The key idea of the workshop “Cultures and styles of scientific pratice” can be best captured by the phrase “cultures without culturalism.”
Bruno Belhoste, Karine Chemla (organiser), Caroline Ehrhardt, Moritz Epple, Fa-ti Fan, Evelyn Fox Keller (organiser), Christophe Heintz, Kenji Ito, Guillaume Lachenal, Donald MacKenzie, Mary Morgan, Nancy Nersessian, David Rabouin, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Claude Rosental, Friedrich Steinle, Koen Vermeir
by Karine Chemla and Evelyn Fox Keller
16 – 21 juin 2008
The key idea of the workshop that gathered cognitive scientists, historians, philosophers and sociologists of science for one week at the Fondation des Treilles can be best captured by the phrase “cultures without culturalism.” This phrase emerged during the final discussion and will most probably serve as the title of the book that we plan to develop from the presentations given at the workshop and the discussions on them.
The project started from an observation. On the one hand, over the last couple of decades, historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science have become acutely aware of the need to consider the specificities of “local cultures” if they are to account for the production, the use, and the reproduction of scientific knowledge. To illustrate the benefits of taking such cultural considerations into account, Karine Chemla discussed her use of the concept of “epistemological culture” to organize her observations, drawn from mathematical sources from ancient China, on mathematical practices in ancient China.. Indeed, she suggested that the description of such cultures was essential in order to interprete the sources in a rational way. On the other hand, the use of notions of “culture” in the history of science is fraught with dangers. First is the enormously difficult problem of defining what one means by ‘culture’, and second, perhaps even more important, are the pitfalls of cultural essentialism (what we call “culturalism”). These pitfalls were exposed at the workshop from two perspectives. First, Ito Kenji (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies, Sokendai, Japan) analyzed forces at play in contemporary history of science that contribute to varieties of “Orientalism”, promoting a description of scientific activities in Asia as exotic, and as shaped by specific cultural identities. Relying mainly on his research experience on the history of physics in Japan, Ito stressed how, in such a context, Japanese scientists who had advocated forms of cultural essentialism (e.g., Yukawa) were taken by “Western” students of science studies to be representative of science in Japan, even though being, in fact, rather exceptional. Ito outlined historiographic approaches that would, alternatively, explore the emergence of a common scientific culture out of differing local cultural contexts in the history of physics in Japan, approaches that would offer other types of narrative. Second, Guillaume Lachenal (Université Paris Diderot, France) discussed a controversy following the announcement, by a well-known Professor of medicine and former Minister of Health, of the discovery of a vaccine against AIDS in Cameroon in 2001. Lachenal’s point was that the vaccine was defined by local actors as “Cameroonian, ” and hence as opposed to the “culture” of transnational biomedical research. He also related the case to other episodes, in which the “Africanity” of cures could be claimed and valued by some actors for just that reason, and analyzed how the combination of the organization of worldwide biomedical research and local politics influenced the development of such episodes. In brief, these contributions brought clearly to the fore the reasons why it is both meaningful and necessary to devise an approach to “cultures without culturalism” in science studies.
Some contributions focused on components of local scientific cultures that appeared essential to take into account. Friedrich Steinle (Wuppertal Universität, Germany) attended to concepts and conceptual systems. Choosing examples from the history of electricity and magnetism, he analyzed how within a given culture , concepts are revised or new concepts introduced, stressing how particular cultural values had an impact in the process of concept formation. Nancy Nersessian (Georgia Institute of Technology, USA) relied on an ethnographic study of two university research laboratories — one in tissue engineering and one in neural engineering — to highlight the part played by the interaction between researchers and physical devices in the conduct of their research. She focused in particular on the role of such devices in the way in which researchers generate hypotheses, use models, explore and explain, her main goal being to bring to light how the laboratory is a site for the production, stabilization and evolution of new cognitive practices. Following on the same lines, Christoph Heintz (Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Austria) presented his ideas about distributed cognition and its role in the recent history of the 4-colour problem and its solution. He also stressed the interaction between researchers and their devices, and attempted to give an account for how these devices evolve in time. Mary Morgan (London School of Economics, United Kingdom) devoted her presentation to another component of a local scientific culture: the modes of reasoning and their link to the creation of objects and kinds of explanations. More specifically, she focused on the shift caused in economics, from the 18th century onwards, by the adoption of a style of reasoning based on the construction of models, stressing that the word in fact referred to a variety of practices, depending on the site in which one observed their actual use in economics. Claude Rosental (CNRS, France) chose to deal with another component of a scientific culture, namely, the practice of demonstration of scientific or technical results, be they for peers, for representatives of economic and political powers, or for a wider audience. He refers to these cultures as “demos”. Basing his conclusion on empirical investigations conducted over the last fifteen years, Rosental discussed the norms and constraints governing the practice of demonstrations in artificial intelligence or engineering. What all of these presentations have in common is their emphasis on the importance of particular epistemological factors (epistemological values, preferred ways of understanding and so on) in accounting for how a given culture works.
