An Historian’s Worst Nightmare: Conceptual Anachronisms

Let me be more specific than the title admits.  What exactly is this conceptual anachronism of which I speak; and why is it every historian’s nightmare?  Put simply, it is the placement of concepts that did not exist in the period that the historian tries to apply them to.  Now, the theme of some of my more recent blog posts has been that the importance of recognizing the discipline of “history and philosophy of science” as an autonomous, separate field of study.  In it, each individual, in addition to training in theoretical and empirical sciences, themselves, has an historical and philosophical knowledge of the sciences and its methodologies; and that a scholar of any single of the discipline (history, philosophy, or science) is acutely unqualified to deal with the complete subject —that is, the history and philosophy of science.  Moreover, without years of training expressly in this unique field, a scholar trying to wander into this field will, without a doubt, face more obstacles that he or she can overcome.  Let’s look at the particular example I have in mind.

William H. McNeill is no slouch in the world of historical scholarship, and that is putting it mildly.  His reputation, if you know anything about history, almost certainly precedes him.  However, he has, in a way, victimized himself by overstepping his expertise, in his work, called Pursuit of Power.  The particular issue is that he says gun projectiles went from being arrow-like to spheres, because spheres, unlike arrow-shaped objects, could accelerate down the entire distance of the tube (McNeill 1982, pg 25).  I am not sure what the reasoning was in the mind of the people that made this change in projectile shape, but it could not have been as described by the author. The reason is that Galileo invented the concept of acceleration quite a bit later.  Therefore, it seems beyond a doubt that McNeill has anachronistically imposed a rationale that could not have been historically accurate.

At once, I think that one might err in viewing this as an innocent mistake.  To some small extent, it is innocent; but it is also a hubristic one —one in which a specialist and scholar of one area of study does not acknowledge that he or she has left one’s own area of expertise, trespassing upon another’s.  My earnest hope is that historians and philosophers alike begin to acknowledge that there is an area of expertise that, while similar in some respects to their own, is not their area of expertise, namely, the history and philosophy of science.  The historian, qua scholar or general history, cannot enter into the history of science and expect to come out unscathed, particularly, if they haven’t the specialized training necessary to do so.  Now, here’s what I want my readers to consider, that I might punctuate my point: I am not very well trained in history, as of right now —though my education, in moving toward a PhD in HPS, is, in part, geared toward becoming a historian of science—, and I am essentially an infant in my studies of history of science, yet I have been able to correct and error made on the part of a great and notable historian.  I think that makes the point all the more clear: that a neophyte to the field of history of science, who is basically at the most nascent stages of his (mine) education in that field, can demonstrate (with great ease) the inadequacy of the scholar historian, when said historian enters into the history of science.  History is not the same subject matter as HPS, and the latter most certainly cannot be done properly without the additional ability and knowhow of philosophy and science.  Given the vast number of technical concepts in the history and philosophy of science, I think there is a great need for scholars of other fields to be sharply aware of what might at first come off as an ostensibly subtle difference.  Had an historian of science given a review of this book, it would not have taken kindly to McNeill; but, as it turns out, this is just a blog written by a grad student, not a scholarly review in an esteemed journal.

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One response to “An Historian’s Worst Nightmare: Conceptual Anachronisms

  1. Pingback: Addendum to Conceptual Anachronism Post | milliern

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