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Useful Portraits in the Mid-Century Social Sciences December 30, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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cwssMy meditation on whether there is a “whig” narrative permeating the historiography of the social sciences may give the impression that I have a fundamental objection to the Cold War Social Science (CWSS) volume. In fact, I like the book a great deal. Rather, as someone who is probably among the top 20 people worldwide with practical use for the book, thinking about a “whig” narrative helps me articulate what aspects of it are the most useful.

Having worked for some time in the history of the related subjects of operations research, systems analysis, and decision theory, I have become intimately familiar with the argumentative tropes that permeate their historiography, and which overlap with the ones surrounding the social sciences of the Cold War era. These include the supposed historical existence of: a faith in science, a particular authority attributed to formalized knowledge, and a systematic discounting of tradition and cultural peculiarity.

Even if I didn’t think these tropes were seriously misleading (though I do), the simple repetition of them in different contexts would not be very helpful to me. Locating the tropes within a general narrative allows me to identify what those tropes would look like in a different segment of the narrative (say, a post-1970 history, or the history of a different field), and thus what things I “already know,” even if the precise details are foreign to me. For example, I am not especially well versed in the history of psychology, but if the stories historians tell me about it conform to the general narrative I already know, then they are not really telling me much that is useful beyond making me aware of perhaps a new proper name or two, which I will probably promptly forget. By this criterion, a good portion of CWSS is not especially useful.

But much of it is. Here I will briefly discuss what I personally found to be the most useful pieces in the volume.


Joseph Deniker, Species, and the “Northern Race” (Part 1) May 4, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Joseph Deniker

Joseph Deniker’s (1852-1915) human geography and ethnography illustrates the eternal persistence of old debates and the various uses of canonical authors, Cuvier and Darwin among them.  There has been in my estimation no satisfactory narrative of the species problem from Cuvier through Prichard, Darwin, and turn of the century anthropologists, ethnologists, and human geographers.  Nor has there been a consistent appraisal of the appropriation of the “canon” of naturalists and ethnologists by late nineteenth and early twentieth century naturalists, ethnologists, and anthropologists.

Historians have generally narrated turn of the century ethnological debates in France, Britain, Germany, and the United States solely in terms of their contributions to eugenics or the rise of statistics.  David Livingston, among others, has written Whiggishly about the development of human geography as a discipline or inquiry.  It is unclear whether any of the authors surveyed at the turn of the century considered themselves as contributing to any kind of discipline. I am certain that any division between a “racial” and “scientific” human geography, emerging in the inter-war period is terribly overdrawn.  Deniker’s work illustrates the live nature of many nineteenth century debates at the turn of the century.  His influence on as diverse figures as Madison Grant, A.C. Haddon, and Julian Huxley, each representative of eugenics, “becoming scientific,” and “post-Boasian” ethnology, respectively, points to the ambiguous uses of turn of the century ethnology and the astonishing breath and depth of the ethnographic canon.


Chris Renwick on the History of Thinking about Science October 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Today we have the second guest post by Chris Renwick, who starting in January will be a lecturer in modern British history at the University of York.

In one way or another, most approaches to history of science share a common intellectual assumption: that science can be related to the contexts in which it is produced, even if historians can’t agree about what’s important when talking about those contexts. Indeed, such is the importance of this contextualist point that it is often seen as a crucial moment in moving history of science away from the wholly discredited study of great men and their ideas. When, though, did this shift take place and who was responsible for it?

Ever since I started out as graduate student, I’d assumed, like many others, that the effort to relate science and its contexts was originally the gift of Karl Marx and Marxism. After all, who doesn’t know the story of the letter in which Marx explained how Charles Darwin had transplanted Victorian society onto the natural world (though, for the record, the letter we always attribute to Marx was actually written by Engels) or the legend of Russian physicist Borris Hessen’s presentation on Isaac Newton to the Second International Congress of the History of Science at the Science Museum in London in 1931? However, in considering this issue recently I’ve come to the conclusion that something is missing from our understanding of the history of history of science and that it tells us something important about the intellectual trajectory of the field.

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

Part of what sparked my interest in this issue was a 1952 book, entitled Darwinism: Competition and Cooperation, by the British-American anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who played a leading role in the production of the famous 1950 UNESCO statement on race. In that book, Montagu argued that it wasn’t Marx or Marxists who first grasped how to relate science to its socioeconomic contexts but Patrick Geddes—the Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town planner whom I’ve spent a great deal of time studying (see pages 29 to 31 in particular). To illustrate his point, Montagu picked out a passage from Geddes’ late 1880s article on “Biology” for Chamber’s Encyclopaedia:

The substitution of Darwin for Paley as the chief interpreter of the order of nature is currently regarded as the displacement of an anthropomorphic view by a purely scientific one: a little reflection, however, will show that what has actually happened has been merely the replacement of the anthropomorphism of the eighteenth century by that of the nineteenth. For the place vacated by Paley’s theological and metaphysical explanation has simply been occupied by that suggested to Darwin and Wallace by Malthus in terms of the (more…)