Workshop 4: John Pickstone, ‘Deconstructions and new Constructions in Science and in Art: Experiments in Historiography’

John Pickstone (Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Manchester) started his talk by stating that it is a pleasure to be at this interdisciplinary workshop and thanking for the invitation. He admitted that he is about to present an ambitious paper, extending the work on ways of knowing and ways of working in science and technology. He proceeded in stating his interest in multiplicity of works of science and elementary forms. Pickstone likened his presentation to an exercise in analysis, looking at the components and historicity of them.

Pickstone started his presentation with some examples of ways of knowing and working. Here, he referred to the history of medicine where every single medical encounter has many components, emphasising the importance of the method of an analysis that enables to understand the multiplicity of relations within this field. Pickstone explained that it is a common assumption in medical sociology that all diseases have meanings (which is also true of all scientific activities). Therefore, he argued that corresponding to the way of knowing is the symbolic significance of activities, just as in the case of classical physicists where understanding the patient and talking to him appropriately is at the forefront. Further, Pickstone pointed out that the Greek and then the European medicine from the renaissance aimed at creating natural objects by compiling natural histories of disease. He claimed that all scientific work clearly has the aspect of having to know what you’re working on (i.e. categories of available things, massive sources of information) and craft could be understood as a correlate activity.


Next, Pickstone presented some shifts in the  working knowledges in pasts of STM. Here, he made a distinction between three periods:

(1) Pre 1800: when interest with natural history (kinds and crafts) was at the forefront i.e. Mixed maths (analysing by numbers/geometry) and Natural philosophy (the meanings of the world)

(2) Post 1800: when the emergence of many new analytical sciences took place (i.e. of heat, tissues, strata or ‘faculties’)

(3) And from later 19th century: when systematic invention (i.e. Edison) and synthetic chemistry where of the main importance.


Thereafter, John Pickstone made some claims regarding cumulating ‘ways’ of ‘art’. Here, he spoke about historical, religious and other forms of coded messages as expressions of meanings, using an example of Dutch naturalism. Further, Pickstone referred to the 19th century analytical arts such as impressionism or analytical cubism, exploring ‘abstractions’. To illustrate his arguments, he presented some examples of tensions of naturalism and symbolism – Laura Gilpin’s ‘Basket of Peaches’ (1912) – as well as naturalism and mechanical analysis. Consequently, he questioned whether morphological analysis and archetypes are forms suitable for an art gallery or whether they are too diagrammatic as art.

Concomitantly, John Pickstone proceeded to explore meanings of ‘experiment’ across STM and then art. He illustrated the shift from the orientation on  experimental histories and experimental analysis to 19th century understanding of ‘experimentalism’ as contrasting with analysis and stressing synthesis, novelty and control. Here, he spoke of atomic models, mathematical syntheses and a general move to pragmatism, operationalism and non-representational. Pickstone also pointed to the following emergence of ‘synthetic’ art (1912-3), using as an example the classic narrative of cubism. Here, he looked closer at ‘abstract’ art explaining context and logic of the key moves as well as the cumulations of ways: constructions derive from elements and remain in relation with analysis and with naturalism, and for some constructors, elements ARE expressive symbols (i.e. Kandinsky).


Next, Pickstone spoke about logics of constructions in science, technology and art. Again, he brought some examples to illustrate his claims and consequently explained the aim of the Ways of Knowing project:

- To develop an analytical language for projects including STM and art, in terms of ‘elemental’ ways of knowing and working, their cumulations and their tensions,

- Including the ‘constructions/syntheses’ which were revolutionary from later 19th century in STM and evident in art in early 20th century.

- To see the objects ‘made by’ STM or by art as usually multiple, or many layered – i.e. tensions of symbols, ‘natures’, elements and syntheses.

In as much as the analysis of such tensions is the task of science studies etc, the deconstructions become possible bases for art and ‘displays’ which work by expressing ‘layeredness’.

- Which may help explicate ‘museological art’.   


Finally, John Pickstone argued that we should forget science-art distinctions and similarities and to make better sense, we can look at the elements, the Ways of Knowing and Working in knowledge-production and in technics as well as in representation and expression, giving particular attention to the mentioned tensions between ‘ways’.



Firstly, some questions were posed regarding Pickstone’s use of the term play. It was explained that he refers to it in two senses:

- play as potential i.e. medicine – patient as contemplating his/her illness is a natural object as well as bits of components – in science studies tensions are manifested between this relation and the way it can be variously priororitized

- play in relation to aesthetic – points of multiplicity and the ability of the viewer to read in between them – create or present an object where viewer is encouraged to move in between of its elements in tension.

Secondly, some arguments were made in relation to Pickstone’s claim that multiple ways of knowing and working are variously accumulating and being variously contested. Here, some questions were posed regarding the contestation in the context of art and differences between the contestation in the two disciplines (art and science). Pickstone explained that abstraction is used commonly and contrasted with the concrete and the real. He claimed that real forms of evaluation are different in different camps with some similarities in the constructed way. Here, he pointed to the problems in the history of technology in the context of the development of medicine asking: To what extent can analytic understanding of the material really be of use? Do we want to  rely on craft knowledge? Pickstone finally argued that craft rationalization is quite central and it is not hard to find correspondence in art. 

Thirdly, it was pointed out that it is curious that art returns to child play (to the extent that it is tempting to say that it is nor art) and interestingly, childhood is a period when we most intensely engage in analysis, subtraction  etc.

Next, Pickstone’s classification of meaning was questioned: aren’t they all modes imbued with meaning? It was debated whether he is exploring the claims to the origins of the meaning made in these different modes, elaborated through the layerings. Pickstone argued that it is a standard mistake of comparative anthropology to present objects and people as having meanings. He claimed that all these are a special kind of scientific activity aimed at creating natures out of these things. Here, he gave an example of botany and dealing with plans from countries that don’t have roads. He proceeded in arguing that concentrating on meaning helps you construct the division between that level of nature and that level of me (doctors are trained to do the same). Further, it was argued that activities of that sort would be representative of power claims by different parties.