Categories as Prisons: or How Not to Write the History of the Scientific Revolution, Part I

Amanda Domingues and Rogelio Scott-Insua
04/01/2024 | Reflections

Professor Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra is Alice Drysdale Sheffield Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. His research has demonstrated the deep formative role of "Latin America” in the colonial history of the USA and in the history of "Western" modernity as a whole, not just slavery, globalization, and capitalism but also science, abolitionism, and democracy. He has published widely in many distinguished journals such as The American Historical Review, IsisPerspectives on Science, and many others. He is also the author of How to Write the History of the New World and Nature, Empire, and Nation and more recently The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Tradeand The Invention of Humboldt: On the Geopolitics of Knowledge.
How to Write the History of the New World: Histories, Epistemologies, and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World
[Image credit:Professor Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra's book]

How do your research interests align with or challenge the History of Knowledge, Science, and Modernity?

My overarching agenda is not just a critique of Anglo-American views of Ibero-America (of Spanish America in particular) when it comes to history and knowledge, but it's a critique of our understanding of that task, which is very much informed by views from Spanish American Independence onward. 

The Independence of Spanish America began the process of nation-state formation— the invention of the nation— that was predicated on forgetting 300 years of colonial history. All nations in Spanish America are built on this decision of forgetting, of trying to not only avoid that past but identify certain characteristics of that past that are typical Latin American: the colonial legacies as things that get in the way of development, liberal modernity, etc. And therefore, we have an incomplete historiography where it is the pre-colonial past that matters, and where independence is considered to be the foundation of national narratives. These narratives critique anything that is considered “Spanish” and embrace histories of knowledge that dismiss 300 years of history.

What kinds of histories have been dismissed by historians?

There are many things. I have plenty of examples, but I will mention one that I wrote about recently in a publication with Neil Safier. The chapter explores scientific narratives from Spanish America and Brazil after independence. It shows that, in Spanish America, independence frames understandings of the Republic as a critique of the Spanish Inquisition, absolutism, tyranny, obscurantism, etc. Spanish Americans created a Republic that is very much the antithesis of the Spanish colonial regime: one predicated on science, reason, enlightenment, and religious tolerance; not on persecution. But this implies forgetting centuries of investments in scientific institutions to create new national narratives. 

In trying to eliminate that past one creates interesting phenomena like what happened in Mexico. After independence, the Mexican Empire and then the Republic made it a priority for the National Museum to collect artifacts exclusively from the pre-colonial period and nothing from the colonial period. So that is a good example of how the 19th century is framing its past, dismissing whole centuries of history.

What is the source of this imagination that critiques anything “Spanish,” that prioritizes the pre-colonial past, and positions Independence as the foundation of national narratives? Creole Patriotism? Maybe the traditional European historiography on science that sees the modern scientific revolution as the anti-thesis of medieval Catholic science?

All the categories associated with modernity and with liberalism, in particular are the ones that informed the way we understand the colonial Spanish past. This is false. Because in reality, it was the indigenous, the mestizos, the Africans, who created those societies; societies that are being explained by foreign categories. So, this notion that this world is co-created is subsumed under the category “Spanish.”

For example, when we think of Potosí, we do not think modernity. We think of labor exploitation, slavery, indigenous forced labor, obscure mines, absolutist regimes. If that is so, why study Potosí in terms of globalization, technological and industrial revolutions, and major technological transformations? It would be better to study Manchester and the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century and early 19th century Europe. That’s the mistake. 

But Potosí transformed global economies in the second half of the 16th century and early 17th century. That single city— one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere, larger than Madrid or Seville— made it possible not only for Spain to trade with other European powers, but also to open the Spanish economy up to China and indirectly to Africa. So, the narrative of modernity, of a central industrial and scientific revolution has us accustomed to the thought that modernity can be only found in England and Paris.

What do you think about Western science being dependent on a specific model of truth that involves negotiations among reputed individuals for the common good? And of the fact that when you explore those forgotten stories, you uncover many other models of truth and technical innovation?

The problem with histories of science today is that one has historians of science looking for the equivalent of the “public sphere” in the Ottoman Empire, looking for “print culture” in the Russian Empire, etc. And those are considered benchmarks. So, one has not only a historiography on the Scientific Revolution that applies to England, France, Germany, but also a historiography that extends imperially to other places. My critique is that we need to break with these categories, to see what is peculiar to each one of these places. Otherwise, we will always be blindfolded, and will not see anything else.

Amanda Domingues is a Ph.D. Candidate in STS at Cornell University. Her research engages STS, Feminist Theory, and Latin American STS to examine how scientists have combined scientific methods with knowledge from communities. Her focus is the field of archaeology and the recent debates in that field about ethics and community consultation.

Rogelio Scott-Insua is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Cornell University. His current research explores the ongoing articulation on genomic medicine and psychoanalysis in Brazil, where both disciplines are converging in providing a joint treatment to patients affected by neuromuscular dystrophies.

Published: 04/01/2024