Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Joel Isaac's "Working Knowledge"

Joel Isaac is University Lecturer in the History of Modern Political Thought at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Christ’s College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn, and reported the following:
In Working Knowledge, I offer a counter-history of the rise and decline of positivism in the human sciences. Against those who argue that the middle decades of the twentieth century witnessed a revolt against prevailing hardcore scientific approaches to the study of human affairs, I argue that some of the sources of so-called ‘postpostivist’ philosophy and social science are to be found in the writings and practices of those typically considered positivists. So I’m suggesting that the very categories we use to divide the modern history of the human sciences – positivism vs. antipositivism – don’t stand up well to historical scrutiny.

One of my major aims in the book is to insist that what have looked to many commentators like epochal clashes between opposing visions of knowledge are in fact the product of local differences of scientific culture. I’m pleased to see that this theme is given extended treatment on page 99 of Working Knowledge. A central strand in my argument is that practitioners of disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology were compelled to treat their own research and teaching practices as models of knowledge-making. This turn toward local, concrete practices of research was especially pronounced at Harvard University during the 1930s, where the human sciences had failed to attract institutional recognition. Harvard, I maintain, hosted an extensive ‘interstitial academy’ in which a variety of ambitious but institutionally undersupported thinkers were suspended between access to an organization of considerable wealth and opportunity, and marked indifference on the part of the university administration. They turned to their own practices to make good on claims to scientific respectability.

On page 99, I am proposing that psychology at Harvard fits this picture very well. It was at Harvard that psychology as a professional field took shape in the United States. Yet, after a review of the psychological research of William James and his colleagues at the turn of the century, I conclude that the ‘apparent prodigality of experimental psychology in late-Victorian Harvard was just that: apparent’. By the 1920s the Harvard psychologists remained under the tutelage of the Department of Philosophy, and were divided among themselves in theoretical precept and experimental practice. It was against this unhappy backdrop of marginalization and internal rivalry that the epistemological doctrine of ‘operationism’ – the theory that the meaning of a concept for a science was nothing more than the ‘operations’ through which it was applied – took root. This study of the local roots of operationism in psychology is one of several studies in the book of what I call ‘practice-oriented theories of knowledge’, whose development I trace up to the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962.
Learn more about Working Knowledge at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue