EPISTYLE
Style Matters: Scientific Pluralism and its Early-Modern Sources

Project

What is EPISTYLE?

Mapping a conceptual history of style that provides a genealogy of scientific pluralism and theories of style in the sciences.

The concept of style is central to post-positivist, historically oriented philosophy of science and constitutes a reaction against the monist approach of logical positivism, whose purported lack of “style” has been linked to modernist architecture.

The concept of style, which has emerged as a central term in the epistemological and scientific fields, has received little critical attention. Scholarly discussions of style have been largely disparate, scattered across disciplines, and sustained analysis of its resonance and significance, especially for the sciences, is lacking. Attempting to address this gap, EPISTYLE advances the hypothesis that a specific link between style and knowledge established during the early modern period continues to have relevant conceptual force today.

Vermeer’s Astronomer, 1668. The Louvre, Paris, France/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Flyer for lectures held by the Verein Ernst Mach, 1929. Carnap Papers in the Archives of Scientific Philosophy, University of Pittsburgh, document 029-30-0 (source: P. Galison. “Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism”. Critical Inquiry: Vol. 16, No. 4, Summer, 1990: 709-752

Figures built from simple elements in ISOTYPE. From Otto Neurath, International Picture LanguageL The First Rules of ISOTYPE, London, 1936 (source: P. Galison. “Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism”. Critical Inquiry: Vol. 16, No. 4, Summer, 1990): 709-752

Stonborough House, exterior, 1929. From Leitner, The Architecture of Ludwig Wittgenstein (source: P. Galison. "Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism”. Critical Inquiry: Vol. 16, No. 4 (Summer, 1990): 709-752

EPISTYLE will

  1. provide a systematic analysis of contemporary theories of scientific styles
  2. construct a conceptual history of key modern and
  3. early-modern moments shaping the evolution of the notion of style.

By unearthing overlooked sources and neglected European traditions, this timely project will provide a theoretical foundation and epistemological framework for the growing appeals to style arising in various disciplines.

EPISTYLE is a research project funded under the REA’s fellowships scheme to Dr. Matteo Vagelli, researcher at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy. The first part of the project will be carried out at the Harvard Department of the History of Science, and at the Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science, while the returning phase will take place at Ca’ Foscari’s Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage.

Research

What does EPISTYLE deal with?

This project aims to provide a comprehensive theoretical and historical discussion of the concept of style, in order to excavate the notion’s epistemological implications for current debates about scientific pluralism.

A growing number of historians and philosophers of science have touted the concept of style as more flexible than method in conceiving of the historicity and plurality of the ways of thinking, discovering, and experimenting that constitute the sciences. More broadly, style studies currently are located at the cutting-edge of research in fields as diverse as ethics, aesthetics, history of philosophy, anthropology, sociolinguistics, and computational stylometric analyses.

Despite such recent, multidisciplinary interest in style, a comprehensive discussion of the concept’s epistemological implications is still lacking; EPISTYLE aims to fill that gap. The project is motivated by the following key questions: what happened to the traditional concept of style when it was migrated from rhetoric and the arts to the fields of history and philosophy of science? Where does the idea of different ‘styles’ of knowing come from, and how did the idea of an historically evolving plurality of standards of scientific inquiry emerge? To what extent do the objects of the sciences owe their existence to the styles that have enabled them to emerge and rendered them thinkable? These transversal questions – cutting across the human, social, and natural sciences – have bearing on the “boundary questions” situated at the borders of the arts and sciences. While this project moves beyond the idea of a “binary economy,” or demarcation between the arts and the sciences, it also aims to keep sight of the specificity found in both.

Peter Galison & Caroline A. Jones, Picturing Science, Producing Art, 1998

The notion of “scientific styles” should allow us both to account for scientific plurality and historicity and to highlight that which emerges and accumulates specifically in the sciences. Working from this point of view, EPISTYLE will examine how mapping “scientific styles” allows us to identify the historical, practical, and pluralist turns of post-positivist philosophy of science without necessarily falling into the relativism and constructivism often taken to be implied by these turns. The project will reconstruct three salient historical moments, or turning points, with epistemological implications for the evolution of the concept of style.
 
