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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within the narrative as an intellectual pathology arising from the same teleological modernism being cast as outdated.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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Decision, Risk, and Values: The Philosophy of Churchman and Ackoff December 10, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
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A couple of months ago, I suggested a possible conflict of interest between STS and the history of science.  Effectively, the aspirations of STS to contemporary relevance is at least partially dependent on potential contributions arising from new research results.  For these results to have impetus, conclusions should be novel.  Historians of science usually see their own opportunities in confirming STS results by mining examples from history, which, as illustrative examples, are treated as effectively “lost” to the present.

However, novelty can be augmented by conveniently forgetting the history of the ideas underlying the conclusions on offer.  By mining deep history for ideas that are, in some sense, to be considered “lost” (or by seeking evidence that the ideas have never existed at all), historians can inadvertently create an “anti-history” of the subsequent history of those ideas.  A better opportunity, I would argue, is to be found in placing the claims of STS and philosophical peers within their historical traditions.  Historians could keep track of who else is currently espousing these ideas based upon much fuller accounts of their history extending to the present.

Unfortunately, historians’ bookkeeping methodologies are woefully inadequate to this task.  But it is still possible to fill in pieces of the history where the opportunity arises.  This particular post is prompted by a recent post at The Bubble Chamber, which posits a recent move in the philosophy of science, which takes efficacy as a key criterion of knowledge.  However, my own historical work on the figures of philosophers West Churchman and Russell Ackoff (who just died last year) suggests that the tradition is neither new nor lost — perhaps just misplaced by philosophers (though I trust philosophers can clarify this point).  Neither was obscure: Churchman was actually editor of Philosophy of Science from 1948 to 1958.  However, both turned from philosophy of science to operations research before ultimately winding up in the eclectic realm of “systems thinking”.

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Primer: American Functionalist Psychology March 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Today’s video Hump-Day History lesson was originally posted at the Advances in the History of Psychology blog and is embedded from YouTubeThe creator of the video, Chris Green, professor of psychology at York University, has given us kind permission to repost it here as part of this series.

After the jump, a mega-fast primer on ideas about the psyche from Aristotle to the 19th century (we love mega-fast primers here), plus links to longer documentaries of which these are quick recaps. (more…)

Historians as Methodologists (Isis, Pt. 4) July 29, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Jane Maienschein, Manfred Laubichler, and Andrea Loettgers, in “How Can History of Science Matter to Scientists?” offer a number of cases in which the study of past experiments or chance encounters with historians have led scientists to examine their methodology and do things like question key assumptions, leading to productive scientific research. The chance encounter is a frequent spur to innovation, whether or not it is historical. These encounters can be substantive, such as reading about research in an unrelated field, or trivial: Richard Feynman told the story about how he was inspired to new research by seeing a student toss a plate in the air in a cafeteria, which led him to think about the physics of its wobble, which led to, um, magnificent things (Feynman didn’t say).

C. West Churchman (image imported from Wikipedia)

Anyway, if inspiration can come from the chance encounter, maybe the real question is how this benefit can be systematized. The reform of methodology and the questioning of assumptions reminded me of a couple of mathematician philosophers turned operations researchers I ran into in my dissertation work: West Churchman (right) and Russell Ackoff, who were students of Edgar A. Singer, who was a student of William James and a proponent of a little-known philosophy of science called “experimentalism” (which will be the subject of a talk at HSS this year by Alan Richardson; update: he’s also on the PSA program, which is joint with HSS this year, talking about Churchman and Ackoff as well: good times).

Before their turn to OR around 1950, Churchman and Ackoff proposed establishing Institutes of Experimental Method or Methodology Departments in universities, which would train multi-disciplinary “methodologists” and subject current experimental methods to systematic scrutiny to make sure they (more…)