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Terminology: The History of Ideas May 19, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
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Arthur Lovejoy (1873-1962), proponent of one version of the history of ideas

Arthur Lovejoy (1873-1962), proponent of one version of the history of ideas

One of the drums I like to beat is that historians’ methodological toolkit is well developed, but that we do not use this toolkit as cooperatively and as productively as we might.  Part of making good use of tools is having good terminology, which helps us to understand and talk about what tools we have and what they’re good for, and how they can be used selectively and in chorus with each other.  It also helps avoid needless disputes, where vague language leads to perceptions of wrong-headedness and naiveté.  For example, I like to talk about the need for “synthesis,” which I take to mean an interrelating of historians’ works at the level of their particulars (rather than mere thematic similarity).  For me, synthesis is a sign of a healthy historiography, but such calls could be dismissed by others as a call for “Grand Synthesis,” which all right-thinking historians have been taught to shun.

For this reason, I thought it might be useful to suggest some definitions, which I personally follow.  In some cases, these are the result of extensive reflection, and, if you go into the archives of this blog, you will find I do not use the terms consistently.  And, of course, I don’t suppose my terms are the final word on the subject.  The best thing would be if they opened the door for debate and clarification.  In this post, I want to talk about:

The History of Ideas



David Apter on Ideology, Economic Development, and Social Science (1964) January 9, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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David Apter in 1953 at University College of the Gold Coast, photo by Eleanor Apter.  Click for Apter Collection at Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

David Apter in 1953 at University College of the Gold Coast at Achimota. Photo by Eleanor Apter. Click for a larger version at the Apter Collection of photographs at Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

Clifford Geertz’s well-known 1964 essay, “Ideology as a Cultural System” appeared in a volume called Ideology and Discontent, which was edited by David Apter (1924-2010). Apter (you might recall from this post) was a modernization theorist.  His best-known work on the subject was The Politics of Modernization (1965).  The appearance of Geertz’s essay in Apter’s volume should be no surprise since Geertz was himself a scholar of modernization, and served with Apter as a member of the University of Chicago’s Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations.  (Relevant here is Geertz’s long discussion near the end of his 1964 essay on the political culture of newly independent Indonesia.)

Apter’s own introductory essay in the volume (titled “Ideology and Discontent,” pp. 15-46) is a discussion of the relationship between economic development, political ideology, and social science, and is very much in the tradition of the intellectual liberalism of that era.  But it also zigs in certain places where you might expect it to zag, and, though it is not as lucid or valuable as Geertz’s essay, it is very much worth a read to try and get a beat on some of the contours of the kind of critical-interpretive social science in which Apter was engaged.  Additionally, it is the earliest reference I have so-far come across to the “ideology of science,” which is a concept I have been tracking off and on through this blog (though Google Books informs me there are a number of earlier precedents).


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.


Clifford Geertz on “Ideology” as an Analytical Term, Pt. 2 April 11, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences, Ideology of Science.
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This post continues Pt. 1 of a look at Clifford Geertz’s “Ideology as a Cultural System,” first published in Ideology and Its Discontents, ed. David E. Apter (Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), pp. 47-76.

But, before returning to Geertz, I’d like to detour for a quick look at Erik Erikson (1902-1994).  In addition to being a psychologist, Erikson was part of an illustrious club of postwar intellectuals.  His Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958) was cited in a particularly broad literature in the ’60s and ’70s (here’s the Google ngram for “Young Man Luther”), and he was particularly important in establishing “identity” as a term of analysis.  Here’s his take on “ideology” and its relationship to “identity” from the introduction to that book (22):


Clifford Geertz on “Ideology” as an Analytical Term, Pt. 1 April 1, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences, Ideology of Science.
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Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

I suspect most historians, including myself, could not say much about the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s work and ideas beyond the two-word phrase “thick description”.  Yet, almost all historians will know at least that much.  Further, although he borrowed the phrase from Gilbert Ryle, these historians will likely associate the phrase with Geertz, probably because at some point they have read his 1972 essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”.  As an undergraduate history major, I was assigned it as part of my senior year methods course.

I would argue that most historians know about thick description, as exemplified in “Deep Play”, because it has become integral to our sense of professional identity.  It articulates what we have the ability and freedom to do, which others cannot (or, for ideological reasons, do not) do.   This identity identifies historians as reliable experts at getting beyond the surface features of a culture and teasing out the hidden values and presuppositions lurking within its more visible elements: its texts, its propaganda, its day-to-day practices, its objects, and so forth.

Unfortunately, this skill is often treated as a kind of secret, to which historians simply gain access upon induction into the historians’ guild by reading works like “Deep Play”.  Once in, you need not worry too much about what actually constitutes legitimate and valuable interpretations of past cultures.  (My bête noire is historians’ continued belief that “scientism” and “technological enthusiasm” constitute legitimate characterizations of the rationales in certain technical and political cultures.)

We could doubtless benefit from reading more of Geertz on the proper interpretation of culture.  This post is about his essay, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” first published in Ideology and Discontent, ed. David E. Apter (Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), pp. 47-76, which still bears sober reading a half-century later.


