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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).


Zuckerman on Toulmin on Bernal May 4, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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While preparing my last post, I ran into an interesting passage in Solly Zuckerman’s (1904-1993) memoir, From Apes to Warlords (1978), where he discusses the influence of his former friend J. D. Bernal’s (1901-1971) touchstone work in science criticism, The Social Function of Science (1939). Zuckerman spends a full paragraph talking about the importance ascribed to Bernal’s book by philosopher and historian Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009). Since it is not every day that a former chief scientific adviser to a government comments on the writing of a philosopher/historian of science, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the confluence of ideas that would allow such an event to occur.

Here’s the passage in full:


The links between science studies and British “declinist” discourse April 22, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Rose and Rose

In trying to characterize the roots of contemporary history of science and science studies, one of the crucial features I have hit upon is their presentation of science, and particularly its place in society, as historically and continually beset by a widespread failure to understand the nature of science and the science-society relationship.*  This failure structures narratives which involve various tensions, confusions, and failures of policy and morality, all of which ultimately necessitate the latter-day formulation of an iconoclastic critique of science.  These narratives, in turn, have the effect of inflating the apparent present-day novelty and cogency of these professions’ central critical insights.

Now, this has long been an interesting issue for me, partially because it actually mirrors a major point in my work on the history of operations research, scientific advising, systems analysis, and related developments in World War II and after.  These developments were often cast as representing a realignment (or potential realignment) of the relationship between “science” and “the state”. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the purported need for such a realignment is a characteristic feature of narratives of British national “decline,” which explain that decline at least partially in terms of a national failure to appreciate and take proper advantage of science.  C. P. Snow’s 1959 book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution is a well-known manifestation of this narrative, but it was widespread before and after Snow’s contribution.

A big question that has weighed on me is whether that older discourse is directly related to the contemporary one.  Recently, while working on the conclusion of my book, I believe I found what may be a “golden spike” linking the two discourses buried in radical British science journalist J. G. Crowther’s (1899-1983) Science in Modern Society (1967, in which operational research features prominently) and Hilary Rose and Steven Rose’s Science and Society (1969).


Morris R. Cohen on the Place of Logic in Law, Positivism, Deduction, and the History of Science April 18, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences, Philosophy of Law.
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Morris Raphael Cohen (July 25, 1880 – January 28, 1947) is today a relatively unappreciated philosopher outside some encamped circles in the philosophy of law, intellectual history, and the intellectual study of jurisprudence.   Sidney Hook in “The Philosophy of Morris R. Cohen,” in the New Republic, outlined the reasons for this.  He noted, “Honored for his candor, his scholarship and critical insight, his philosophical colleagues with a true gesture of piety to the spirit of intelligent dissent recently conferred upon him the presidency of the American Philosophical Association.” But, “he has no following.”  Hook continuedStray-Dog, “His writings have consequently bewildered those who have sought to understand him only in the light of his negations.”  Cohen had little patience for Marxist or overly sociological discussions of law, but he was not a strident legal positivist.  He did not think that jurisprudence was a closed system of logical relationships as would a legal formalist.  Cohen was however a kind of “reductionist.”   Law was logical, and much like the natural sciences, useful due to its regularity and generality. Law, however, much like the more contemporary sciences of non-Euclidean geometry and quantum mechanics, had to be open enough to address the inherent messiness of life. (more…)

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…)

Toulmin on Cosmology and the “Theology of Nature” December 4, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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In April I finished up a series of posts on the anthropological concept of “cosmology” (meaning a coherent system of thought), and the relationships historians of the 1980s were able to draw between it and the historical practice and fate of natural philosophy — including scientific cosmology — in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (See especially Simon Schaffer’s clear 1980 argument on this point.)

In my last post in that series, I noted that in seeking to ground Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) physical convictions in his Sandemanian religious beliefs, Geoffrey Cantor used the term “theology of nature” to distinguish ideas implicit in Faraday’s thought from a contemporaneous, but more explicitly reasoned “natural theology”.  To quote the subtitle to William Paley’s (1743-1805) 1802 book, Natural Theology, natural theology sought “evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity” in the study of nature.  For Faraday, though, only the certain revelation of the Bible could produce knowledge of God, making it necessary for historians to excavate his personal theology of nature.

Some time later, it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to chase down this “theology of nature” term, which led me directly to Stephen Toulmin’s 1982 essay collection, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature.  Aha.  Since today marks the first anniversary of Toulmin’s death, I thought it might be a good time to try to type something up that helps put Toulmin, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, into our history of the history of science of the 1980s.


Primer: The Royal Academy of Sciences May 22, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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An imagined visit by King Louis XIV to the Royal Academy of Sciences, 1671.

OK, Hump-Day History got a bit lost the last couple weeks, but to restore some momentum, we present a special Friday edition.  I hope American readers have a fine long Memorial Day weekend.

