Atlas Images and Epistemic Virtues
D&G’s account of epistemic virtues in their book Objectivity commences with a study of late-Enlightenment atlas images. The pages of scientific atlases from this period were filled with highly stylized and idealized images that demonstrate the scientists’ aim to extract nature’s hidden universals from a series of aggregated sense impressions. The guiding ideal of the truth-to-nature scientist was the depiction of nature’s underlying essences, stripped of the surface variation that occludes them from us in every single encounter. Putting this ideal into practice was the privilege of scientific savants who—often in close collaboration with artists—synthesized the universals on the basis of their intimate and life-long experience with a domain of nature.
Within the domain of truth-to-nature depiction, D&G draw a further distinction between ideal images and characteristic images. Ideal images aimed at representing hidden universals by synthesizing them from a series of individually distorted surface manifestations. Examples of this kind of imagery are depictions of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Urpflanze and Carolus Linnaeus’s images of species and genera. Characteristic images, in contrast, aimed at precisely depicting a typical exemplar of a class under investigation. D&G count images of both kinds as truth-to-nature imagery, since both were governed by a regulative ideal of willful interpretation and idealization.
In the course of the nineteenth century, D&G tell us, many scientists came to regard truth-to-nature atlases as suspect. They got concerned about their own tendency to idealize and perfect observations so as to fit pre-conceived expectations and hypotheses. The mid-nineteenth century thus saw the emergence of a new conception of the “scientific self” as overly interpretive and dangerously subjective. To suppress these vicious tendencies of their own personalities, scientists asserted the duty to discipline themselves. A new ideal of the scientist emerged as someone who followed strict procedures and relied on mechanical tools to register nature without intervention. For only by disciplining themselves in this way could scientists be expected to capture nature objectively, with all its particularities. Thus was born the epistemic virtue of (mechanical) objectivity.
When we reach the early-twentieth century, D&G argue that atlas images begin to mirror the ascent of yet another epistemic virtue. Advocates of the virtue of trained judgment complained that the regulative ideal of objectivity had been a pipe dream, and attempts to silence the interpretive voice of the atlas-maker had been a mistake. Trained judgment reintroduced an active role for the scientist, but without sliding back into truth-to-nature representation. It removed the polar opposition between objectivity and subjectivity by positioning the scientist neither as a will-abnegating worker nor as an isolated sage who interprets nature at his own discretion, but rather as someone who learns to discern patterns in nature through extensive training, embedded in a tightly connected scientific community. The atlas images of trained judgment still relied on mechanically produced representations, but these now began to serve as unprocessed signposts that required further interpretation. Atlas images became proxies for coordinated efforts of pattern detection.
Type Specimens and Epistemic Virtues
As I mentioned in the introduction, D&G claim that their periodization of epistemic virtues can also be articulated and illuminated by turning to the history of type specimens—specimens that have served a central but changing role in the history of taxonomy.
Daston’s (2004) account of this history begins with the observation that late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century naturalists used the word “type” in two different senses that correspond closely to the distinction between ideal and characteristic images. Some naturalists used “type” to refer to an essential form underlying a spectrum of variation in a certain group of organisms. The quest for types in this sense was akin to the quest for the representational targets of ideal images. As in Objectivity, Daston mentions Linnaeus and Goethe in this context. “They concurred that their task was to extract the truths of nature from the welter of confusing appearances\(\ldots \)Theirs was a truth of synthetic perception, of the ability to detect a common form uniting many individual exemplars of a kind” (Daston 2004, pp. 166–167).
The second use of “type” corresponds to the input of a characteristic image: the most characteristic or typical member of a group. This is the notion of types Daston is primarily interested in, because it formed the basis for the earliest conception of a ‘type specimen.’ The English polymath William Whewell offered a lapidary definition of this notion of types in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century natural history:
A Type is an example of any class, for instance, a species of a genus, which is considered as eminently possessing the characters of the class \(\ldots \) The Type-species of every genus, the Type-genus of every family, is, then, one which possesses all the characters and properties of the genus in a marked and prominent manner.
Whewell (1847, Vol I; pp. 494–495); cited in Daston (2004, p. 170)
This Whewellian notion of a type was part and parcel of what Whewell referred to as the “Method of Type.” A type could be used as a proxy for describing a taxonFootnote 2, or as a means to refine knowledge of taxon boundaries. By comparing types with other elements of the same rank, taxonomists determined which elements belonged to which taxa.
Daston argues that this Whewellian type concept and the associated Method of Type were evidently rooted in a truth-to-nature epistemology: “An individual specimen could serve as a type, but only on the basis of a careful selection on the basis of a thorough acquaintance with the species it was intended to exemplify, in turn the basis of the naturalist’s synthetic judgment of the distinguishing marks of the species” (ibid., p. 171). Interestingly, however, Daston notes that this same notion of types paved the way for a later break with the truth-to-nature virtue and for a transition towards objectivity. This happened when Whewellian types were no longer merely used as proxies for describing and delimiting biological taxa, but in addition got mobilized to address a pressing issue in taxonomic nomenclature. Taxonomists began to use types to help combat the problem of synonymy: the state of one taxon being known to different taxonomists by different names.
