Tag Archives: Shapin

Dumit – Is It Me or My Brain?

Is It Me or My Brain? Depression and Neuroscientific Facts

by Joseph Dumit

[Dumit, Joseph. 2003. “Is It Me or My Brain? Depression and Neuroscientific Facts.” Journal of Medical Humanities 24 (1–2): 35–47.]


  • Wittgenstein says that there are certain points about which we no longer ask for an explanation or a test of its truth, and explanations come to an end:
    • “Giving grounds, however justifying the evidence, comes to an end; —but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting” (On Certainty, p. 204) (39).
  • We might call the set of acts that concerns our brains and our bodies deriving from received-facts of science and medicine the objective-self”
    •  The objective- self consists of our taken-for-granted notions, theories, and tendencies regarding human bodies, brains, and kinds considered as objective, referential, extrinsic, and objects of science and medicine. That we “know”we have a brain and that the brain is necessary for our self is one aspect of our objective-self” (39).
  • “Furthermore, objective-selves are not finished but incomplete and in process. With received-facts we fashion and refashion our objective-selves.
    • Thus it is we come to know our bodies as endangered by poisons like saccharine, our brains as having a “reading circuit,” and humans as being either mentally ill or sane or borderline.
    • I call this “objective-self fashioning” to highlight our own activity in encountering “received-facts.”
    • I emphasize “received-facts” rather than just “facts”to highlight the activity of translation that has taken place in order for the results of a scientific or medical project to reach us.
      • Each of these movements of facts from one media to another is also necessarily a transformation of the fact. Science studies scholars Bruno Latour and Michel Callon call this process “translation,” a term connoting both movement and change in meaning. We all know that a fact established in a lab is not known immediately by everyone, everywhere. It must travel through specific channels” (39).
  • “Each of the aspects of our objective-selves has this personal history (of coming-to-know via received-facts) and also a social history. (39-40)
    • “Some human kinds that we are starting to take for granted, e.g., depressives, require attending to broader social and institutional forces in order to understand how it is that we look to the brain for an answer” (40).
    • “These social histories enable and constrain science at every level of fact conception, experimentation, publication, and dissemination and reception, but this does not imply that science is culture. Science produces facts in spite of and because of these constraints—laboriously, continuously, and creatively” (40).
    • “And we fashion our objective-selves with the fruit of this labor in the form of received-facts in our own continuous and often creative manner, no matter how skeptical we are. This way of living with and through scientific facts is our form of life” (40).


  • Examining sufferers of mental illness pints Dumit to a type of selfhood he wants to “a pharmaceutical self whose scale is one of days and weeks.
    • Contrary to a Heideggerian phenomenology in which one is passively thrown into moods, here one’s abnormal neurochemistry actively throws one into depression or mania. Sometimes one can respond to this by taking drugs that, days or weeks later, throw you into yet a third state—not normal, but better.”
  • This pharmaceutical Self brings forth “three critical aspects of objective-self fashioning for our purposes.”
    • First, there is a tremendous flexibility and openness of explanation of the objective-self”
      • Even in the face of specific received-facts about ourselves such as brain images, there is room for negotiation and redefinition. Sociologists and anthropologists of psychology have called this the “pandemonium” of folk psychology. But they also note that even as we can play with mind and brain, motivation and behavior, we also ultimately must satisfy local common sense” (44).
    • “The second aspect … is the need for a nuanced, complex cultural, historical and institutional as well as scientific or biomedical understanding of context.
      • Objective-self fashioning is an ongoing process of social accounting to oneself and others in particular situations in which received-facts function as particularly powerful resources because they bear the objective authority of science” (44).
    • “The third critical aspect of objective-self fashioning is the fundamental connection between the brain as objective-self and one’s own personal identity.
      • When genes are invoked as the cause of one’s objective-self and aspects of one’s personality they can become synecdoche for one’s identity. If one has a gene for depression, one can fear becoming depressed.”
      •  “We can note here that brain images further confuse the part with the whole—even though brain images only show a slice of the brain, they show the slice as representing the whole brain, which in turn is the person” (44).
  • “Individual sufferers are trying to both understand their illness and live with it. These are activities that are not necessarily compatible. Using the notion of the pharmaceutical self, I would suggest that they have entered into a relationship with their brain that is negotiated and social” (46).



objective-self—our taken-for-granted notions, theories, and tendencies regarding human bodies, brains, and kinds considered as objective, referential, extrinsic, and objects of science and medicine (39)

objective-self fashioning—”an ongoing process of social accounting to oneself and others in particular situations in which received-facts function as particularly powerful resources because they bear the objective authority of science” (44)

identification— borrowed from psychology and semiotics, “we can characterize our relationship to culture as identification.In Kenneth Burke’s definition, identification includes the “ways in which we spontaneously, intuitively, even unconsciously persuade ourselves” (Burke, 1966, p. 301)” (36)



