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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.


The Intellectual Worlds of Henry C. Carey, Part 1: Some Methodological Notes and the Scientific Sources of the American School of Political Economy in the United States November 30, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Henry C. Carey (December 15, 1793 – October 13, 1879) was an economist from Philadelphia whose The Harmony of Interests: Agricultural, Manufacturing, and Commercial (1851) has attracted considerable attention for his critique of Ricardian and Malthusian economics. Like Daniel Raymond (1786–1849, who was the first sustained critic of Adam Smith, Thomas R. Malthus and David Ricardo), Carey found in particular Malthus and Ricardo’s laissez-faire outlook and quietism concerning class conflicts, and the unequal distribution of wealth between social classes factually incorrect and morally dubious. Instead, according to Jeffrey P. Sklansky in The Soul’s Economy (2002), Carey contended that “capitalist development naturally leads to class harmony rather than strife and that the free growth of market relations would result in the breakdown of class distinctions altogether, whether between master and slave or between employer and employee…” (80).


Book Club: Renwick on British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots July 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This blog has previously spotlighted one of Chris Renwick’s articles, and he has written a couple of guest posts* for us.  With those interests declared, I’m happy to say that EWP has received a review copy of his new book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Macmillan: 2012).

A good way of thinking about this book is in terms of what Chris Donohue has referred to as the “nineteenth-century problem” in intellectual-scientific history.  The nineteenth-century problem is partly interpretive, in that it deals with the practical problem of sorting out the undisciplinary tangle of intellectual projects and issues and notions to be found in works of that era.

However, the problem is also historiographical, in that it is a struggle against a tide of scholarship fixated on a few select questions (the reception of natural selection, the intellectual validation of racial hierarchies and imperialism, the ascendancy of liberalism and social reformism, etc…), and a few seemingly key thinkers.  The scholarship also tends to divvy up the intellectual history arbitrarily, with historians of political philosophy studying certain thinkers, historians of economic thought others, and historians of science still others, even though a thorough and sensitive reading of texts — not to mention widely accepted historiographical wisdom — would indicate the folly in doing so.

By highlighting important historical relations between the projects of political economy, eugenics-biometrics, botany and zoology, Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy, social reformism and journalism, and the longstanding search for a science of sociology, Renwick’s book makes an important contribution to the interpretive aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.  It does, perhaps, get somewhat hung up in the historiographical aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.


Henry Buckle and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations May 30, 2012

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Henry Buckle (24 November 1821 – 29 May 1862), much like the semi-acknowledged French sociologist Alfred Espinas, was among the ‘universal citations’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The economist Alfred Marshall makes great use of him.  Much like Ellen Semple and Ellsworth Huntington, Buckle had the unfortunate fate of being labeled a “geographical determinist” by historians of geography, sociology, and anthropology.

Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862)

Ted Porter and Ian Hacking have accused him of “historical determinism.”  He was neither. He also tragically died far too early for his ideas to be sufficiently clarified.  While Buckle in his History of Civilization in England ascribed great power to climate or “physical causes,” he nonetheless did so only with respect to “savage” or “rude” nations.

While leaving a role for climate in civilized nations, Buckle nonetheless argued that progress was indeed possible in Europe as well as in England due largely to the advancement of scepticism.  By ‘scepticism,’ Buckle meant the, “spirit of inquiry, which during the last two centuries, has gradually encroached on every possible subject; has reformed every department of practical and speculative knowledge; has weakened the authority of the privileged classes, and thus placed liberty on a surer foundation….”  What Buckle says here is actually quite significant when placed in the context of the history of ideas.  Buckle was both last in a long line of those who conjoined civilizational progress with the spread of rationalism and the decline of superstition and barbarism in England, beginning with the philosophy of David Hume and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and also within the rising tide of authorial monuments to the progress of philosophy and manners, as exhibited in the early works of Lucien Levy-Bruhl and W.E.H. Lecky’s History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe. (more…)

Primer: Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Problem of Mind July 26, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Claude Lévi-Strauss (b.1908-), according to the well-known anthropologist, the “functionalist” and  student of Bronislaw Malinowski, Edmund Ronald Leach, is the most famous representative of the first of dual traditions of social anthropology.  The founder of the first tradition was the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941).  According to Leach, Frazer was a man “of monumental learning who had no first-hand acquaintance with the lives of primitive people about whom he wrote.”  (Claude-Levi Strauss, 1)  Rather than study a culture in minute detail, Frazer wished to understand the primitive consciousness on a world-historical scale.  The progenitor of the second tradition was Bronislaw Malinowski who “spent most of his academic life analyzing the results of research which he had himself had personally conducted over a period of four years in a single small village in far off Melanesia.”  Malinowski was far more interested in how an individual communities social systems “functioned” than in developing a grand narrative of the primitive consciousness.  Although not in the “style” of Frazer, Levi-Strauss is more concerned with the discovery of true “facts” about a general “human mind.”  He is less concerned, according to Leach, with the “organization of any particular society or class of societies.”  For Leach, this difference is “fundamental.”

Leach, while disagreeing with much of Levi-Strauss’ work, nonetheless had a sound understanding of Levi-Strauss’ argument.  According to Leach, structuralism begins with the biological faculties, quite similar to the philosophical anthropology of Hans Jonas and Arnold Gehlen in Germany, articulated around the same time.   The phenomenon perceived by the human mind, “have the characteristics which we attribute to them because of the way our senses operate and the way the human brain is designed to order and interpret the stimuli which are fed into it.”  As man is consistently (more…)

Primer: Adolphe Quetelet, Statistics, and Social Physics June 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874)

Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874)

Throughout the 19th century, the nature of social changes and regularities in social activity remained an intense concern as population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and political upheaval captured the attention of scientific and political thinkers throughout Europe and America.  As today, this thought necessarily spanned political, popular, philosophical, and scientific realms of thought as debates ensued concerning what could be said about societies and what could and should be done to affect how they function.

In the early 19th century, keeping and deploying statistics was already widespread, but their use as a tool of political discourse remained novel, and thus a subject of general and heated discussion.  The astronomer and essayist Adolphe Quetelet proved to be one of the century’s most singular and influential thinkers concerning the use of social statistics.  Born in Belgium in 1796 shortly after French annexed Austria’s Belgian provinces in the wars following the Revolution, Quetelet was educated in a French lycée, and as a youth took notice of the place accorded to the sciences in the Napoleonic empire.  After Napoleon’s fall in 1815, Quetelet taught mathematics in Ghent, earned a doctorate in the subject, and, after convincing the government to build an observatory in Brussels, he departed to Paris—still the intellectual center of the world—to learn astronomy.  Quetelet took up his post as director of the new Brussels Observatory in 1828, and the observatory began operation in 1832.

By no coincidence, it was in this same period that Quetelet first began writing about statistics and “social physics” (a phrase taken from contemporary “positivist” philosopher and social theorist Auguste Comte).  Principles of statistics and probability had been worked out by key figures in the development of the technical methods of astronomy in France who were also interested in social statistics, particularly Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827).  And, like many others writing (more…)