First, it will focus on style as a tool for representing the world and analyse how contemporary theories of scientific styles engage current debates on realism and pluralism. Second, it will foreground the continued resonance of the entwined forms of visibility and of thinkability that animated German and French debates on perception at the turn of the 20th century. Third, it will trace the link between style and knowledge to the early modern period in order to discuss the emergence of “styles of thinking” as a substitute notion for “scientific method”.

Denis Kambouchner, Le style de Descartes, 2013
Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, 1979 [1935]
Gilles Gaston-Granger, Essai d’une philosophie du style, 1968

What is EPISTYLE’s methodology?

The methodological framework for this project is historical epistemology. Located at the crossroads of the history of concepts and the history of practices, historical epistemology aims to account for the historical nature of knowledge without ipso facto debunking it. This methodology has been successfully applied to the study of the historical emergence of several categories organizing scientific thought and practices, including objectivity, probability, and abnormality. EPISTYLE intends to study style as one such organizing category, by tracing both its historical trajectory across different periods and intellectual fields and its conceptual preconditions.

Activities

Styles and Method in the Early-Modern and the Modern Period
April 11 through May 23, 2022 - Online Seminar

17.30h CET – 16.30h GMT – 11.30 GMT-5
Link zoom

This seminar explores the hypothesis that a distinctive link between style and ways of thinking was formed between the early modern and the modern periods – one that not only played a specific role in the emergence of philology as a model for knowledge but also in discussions of scientific method.

Reading well, writing well, living well. Friedrich Nietzsche and the question of style - Carlotta Santini

The reflection on style in Nietzsche's philosophical work cannot be circumscribed to a specific period. It is in fact one of the most important leitmotifs of his œuvre, whose treatment, almost never systematic, is entrusted to anecdotes, mottos and quick remarks. Starting with his first study of the complex artificiality and conventionality of ancient literatures, Nietzsche lays the foundations for his future reflections on philosophical language and the great style. This "dispersed" form, however, in no way diminishes the theoretical weight of the considerations on style and modes of writing in Nietzsche's work. The aesthetic paradigm of the Greek literary work, its rigid formalism and exaggerated normativity to which the entire expressive potential of the artwork was entrusted, increasingly takes the form of an ethical paradigm in Nietzsche's reflection. The "unnatural naturalness" of the great style, the creative freedom within the closed realm of convention, which Nietzsche borrows from the experience of ancient rhetoric, drives him to conceive, through words and writings, an ethics of self-determination, a character-shaping action of stylistic choices. In contrast to the popular view according to which Nietzsche is the philosopher of irrationality, he concentrates all his efforts on the codification of a theory of education and self-control, self-determination, which affects not only writing, but also thinking and character, and thus aspires to achieve radical transformations in the human form of life. 

Fantasy, Scientific Thought and the End of Baroque Science - Raz Chen-Morris

Since the early phases of the New Science, natural philosophers and mathematicians embraced fantastical stories and imaginary scenarios in order to undermine the traditional and well-entrenched Aritotelian and Ptolemaic systems of the world. Whether in Kepler's Somnium, or Galileo imaginary experiments, or Descartes' fictitious world-system, the assumption was that, in Shakepeare's words, only by "transfiguring" the audience's mind "so together" can a great constancy  grow. This utopian notion that in traveling to another fantastical place one can learn the truth about one's own world pervaded much of 17th century scientific thought in its aspiration to fashion a new world-picture. Beginning with the 1660's, however, the notion of a fantastic travel became leverage for criticizing and exposing the vain presumptuousness of the "New Science". Margaret Cavendish, in her Blazing World, blatantly attacked the Royal Society, mocking its reliance on such instruments as the telescope and the microscope. The Jesuit Gabriel Daniel, in his Voiage du Monde de Descartes, used the trope of space traveling to ridicule the French philosophers' system of the world. Thus, at the end of the 17th century, leading savants such as Fontenelle or Huygens turned to speculate on planetary worlds, marginalizing the role of fantasy and instead seeking to establish a new astronomical and physical commonsense. 

