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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…)

Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 1 September 22, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This post continues our examination of Cold War Social Science, edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens.

One issue to look out for when addressing the history of the social sciences — and intellectual history more generally — is that scholars are apt to see themselves as in dialogue with the events about which they are writing.  As with scientists writing about their own disciplinary past, there is a felt need either to credit the past as prologue, or to distance oneself from the folly of one’s predecessors.  Such, of course, are the roots of whig history.

The implicit aim of a new whig history, which shapes much intellectual and social science historiography is, in broad strokes, to explain how anthropologists and their intellectual allies bested academic competitors, and can now lead society away from a myopic modernism toward a more harmonious, genuinely cosmopolitan future.

This narrative is fairly similar to the original Whig narrative diagnosed by Herbert Butterfield, which took history to progress away from authoritarianism to political, economic, and religious liberalism. However, the whiggishness of the present narrative can be difficult to acknowledge, because the phenomenon of whig history is actually incorporated within the narrative as an intellectual pathology arising from the same teleological modernism being cast as outdated.  It is counterintuitive that the narrative could be whiggish, because whiggism is a declared enemy of the narrative.

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Margaret Schabas on the Concept of Nature in Economic Thought June 6, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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In my first post on the need for historical studies of the relationship between scientific and economic thought, I was greatly remiss in not discussing a scholar who has done a great deal to develop and organize work in exactly this area: Margaret Schabas of the UBC philosophy department.  Thankfully, a quick reference by Tiago Mata over at History of Economics Playground set me aright.  For a first pass through the existing literature, I’d like to take a look at her book, The Natural Origins of Economics (2005).

The book is a critical-intellectual history.  As an intellectual history, it sticks to an analysis of the published works of (mainly) canonical authors.  Where a straight intellectual history might recount the arguments that historical authors explicitly made, critical-intellectual histories draw out continuities and breaks over time in authors’ lines and methods of argumentation.  Like many intellectual historians, Schabas is mindful of detailed arguments in the secondary literature, and does a good job of acknowledging, consolidating, communicating, and building on the gains of that literature.

Schabas argues that where 18th-century philosophers of political economy understood their subject to connect deeply to nature and natural philosophy, economics began to explicitly frame itself as a science of peculiarly social phenomena following John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy (1848), the rise of the idea of “the economy” as an object of study, and the rise of neoclassical economics in the late-19th century.

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Neglected Connections between the Histories of Science and Economics, Pt. 1 January 17, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Although historians of science have not traditionally shown a strong interest in the history of economic thought, developing such an interest would make good professional sense, in particular because epistemological issues in economics and the natural sciences have long been intertwined in less than obvious ways.  Historians would do well to familiarize themselves with historical epistemological debates around economic thought, such as the Methodenstreit of the 1880s, because important ideas like “science”, “objectivity”, and “impersonality” have meanings that, in much of the historical commentary on them, were specifically associated with debates surrounding the validity of social scientific abstraction, and the important distinctions that were made between the goals of theorization and normative practice.

Aside from brushing up on the historical meanings of certain terms, historians of science also have an opportunity to lend additional clarity to the historical connections between thinking about science and thinking about politics, society, and economy.  Intellectual historians and philosophers of economics, and of science more generally, have studied the more explicit historical debates surrounding political economy and its connections to the methods of science, say, in the thought of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) or Karl Marx (1818-1883).  Additionally, the transfer of metaphors between domains has received good attention, particularly in the area of evolutionary theory: from the economics of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), or from evolutionary theory back into Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) social theory (on this blog, also see Chris Renwick’s discussion of Patrick Geddes).

There is further important work to be done in straight-up intellectual history, but additional opportunities may be found in the history of intellectual practices that provide the context in which ideas make sense. (more…)

Escape’s End, or: Philosophy and the Art of Historiography Maintenance September 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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This book makes no pretense of giving the world a new theory of the intellectual operations.  Its claim to attention, if it possesses any, is grounded on the fact that it is an attempt not to supersede, but to embody and systematise, the best ideas which have been either promulgated on its subject by speculative writers, or conformed to by accurate thinkers in their scientific inquiries.

—John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, 1843

While he ended up caught in a bloody tangle of barbed wire and killed, I heartily approve of Steve McQueen’s clever orchestration of a mass escape from a Nazi POW camp culminating in a heroic motorcycle chase.  It is, though, perhaps needless to say that academic life is not the film of The Great Escape, historians are not Steve McQueen, and the philosophy of science is not a POW camp (however much it may have felt like one at points in the past).  We do, however, risk a similar outcome in our own Great Escape.

The rationale underlying the Great Escape was the overbearing influence the philosophy of science apparently exercised on historians’ reconstruction of history.  These histories perhaps concentrated too strongly on contributions to a history of ideas and not enough on the actual concerns of the people who made those contributions.  They rendered certain topics of historical importance such as astrology unworthy of historians’ sustained attention, and narrated history in a language of discovery and proof that made the shape of science seem inevitable and the matter of the reception of discoveries a simple question of vision or blindness.

The vision of scientific community offered in philosophy and in philosophy-derived histories was of a sort of hive mind, which assumed that, once demonstrated, scientific ideas should and would spread freely, and that, therefore, it was appropriate to ask (more…)

Primer: William Whewell and the “Method of Hypothesis” October 15, 2008

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer.
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William Whewell was born on 24 May 1794 and died on 6 March 1866. Harvey Becher in the essay “William Whewell’s Odyssey: From Mathematics to Moral Philosophy” gives a good sense of both the polymath quality of Whewell’s inquiries and the fundamental reality that his interdisciplinary stance reveals about Victorian science. Becher notes, in a somewhat “heroic” fashion, “During his fifty-four years at Trinity College in Cambridge University, in an age when knowledge reverberated throughout an intellectual world unencumbered by barriers erected by disciplines narrowly defined as means and ends of themselves, Whewell incessantly studied and promoted the science and pedagogy which engulfed him.” (See William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, p. 1.) Whewell wrote on subjects as diverse as geology, mineralogy, mechanics, mathematics, political economy, political theory, and architecture.

Whewell was both a founding member and one of the first presidents of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the Royal Society, a president of the Geological Society, and was the Master, with intermittent controversy, of Trinity College, Cambridge. He exchanged ideas and letters with such well-known men of Victorian science as John Herschel and Charles Lyell, and exerted considerable influence on Michael Faraday. Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise, Astronomy and general physics considered with reference to Natural Theology, published in 1830, was an important text (more…)