This article considers the roles played by brain images (e.g., from PET scans) in mass media as experienced by people suffering from mental illness, and as used by scientists and activist groups in demonstrating a biological basis for mental illness. Examining the rhetorical presentation of images in magazines and books, the article describes the persuasive power that brain images have in altering the understanding people have of their own body—their “objective self.” Analyzing first-person accounts of encounters with brain images, it argues that people come to understand themselves as having neurotransmitter imbalances that are the cause of their illnesses via received facts and images of the brain, but that this understand- ing is incomplete and in tension with the sense that they are their brain. The article concludes by querying the emergence of a “pharmaceutical self,” in which one experiences one’s brain as if on drugs, as a new form of objective self-fashioning.”

Continue reading Dumit – Is It Me or My Brain?

Shapin & Schaffer—Leviathan and the Air-Pump

Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life

by Steven Shapin & Simon Schaffer

[Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. 1985. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.]


  • To interrogate questions like “Why is it that we do experiments to determine “matters of fact?” S&S look to the controversy surrounding the first laboratory experiments=Robert Boyle’s air-pump experiment (and Hobbes’s critiques of them)
    • by approaching the topic like a “stranger”—even though we have come to see controlled experiments as creators of scientific fact, S&S ask what someone at the time would think of the controversy, avoiding presentism
  • Very basically:
    • Boyle wants to “see the house of natural philosophy in order by remedying its divisions and by with­drawing it from contentious links with civic philosophy” (21). In other words, our society is jacked-up, but we can make it so that science (natural philosophy) is not so jacked-up. How? Controlled laboratory experiments!
    • Hobbes disagreed, saying that “order was only to be ensured by erecting a demonstrative philosophy that allowed no boundaries between the natural, the human, and the social, and which allowed for no dissent within it” (21). In other words, what is true is true in all aspects and you can’t just carve one facet of that truth out.
    • In other other words: “Robert Boyle maintained that proper natural philosophical knowl­edge should be generated through experiment and that the foun­dations of such knowledge were to be constituted by experimentally produced matters of fact. Thomas Hobbes disagreed. In Hobbes’s view Boyle’s procedures could never yield the degree of certainty requisite in any enterprise worthy of being called philosophical” (22).


  • Boyle (S&S argue) used three technologies in his experiments
    1. material technology—the air-pump itself and its use in experimentation
    2. literary technology—descriptions of the apparatus, the experiments, and the laboratory space as well as the findings of the experiments published and disseminated to the public at large
    3. social technology—the idea of “witnessing” (see below).

witnessing – three ways to multiply it

  1. make it public—use a laboratory
    • “The space where these machines worked—the nascent laboratory—was to be a public space, but a restricted public space, as critics like Hobbes were soon to point out. The phenomena were not on show anywhere at all. The laboratory was, therefore, a disciplined space, where experimental, discursive, and social practices were collectively controlled by competent members” (39).
  2. make it replicable—so others can witness it by doing the same thing elsewhere
    • This was more of a theoretical aim than a realistic one. The cost pf air-pumps, their rarity, and their different designs made direct replication almost impossible.
    • Not to mention the fact that Boyles’s air-pump leaked—something that Hobbes talked about. A lot.
  3. “virtual witnessing”—write it down in detail, and readers will witness it in their imagination
    • This could possibly reach and infinite number of witnesses, but it depends completely on the reader trusting the account, which feeds back into Hobbes’s critique of the laboratory: the people involved had to be beyond reproach, so only members of exclusive social and professional circles (The Royal Society) could contribute. They got to actually witness, so countless others could virtually witness.
    • “first, the witnessing experience had to be made acces­sible; second, witnesses had to be reliable and their testimony had to be creditable. The first condition worked to open up experi­mental space, while the second acted to restrict entry” (336).

Conclusion—scientific “matters of fact” are actually political creations

  • “There are three senses in which we want to say that the history of science occupies the same terrain as the history of politics. First, scientific practitioners have created, selected, and maintained a polity within which they operate and make their intellectual prod­uct; second, the intellectual product made within that polity has become an element in political activity in the state; third, there is a conditional relationship between the nature of the polity occupied by scientific intellectuals and the nature of the wider polity” (332).
  • By the end S&S have shown “(1) that the solution to the problem of knowledge is political; it is predicated upon laying down rules and conventions of relations between men in the intellectual polity; (2) that the knowledge thus produced and authenticated becomes an element in political action in the wider polity; it is impossible that we should come to under­ stand the nature of political action in the state without referring to the products of the intellectual polity; (3) that the contest among alternative forms of life and their characteristic forms of intellectual product depends upon the political success of the various candi­dates in insinuating themselves into the activities of other institu­tions and other interest groups. He who has the most, and the most powerful, allies wins” (342).

