Thursday, December 14

John Pickstone’s Book Ways of Knowing

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John Pickstone’s book Ways of Knowing is an outline of the histories behind science, technology and medicine. Pickstone does not follow a chronological sequence, but rather he observes what he calls different ways of knowing. He goes on to break these ways of knowing into several subcategories, including world-readings, natural history, analysis, experimentalism, and technoscience. Pickstone does a very good job dividing his book up into the proper sections. He starts off with an introduction chapter in which he explains exactly what he plans to accomplish and he briefly explains the previously mentions subcategories of the ways of knowing. The later chapters correspond to these subcategories and he explains each one during the time period between the Renaissance and modern times.

                Pickstone uses the first chapter of his book to explain to his readers exactly what he plans to tell them and how he plans to do it. Pickstone explains how he is going to approach the history of science, technology, and medicine using four key features. The first feature is the timeline he uses. He explains that he plans to focus on the time period between the Renaissance and the modern day. Maybe historians choose to focus on one particular time period and thus lose sight of how the other periods of time affected their field of study. The next feature he uses the scope of what science, technology, and medicine actually entitle. He links the history of science, technology, and medicine to other important historical achievements that share similar ties with science, technology, and medicine. The third key feature is what the primary focus of Pickstone’s book is on. That is the breakdown of the ways of knowing into the fore mentioned elements. Finally his last feature is how science, technology, and medicine tie into industry and production.

                The first element of ways of knowing is the world-readings. Pickstone also uses the term hermeneutics to refer to world-readings. In this sense, hermeneutics refers to the art of reading and understanding meanings. These meanings could be found in text, objects, or the natural world itself. When looking at the world-readings of the Renaissance time period, Pickstone discusses that there was a primary focus of God and the church. Things were explained by natural magic and had no real scientific explanation at the time. Moving forward to the 1800s in Europe, there is more of a focus on science and technology rather than theology. The idea of technical-professionals begins to be introduced. In addition to theology, the world-readings dealt with reading human life through philosophy, literature, and history. It was also during the 1800s that creative artists and writers known as romantics taught new ways of finding meaning in nature.

                World-readings, or the art of understanding meanings, were abundant during the Renaissance time period. Some meanings were clear and obvious to everyone, while others were hidden messages. When trying to decipher these hidden messages, people turned to things such as the Bible, Arabic or Latin text, and ancient Greek writing. Pickstone uses the analogy of a play to describe it. “To enter that mental world, think what it might be like to wake up on a stage, surrounded by a play. How could you work out what was going on and what it all meant?”[1] In order to understand the play, a person would have to interpret the people on stage, study the set and props, or find text relating to the play. In such a way, this is exactly how people came to try to understand the hidden meanings in life.

The next element Pickstone discusses is the natural history of Earth, primarily the huge variety of all things whether they are man-made or natural. Within the first chapter, Pickstone explains that he is going to focus on classification of all the things that make up this world. Classification plays a significant role in various aspects of science and industry. Manufacturers and experimenting scientists need to understand the variety of materials they have at their disposal. They also must understand the difference between each kind of material. In a later chapter of the book, Pickstone explains why natural history is important for trade and industry.

                Natural history revolves around the study and classification of many different items. Pickstone goes on to discuss the plethora of new species discovered when Europeans first traveled to America. Many of the plants brought back did not fit into the previously defined European categories for plants. That was because these categories were all based on myths and symbols around Europe. In the same way, various archeological findings did not fit into the written histories of the ancient Greeks. Pickstone asks the question, “But why were these new kinds of materials being imported and/or collected? What created the need for taxonomy?”[2] People began to see the rich variety of species and of everything in general. They wanted to study and understand it and eventually classify each thing into its proper category.

                The third element Pickstone explains is analysis. Analysis takes an object or a process and breaks it down into simpler terms and ingredients in order to understand how they function to end up with the final result. An example Pickstone uses is the reduction of table salt into the elements NaCl. Each field of study has its own way of breaking down objects. For example, chemists break down the world into the different elements and scientists dealing with thermodynamics break it down into energy. By breaking down the world into elements, chemists were able to discover new elements that before were unknown to the world. Analysis ties into natural history as well. By breaking down substances or processes, new classifications are determined and must be placed into the already structured classification system.

One example of analytical science stems from the work of Aristotle and his model of the solar system. Aristotle was able to breakdown the movements of the celestial bodies in the sky and determine that each one moved at a different speed in a circle around the Earth. Of course some of Aristotle’s concepts were mistaken, but this created a foundation for others, such as Copernicus, to analysis. Pickstone describes this accumulation of knowledge by saying, “An Aristotelian model of a closed world gave place to an infinite universe; a complex apparatus of cycles and epicycles was replaced with elliptical orbits around the sun. There was no longer a deep distinction between the celestial and the mundane…”[3] He goes on to say that each of these great achievements was based off of the analysis of the previous.

Just how analysis was about the breakdown of things, experimentation is the exact opposite.

Experimentalism deals with setting up the lesser elements in order to achieve a greater final result. Experimenting takes things that scientists already know about and try to manipulate them to form and entirely new entity. Experimentalism also finds its roots in natural history. Early experimentalism focuses mainly and learning more about the variety of various substances and classifying them. Pickstone uses the example of synthetic chemistry to explain experimentalism. By analyzing various elements, chemists could learn to form new substances by combining different elements. Finally, Pickstone explains that when experimentalism is combined with industrial purposes, the end result is what he calls technoscience.

                The final element of Pickstone’s ways of knowing is technoscience. Technoscience deals with the technology formed using a scientific background or vice versa. Pickstone describes technoscience as a timeless category. Throughout history, governments have employed the help of philosophers, doctors, or engineers to produces commodities, or more specifically weapons. Technoscience involved the production of novelties through the use of analysis and experimentation. This form of technoscience was defined as synthetic. There were two other categories of technoscience during the 19th century. The second technoscience dealt with the electrical industry and the third focuses on dyes and pharmaceutical products. State governments were not only consumers of the products produced through technoscience, but they also were the ones who regulated it. Companies and governments all had an interest in developing and reinforcing technoscience.

                Pickstone’s book Ways of Knowing does exactly what it intends to do. Pickstone structured his book so that he explains exactly what he hopes to accomplish early on in the book and goes on to do it. The entire first chapter explains, in detail, how he will approach the history of science, technology, and medicine. Pickstone takes his four key features – timescale, scope, breaking down the elements of knowing, and work – and he presents the history of science, technology, and medicine and how it ties in with the other aspects of history over the past several centuries. The majority of the information presented in his book explains how he breaks down ways of knowing into world-readings, natural history, analysis, experimentalism, and technoscience. By analyzing science, technology, and medicine, Pickstone was able to show how its history ties in with the wider scope of all other histories.

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[1] Pickstone 39

[2] Pickstone 64

[3] Pickstone 87


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