Open your mind to a nutty idea

Ways of Knowing
January 18, 2002

Ways of Knowing: A New History of Science, Technology and Medicine By John V. Pickstone Manchester University Press, 1pp £40.00 and £9.99 ISBN 0 7190 5993 3 and 5994 1

John V. Pickstone's objective in Ways of Knowing is to provide a "tool kit or a new map" for the study of science, technology and medicine. Ambitious in his intellectual scope and chronological range, Pickstone is dismissive of those "prissy" historians who never dare to venture beyond a limited time frame. He wants the "big picture".

Unlike conventional histories of science, Pickstone's account is not structured according to disciplines. Instead he identifies three "ways of knowing" that have characterised scientific understandings of the natural world across the centuries: natural history, analysis and experimentalism. In reaching this insight, he acknowledges his debt to Michel Foucault's episteme, Thomas Kuhn's paradigm and Max Weber's ideal type. Pickstone's originality lies in the "critical pluralism" that he brings to the debate: his ways of knowing co-exist rather than succeed one another.

From the outset, Pickstone argues for the importance of hermeneutics to our understanding of science. In the Renaissance, the world was commonly viewed as a signatura rerum, a symbolic text that required interpretation. Walnuts were thought to cure ailments of the head because they resembled the cerebral cortex: similarities of form were clues to the scheme of things. But after the 17th century, a process of disenchantment set in; meanings faded in the glare of enlightened rationality. The modes of scientific knowledge displaced hermeneutics: now nature was classified (as in natural history), broken down into its constituent parts (analysis), or "tortured" into yielding its secrets (experimentalism). These ways of knowing co-exist and help to form the scientific agenda of the day.

By reviving the hermeneutic approach to scientific knowledge, Pickstone hopes to negotiate a new contract between science and its public: "Our need now is less for public understanding of science than for a much wider and stronger understanding of science for the public." As humans, "we are always investing meanings" and the emphasis is on the plurality of these meanings.

The final chapter on techno-science is an excellent example of history in action, as Pickstone invokes the three ways of knowing to cast light on current trends. The alienation of the public and its fear that "scientists are in cahoots with big business" results from the post-Thatcherite "culture of 'output', of knowledge as commodity". Pickstone criticises the state of higher education: "Universities as communities are being undermined in Britain because internal accounting and relentless 'reporting' occupy the space once allowed for creative conversation. Business management produces businesses." Solutions include a more diverse system of research support and a rejection of the instrumentalist view of knowledge.

Pickstone speaks eloquently to the general reader as well as to the specialist. Ways of Knowing is a valuable work with many insights into the development and meaning of scientific knowledge. In particular, Pickstone offers us a wonderfully nuanced reading of the embeddedness of scientific knowledge in history, a complex equation that is always difficult to balance. This book shows how it should be done.

Peter D. Smith is a freelance writer and lecturer currently researching the relations of science and literature since 1600.

Ways of Knowing: A New History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Author - John V. Pickstone
ISBN - 0 7190 5993 3 and 5994 1
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £40.00 and £9.99
Pages - 1

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