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Robin Fox: Biosocial Anthropology as Philosophical Anthropology (Slightly Updated) November 8, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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UPDATE: It has occurred to me that my two part argument—leveling a criticism of the philosophers’ portrayal of biosocial anthropology as censure-worthy at the expense of an understanding of the complexity of its ideas and normalizing biosocial anthropology in post-war ideas by re-categorizing it as philosophical anthropology—that I focused less on ideas and their genealogies (especially the Gellner bits) than was satisfactory. Thus, quite soon, I will analyze in depth Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger’s The Imperial Animal (1971) as both philosophical anthropology AND as an outgrowth of the re-configuration of the social sciences in the US and the UK after the Second World War. Hopefully, by the time of my review of Joel Isaac’s Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (2013) my views on post-war, Cold War American and UK social sciences will be reasonably apparent.  

In a previous post, I attempted a taxonomy of post-war inquiries which interrogated the connections between the biological and social sciences in various post-war intellectual communities. Bio-social anthropology, biosocial anthropology, sociobiology and social biology were loosely defined. Part of the challenge of discussing these (mostly) post-war inquiries is in going beyond the fraught discussions over the extent that any or all of these inquiries engage in biological reductionism and biological determinism.

What is needed more is a discussion of the ideas themselves and their genealogies and, by extension, their connections to broader themes in post-war and Cold War sciences. The ideas themselves are quite complicated, and many philosophers of science, such as Mario Bunge (though much of his work is among my favorites in philosophy of science), reduce them to caricatures (intelligent distortions—but reductions which worry about their societal implications and evil intent). On a philosophical and ethical level, these ideas are troublesome and distortions—but they are with us and have been with us for some time.  One can talk about the ideational content of (say) public choice theory, without the merits of its practical application.  It seems impossible to talk about Hayek or Keynes outside of their virtues as policy, but this must change as well.


Biosocial anthropology, as noted in the last post, is, especially in the works of Robin Fox, part of a philosophical and social science critique against relativism in the social sciences as well as in epistemology. Such a critique draws strength from the methodological writings of Karl Popper (previously mentioned), but even more so from Ernest Gellner. Gellner is the subject of a remarkable biography by John A. Hall (that is not without its problems, and will be reviewed here shortly). Fox’s appropriation of Gellner’s ideas also points to a rather bifurcated legacy on the part of this diverse social thinker: as a philosophical critic and anthropologist and as a theorist of nationalism. Mary Douglas, whose diverse works have never been much understood by anthropologists, but whose ideas have been appropriated by diverse other fields, was deeply scornful of Gellner’s books on nationalism (as evidenced by her oral history with Alan Macfarlane). Fox seems to prefer Gellner the philosopher to Gellner the theorist of nationalism.  Hall, valiantly tries to unify them. Such an account is incredibly useful, but at odds with my understanding of Gellner.


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.


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.


Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 3: Fragmentation and Consensus August 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This is the third and final part of a look at two of Simon Schaffer’s 1993 works, 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”, and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”.  In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and now here in Pt. 3, the focus is on the papers’ mode of argumentation and this mode’s significance within the historiographical culture of the early 1990s.

In these papers, a historiographical malignancy is identified: an insistence on seeing a rise of reasoned polity and society, and of spaces of free inquiry; this rise is attended by a decline of false belief.  This is considered a malignancy because it ignores the extensive and persistent controversies over various beliefs.  The remedy, thus, is taken to be what I call “insultography”: a charting of commonalities in the polemics used to secure the boundaries of belief about what exists, or at least what is plausible.  Historical “polemical work” consistently references widely acknowledged sources of credit-worthiness and discredit (in Pt. 1 these pervasive opinions are referred to as “grand cultural ideas”): religious piety, superstition, the vulgar crowds, the emotional manipulation and illusion of the theater, courtly society, bourgeois society, investment schemes, the legacy of Isaac Newton…  Historians’ failure to acknowledge the historical importance of this polemical work as they chart the history of knowledge is taken to stem from their own selective credulity toward of these same polemics.

