June/July/Aug 2012

Dropping Science

How Harvard helped change twentieth-century social thought

Robert Westbrook


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At its best, intellectual history is less the history of ideas than the history of thinking and of the social and cultural contexts in which thinking occurs—contexts that shape thinking and are, in turn, shaped by it. Joel Isaac’s Working Knowledge is intellectual history at its best.

Isaac’s subject is the development of several of the human sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, history of science) at Harvard University between 1920 and 1960. But as Isaac makes clear, this is more than a story of disciplinary expansion; as the social sciences took root at America’s most prestigious university, so did a distinctive view of the epistemological underpinnings of social-scientific inquiry. Given both the centrality of Harvard in the twentieth-century academic world and the importance of many of the figures at the center of this shift—James Bryant Conant, Thomas Kuhn, Talcott Parsons, W. V. Quine, and B. F. Skinner, among others—Working Knowledge is a local study of broad implication and interest.

The key context, which Isaac superbly reconstructs, is what he terms Harvard’s “interstitial academy.” Harvard was (and remains) a particularly sprawling, ill-integrated collection of formal institutional structures with plenty of cracks between the seams. Here, in the cracks, human sciences such as psychology and sociology, which had been ill treated in Harvard’s more established departments and at other schools, found a congenial home in “an intramural grey zone of marginal professional schools, special seminars, interfaculty discussion groups, and nonprofessionalized societies and teaching programs.” These included the Royce Club, the Pareto Circle, the Society of Fellows, Alfred North Whitehead’s Sunday salon, the Science of Science Discussion Group, the Inter-Science Discussion Group, the Institute for the Unity of Science in Boston, the Department of Social Relations, and Conant’s General Education program.

Taking full advantage of these opportunities for interdisciplinary conversation and borrowing, Harvard’s marginal human scientists followed the lead of critical natural-science allies such as biochemist L. J. Henderson and physicist Percy Bridgman. These intellectual comrades-in-arms built on a perspective in the philosophy of science pioneered by late-nineteenth-century predecessors such as Ernst Mach, Karl Pearson, and Henri Poincaré to bring to its “apotheosis” a “scientific philosophy” that identified the creation of reliable knowledge with the development of concrete practices among scientists.

In other words, this emerging philosophy linked epistemology to the social norms and folkways of professional communities of inquiry. It was an “artisanal” conception of knowing, one in which knowledge was not found but made. Scientific theories, in this view, were not discoveries of extrahuman laws of nature but tools constructed with “craft-like skill” by guilds of scientists in order to understand sense experience. And like other tools, they were more or less useful for making sense of observational data. From this “constructivist” perspective, scientific hypotheses were “conventions, chosen with an eye for convenience and empirical fruitfulness.”

Carefully tracing the genesis and development of the thinking of Harvard’s leading midcentury psychologists, sociologists, and historians of science, and drawing on rich archival sources, Isaac makes a compelling case that these figures employed Harvard’s interstitial academy to mount a largely successful bid for status parity (at least) with the social scientists in the school’s more firmly established departments, such as economics, government, and history. And as Isaac notes, this soon yielded many landmark achievements in American social thought, including Parsons’s theory of social systems, Skinner’s behavioral psychology, and Kuhn’s philosophy of science. He also demonstrates that the Harvard interstitial academy was an important off-ramp for the import of Central European logical positivism onto American shores in the 1930s; that movement found a home among Harvard fellow travelers until Quine could firmly implant it in his own once-reluctant philosophy department in the 1940s.

Not content with a splendid monograph on an important intellectual formation, Isaac also harbors philosophical ambitions for his book—as well he might, given his enviable facility in explicating difficult texts in logic, mathematics, and social theory. Here he is provocative, if not entirely convincing.

Isaac is troubled by the philosophical divide between positivist “behavioralists” and postpositivist “interpretists” that has afflicted contemporary social science since the 1960s, and he hopes his history will help bridge the gap. In the years immediately following World War II, leading social scientists, including many of Isaac’s Harvard protagonists, celebrated the arrival of a mature, value-free “behavioral science” ready to don the mantle of the “hard” sciences, like physics. Committed to the holy grail of positivist inquiry—the prediction and control of the behavior of its objects (in this case, human beings)—adherents of quasi-behavioral sciences such as rational-choice theory, structural-functional sociology, cognitive science, and modernization theory launched ambitious programs of research and social engineering, many of them funded by the rapidly expanding American national security state.

