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Herbert Spencer on Instinct and Intelligence: The Background of the “Cambridge Mind” January 3, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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In this post for the Grote Club, I reexamine Herbert Spencer’s discussion of a fundamental dispute in early psychology and intellectual history: the degree of difference between instinct and intelligence.

The Grote Club

Simon Cook previously described the novel account of the human mind which emerged before the First World War- the Cambridge Mind.  He considers the development of this conception of brain and behavior to be a critical moment in the early history of the social sciences in Britain, informing the views of both Alfred Marshall and W.H.R. Rivers, but to very different effects. From my vantage point of American intellectual history and history of science, I find a number elements of “the Cambridge Mind” interesting.

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The Empiricist Potential: EWP at 8 January 1, 2016

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I started Ether Wave Propaganda on New Year’s Day 2008 because I felt that historians of science and technology could benefit from more conversation about historical practice that was candid, open, and, above all, rapid.

I hope that EWP has played some role in maintaining the idea of a “loyal opposition” in a profession where objections routinely fade away in the face of a placid politesse. The history of science has for decades now avoided being riven by bitter and absurd disputes. But it has come at the cost of establishing a kind of de facto, hard-to-define orthodoxy or consensus about How Things Are Done, and throwing up barriers that prevent much interaction with disruptive outsiders. 

The point of the blog has always been to assert, first, that it is legitimate to feel uncomfortable with the status quo even if that discontent cannot be precisely defined; and, second, that there may indeed be an alternative way of doing things that is as-yet difficult to imagine.

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Against Methodology by Cryptic Aphorism December 13, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Although this blog roams freely across the history of science and technology, it is first and foremost a methodology blog. One early conclusion reached here was that historians’ interest in methodology is largely limited to consideration of certain quasi-philosophical problems. By quasi-philosophical, I mean that ostensibly fundamental and thorny conceptual issues are not actually treated with careful language, nor do new conversations build systematically on prior ones.

Instead, these considerations often revolve around free-form discussion of certain cryptic aphorisms. Some examples:

  • Science is socially constructed
  • Science is no different from other forms of culture.
  • Scientific method/the Scientific Revolution is a myth
  • There is no such thing as scientific progress
  • Objectivity is illusory/Claims to objectivity are ideological
  • All technologies embody a politics
  • History is storytelling

All of these statements—which are obviously interrelated through a rejection of realist epistemology—are intentionally provocative, and intended to challenge some purportedly widely held, capital-T Truths.  

These aphorisms do in fact embody valid methodological concepts, which are brought out once the conversation moves from the aphorism to a more in-depth discussion. Typically those discussions date back many decades, with some of the best analyses scattered across articles that might equally well have been written in 1975, 1987, or 2002.

Yet, rather than building on the most advanced discussions available, time and again new conversations—conducted in forums ranging from articles to Tweets to seminar rooms—start fresh from the primitive aphorism.  Why?

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Alexander M. Carr-Saunders and the “Cambridge Mind” (Part 1) December 2, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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In this post I begin to tie one of the central concerns of the Grote Club, the concept of instinct and the role of evolution in human social behavior key to Simon Cook’s “Cambridge Mind” to one of the central texts of demography and population science.

The Grote Club

Alexander Carr-Saunders (1886 to 1966) has been the topic of numerous posts at EWP. He was Director of the London School of Economics from 1937 to 1956, initially reading zoology. Carr-Saunders studied bio-metrics under Karl Pearson, was involved in the Eugenics Education Society as its Secretary, and in 1922 published, The Population Problem (PP). PP is among the most dense of texts and does not make for easy reading, particularly for contemporary readers. Nor does it really engender feelings of worthiness among historians of the 20th century social and behavioral sciences as it is (among other things) an account of the social evolution of primitive and civil peoples (or as Simon has pointed out in many other contexts- Carr-Saunders narrates in a text on quantity and quality the historical transition from races and peoples to nations, blending many, many approaches and disciplinary tools.