Tacit Knowledge and Tactile History: Otto Sibum and “Gestural Knowledge” December 17, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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An 1869 illustration of James Joule's simple, but difficult-to-replicate experiment demonstrating the mechanical equivalent of heat.

This post is the first in a short series on what I call “tactile history”: the practice of historical research that extends beyond examining documents to examining the objects of science and the locations they inhabited, and to the actual reenactment of historical scientific research.  The objective of tactile history is to recover aspects of historical work that would not have survived in the form of a written report.  In this vein, tactile history could be seen as a step beyond “notebook studies” — say, Gerald Holton on Robert Millikan’s oil drop experiments,* or Gerald Geison’s The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (1995) — which look beyond scientific publication to recover the messier day-to-day practices of scientific life.

Where laboratory notebooks merely recover otherwise hidden practices, tactile history attempts to recover something that was never expressed in any form, and is often referred to as “tacit knowledge”.  This could be an inexpressible Fingerspitzengefühl (a fine-tuned hands-on knowledge), a lack of understanding of why an experiment works, pattern recognition, or an unreasoned premonition about what new scientific knowledge will look like.  In the 1980s, tacit knowledge became a crucial part of the “controversy studies” literature, because it was understood to be elemental in successfully replicating an experiment.  By studying controversies surrounding replication, one could uncover the many tacit preconditions underlying successful replication. (more…)

Norms, “Ideology”, and the Move against “Functionalist” Sociology September 4, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) critique of the Mertonian program to define a “normative structure of science” centered around the complaint that, by focusing on the social conditions that fostered scientific rationality, nothing was said about the sociology of knowledge-producing processes in everyday scientific work. It seems to me that SSK strategies like “methodological relativism”, and Steven Shapin’s embrace of “middle-range” historico-sociological theories, might ultimately have resulted in additions to, and a reconciliation with, the original Mertonian framework.

However, at the same time, another critique questioned the basic validity of that framework. This critique shared the SSK critique’s interest in describing actual scientific work, but, like Mertonian sociology, it focused on scientists’ and others’ sense of the essence of scientific culture without directly addressing knowledge-production processes. This critique held that, because “functionalist” ideal-type systems of scientific behavior could not actually be found in their pure form, such systems did not meaningfully exist. Legitimate sociology had to be obtained inductively from the empirical record, as studied by historians and ethnologists.

A key work here is: Michael Mulkay, “Norms and Ideology in Science,” Social Science Information 15 (1976): 637-656.


Cultural History of Knowledge and Post-Marxist Social History of Science April 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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The Edinburgh Science Studies Unit in the early 1980s; Steven Shapin is second from the left in the back row; David Bloor is first on the left and Barry Barnes is second from the right in the front row

Circa 1980, “social” historians who explored the connections between scientific work and its political, social, and economic milieus showed an interest in how scientists selected their objects of inquiry, in the allocation of scientific research effort, and in the social function of scientific work.  Unlike many historians of science, they showed comparatively little interest in the development of scientific knowledge itself.  In 1982 Steven Shapin wrote that he saw “no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but,” he observed, “much literature in the social history of science has less of a connection with the sociology of knowledge than many apparently traditional exercises in the history of ideas” (my emphasis).

At that time, Shapin was a key figure in a movement that was opposed to a traditional philosophy-inspired history of science, which sifted “science” out of history and narrated its progress; to a Mertonian sociology of science, which delineated the conditions in which “science” takes place; and indeed to the social history of science, which linked lines of research to social interests, but which often took research results for granted.


The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 2 April 19, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, EWP Book Club.
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This post continues Pt. 1 without re-introduction

What I like to call the “cult of invisibility” was a staple of Marxist analysis, with its constraining socio-economic structures and its psychology of false consciousness.  Invisible constraints of this sort are taken to render certain classes of actors in some sense powerless and ineffectual — their invisibility or silence or inability to articulate or perhaps even feel their own plight explains a failure of something to happen, such as the ascendancy of the working class.

In addition, historians often connect such invisible constraints to a historiographical prejudice, whereby the persistence of psychological and intellectual constraints through history restricts present ideas about what sorts of things constitute proper history, which renders certain aspects of the past systematically invisible to historical memory.   This second, historiographical form of invisibility establishes a social need for the services of the critically trained historian who can identify invisible prejudices, recover systematically concealed aspects of history, and make them more generally known, possibly helping to overcome the forces of invisibility in our own time.  E. P. Thompson’s (1924-1993) The Making of the English Working Class (1963) is probably the key work in this tradition.

The cult of invisibility not only survives, but thrives in the transition to post-Marxist historiographical analysis — a transition in which Thompson’s work was arguably instrumental.  In Morris Berman’s book on the Royal Institution (RI), the role of science as a cultural force that creates invisibility is emphasized. His major demonstration of this point comes in his extended analysis of Michael Faraday’s (and, incidentally, Charles Lyell‘s) role in the investigation verdict that there was no fault in the 1844 Haswell coal mine explosion, which had killed 94 mine workers including young boys (pp. 179-180): (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…)