To see the relevance of Whewellian types for combatting synonymy, we first need to get clear on what the problem of synonymy in taxonomy amounts to. Synonymy, Daston explains, can be a severe threat to effective communication between taxonomists. By the early nineteenth century, the increasing decentralization of taxonomy was causing different naturalists to pin different names on the same taxa. The “cacophony of names” (ibid., p. 171) this resulted in could easily create misunderstandings and was likely to cause taxonomists to talk past each other. Among the naturalists who worried most about these developments was the British geologist and ornithologist Hugh Edwin Strickland, who launched an initiative to stamp out synonymy and bring taxonomists’ use of names in tune again. Under the auspices of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), Strickland set up a commission charged with the formulation of an authoritative set of nomenclatural rules that any self-respecting zoologist would have to live by.
The most important tenet of these “Strickland Rules,” as they soon became known, was its formalization of the “principle of priority.” This principle stated that the only real name of a taxon is the first name given to it. The Strickland Rules and its principle of priority set the standard for similar nomenclatural rules that were being drafted for other domains of natural history, such as botany and entomology. However, Daston notes, some naturalists realized that the principle of priority on its own could not call the proliferation of synonyms to a halt. Additional measures needed to be taken. As Daston puts it: “Some [further] standard was needed to transfer authority from persons to nature and glue names permanently and unambiguously to things” (ibid., p. 174). This is where Whewellian types re-enter the story. In the course of the nineteenth century, these types were co-opted as standards for the application of taxon names. Proposals were adopted to permanently anchor the valid name of each taxon to the type that belonged to that taxon. From then on, one could determine the only valid name of a taxon by consulting its type. In disputes about names, types had the last word.
As I mentioned earlier, Daston claims that these developments signalled a departure from the epistemic virtue of truth-to-nature—we can now begin to understand why. The departure is reflected in the changed meaning of the term “type” that resulted from the co-option of Whewellian types as fixed anchors for taxon names. The result was that “type” no longer referred to a typical specimen, but instead began to denote the first specimen collected by a naturalist who named a new species. And since such a first specimen could turn out to be a rather aberrant member of its species in the light of further sampling, this had the bizarre consequence that “the type of the species was typically no longer typical” (ibid., p. 174).
This post-Whewellian use of types as fixed name-bearers became known as the “type method.” Though similar in name to Whewell’s own “Method of Type” we have just seen that it constituted a somewhat puzzling departure from that method, and thereby from the truth-to-nature virtue. Nonetheless, Daston argues that the rationale of this departure was clear: the new type method promised to solve the problem of synonymy by making the naming of taxa a truly objective affair. On the new type method, the job of ascertaining the type of a species was no longer the prerogative of a sage who could be trusted to isolate the typical from the accidental. Instead, a species’ type could now be selected and identified by anyone who complied with the “mechanical application” of nomenclatural rules that codified the type method (ibid., p. 176). The new type method therefore “came to be seen as a triumph of objectivity in taxonomy” (Daston and Galison 2007, p. 111).
In correspondence with D&G’s account of atlas images, Daston’s account of types includes a further transition from objectivity to trained judgment. Daston argues that the advent of this transition was signalled by the dissatisfied response of some taxonomists to the new, objective method of mitigating synonymy. While welcoming the nomenclatural benefits of the new type method, these taxonomists objected to the considerable cost at which it was bought. For now that type specimens weren’t typically typical any longer, they had become defective devices for representing the distinguishing features of their species. The type method had effectively transformed type specimens into unrepresentative representatives of their species (Daston 2004, p. 179). Daston sums up the new situation as one in which “taxonomists once more had a common language, albeit one purchased at the price of paradox, an atypical type” (ibid., p. 163).
From a conceptual point of view, this enigmatic notion of a type specimen presented a serious roadblock to taxonomic practice. But in practice, Daston argues, taxonomists learned not to be disturbed by the paradox. Rather than attempting to dis(solve) the paradox, they simply worked around it. They effectively neutralized the problem of unrepresentative representation by adjusting their practices of classification. Instead of strongly leaning on type specimens as reliable bases of comparison, they began to use type specimens dynamically and in combination with knowledge of other specimens and species descriptions to gradually discern the connections between conspecifics. Daston notes that it is hard to capture this complex practice in simple terms, but she illustrates it as the making of “a wheel of comparisons, each a point along the hub representing an individual specimen connected along a spoke to the type specimen at the center, as well as connected to one another by relationships of resemblance.” (ibid., p. 181;) In any case, it is clear that in Daston’s view this new practice marked the advent of new epistemic virtue, for she notes that “it is the trained eye and judgment of the botanist that discerns these connections, shuttling back and forth among holotypeFootnote 3, description, and other specimens” (ibid., p. 181; italics added). In short, the problems of unrepresentative representation that had been introduced by the type method were offset by doing taxonomy differently, in the spirit of trained judgment.
Let me briefly recap this voyage of the type specimen through three epistemic virtues, as presented by Daston (2004). First, there was the truth-to-nature type specimen of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteeth-century Method of Type: an exemplary specimen that was used to delineate and describe a species, and that had been selected on the basis of a learned naturalist’s deeply personal experience with nature. Then, with the introduction of the type method in the course of the nineteenth century, type specimens gained an additional role as objective, fixed name-bearers of species names. Taxonomic codes of nomenclature began to specify that for each new species, the name-giver of that species had to designate a type specimen to which the species name would be anchored once and for all. This elaboration of the role of type specimens came at a cost: it implied that a type specimen was typically no longer typical of its species and therefore could no longer adequately represent its species’ distinguishing features. Type specimens had been turned into unrepresentative representatives. At a conceptual level this paradox remains with us today, but in practice taxonomists have learned to live with it. By embracing the twentieth-century epistemic virtue of trained judgment taxonomists have managed to dovetail in a practical manner what are, conceptually speaking, two principally irreconcilable functions of type specimens.