The organization of scientific work and its communication necessarily involves the reconciliation of tensions between the inherent elitism of advanced inquiry and the aspirations of inquirers to produce universally valid knowledge, as well as between the individualism of personal initiative and the collectivism of rational agreement.  Cultures of inquiry and invention have a wide variety of choices of how to enact such reconciliations, and their choices often create a conceptual resonance between scientific practice and the culture and politics beyond the community.  This was clearly and influentially the case with the Royal Academy of Sciences, established in Paris in 1666 under the authority of absolutist monarch Louis XIV.

When the Academy was established, it represented a culmination of a decades-long proliferation of circles dedicated to the discussion of philosophical and cultural issues.  In the middle of the seventeenth century, the interests of these circles crossed freely between art and rhetoric, general scholarship, the philosophical reformism of people like René Descartes (Jacques Rohault’s, 1618-1672, “Cartesian Wednesdays” in particular), and, of course, the then-recent vogue for experimental natural philosophy often associated with Francis Bacon (and exemplified by the “Academy” run by Melchisédech Thévenot, c.1620-1692).

The short-lived Accademia del Cimento in Florence (est. 1657), and the Royal Society in London (est. 1660), suggested the possibility that centralizing inquiry (more…)

The Dart of Harkness April 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Having finished up Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, I must say that I am wowed—it’s really a superb book that should be read by anyone working in the history of science, any period or location.

The thing that really makes this book work so well is its economical pacing and the presence of the author throughout.  The subject matter—the knowledge economy of Elizabethan London as it pertains to the natural sciences—is necessarily diffuse.  There are a few big names who enter and leave the story, but for the most part one is dealing with a wide pastiche of authors, medical practitioners, and so forth.  The object is to characterize what these people did, how their communities worked, and how these communities intertwined.  This is what Harkness accomplishes very nicely.  Her expertise is constantly on hand to guide readers through the ins and outs of Elizabethan regulatory systems, investment schemes, and, of course, the London market place, and to leave readers with not only an argument, but a usefully organized knowledge about the subject matter.  She conveys her point, produces the pertinent information, and moves on, dwelling on details only so long as to demonstrate how they relate to the larger picture.

Harkness’ economical style allows her to cover a lot of ground.  She starts off with a discussion of the community of naturalists on Lime Street, but then goes on to chart the anatomy of London’s diverse medical market, the instrumentation market and the market for practical and theoretical mathematical education, the development of large-scale projects (mining, exploration, water works, etc., fueled by often suspect knowledge), and the compilation of practical knowledge in manuscript notebooks and printed books.

It’s all very well done, but my favorite bit has to be the discussion of one of Queen Elizabeth’s top administrators, William Cecil, and his efforts to come to grips with various issues relating to maintaining the value of currency, granting (more…)

What was the Scientific Revolution? March 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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So, I got Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House in the mail yesterday.  The book is about “the sciences” in London circa 1600, and won last year’s Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society.  So far I like it a lot.  Essentially, it’s kind of up the same alley as Cook’s Matters of Exchange with some key stylistic differences that I want to discuss later.

What I’d like to discuss now is a sort of uncomfortable relationship writers on early modern natural history seem to have with the idea of the Scientific Revolution.  I keep getting this Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect!” vibe from the literature, which seems to be born out of this idea that the Sci Rev (as we in the biz call it) was this physics-driven shift in “the way people thought” and a rejection of Ancient authority concerning natural knowledge, or something like that.

Thus we seem to have this burgeoning literature of the “big science” of the 1500s and 1600s (again, a sort of “us too!”, this time against 20th-century (more…)

History as Font of Lessons (Isis, Pt. 3) July 25, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Santayana, yadda, yadda… This afternoon I’m going to write about Andrew Hamilton and Quentin Wheeler’s “Taxonomy and Why History of Science Matters for Science: A Case Study”, which derives lessons from the history of numerical taxonomy (phenetics) for the future of DNA bar-coding. I wasn’t aware of phenetics, which seems to have been a mid-century attempt to measure living things and then group them without recourse to any overarching theory. This has intriguing parallels to the mathematics of the Bourbaki collective that I won’t go into (and don’t actually know much about), but I just wanted to throw that out there. The big point here is that the phenetics movement precipitously collapsed after its haphazard data-collecting failed to produce a believable taxonomy, and the authors argue that the same could happen to DNA bar-coding, which uses DNA arrangements to draw relationships between different organisms.

The first point I’d like to address is the use of the lesson from history. In my first post in this series, I discussed the use of history by filmmakers. Here I’m more reminded of the constant use of history in politics, which is notoriously dicey in its deployment of analogies with past events. Here in America we’re being subjected to fairly sophisticated historical analyses on a daily basis as the Presidential campaign goes forward. Inevitably, we learn why the strategies being deployed are similar to Reagan vs. Carter in 1980 or Nixon vs. Kennedy in 1960, and so on… I think, as with filmmakers using history, this is both inevitable and healthy, but there’s a difference. (more…)