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The Benefits of Technology: Productivity as a Measure July 11, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Cui bono?

Cui bono?

This post is more a meditation than a proper review of economists’ and historians’ interest in how to evaluate the benefits of technology. It is prompted mainly by recent articles by Paul Krugman (in the New York Times) and Matthew Yglesias (at vox.com) about a current state of stagnating or falling productivity in spite of new technologies being produced. The measurement of the benefits of technology in terms of productivity may seem somewhat odd, narrow, or sinister to some, so I thought it would be useful to look at some of the history of thought surrounding these issues to show why progressive economists and policy wonks regard it as a useful measure.

The benefits of medical technologies—ethical and cost-benefit quandaries in certain cases aside—are relatively easy to measure in terms of their ability to improve health and the efficacy of treatments. However, the benefits of other technologies, marvellous or disruptive as they may be, are harder to evaluate. Because technologies tend to replace other technologies and to alter prior modes of working and living, technological change tends to create both winners and losers, leaving it difficult to determine whether, on balance, the process is beneficial at all.



Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 4: Automata and the Proto-Industrial Ideology of the Enlightenment — Historiography August 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999)

Maelzel Turk

“Enlightened Automata” is one of Schaffer’s few pieces that is especially forthright about the overarching scholarly project of which it is a part. It is certainly the centerpiece — and his clearest exposition — of his work on what he occasionally referred to as “machine philosophy,” a concept that interrelates several historical developments:

  1. The rising use of mechanisms in philosophical experiments, which have the virtue of preventing human fallibility and prejudice from influencing their outcomes.
  2. The use of mechanisms as explanatory metaphors in natural, moral, and political philosophy.
  3. The replication of natural phenomena and human behavior in mechanisms, i.e. automata.
  4. Industrialization, i.e., the replacement of craft processes with machinery, and the concomitant regulation and control of human action, especially manual labor, through managerial regimes.

Schaffer takes these four developments (but especially 2 and 4) to characterize the ideological ambitions of the Enlightenment.  In “Enlightened Automata,” he leverages the history of the construction and display of automata (3), and commentary on such automata, as a means of probing these ambitions.


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


Alexander M. Carr-Saunders on Social Selection, Heredity, and Tradition May 6, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Alexander M. Carr-Saunders (14th January 1886-6th October 1966) was president of the London School of Economics from 1937 to 1956.  When his The Population Problem: A Study in Human Evolution appeared in 1922, it cemented his reputation.  According to his obituary in Population Studies this book has since been viewed as a seminal contribution to “social biology” due to its formulation of the “optimum number.”  Carr-Saunders defined the optimum number as the greatest number of individuals who could be sustained by a given environment.  For Carr-Saunders, moreover, this optimum number “involves the idea of the standard of living,” where in order to reach and to maintain this standard of living, populations, from primitive to civilized, employ practices to either “reduce fertility” or to “cause elimination,” including abortion, abstinence from sexual intercourse, and infanticide, in greater or lesser proportions (214.)

Alexander M. Carr-Saunders

Alexander M. Carr-Saunders

This was not all, however, as the maintenance of the highest standard of living possible required that the  “younger generation must become proficient in the skilled methods which makes this standard possible of attainment, and in particular it is important that young men should not marry unless they are both energetic and skillful.”  In such basic facts “we may see evidence exerted by social conditions and conventions” (224.)

Carr-Saunders has attracted some attention from Hayek scholars due to his influence on Hayek’s notion of cultural evolution.  Erik Angner in Hayek and Natural Law contends, “there is good reason to think that Hayek’s evolutionary thought was significantly inspired by Carr-Saunders and other Oxford zoologists” in particular supplying Hayek’s understanding of the mechanisms of group selection.


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).


Paul Vinogradoff, Historical Jurisprudence, and the Critique of Sociology August 19, 2012

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Sir Paul Vinogradoff (18 (30) November 1854, Kostroma, Russia – 19 December 1925, Paris, France) is remembered primarily as an early practitioner of historical jurisprudence in Russia and Britain (as distinguished from the earlier comparative, perhaps unsystematic, studies of Henry Maine), and as a historian of medieval England, particularly of the medieval village.  He was also a keen critic of late nineteenth and early twentieth century social sciences.  Vinogradoff’s understanding of the scope and method of historical jurisprudence was intimately connected with his critical gaze of the intellectual projects of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, among others.  Essential to his view of the role of law in the evolution of human culture was his organicist view of society, the distinction, which he shared with J.S. Mill and Alfred Marshall, between statics and dynamics, and his adoption of Weberian ideal types.

Vinogradoff was in many ways extending enlightenment thinking about the nature of society, if we consider the enlightenment to begin with Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and end with Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History, and as well as the nineteenth century obsession with the empirical verification  of causal historical laws,  which reached its early perfection in Henry Buckle’s History of Civilization in England.  The second tendency was crystallized in the flood of studies describing in fine-grained detail all aspects of primeval, ancient, and medieval customs and communities. Such a level of discussion was possible not only through a revolutionary increase in the variety and quality of ethnographic, archaeological, and primitive legal accounts,  but also through the adoption of an evolutionary perspective, borrowed in equal parts from Comte, Spencer, and Karl Bucher.


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…)

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.


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…)

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.