Working Knowledge Hardcover – 1 Jun 2012
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Unlike physics, chemistry and biology, which took on their modern forms in the nineteenth century, the social sciences coalesced only during the twentieth. The tale of their consolidation, rise and subsequent slide is often narrated as a clash of ideologies: scientific versus humanistic. In 'Working Knowledge', historian Joel Issac reveals how institutional circumstances shaped the field. Isaac's elegant study shows how debates over method spring from efforts to embed new types of inquiry in the classroom. --David Kaiser, Nature, Thursday 5th July 2012
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. ----Robert Westbrook, Bookforum (06/01/2012)
About the Author
Joel Isaac is University Lecturer in the History of Modern Political Thought at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Christ's College.
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Working Knowledge takes its name from the epistemological practice identified by Kuhn in his landmark book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (1962). This epistemology is best exemplified by Kuhn when he states that “the process of learning…depends upon the study of applications, including practice-problem solving both with a pencil and paper and with instruments within the laboratory.” (Kuhn, p. 47) That is to say, knowledge is not created or obtained from “pure reason” or via laws of induction. Rather, knowledge develops through a process of “working knowledge and craft-like skill that [typify] the education and practical investigations of professional scientists.” (Issac, p.5) This depiction of epistemology runs counter to a long tradition of epistemological thought represented by Immanuel Kant and his emphasis on the ability of individuals to make a priori knowledge claims. It is a distinctly “post-positivist,” if not entirely non-positivist way of thinking about knowledge which entails the application of practical understanding within a social context. For many outside the scientific community (and many within it as well), Kuhn’s depiction of epistemology was perceived of as extremely significant. Indeed, for some it signaled a “moment in which the grip of positivism in Western philosophy and the social sciences was decisively weakened” (Isaac, p. 4). What were the factors that led Kuhn to adopt this particular strain of epistemology above any other?
A large portion of Isaac’s book is concerned with the development, maintenance, and ultimate dissipation of what he terms the interstitial academic community at Harvard. This community consisted of a broad array of faculty and students who gathered together within various clubs, organizations, seminars, and groups to study, discuss, and exchange ideas about topics excluded from the rigidity of Harvard’s curriculum. In particular, ideas which today we would commonly associate with the social sciences circulated widely throughout this interstitial community. It was within this social milieu that many innovative thinkers such as Talcott Parsons, Robert K. Merton, and of course Kuhn, were allowed a forum to discuss and develop their ideas independent of the classroom.
Isaac’s book makes a forceful and convincing case that Kuhn’s "Structure" was indeed a product of Harvard’s interstitial community. Interestingly, soon after publication, Kuhn and his book were “rapidly pulled out of the Harvard context in which [they] had largely been forged,” a development due primarily to the book’s broad reception (Isaac, p. 230). As the social sciences became more securely institutionalized within academia, the once eclectic interstitial community at Harvard evaporated – its elements were either formally incorporated into the university or simply left to atrophy. It is here where Isaac’s story ends. There is no mention of Kuhn’s subsequent influence on constructivism within the history of science, nor of his broader influence on trends within the social sciences. Although Isaac appears to definitively close the door on the intellectual origins of Kuhn’s "Structure", a possible question remains. That is, would Kuhn have produced the exact same book as we know it today if he had been at another institution? Colleges and universities such as Yale, Chicago, Michigan, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and others were developing their own courses and programs in the history of science while Kuhn carried out his studies at Harvard. There may have been similar interstitial communities at alternate institutions where Kuhn could possibly bounce ideas off of receptive colleagues. Or was it the individual intellectual figures and specific interstitial make-up of Harvard that provided Kuhn the resources necessary for his ideas to develop in the manner that they eventually did? Isaac argues unequivocally in the affirmative.
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