Or more briefly said:

  • “As we come to recognize the conventional and artifactual status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realize that it is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know. Knowledge, as much as the state, is the product of human actions” (344).
    • Even Boyle—who championed scientific experimentation and the ideals of natural fact divorced from all societal influence—could only prove his point through the use of social structures and media dissemination, erasing any pretense of nature’s ability to stand alone.
    • “Hobbes was right” (344).


Leviathan and the Air-Pump examines the conflicts over the value and propriety of experimental methods between two major seventeenth-century thinkers: Thomas Hobbes, author of the political treatise Leviathan and vehement critic of systematic experimentation in natural philosophy, and Robert Boyle, mechanical philosopher and owner of the newly invented air-pump. The issues at stake in their disputes ranged from the physical integrity of the air-pump to the intellectual integrity of the knowledge it might yield. Both Boyle and Hobbes were looking for ways of establishing knowledge that did not decay into ad hominem attacks and political division. Boyle proposed the experiment as cure. He argued that facts should be manufactured by machines like the air-pump so that gentlemen could witness the experiments and produce knowledge that everyone agreed on. Hobbes, by contrast, looked for natural law and viewed experiments as the artificial, unreliable products of an exclusive guild. The new approaches taken in Leviathan and the Air-Pump have been enormously influential on historical studies of science. Shapin and Schaffer found a moment of scientific revolution and showed how key scientific givens—facts, interpretations, experiment, truth—were fundamental to a new political order. Shapin and Schaffer were also innovative in their ethnographic approach. Attempting to understand the work habits, rituals, and social structures of a remote, unfamiliar group, they argued that politics were tied up in what scientists did, rather than what they said. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer use the confrontation between Hobbes and Boyle as a way of understanding what was at stake in the early history of scientific experimentation. They describe the protagonists’ divergent views of natural knowledge, and situate the Hobbes-Boyle disputes within contemporary debates over the role of intellectuals in public life and the problems of social order and assent in Restoration England. In a new introduction, the authors describe how science and its social context were understood when this book was first published, and how the study of the history of science has changed since then.

Continue reading Shapin & Schaffer—Leviathan and the Air-Pump

Latour—We Have Never Been Modern

We Have Never Been Modern

by Bruno Latour, (Translated by Catherine Porter)

[Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.]


  • The act of purification is key to being modern, however, we are increasingly creating and coming up against hybrids. For instance, a discussion of the ozone layer combines science, technology, politics, and nature, blurring the modernist distinctions and continuing the proliferation of quasi-objects.
  • Latour is not arguing that we are entering a new era of hybridization, but instead that we have always created these hybrids and their quasi-objects and have never been “modern” to begin with.
  • Latour hopes to replace what he calls the modern “constitution” with a nonmodern version that does not separate nature and society and brings the genesis of quasi-objects to light (see below).

Purification—making a clear distinction between the ideas of nature (science, non-human, objects) and society (culture, human, subjects)

Hybridization—mixing nature and culture (non-human and human, object and subject)

Quasi-object—the products of hybridization; objects that can influence the social action of subjects (soccer balls, tools, diagrams, etc.)


“The hypothesis of this essay is that the word ‘modern’ designates two sets of entirely different practices which must remain distinct if they are to remain effective, but have recently begun to be confused. The first set of practices, by ‘translation’, creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. The second, by ‘purification’, creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on one hand; that of nonhumans on the other. Without the first set, the practices of purification would be fruitless or pointless. Without thesecond, the work of translation would be slowed down, limited, or evenruled out. The first set corresponds to what I have called networks; the second to what I shall call the modern critical stance” (10-11).


“We can keep the Enlightenment without modernity, provided that we reintegrate the objects of the sciences and technologies into the Constitution, as quasi-objects among many others – objects whose genesis must no longer be clandestine, but must be followed through and through, from the hot events that spawned the objects to the progressive cool-down that transforms them into essences of Nature or Society” (135).

5.2 Continue reading Latour—We Have Never Been Modern

Gieryn—Boundary Work

Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science

by Thomas F. Gieryn

[Gieryn, Thomas F. “Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists.”American sociological review (1983): 781-795.]


