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Kuhn’s Demon, or: The Iconoclastic Tradition in Science Criticism January 21, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The message that scientists are human and that science is messy is crossing the ether once again. Of late there has been a certain degree of excitement percolating among historians and science-studies scholars over the #OverlyHonestMethods hashtag on Twitter. It seems that scientists are sending out tweets about their work that happen to nicely coincide with the images of science that historians would like to present to the world. Twitter is, of course, the world hub for “trending” topics, and this particular trend is already simmering down. But, before the moment is completely gone, it might be worthwhile to reflect briefly on the history of the ideas 1) that there exists a dominant image of science as a pristine and rigidly ordered activity, and 2) that the negation of this image would be broadly beneficial to scientists and society.

iconoclasts

Is it idol-smashing time again already?

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The Nineteenth Century Problem August 15, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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The universal historian Henry T. Buckle (1821-1862) was last subject of a serious scholarly monograph in 1958.  This is the fate of any number of nineteenth-century intellectuals.   The first reason for the disappearance of these writers has been the inability to connect them to the catastrophic events of the twentieth century: the World Wars, National Socialism, the deradicalization of the European right after Nuremberg, the flight of the Marxist intellectuals, and so on.   Second, the nineteenth century has been the province of sociologists and literary scholars.  Such attention continues to be selective, judging from the ceaseless publications on the canonical sociologists: springtime for Weber, and winter for Gobineau and Bagehot.

Third, ignoring the nineteenth century allows anthropologists to get on with their own work.  Fourth, and finally, while some nineteenth century economists get attention — Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) has been accumulating more slim volumes as the months go by — the impression I get from some not so cursory reading of the literature is that the with the exception of the proponents of “evolutionary” and “heterodox” economics, philosophers of economics, and Philip Mirowski, it’s Smith, Marx, Keynes, Hayek, Mises, or monograph wilderness.  (more…)

How to Run a Historiography, or: Chymistry Rides High July 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Principe

I know, I know, my scholarly crush on the chymistry literature is probably getting a little embarrassing. But I want to make sure everyone is taking notes like I am, because William Newman, Lawrence Principe, and their crowd are really putting on a clinic on how to run a proper historiography. The latest lesson is in putting together a good Isis Focus section: “Alchemy and the History of Science”, organized by Bruce Moran, and available free of charge in the latest issue.

I’ve been very happy to see this specialty spring to success, receiving both scholarly praise and public exposure in places like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Economist, and the New York Times. I am a bit worried that this success will be held up as simply a product of the virtues of historical scholarship. To an extent it should be, for reasons I will discuss, but I also think it’s important that the rest of us — including those of us working in decidedly remote terrain like 20th-century science — pay close attention to what these scholars are doing particularly right.

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Schabas on Economics and the Engineering Mentality June 15, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The central argument of Margaret Schabas’s The Natural Origins of Economics (2005) is that, over the course of the 19th century, economic thought abandoned links to natural science and began to concentrate on the object of “the economy” which was perceived as being purely social in character.  In a previous post, I observed that Schabas makes the argument well, but that it remained unclear that nature was ever central to economic thought, and thus it was unclear why a shift away from nature should be a key concern in assembling a history of economics.

I think the best case to be made is that Enlightenment-era political economy attempted to establish explanations for a diverse set of perceived phenomena, which would attribute them to the interplay of basic processes.  As Chris’s posts on this blog illustrate so nicely, this project continued through the 19th century in literatures spanning political economy, history, ethnography, and biology.  However, the analysis of constrained but precisely defined economic phenomena as products of patterns of human thought and choice branched off from this project in a process playing out from David Ricardo (1772-1823), to the analyses of Léon Walras (1834-1910) and William Stanley Jevons* (1842-1924), to the revolt of the social science of Max Weber and others (1864-1920) against the German “Historical School”.  What Schabas calls the “denaturalization of the economic order” is certainly a part of that process, but it is far from its defining characteristic.

Schabas does not go into great depth about her reasons for placing the question of nature at the center of her story, but she does offer some brief hints.  (more…)

Neglected Connections between the Histories of Science and Economics, Pt. 2 March 9, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Part 1 of this post argued that the historical relations between natural scientific and economic thought require additional attention.  It suggested that in the Enlightenment period both were subsumed within the epistemology of philosophical systems-building and the generic argumentative structure of “economy”.  Although David Hume’s theory of morals was not economics, per se, in a separate post I used his example to demonstrate how the argumentative construction of a social economy had to face similar intellectual problems as chemistry, botany, and (what was thought of as) physics.

Part 2 emphasizes the importance of logical or argumentative space in economic thought, as exemplified by — but by no means limited to — mathematical inquiry.  I want to argue that economics continued to adhere to the argumentative strategy of system-building familiar from 18th-century natural and political philosophy.  Meanwhile, though, most natural sciences took a separate path toward argumentative rigor applied to a tightly constrained space of argumentation, such as that defined by laboratory phenomena.  Political economists were deeply influenced by the natural sciences’ newly enhanced commitment to rigor, but interpreted that commitment in novel ways within the relatively unconstrained argumentative space of political economy.

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Primer: The Rise of the Austrian School of Economics July 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973)

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973)

The “Austrian School” in economics traces its tradition to the work of Carl Menger (1840-1921).  Menger’s theoretical development of the origins of price has grouped him with the contemporary “Lausanne School” (identified with the axiomatic mathematical economics of Leon Walras) and the work of British economist William Stanley Jevons, all as part of the “marginalist revolution” in economics, which grounded the mechanism of price-setting in the value attributed to various quantities of goods by their buyers and sellers—a keystone of neoclassical economic theory and a critical element in the argument against the control of the economy by the state.

Menger developed his theories in opposition to the “German Historical School” headed by Gustav Schmoller (1838-1917), which gave Menger and his followers the label “Austrian”, intending the label as derogatory.  Schmoller insisted that theoretical economics disregarded essential differences in national traditions, and that only detailed historical investigations could arrive at a firm understanding of political and economic activity. The opening of the conflict between Menger and Schmoller occurred following the publication of Menger’s Principles of Economics (1871), a mere four years after Menger had received his law degree.  An anonymous review signed “G. Sch.” in a literary journal criticized the text’s scientific pretensions.  When Schmoller dismissed Menger’s Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics (1883) in (more…)