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International Society for Intellectual History Paper: The Odd Career of Adolphe Quetelet in Early American Social Theory May 2, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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I will have a response to all of my Zilsel friends shortly.  It will be titled “Hunting for the Unicorn: Further Thoughts on Science and the Dissenting Sciences”

*Digression Begins Here*

One of my consistent complaints about our understanding of nineteenth century social theory in the United States is that there is little sustained efforts on these topics due to the problem of relevance.  My contention was (now some years ago in “The Nineteenth Century Problem“) that our understanding of nineteenth century American intellectual history (as very narrowly defined by the history of ideas,  so as to not include the history of social movements or ideologies) was hampered by the issue of relevance. We have a basic problem of knowing so little about nineteenth century social theory that we must resort to boot-strapping mechanisms.    

Thus, historians of ideas and historians of science would like to think that they can study anything they’d like.  But this is simply not true.  I am discussing this since many issues were addressed with my Zilsel friends last week.  One was the issue of justification of case studies and of topics for analysis.  My respondent (the extremely smart and gracious Volny Fages , who throughout put up with my bad manners) questioned why I justified my attention to the pseudosciences and even my choice of case studies.

Volny countered that it was simply the position of sociologists and historians that they could study what they pleased and that they did not have to justify their choice of topic.) This I think is a wonderful statement.  But it is utopian.  The entirety of the history and philosophy of science is built on an absurd network of case-study justification. Will has gone into this a great deal more than I, but historians and sociologists of science usually depend on a kind of epistemological imperative. Historians and sociologists can use any case study they want, but it has to address in some way the problem of knowledge or an ism, ideology or -ity (ex. objectivity.) Historians and sociologists or science must also use their techniques to investigate the historical, archival record to uncover that which was unjustly hidden which has been rendered invisible.  This is the point of the book on Henry Carey and other early American political economists, The Soul’s Economy.  And it is due to the attempt to uncover something hidden, and I contend, to find something not there at all, that Henry Carey’s work is totally misinterpreted. 

Historians of the nineteenth century are especially concerned with the invisible or unclear origins of a concept or of an ideology.  They delight especially in “debunking” an origin story of an ideology or other commonplace, as this gives them a more status as a “debunker.” This is somewhere between a professional philosopher (which for most is undesirable) and a professional scold (which for most is unattainable, though it may be ultimately desirable. Scolding takes effort and must be sustained.) For the nineteenth century however even this is a burden and not often done.  Most often projects in the history of the social sciences are designed to connect rather easily to modern developments (especially in the Cold War) which need not have their relevance justified and are supplemented by ample archives.

All this creates a “Matthew Effect” in scholarship, where scholarly projects become more and more concentrated over time in a given sub-inquiry as graduate students and young professors (who produce the majority of work anyway, with a steep fall in productivity after tenure (see Gordon Tullock’s famous article on discriminating against assistant professors  ) seek projects which are low in risk and initial costs and high in rewards.  As historiography becomes more established, costs lessen and rewards very often become greater.  This assumes that rewards for novel scholarship are relatively low. This is more than often the case because novel work can not by definition establish itself easily (because of lack of prior historiography, thus costs are high) and become superseded quickly.  Thus, the reward for any novel work is momentary. And generally as a point of human psychology and human motivation, it is much easier when writing for and with friends. This is increasingly the case with all of the historiography on the Cold War social sciences.

*Digression Ends*

Thus, it was with much pleasure that I agree to discuss at the International Society for Intellectual History’s 2016 meeting, in sunny Crete, the influence of Adolphe Quetelet’s “social mechanics” on early American social theory.  I have found the first recorded appropriation of Quetelet’s ideas in the United States, in the work of John William Draper. The first mention of Quetelet’s social mechanics was in the writings of Frederick Denison Maurice in “Politics for the People,” published in 1848.

As Theodore Porter describes, Quetelet’s mécanique sociale (later physique sociale) was meant to be an immediate invocation of Laplace’s mécanique céleste, or the desire to develop laws of social life with the same universality and clarity as those of physics.  Such a task was undertaken with a great deal of abandon by Henry Buckle, as many know.  Unknown however is the career of social mechanics in the United States.  Why has this not been done? The above-mentioned “Matthew Effect” in historiography.

The first utilization and appropriation of Quetelet’s work can be traced to its origins in the work of Henry William Draper (a pioneering chemist and author of many works on the “conflict” between science and religion) Draper described in a massive two volume work, The Intellectual Development of Europe (1864), the social evolution of man.  Draper underscored that biological evolution, while important in nature, was less important in modern nations than intellectual advancement.  Indeed the distinction between savage and civil was the significance in the later of mental progress and the insignificance of biological evolution.  The mechanisms behind intellectual development as well as his advocacy of the supremacy of physical causes, was a key theme throughout his work.

Draper, as I briefly mention below, was committed to the physical unity of mankind.  He  was convinced that the advancement of civilizations was the result of the development of mental qualities.  Contrary to the naturalist Louis Agassi, Draper considered the anatomical and physiological features of man to primarily be fixed. Any variation was not due to the action of speciaton, but to climate. This was a difference of degree rather than kind. Europeans progressed to a more refined state of civilization because there reasoning was “analytic.”  Asiatic minds in contrast were “synthetic.”  As a consequence (QED), there customs were “invariable.”

Like Buckle, Draper’s works on the Intellectual Development of Europe are suffused with his effort to found laws of human action on the then novel developments in the inquiry of physiology, on the writings of Justus Liebig and others. Physiology was then considered to be the science of matter in motion and to be a branch of “natural philosophy” by Draper and Buckle.  Both considered it natural philosophy insofar as physiology through its uncovering of the interplay of material forces and the governance of individuals and especially nations by laws.

