My Last Seminar Paper Ever: “Betahistory”

Coursework is over!

Drawing on Wikipedia, a neuroscience chronicle, and Haden White’s masterpiece Metahistory, I composed a little and not always entirely serious paper presenting different versions of how the history of 19th-century neuroscience could be written, titled: “Betahistory: The Historical Imagination of Neuroscience.”

I am providing the introduction below, the .pdf is here, and you may keep every typo you find. I know there are some, because my instructor marked them up, but I forgot where and left the paper at my office.

This paper inquires into how the history of neuroscience should be written. And it will not answer the question. Instead, it will draw together meta-histor(iograph)ical accounts and illustrate to what extent these could steer someone who aims at coming up with a qualified answer to this question in the right direction. Several old and not-so-old men have been wrestling with the problems of how history is or has been written and how it ought to be written. Before I embark on illustrations of different possible kinds of history-writing, previous work on which the elaborations in this paper rest will be briefly introduced.

Historian of medicine Roger Cooter published several reflections on the historiography of science and medicine, explicitly including neuroscience, over the course of the past years. In the introduction to his and his colleague Claudia Stein’s recently published collection of essays, Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine, Cooter identifies a “consuming ahistorical preoccupation with the bio-present as all there is and biology as all we are [emphasis in the original],” which, in his view, leads to biological reductionism of present-day individuals and at the same time to a loss of historicity for present-day concepts and technologies (Cooter 2013b, 3). According to Cooter, not the past but only the present is considered when it comes to evaluating contemporary and potential future developments (Cooter 2013b, 4). Cooter’s goal is to illustrate this loss of historical consciousness in biomedicine and related fields as well as in the historiography of those fields, the exposure of which leads him to demand a heightened reflexivity of historians “[a]t a time when academic history-writing has never been more under threat” and is losing its credibility and public voice (Cooter 2013b, 7). In his article “Neural Veils and the Will to Historical Critique: Why Historians of Science Need to Take the Neuro-Turn Seriously,” Cooter applies his critique specifically to the history of neuroscience and explicates why the field should neither embrace nor ignore the “neuro-turn,” but grapple with it and oppose its threatening ideologies (Cooter 2014).

As the title: “Can the History of Psychology Have an Impact?” suggests, Michael Pettit and Ian Davidson, historians of psychology and the two not-so-old scholars in the batch, attend to the history of psychology in order to inquire into how an established historical subfield can intervene in and serve the science it studies (Pettit and Davidson 2014). Their paper aims at identifying possible “role[s] for the historian in psychology [my emphasis],” one of which is providing an understanding for temporal changes within scientific phenomena for the scientists themselves (Pettit and Davidson 2014, 2).

Helge Kragh has primarily worked on the history of the physical sciences. Nonetheless, he published a paper on the “Problems and Challenges in the Historical Study of the Neurosciences,” which offers thoughts on the particularity of the historical study of the neurosciences due to the vast complexity and interdisciplinarity of the only recently emerged field (Kragh 2002). Kragh illustrates problematic aspects of unconditionally contextualist historical approaches around a controversy between historians of phrenology in the 1970s. Contending against both too presentist and too constructivist approaches, Kragh closes with a reflection on by whom and for whom the history of neuroscience should be written.

Most famously, in his seminal work Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Hayden White has analyzed “the works of the master historians of the nineteenth century” (White 1973, 11) in order to uncover the poetic aspects of history-writing. White does not speak to the history of science per se, let alone elements of the neurosciences. The focus of Metahistory lies on general historiography as it emerges from pervasive nineteenth-century historical narratives. At the core of White’s work is the argument “that every history, even the most ‘synchronic’ or ‘structural’ of them, will be emplotted in some way” (White 1973, 8). In other words, historians do not offer the reader a neutral representation of what happened in the past, but they write stories that are intrinsically shaped by the personality and environment of the historian. Thus, without choosing a particular narrative form, history cannot be written.

Chronicles, unconnected dates and places of events, White explains, can be connected to stories by casting them in one of several “archetypal story form[s]” (White 1973, 8), which limit the historian’s options to explain why one thing led to another and what the overall meaning is in the bigger scheme of things. The choice of a mode of emplotment defines the meaning of what happened, and why, and to what end. In White’s own words, “each of these archetypal plot structures has its implication for the cognitive operations by which the historian seeks to ‘explain’ what was ‘really happening’ during the process of which it provides an image of its true form” (White 1973, 11).

Four—out of potentially more—archetypal forms in which chronicles can be cast and molded into (hi)stories, are, according to White, “Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire” (White 1973, 7). In order to honor White’s work, I will adopt the capitalization of these terms when I provide, in what follows, an illustration of how to write the history of nineteenth-century neuroscience as a Romance, a Satire, a Comedy, or a Tragedy. After the arbitrary nature of ‘the history of neuroscience’ will have been established through this little exercise, I will turn to the historiographical and historiography-critical accounts of the four other above-mentioned authors. This will eventually lead back to the question of how the history of neuroscience should be written, and who should do so.1

  1. I should add that this is more of a lit review than a representation of my own position on this matter. []

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