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successful practices of contemporary science

To develop a better view, let us focus for the moment on history and anthropology (although the conclusions I shall defend would also apply to literature and the arts, as well as to critical studies of them). While it is true that rigorous history and ethnography often give up generality for accuracy and precision, their conclusions can nonetheless have considerable importance. Scientific significance is not limited to the discovery of general laws—that idea is a hangover from an age in which the scientific task was seen as one of fathoming the Creator’s rulebook, of thinking “God’s thoughts after Him.” The sciences, recall, are collections of models, directed at answering questions. Not every question matters: there are countless issues about the variation of your physical environment while you read these sentences that should be of no concern to anybody. Generality is to be prized, partly because it is often the key to answering questions wholesale rather than retail, partly because generalizing explanations are often deeper; but there are many non-general issues, concrete and individual questions, that rightly occupy natural scientists. Where exactly do the fault lines run in Southern California? What is the relation among the various hominid species? By the same token, there are many specific questions that occupy historians and anthropologists.

Some of these questions are causal, about the factors that generated large events or that sustain particular social systems. Yet there are others that should be emphasized. When Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie writes a study of a medieval population on the Franco-Spanish border, or when Jean L. Briggs reports on family life among the Inuit, these scholars are not primarily interested in tracing the causes of events. History and ethnography are used instead to show the readers what it is like to live in a particular way, to provide those of us who belong to very different societies with a vantage point from which to think about ourselves and our own arrangements. Their purpose, to borrow an old concept, is a kind of understanding that derives from imaginative identification.