The current goal is to understand why the identified historiographical issue is considered an important malignancy and why the remedy is considered apt.  As suggested in Pt. 2, portraying historiographical issues as malignancies could be used to explain a gnawing problem of historiographical craft: fragmentation.  In his (free, and well worth reading) 2005 Isis article on this fragmentation phenomenon in the historiography of science, David Kaiser traced complaints about it as far back as a 1987 article by Charles Rosenberg in Isis, a 1991 Casper Hakfoort article in History of Science, and a 1993 James Secord article in BJHS.  Kaiser suggested that the fragmentation was akin to specialization that occurred within the natural sciences as they expanded in the 20th century, pointing to similar patterns of growth in the recent history of the history of science discipline.  (more…)

The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Intellectual Characteristics March 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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First off, apologies if some of the themes and arguments of this post have become repetitive.  I find that in trying to arrive at a synthesis, it is useful to go over and over the points, making sure to try and modify a bit each time through.  Ordinarily this process takes place in private, usually in notebooks, but part of the idea of this blog is to open the process to public scrutiny for whatever benefits it might produce.  Readers can tune in or out as they see fit.

What were those natural philosophers thinking?

The natural philosophy problem appears to have remained a topic of serious historiographical conversation through the course of the 1980s.  One big problem is that natural philosophy is a vague term: it applied to aspects of Peripatetic philosophy, but in the twentieth century Harvard physicist Percy Bridgman (1882-1961) still held a chair in mathematics and natural philosophy and was in fact a well-known writer in the philosophy of science.  Some natural philosophy chairs even still exist today (Bertrand Halperin now holds Bridgman’s old chair, and they apparently still officially spell “mathematicks” with a “k”!).

Obviously, all these “natural philosophers” are doing rather different things, so historians would be ill-advised to try and look for a single definition of natural philosophy, even within delimited time periods, or to try and locate a “real” natural philosophy.  One promising tactic is to apply ahistorical analytical criteria to different aspects of natural philosophical work, while allowing that natural philosophers might not have perceived the distinctions between these “aspects”.

As we have seen for the eighteenth-century heyday of natural philosophy, Simon Schaffer was keen to analyze natural philosophy in terms of a fully fleshed-out “cosmology” of ideas.  Analyzing these universalizing aspects of natural philosophy makes a lot of sense: in many venues natural philosophers (being philosophers) would have been expected to draw upon their general store of learning to discourse on topics ranging from astronomy to epistemology to ethics, and to articulate the connections between these subjects.  Through the 1980s, Schaffer argued (especially early on) for embracing the sincerity and importance of the particular questions posed within systems of thought, rather than seeing the cosmology or system as simply some extension of an underlying fundamental commitment or accommodation to a partisan religious, political, or intellectual program, such as atheism, royalism, or “Newtonianism”.  Looking at systems of arguments in this way, one could query the underlying intellectual assumptions that governed what made particular features of these systems into coherent arguments, and thus better understand why they were formulated and argued in the particular ways that they were.  As in his discussions of early Kant or William Herschel, one could also query what constituted an actual innovation within natural philosophical systematizing without whiggishly relying on later acceptance as a category of analysis. (more…)

Anthropological Cosmology and Anti-Demarcationism, Pt. 2 March 18, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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There was no such thing as the historiographic revolution and this is a (too-long) post about it.

Historiographical totem?

In the late-1970s, the applicability of anthropological notions of cosmology to issues in the historiography of science could be understood as evidence of the need for an epistemology that extended into the domain of social relations.  This extension entailed the notion that scientific work existed in a cultural and intellectual continuum with the society around it, and thus that attempts to demarcate scientific work and ideas were ill-founded.  Society was not simply something to be scrubbed from science; legitimate scientific work was made possible through its establishment in legitimate places within society, and through the selective borrowing from society of cultural and political means of establishing legitimate claims.  This, I think, was a good idea, but was it methodologically revolutionary?