A third set of presentations considered “culture” more globally, stressing the variety in the kinds of cultures that might be considered, and the different levels at which they could be observed. At a micro-level, Bruno Belhoste (Université Paris 1, France) analyzed the dispositif shaped by Cuvier at the end of the 18th century and beginning of 19th century to restore extinct species. Belhoste described the intellectual, material and social resources that Cuvier assembled —all of which could be found in the urban setting of Paris — to yield a particular way of carrying out research in paleontology. Combining micro- and macro levels, Hans-Joerg Rheinberger (Max Planck Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin, Germany) discussed experimental cultures, focusing, in particular, on the in vitro culture of the life sciences in the 20th century. Pointing out the various forms that this type of experimentation has historically taken, Rheinberger suggested that the description of such a culture had to include the conglomeration of systems that communicate with each other. In another vein, in his studies of earthquake prediction in communist China, and especially during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, Fan Fa-ti (SUNY at Binghampton, USA) was led to analyze a kind of culture that required a macro-level analysis: a science of and for the people. His main point was to stress the combination of scientific ideas and political beliefs involved in the shaping of ways in which the monitoring so essential for earthquake research was carried out. Fan emphasized in particular the various means (publication, training, material devices, and so on) by which virtually every citizen could become a member of the knowledge culture.
In a fourth set of presentations, notions of “culture” were approached by means of contrasts that various cultures present with one another in different disciplinary contexts. Caroline Ehrhardt (Service d’histoire de l’éducation, Paris, France) focussed on differences between local research cultures and practices in 19th century mathematics, highlighting the various ways in which Galois’ memoir about the resolution of equations was read, used and exploited in different contexts. The main idea she wanted to emphasize was that interpretation of a theory or a result depends on the culture to which practitioners belong. Moritz Epple (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, Germany) opted for a synchronic approach, focusing on the differences and similarities between two episodes of theory formation in the context of early 20th century mathematics: one centering on Felix Hausdorff’s work on the mathematical and philosophical aspects of time and space (ca 1897-1905), and the other on Ludwig Prandtl’s aerodynamic work before and during World War I. His central point was to highlight the differences in normative patterns that could account for their very different dynamics of research. Koen Vermeir (Institute of Philosophy, Leuven University, Belgium) also chose a synchronic approach, showing how, at the end of 17th century, competing accounts of the power of divining rods for the discovery of criminals revealed different epistemological cultures. This case study also led him to consider the question of circulation between these cultures, and the ways in which this circulation occurred.
Cultural circulation is precisely the theme that unifies the last set of contributions. David Rabouin (REHSEIS, CNRS & U. Paris 7, France) stressed that, beyond the changes in epistemological culture that succeeded one another in mathematics, a certain invariance in the practices of writing allowed circulation, and hence forms of continuity, between them. Concentrating on modern economics, Donald MacKenzie considered another form of circulation: he chose to observe what happened when a piece of knowledge elaborated in the world of theory was translated into the “‘real’ world of financial markets.” This example allowed him to analyze how, within a given cultural setting and through cultural circulation, theory can effect changes in the world it seeks to describe, that is to say, the world described by the theory can be shaped by the elements of theory brought to practice within a given cultural setting. Finally, describing the recent emergence of a converging interest, in a number of different fields, in the development of notions of embodied information, or of a “science of informed matter, ” Evelyn Fox Keller (MIT, USA) emphasized the transcultural dimension of certain shifts in epistemological culture. This conclusion was meant to insist on the fact that epistemological cultures, like systems, can be identified both at different levels and across levels. She stressed how cross-level cultural phenomena can permeate cultures differentiated along other axes, with echoes and resonances providing the currents of circulation and the means of cultural change and exchange.