One of Draper’s earliest works, the wonderfully titled Human physiology, statical and dynamical, or, The conditions and course of the life of man (1858) cites Quetelet. He has “in an interesting manner extended the methods of statistics to the illustration of the physical and moral career of man.” Quetelet’s reasoning is laudable as he (Draper appears to be glossing a number of his works without actually quoting the source)  since it underscores that the “actions which seem to be the result of free will in the individual, assume the guise of the necessity in the community.” Quetelet further underscores that man is born, lives and dies under “immutable laws” much in the same way as communities (Human physiology, pgs. 15 and 16.)  This lack of quotation is somewhat unusual in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as in the American speculative writings in the period (such as Samuel Morton’s ethnology and in phrenological works, the citation and the use of an authority, was an instrument of credit.)

What is important to underscore here is the degree to which Quetelet’s work was used by Draper in his text to articulate that it was possible to discuss the social group.  Draper then uses ethnology as a middle term to move between the individual and the group. This completes his account of individual gestation, growth and development. This follows many pages on the unity or plurality of the unity or diversity of mankind (c. pg. 600) as well as a detailed discussion of the influence of climate on the races of man, and of the various mental qualities of individuals (cf. pgs 603 especially).

Draper does this to unfurl a huge theory of the progress and advancement of world civilizations under the heading “Social Mechanics.”  This is very interesting, for reasons I shall explain.  Draper, enmeshed in the language of physiology, wishes to determine the connection between “corporeal development” and “historical career.”  He has appropriated Quetelet  as ushering in the study of not only the “organization” (pg. 602) and “the community” but uses his “social mechanics” to articulate a vision of how physiology explained the advancement of civilizations. This requires some further explanation.

Draper’s inquiry is divided into two parts: the statical and the dynamical.  The statical has as its inquiry the workings of the animal mechanism in equilibrium. Here Draper treats individuals mostly, looking at organic life as a closed system (detailing respiration, excretion, etc.) The origin, growth and development of nations is treated under the heading of dynamical.

Draper throughout very much used the language of the physical sciences: “in this regard the human body may be spoken of as a mere instrument or engine, which acts in accordance with the principles of mechanical and chemical philosophy, the bones being levers, the blood-vessels hydrolic tubes….” (24.)  In a like manner, the dynamical accounts for the living system in motion: “Commencing at first as a simple cell, it assumes one form after another in succession, but it is ever ready, like the moving bodies of mechanics to obey the impulses which extraneous bodies may impress upon it.”  An organized body though it may be in equilibrium, is never truly at rest.  It is always in motion.  Bodies, like civilizations, have  “past and a future- coming from one state and going into another.”  Bodies and civilizations pass from “phase to phase” (457.)

Draper undertook this move in order so that vitalism may be rejected. Vitalism is rejected because it is internally motivated, it is an internal cause which is not subject to the influence of external causes.  It is a relic of the “old metaphysical system of philosophizing” (25.)Draper had no issue with reducing all biology to an aggregate of physical causes (hinging on an intriguing understanding of mechanics) where all elements of a living system were either at motion or at rest. Physiology was the inquiry into the motion of the physical particles which drove the organism through its embryonic development, birth, maturity and death.

To return to Quetelet, the reduction of organisimal complexity to the laws of physics is an application of Quetelet’s program.  When Draper underscores that “universal history is only a chapter of physiology”, he means that the advancement of civilization can be reduced to the laws of mechanics (here, outside physical forces such as heat or cold, acting on physical bodies, individuals and groups.)  It is these forces and nothing else which drive the development of individuals and nations.And civilizations, like all physical systems, have “laws of equilibrium and movement” (605.)

And in the last pages of the work Quetelet’s influence very much shines though.  All of mankind can be said to be under the action of physical forces, whose movements and attributes, can be summarized by referencing the “standard man” (611.) Moreover, the laws of physiology, of mankind under the influence of physical forces such as heat, wetness and cold, of their bodies reacting to these physical impulses in determined ways, are only really visible when it is not the individual who is under consideration, but the “multitudes” and the “masses.”  Only then is it really visible that the advancement of civilization is not due to the “will” of races or of nations, but to the interaction of physical forces.  At the level of the community “the element of free will seems for the most part to disappear” (612.)  Civilizations and the advancement of man will progress in the same manner “so long as the influences of external nature are the same, and so long as the construction of the human brain is the same” (ibid.)

Thus, Draper appropriates Quetelet in a major way, applying his ideas of not only the average man, but of the idea of the order and regularity which arises out of the consideration of the mass or aggregate.  Draper takes much of Quetelet to heart in his account of the “mechanics” of the advancement, flowering and decay of civilizations, reducing the development of civilizations to the workings of mechanistic systems in equilibrium and in motion.

Quetelet too had a very interesting side-effect here as Draper emphasis on the physiological sameness and unity of mankind melded well with both’s account of the “standard” man.  This allowed Draper to inveigh against the argument of the multiple speciation of mankind. Quetelet and Draper’s writings  thus served to blunt the virulent racism of polygenesis- or the idea of the existence of multiple species of mankind.

My next post, continuing my talk, will discuss the continuing usages of statistical and dynamical in the conceptualization of social theory.  I will focus on the problem of vitalism in such a conception (as well as the invocation of Quetelet) in the major writings of a critical social theorist, Lester F. Ward.


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