to be credible, Davy needed to defend the pile against critics who thought that it decomposed pure water into acids and alkilis as well as into hydrogen and oxygen. (My text is Golinski's Science as Public Culture, 209-211). Golinksi then describes how Davy mounted his defense. He presented past interpretations of the pile as varied and confused. He then described some refinements of technique, such as using a large battery, pure platinum electrodes, repeatedly distilled water, and so on. Then Davy showed how, by repeated trials using these new materials, he could get rid of the acid completely and greatly reduce the amount of alkili. He then showed that this alkili could have come from impurities in the water he used, since a lengthy process of evaporation revealed that the water contained saline matter even though it had been distilled. Other experiments, which Golinski summarises, showed that the acids and alkilis could have come from the wax or resin cups used by other experimenters, or from dissolved nitrogen in the water. All of this is meat and drink to an old-fashioned historian of science. Golinski may have been the first to spend time describing these particular experiments and arguments, but he is by no means the first to notice that Davy's papers contain arguments based on experiments. Yet this is not what you would think from reading Golinski's conclusion, which seems to imply that his analysis of Davy's paper is the fruit of the constructivist programme:
The instrumental power of the pile was not purely natural; it had to be constructed by Davy through resourceful experiment and effective argumentation.Constructivists as marketers of bottled water So far this post may remind some readers of what the intellectual historian John Zammito has called “post-modern equivocation,” and which Will Thomas has discussed here. The phenomenon is also known as the “post-modern bait-and-switch”. The “bait” is a radical, attention-grabbing claim such as that natural objects or phenomena (quarks, the moons of Jupiter, the law of gravity) come into existence because scientists have some social need for them. Call this claim A. The “switch” is when the claim is changed without notice into a more mundane claim, such as the claim that sometimes the belief in natural objects or phenomena comes into existence because scientists have some social need for that belief. Call this claim B. The phenomenon that I am calling the constructivist straw-man is like the bait-and-switch insofar as the former relies on an equivocation. The equivocation is between saying (claim A*) that there is some human agency in science, and (claim B*) that there are particular kinds of human agency in science such as social interests, disciplinary dynamics, office politics, etc. But the constructivist straw-man is different from post-modern equivocation in two ways. One is that the claims involved in the equivocation are different. True, B looks quite similar to B*. But A does not appear in the constructivist straw-man, and A* does not appear in the bait-and-switch. The second and more important difference concerns the rhetorical effect of these two argumentative moves. The effect of post-modern equivocation is to give apparently plausible arguments for a radical position when in fact the arguments only support a more mundane position. By contrast, the effect of the constructivist straw-man is, like all straw man arguments, to claim a victory over an opponent by misrepresenting their position. The effect of this straw man in particular is to suggest that the study of the social aspects of science is necessary to doing good history of science. Some commercial examples might help to show the distinction I have in mind. An example of a bait-and-switch might be Subway advertising a sandwich as a “Subway footlong” but selling you an 11-inch sandwich after the advert has enticed you to walk 10 minutes to their store. The constructivist straw-man is more like an advertisement for bottled water. Such adverts point out that the human body is 80% water, that this liquid is vital to your health, and that if you don't drink any within three days you'll die. While saying this, the advert presents images of the company's bottled water. What the advert omits is that you can get perfectly good water, with all the same life-sustaining properties, by going to your kitchen and turning on the tap. The overall effect is to create the impression that purchasing a bottle of the company's water is necessary for your future well-being. In a similar way, people sympathetic to the constructivist programme draw attention to its historiographical virtues—after all, it gives us a way of talking about human agency, and how could we write history without talking about human agency? They then give examples of studies that deal with the social aspects of human agency—the ambitions of scientists, disciplinary dynamics, etc. They omit examples of books and articles that have the same historiographical virtues but that focus on the internal aspects of science. The overall effect is to suggest that social history of science is more wholesome than old-fashioned approaches to the history of science. To be fair on self-identified constructivists, they differ from bottled-water marketers because they are not asking for our money, because there are independent reasons to pay attention to their "product," and because they probably do not intend to have the rhetorical effect I have just described. But that is the effect all the same, and it is unfair on old-fashioned internalists and their present-day descendants. Practical solutions What can be done? It would probably be unfair to ask “constructivists” to stop using that label: like the label “internalist,” people are familiar with it and know roughly what sort of books and articles it refers to. But it is not too much to ask self-identified constructivists to call themselves “social constructivists” rather than just plain “constructivists.” The former label is still a bit misleading, since the constructivism of someone like Whewell was “social” in the sense that he saw science as a collective enterprise (just look at the list of “persons cited” at the end of his History of the Inductive Sciences). It is also misleading insofar as self-identified constructivists are usually interested in more than just the social interests of scientists. But it's a good start. Another corrective would be to avoid defining “social constructivism” as the doctrine that science is the result of “work,” “effort,” or “human agency,” or that science is a “human activity” or a “human accomplishment,” or that science is “made by humans.” All of these terms are straw-mannish unless the user clarifies that it is social work and social effort and social activity that is novel about their approach. But maybe the best antidote to the constructivist straw-man would be for other historians—those who would not usually call themselves “constructivists,” and especially those who tend to write internalist histories of science—to start calling themselves constructivists. This may be met with blank looks and confusion, at least initially. To clarify matters it may help to add something like “I'm a constructivist, just not a social constructivist.” Or even better: “I'm a constructivist, just like William Whewell.” Expand post.