In this essay, I will…

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Joseph Agassi’s Philosophy and Influence Resist Simple Answers August 4, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
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I. My errors thus far

At the start of this series (which by the way I am not concluding for some time, so don’t worry!) I gave a broad outline of Joseph Agassi’s major philosophical tenets.  I think my title, “Why Joseph Agassi is No Longer Read as Much,” is unfortunate now. If I would have written the post today, I would resist cleverness at the expense of correctness. I would change the title, but the posts seem to be very popular and the nature of my mistake should be clear for everyone to see. Having stated that Agassi is not as read as much, I revise my statement: This may be true. This may be false. I have no way of knowing.  

I think this is an important statement, because historians and philosophers of science are typically very cavalier in assigning importance and influence. I will be equally cavalier and underscore that we historians and philosophers of science have no clear way of doing so. Perhaps we will never have the ability to do so.  How does one really measure the influence of a philosopher and historian of science like Agassi?

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If You Read Joseph Agassi, Man and Nature Become More Complex July 15, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
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For other entries in the series, please see most especially this post as well as this post

I. Dichotomies pose problems for philosophy and the social sciences

In “The Rationality of Science is Partial” in Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology (1977) TRPA  Joseph Agassi points out the two of the key dichotomies in philosophy, namely between nature and convention and between the “utterly universal” and the “utterly particular.” It is possible to view any”specific society as merely arbitrary” … “because although from the outside a custom in a given society may look quite arbitrary, from within it may look quite rational” (263). Many social institutions, such as organized religions, contain both rational and supposedly irrational elements. They are a mix of the universal and the particular. Because they appear to be a mix of dichotomies, social scientists and philosophers are at a loss to explain them. They then explain one and explain away the other. Explanations typically end in an arbitrary manner.

Thus, many have concluded that religion is rational, but not rational enough (Ludwig Feuerbach). Because social institutions are rational, but not rational enough, various solutions have been applied. Relativism more or less declares the debate useless: everything is particular (266-7). For relativists, one can only describe and not engage in causal reasoning. For functionalism, customs, like religious institutions are “natural” and perfectly reasonable, “though only from within.”

Functionalism presents every institution as 100% conducive to good order. Opposite to relativism, everything may be explained. Functionalism also promotes a kind of quietism. If customs and institutions are rational and perfectly reasonable, “natural,” even Hegelian, then how they are to be improved remains a mystery. Their naturalness speaks against their reform. “How can natural things have errors in them?” one would ask. Of course, any modern biologist would tell you that nature is full of errors. Some of them quite interesting.

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The Benefits of Technology: Productivity as a Measure July 11, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Cui bono?

Cui bono?

This post is more a meditation than a proper review of economists’ and historians’ interest in how to evaluate the benefits of technology. It is prompted mainly by recent articles by Paul Krugman (in the New York Times) and Matthew Yglesias (at vox.com) about a current state of stagnating or falling productivity in spite of new technologies being produced. The measurement of the benefits of technology in terms of productivity may seem somewhat odd, narrow, or sinister to some, so I thought it would be useful to look at some of the history of thought surrounding these issues to show why progressive economists and policy wonks regard it as a useful measure.

The benefits of medical technologies—ethical and cost-benefit quandaries in certain cases aside—are relatively easy to measure in terms of their ability to improve health and the efficacy of treatments. However, the benefits of other technologies, marvellous or disruptive as they may be, are harder to evaluate. Because technologies tend to replace other technologies and to alter prior modes of working and living, technological change tends to create both winners and losers, leaving it difficult to determine whether, on balance, the process is beneficial at all.

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On the Absence of Phrenology in Our Daily Lives: An Application of Joseph Agassi’s Philosophy July 4, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
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In my various conversations about my Joseph Agassi series, as well as most importantly here (email and otherwise), I have been challenged on the idea of “intrinsic value”: do ideas have value, can any idea be useful for politics and conversation; or are ideas simply to be explained rather than used? Does our ever-increasing knowledge of the complexity of past ideas and intellectual movements allow us to say that our understanding of ourselves and our world has improved from, say, the 19th century?

