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Instituting Science: The Cultural Production of Scientific Disciplines.

Instituting Science: The Cultural Production of Scientific Disciplines. By Timothy Lenoir (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1997. ix plus 353 pp. $55.00).

With some notable exceptions, such as the work of Robert K. Merton or J. D. Bernal, the history of science in this century was long dominated by positivist intellectual history and near-hagiographic biography, both of which foregrounded theoretical innovation. But arguably dating from Paul Foreman's "Weimar Culture, Causality and Quantum Theory, 1918--1927" in 1971, [1] concerns of the new social history, as well as those of ethnomethodology and the "new" sociology of science (the empirical programme of relativism, or EPOR) have increasingly penetrated the sacred domain of "pure" science. The resulting "new" history of science emphasizes experimental practices and technologies, and the institutional, social, economic, political, and cultural nexus in which they are situated.

The core epistemic and historical issue at stake in these new approaches can be framed two ways: To what extent is the content of science underdetermined by purely scientific evidence and considerations (which implies that other, "social," factors might play a role in problem choice, experimental practices, and scientific belief-formation)? Or, to what extent do extra-scientific factors alone determine the epistemic content of scientific beliefs? The two formulations are not equivalent, and an affirmative answer to the former does not entail an affirmative answer to the latter.

In this collection of essays, all but the first and last previously published, Timothy Lenoir clearly demonstrates the historical and cultural contingency of the development of scientific research programmes and disciplines, and of scientific belief choice (programmes and beliefs more harmonious with broader cultural suppositions, and with the social interests of the scientists involved, are more likely to be embraced by those scientists). Chapters 2 and 3 offer what amounts to a nuanced critical literature survey of the "social turn" in the history of science and the "historical turn" in the philosophy of science, circa the early 1990s: All the usual suspects-Larour, [2] Shapin and Schaffer, [3] Peter Galison, [4] Andy Pickering, [5] even guest appearances by Foucault and Bourdieu--are present and accounted for. These chapters are an excellent introduction to recent trends in the history and philosophy of science for those who haven't attended to their neighboring sub-disciplines for a while.

Chapters 4 through 8 comprise the substantive core of the book: In them, Lenoir persuasively demonstrates that the development of specific aspects of nineteenth and early twentieth century German physiology, medicine, optics, and organic chemistry can be comprehended only by understanding the political, cultural, economic, ideological, and even artistic contexts of their creation. On these accounts, science is of a piece with culture and politics. The great virtue of these chapters is that they eschew the usual pompous generalities, and instead minutely detail specific connections, say, between scientific optics, the physiology of vision, painting style and technique, political ideology, and personal affiliations and interests (Chapter 6). Finally, Chapter 9 extends the same sort of analysis, less theoretically enlightened, or encumbered, as the case might be, to the twentieth century: to Varian Associates' creation of nuclear magnetic resonance instrumentation and the discipline of physical chemistry.

It is in his eighth chapter, "Practical Reason and the Construction of Knowledge: the Lifeworld of Haber-Bosch," that Lenoir provides the clearest (although still somewhat opaque) elucidation of the interpretive stance that animates the entire book. First, for his portrayal of the character of scientific knowledge, Lenoir draws upon William James' pragmatism, as well as the phenomenology of Ernst Mach and others. Lenoir's central epistemological claim is that the only way scientists know the world is through their practices--not only the whole concatenation of apparatus, technologies, and procedures through which nature is "produced" for scientific scrutiny, but also the social processes by which scientists negotiate and persuade. Second, and this is what sets Lenoir's interpretation apart from others of similar ilk, these scientific practices are integral to the "seamless web" of what Edmund Husserl characterized as a "lifeworld," which comprises "the total set of intuitive assumptions, habits, cultural pra ctices broadly construed, and especially larger social and cultural interests (p. 212)." Lenoir distinguishes between this all-encompassing "lifeworld" and the narrower Wittgensteinian notion of a "form of life," which for Lenoir is purely local, and which other historians and sociologists of science have used to thickly describe micro scientific practices. Yet Lenoir, like James, stops short of a pure cultural relativism: together with such disparate company as Peter Galison and Andy Pickering, Lenoir suggests that nature does provide "resistances" which serve to constrain, and co-select, our beliefs about it.

This is a difficult and provocative book. Lenoir shows just how inextricably intertwined with culture, politics, and social interests the pursuit of science, and the stabilization of scientific beliefs, are. Because we too are subsumed within the lifeworld that comprises our science, we don't know and can't tell how strong these influences might be. But ever so deftly, Lenoir also offers no reason to believe that we are living in a never-never land of pure relativism either.


(1.) Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 3 (1971).

(2.) Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, trans. by Alan Sheridan and John Law (Cambridge, MA 1988).

(3.) Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, NJ 1985).

(4.) Peter Galison, How Experiments End (Chicago, IL 1987).

(5.) Andy Pickering, Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (Chicago, 1984); "Living in the Material World: On Realism and Experimental Practice," in David Gooding, Trevor Pinch, and Simon Schaffer, eds., The Uses of Experiment (Cambridge, UK 1989), pp. 275-297.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Coustant, Ed
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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