The test of the validity of any idea is whether it can change the outcome of a process in some specific way.  A scientific idea can help create a successful experiment or an improved technology.  The idea of social epistemology could be tested as could much sociology and philosophy of science by running it through the historical record and seeing if it rendered it more coherent.  In other words (to use a Latourian formulation), the success of social epistemology was bound up with its ability to forge an alliance with historiography.

The socio-epistemology advocates took no chances on getting lost in the shuffle, and apparently decided to tie the success of their program to a beneficial historiographical sea change.  In a 1983 article discussing possible implications for science education, Steven Shapin and Harry Collins even used the title “Experiment, Science Teaching, and the New History and Sociology of Science” (my emphasis; reprinted in Teaching the History of Science (1989), eds. Michael Shortland and Andrew Warwick).  However, the existence of this shift as a coherent entity, and the placement of socio-epistemology within it, should not be taken for granted.  The idea took years to successfully engineer. (more…)

Anthropological Cosmology and Anti-Demarcationism, Pt. 1 March 8, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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If we ever wanted to get really serious about it, I doubt the notion of an “entente” between anthropological and natural philosophical cosmologies will wash as a way of understanding the historical roots of current historiographical concerns.  However, much like last summer’s series on the “Great Escape” from philosophy of science, this line of thinking will provide a useful heuristic that should prove of value in assembling a more coherent picture of the concerns that drove an important shift in historiographical style.  Recent posts here have discussed the “natural philosophy” end of this bargain—and we will return to that presently—but the next step should be to understand the appeal and application of anthropological cosmology to the history and historiography of science.

Simply following the citations from Schaffer’s “Natural Philosophy,” a good place to start is Barry Barnes’ and Steven Shapin’s essay review of Mary Douglas’ essay collection Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology, entitled “Where is the Edge of Objectivity?” and appearing in the British Journal for the History of Science 7 (1977): 61-6.  The work is notable for the clarity, simplicity, and explicitness with which it conveys some key points.

The essay review is mainly used as an opportunity to advertise the talking points of the Edinburgh School of sociology of science.  As such, what is taken to be important are certain features of Douglas’ work, rather than the work itself.  I’ll try and delineate a few such features.

  1. Cosmology, defined as the cognitive resources at one’s disposal, is inevitable.  The attempt to escape a system of ideas simply resorts to other ideas.  Barnes and Shapin quoting Douglas: “People are living in the middle of their cosmology, down in amongst it; they are energetically manipulating it, evading its implications in their own lives if they can, but using it for hitting each other and forcing one another to conform to something they have in mind.” (more…)

Entente Cordiale: Anthropological and Natural Philosophical Cosmology March 2, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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Simon Schaffer’s “Natural Philosophy” in Ferment of Knowledge (1980) is an exhilarating piece by a 25-year-old scholar.  When I first looked at it on this blog, I gave my post the title “Schaffer Busts Out the Hickory”, suggesting that he had taken a wooden bat to the extant literature on the topic.  In view of the scholarship of today’s grande entente cordiale, it was really refreshing to see a vigorous and pointed critique directed against other historians’ work.  Sure, it was a tad violent, but it was in the service of progress!  “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven” and all that.

Anyway, partially a part of the growing rebuke against viewing 18th-century science as an outgrowth of a grand tradition of “Newtonianism”, partially a rebuke against attempts to define natural philosophy in terms of what makes it distinct from science (e.g., Kuhn’s definition of “pre-paradigmatic science”), the piece ultimately moves beyond criticism and becomes a messily-articulated, but powerful and original discussion of how one might begin to construct a positively-defined historiography of natural philosophy.

Schaffer identified two possible proposals for constructively analyzing the history of natural philosophical systems:

[S]ome historians [cite: Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin] have used the ideas of Mary Douglas, Robin Horton, and other cultural anthropologies as clues to unravel the cosmologies of natural philosophers, while Michel Foucault has constructed an ‘archaeology of knowledge’ with which to analyse the structure of natural philosophy as a set of discourses.  These contrasting approaches derive from two opposed epistemologies.  (86)