Du style en philosophie, à partir de Descartes – entretien avec Denis Kambouchner
Manner: Connoisseurship and Taxonomy, Individual and Collective Identity - Emilie Passignat

Since the early phases of the New Science, natural philosophers and mathematicians embraced fantastical stories and imaginary scenarios in order to undermine the traditional and well-entrenched Aritotelian and Ptolemaic systems of the world. Whether in Kepler's  Somnium, or Galileo imaginary experiments, or Descartes' fictitious world-system, the assumption was that, in Shakepeare's words, only by "transfiguring" the audience's mind "so together" can a great constancy  grow. This utopian notion that in traveling to another fantastical place one can learn the truth about one's own world pervaded much of 17th century scientific thought in its aspiration to fashion a new world-picture. Beginning with the 1660's, however, the notion of a fantastic travel became leverage for criticizing and exposing the vain presumptuousness of the "New Science". Margaret Cavendish, in her Blazing World, blatantly attacked the Royal Society, mocking its reliance on such instruments as the telescope and the microscope. The Jesuit Gabriel Daniel, in his Voiage du Monde de Descartes, used the trope of space traveling to ridicule the French philosophers' system of the world. Thus, at the end of the 17th century, leading savants such as Fontenelle or Huygens turned to speculate on planetary worlds, marginalizing the role of fantasy and instead seeking to establish a new astronomical and physical commonsense. 

The unbearable lightness of thinking: theory as "capriccio" in 17th-century medicine - Gianna Pomata

My contribution will focus on a surprising and hitherto unnoticed aspect of early modern epistemology: the fact that the term “capriccio” was used in 17th-century natural philosophy and medicine to indicate conjecture, hypothesis, or theory - in other words, as an antonym for observation. The term conveyed, in this context, a negative view of theory as mere opinion or “fancy”. Indeed, it carried some of the flavor of arbitrariness and unruliness that the word “caprice” was acquiring, in the same years, in the language of political theorists, particularly with the critics of the absolutist state. Right at the same time, in striking contrast, “capriccio” was acquiring a strongly positive currency in the arts. Starting with music in the 16th century, the term “capriccio” was extended to the visual arts and then to literature, to indicate a fashionable multimedia genre associated with liberty of form - “a genre that combined order and chaos”. It appears then that a “capricious” style became fashionable in the arts right when it was being frowned upon in the sciences. What was the meaning of these parallel and contrasting trends? I will argue that the negative meaning of “capriccio” in the sciences indicated:

  1. the changing relationship of theory and observation in the 17th century, which strongly privileged observation over theory; 
  2. the beginning of a divergence between acceptable styles of thinking in scientific and artistic cultures, which would more fully develop in later periods. 

Conference “Arts and Sciences: Historicizing Boundaries”
June 9-10, 2022, Ca’ Foscari Palace (Aula Baratto), Dorsoduro 3246, Venice

CFP available (deadline March 15, 2022)

The 7th International Workshop on Historical Epistemology is dedicated to exploring new ways of approaching the historical, conceptual, methodological, and technical relations between the arts and the sciences. Rather than looking for logical criteria for demarcating these domains, the workshop aims to question the arts/sciences dyad from the vantage point of its history.

Keynotes: Elena Canadelli (Padova); Peter Galison (Harvard); Caroline Jones (MIT); Pietro Daniel Omodeo (Ca’ Foscari)

Past activities

The 2nd Month of Historical Epistemology

file pdf November 3, 10, 17, 24 2021 - Online workshop
A 4-session webinar on the historical and philosophical approaches to the study of the natural and the social sciences. Both established and early-career researchers will present their work on biology and medicine, economics, the social sciences, ecology and the history of epistemology
781 KB

Team

Matteo Vagelli

Marie Curie research fellow

Marco Sgarbi

Project supervisor

Peter Galison

Project supervisor

Hasok Chang

Project supervisor

How can I collaborate to EPISTYLE?

If you have any interest, suggestion, curiosity, opinion on the topics covered by EPISTYLE, please contact the researcher Dr. Matteo Vagelli via e-mail: matteo.vagelli@unive.it.