Of course, the answer is yes. Science has progressed; the question is whether there are rules (or even hints to the forces or interests) responsible for the progress of science. Philosophers and historians of ideas also know this. No one today would defend phrenology as a science. Neurology is now the science of the brain. Is neurology superior to phrenology? Yes, but I would very much like to hear an argument to the contrary.

Phrenology-journal

What separates the philosophers from the historians and sociologists of science is the degree to which philosophers (at least the diminishing numbers who are flexible rationalists like Mary Hesse) cautiously affirm that one of the tasks of the philosopher is to decide what intellectual inventions are worth keeping (tolerance, for example, or the non-random nature of scientific inference, to take another) and perhaps say something about how good ideas come about, as opposed to bad ones, which hopefully do not last.

However, just because phrenology is now not a science does not mean that one can not learn about it and hazard some arguments about the connection between science and social context and how we differentiate between “good” and “bad” ideas. Can we say really that phrenology was a “bad” idea? Yes. But how to explain it?  That is much harder. (more…)

Scientists and the History of Science: An Alternative View April 25, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In my last post, I took issue with the idea that when scientists write history, they are possessed of a need to idealize science, and thereby secure its intellectual and social authority. The burden of this post, therefore, is to develop a framework that accounts for the ways that scientists do write history, and the ways they can contribute to the historiography of science, without supposing they are possessed of such a need, or that they need, in general, to be disabused of their ideas.

Scientists as Historians and Critical Intellects

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

The first thing we might note is that the basic idea that we require more realistic portraits of science did not originate in the work of critical outsiders. In the 1960s it was commonly associated with scientists such as Peter Medawar (1915–1987) and John Ziman (1925–2005), and did not, to my knowledge, raise much pique.

Moreover, many historians of science were scientists who migrated into history. An outstanding and well-known example is Martin Rudwick, a geologist by training. His Great Devonian Controversy (1985) was widely considered a crucial document of an era of newly nuanced portraits of scientific development. Yet, in more recent years, Rudwick has written, in large part, with a scientific audience in mind, and has been more critical of historians for their neglect of the course of scientific claims and arguments. I think scientists such as Rudwick can prove, at least in certain respects, to be more sensitive historians than trained historians, provided they are well-read in existing historical research. But, of course, the more general point is that a historiography is simply well served by enrolling people with a diversity of training and experience.

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Scientists and the History of Science: The Shapin View April 15, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post incorporates some general impressions I’ve developed over the last several years, but is most immediately motivated by Steven Shapin’s negative Wall Street Journal review* of physicist Steven Weinberg’s new book To Explain the World. I’d like, though, to make clear at the outset that this post isn’t really concerned with whether or not Shapin’s review did justice to Weinberg, specifically. I’m not especially interested in Weinberg’s views, and they are not something that worries or perturbs me. Shapin’s review is of interest here because it is written in a tradition that does see in histories such as Weinberg’s the operation of larger forces that should be a cause for concern.

Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin

A much earlier work in this tradition was the 1968 book Science in Modern Society, written by the Marxist science journalist J. G. Crowther (1899–1983). In it, Crowther criticized a trend he saw in academic scholarship toward a “disembodied history of scientific ideas.” In his view, science could only be governed to serve the best benefit of society if the unvarnished history of the “social relations of science” was understood. Crowther believed that narrowly intellectualized history concealed those relations, and thus constituted “a long-range natural protective action, by dominant interests that do not wish to have the social and political implications of their scientific policy comprehensively investigated.” 

Comparatively, Shapin plays down the dangers of improper history, but inherits Crowther’s perspective insofar as he regards macroscopic forces as responsible for such history. In Shapin’s view, the shortcomings of Weinberg’s specific history, as well as Weinberg’s concentration on what he regards as powerful about science, are, depressingly, simply what is to be expected when a scientist—any scientist—attempts to write the history of science.

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