Beginning in the 1960s, these positivists met a stiff challenge from postpositivists such as anthropologist Clifford Geertz and philosopher Charles Taylor, who insisted that, because human action was laden with meaning, the human sciences were inherently interpretive or “hermeneutic.” Social-scientific interpretation, they argued, was necessarily different from causal explanation in the natural sciences. Such interpretive work required “the circular, messy, and decidedly unlawlike task of making explicit the meanings implicit in social practices”; it aimed at understanding, not prediction and control. The know-how of its craftsmen was fundamentally different from that employed by their counterparts in the natural sciences, and they required quite different tools.

Although the postpositivist challenge made significant inroads into the positivist kingdom (particularly in anthropology), it fell short of a successful revolution. As a result, the human sciences have in the last generation been deeply fractured. As Isaac says, “recent surveys of the field have pointed to the existence of two cultures in the Anglophone human sciences, one dominated by ahistorical rational choice paradigms, the other by historicism and hermeneutics.” For example, in my own university, a steadfast bastion of positivism, the psychology department split some years ago into two departments, one positivist (Brain and Cognitive Sciences) and one not (Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology). A disproportionate share of the university’s resources have gone to the positivist group. Meanwhile, scholars of rational-choice political science and econometrics lord their superior academic position over their hermeneutic brethren—so much so that historians and anthropologists at my university have unsuccessfully petitioned administrators (natural scientists all) to classify their departments with the humanities.

Isaac believes his account of the midcentury human sciences, at least as they were practiced at Harvard, substantially narrows the epistemological gap between positivism and postpositivism, and thus holds out the prospect for deflating their bitter struggle. If social scientists can cool down their epistemological debates and recognize common philosophical ground shared with the natural-science set, he says, they can avoid translating “everyday struggles over pedagogy and the techniques of inquiry into epochal clashes of ideology.”

For these estranged parties to find any workable common ground, much depends on undermining the widespread belief that the warring camps of American social science are separated by an inevitable and intractable philosophical divide. One might do this by rendering the positivists less positivist or by rendering the postpositivists less postpositivist. Isaac attempts both, but in the main his efforts are concentrated on the former task.

Isaac’s account of the thinking of his Harvard crowd does little to dispel the impression that they were deeply “scientistic.” They aimed indeed at a “unity of science” that would fruitfully integrate the natural and social sciences. But he insists that their philosophy of science puts them in hailing distance of the philosophy of science of postpositivist heroes such as Geertz, Kuhn, and Richard Rorty. Like such figures, the Harvard hard scientists endorsed an understanding of scientists as artisans forming pragmatic communities of inquiry in search of useful “conceptual schemes” that elucidated their empirical data. In a similar vein, both the scientists and their hermeneutics-minded successors understood the importance of pedagogical practices for the training of like-minded apprentices. Indeed, as Isaac demonstrates, the argument of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), with its governing notion of shared communal paradigms informing the practice of “normal science,” was nurtured in the Harvard interstitial academy and bore the marks of its conception of scientific know-how. Postpositivists, in Isaac’s account, are not revolutionaries but reformers of a tradition they share with positivists.

Isaac knows that his philosophical project is a hard sell. He hopes that his readers will “come to recognize that, for members of the Harvard complex, the modeling of the human sciences on their physical counterparts involved a refined sense of the importance of research practice and pedagogy, and not merely the desire to reduce the content of the human sciences to the material world limned by the natural sciences.”

That “not merely” aside is eloquent indeed; it bespeaks the doubts that must linger about the sturdiness of Isaac’s philosophical bridge-building project (even though, it must be stressed, such reservations in no way undermine his exceptionally fine intellectual history). One can grant the Harvard midcentury behavioral scientists the “constructivist,” proto-Kuhnian understanding of science he discerns and remain distressed by the reductionist, “thing-like” conception of human being-in-the-world that too often guided their research and teaching—and continues to guide that of their progeny. That distress—less an epistemological worry than an ontological, ethical, and political one—is the burden of postpositivist anxiety that Isaac does little to dispel. It is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Robert Westbrook is the Joseph F. Cunningham Professor of History at the University of Rochester.

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