The definition of “science” and what can be considered “scientific” is not stable–instead, it is a flexible designation created by scientists to suit particular contexts.

boundary-work – “attribution of selected characteristics to the institution of science for purposes of constructing a social boundary that distinguishes some intellectual activities as “non-science”” (782).

scientists do boundary-work for three specific reasons

  1. when the goal is expansion of authority or expertise into domains claimed by other professions or occupations, boundary-work heightens the contrast between rivals in ways flattering to the ideologists’ side
  2. when the goal is monopolization of professional authority and resources, boundary-work excludes rivals from within by defining them as outsiders with labels such as “pseudo,” “deviant,” or “amateur”
  3. when the goal is protection of autonomy over professional activities, boundary-work exempts members from responsibility for consequences of their work by putting the blame on scapegoats from outside” (791-792).


The demarcation of science from other intellectual activities-long an analytic problem for philosophers and sociologists-is here examined as a practical problem for scientists. Construction of a boundary between science and varieties of non-science is useful for scientists’ pursuit of professional goals: acquisition of intellectual authority and career opportunities; denial of these resources to “pseudoscientists”; and protection of the autonomy of scientific research from political interference. “Boundary-work” describes an ideological style found in scientists’ attempts to create a public image for science by contrasting it favorably to non-scientific intellectual or technical activities. Alternative sets of characteristics available for ideological attribution to science reflect ambivalences or strains within the institution: science can be made to look empirical or theoretical, pure or applied. However, selection of one or another description depends on which characteristics best achieve the demarcation in a way that justifies scientists’ claims to authority or resources. Thus, “science” is no single thing: its boundaries are drawn and redrawn in flexible, historically changing and sometimes ambiguous ways. Continue reading Gieryn—Boundary Work

Hacking—The Social Construction of What?

The Social Construction of What?

by Ian Hacking

[Hacking, Ian. The social construction of what?. Harvard university press, 1999.]


constructionist (categories are socially created) v. essentialist (categories are proof of/ derived from an essence of the members of the category)

“Social constructionists about X tend to hold that:

  • (1) X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.
  • Very often they go further, and urge that:
  • (2) X is quite bad as it is.
  • (3) We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed” (16).

This is predicated on the thought that:

  • “(0) In the present state of affairs, X is taken for granted; X appears to be inevitable” (22).

What is constructed:

  • objects – things that are in the world (practices, experiences, people, social classes, etc.)
  • ideas – beliefs, theories, concepts (groupings, classifications, justifications, systems, etc.)
  • “elevator words” – facts. reality, knowledge, truth: things that simply are, and explain the world (called elevator words because they work at a different, higher level than other things).

human kinds – we label human behavior and/or situations in a way that labels the people themselves—makes them kinds of humans (child television viewer, woman refugee, abuse victim, anorexic, etc.).This creates ontological categories—new ways of being human.

Interactive kinds – human kinds are interactive kinds because they interact with other of that same kind and become aware of their kind, changing the way they experience it. This causes looping effects. Quarks, however, are not interactive, because they are not self-aware. This is Hacking’s designation between concepts of the social sciences (interactive) and natural sciences (not).

looping effects of human kinds – “kinds of people, can become aware that they are classified as such. They can make tacit or even explicit choices, adapt or adopt ways of living so as to fit or get away from the very classification that may be applied to them. These very choices, adaptations or adoptions have consequences for the very group, for the kind of people that is invoked. The result may be particularly strong interactions. What was known about people of a kind may become false because people of that kind have changed in virtue of what they believe about themselves. I have called this phenomenon the looping effect of human kinds” (44).

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Daston & Galison—The Image of Objectivity

The Image of Objectivity 

by Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison

[Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. 1992. “The Image of Objectivity.” Representations, no. 40 (October): 81–128.]


The current meaning of “scientific objectivity emerged only in the mid nineteenth century and is conceptually distinct from earlier attempts to be “true to nature” in its methods (mechanical), its morals (restrained), and its metaphysics (individualized).” (83)

Objectivity as a concept has gone through phases (as seen in anatomical atlases):

  • 17th to mid-19th century—two types
    • ideal image – attempts the perfect version of the type
    • characteristic image – reveals the typical attributes within an individual specimen
    • in both types, the atlas maker’s subjective views (perspectives) were involved
  • mid-19th century forward
    • truth to nature – representing specimen exactly as it exists, without subjective input
    • ‘true’ reproductions became a “talismanic”guard against fraud but also a paragon of morality
    • How to ensure this?—mechanical objectivity! (x-ray, photography, etc) Not only does a machine reproduce exactly, without interpretation, but it saves human atlas makers from having to exercise the moral duty of restraint.

Working objects – atlases, type specimens lab processes – “manageable, communal representatives of the sector of nature under investigation” (85) Continue reading Daston & Galison—The Image of Objectivity