Kuhn and Lamprecht

T. S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions has had a profound and enduring impact on the social history of knowledge. It has provided an analytical template not only for the history of the natural sciences but also for the history of many other forms of systematic knowledge, including history itself. However, this very versatility has been an object of criticism. A central point of contention has been the central concept of a “paradigm,” which Kuhn understood to be (among other things) a “relatively inflexible box” of accepted scientific rules and procedures for defining and resolving research “puzzles,” whose solutions can be predicted and replicated.[1] The question then becomes whether paradigms pertain uniquely to knowledge in the natural-science fields, in which the precise and regular operation of principles can be demonstrated experimentally. If so, the concept of paradigm becomes inappropriate as a guide to the history of humanistic disciplines (like history), in which issues of meaning and human value are central and knowledge is anchored in hermeneutic strategies of inquiry. The validity of paradigms is governed accordingly by the contrasting characteristics of the “two cultures” of knowledge.[2]

The object of these reflections is not to contest this proposition. It is instead to emphasize that the distinction between the natural and what became known as the “human sciences” has a history of its own (and how could it not?). Continue reading “Kuhn and Lamprecht”

The Politics of the Handbook

Readers of this blog may have asked themselves what the image identifying the Learning by the Book contributions shows. At first glance, the photo simply contains a row of worn, bound, heavy handbooks on a library shelf. The books are arguably very European and modern; however, they convey an aspect of “bookish” materiality that many of the contributions to this blog, regardless of time period or region, deal with in quite diverse ways. Continue reading “The Politics of the Handbook”

Via the Twittersphere

J. Laurence Laughlin, Methods of Teaching Political Economy (1885), chap. 5, at Irwin Collier, Economics in the Rearview Mirror.

No matter how clear the exposition of the principles may be [in a lecture], no matter how fresh and striking the illustrations, it still remains that the student is relieved by the instructor from carrying on the mental processes which he ought to conduct for himself.

Continue reading “Via the Twittersphere”

Maurice H. Dobb’s ‘Wages’: A Journey Ahead of the Standardization of Labor Economics

The Making of a Cambridge Handbook

In 1928, the Cambridge academic Marxist Maurice Dobb published a short textbook on wages that underwent five revised editions by 1959, many reprints, and diverse translations, including into Japanese (1931), Arabic (1957), Italian (1974), and Spanish (1986). As historians of economics, our naive idea was that it would be possible to observe the transformation of economic knowledge about wages by observing changes both in the book’s contents and in the textbook genre. On the whole, however, our study of the making of Wages and its diffusion let us do less and more than that. Continue reading “Maurice H. Dobb’s ‘Wages’: A Journey Ahead of the Standardization of Labor Economics”

The Theorist’s Doctrine and the Collector’s Technique: On The Historicity of Expertise in Microbiology

How does an expert transmit expertise? What genres of scientific writing are available for doing so? Does the choice of genre matter in the long run? In this essay, I approach these questions by comparing two monographs published in the mid 1940s in the field of microbiology. While the works shared a concern with life at its smallest, they were written in different genres. One, entitled L’évolution physiologique: étude des pertes de fonctions chez les microorganismes, was a general survey of research on microbial nutrition.[1] The other, called Pure Cultures of Algae: Their Preparation and Maintenance, was a manual of techniques for cultivating microscopic algae in test tubes.[2] Continue reading “The Theorist’s Doctrine and the Collector’s Technique: On The Historicity of Expertise in Microbiology”

Who Has Been to Ames, Iowa? Or: Handbooks as an Unappreciated Dimension of Science

When I told my colleagues in Germany and the United States where I was heading for archival research two years ago, people looked at me completely baffled, or even in compassion. Some also laughed. Historians of science, they seemed to imply, travel to Ivy League universities for archival research, to Oxbridge, Paris, or Berlin. What could there be of interest in the library of an agricultural school in corn country? Continue reading “Who Has Been to Ames, Iowa? Or: Handbooks as an Unappreciated Dimension of Science”

Negotiating and Communicating Evidence: Lessons from the Anthropocene Debate

Skepticism and debate are always welcome and are critically important to the advancement of science. . . . Skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue.

The executive director of the American Meteorological Society, Keith Seitter, made this distinction about skepticism in his letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Energy, Rick Perry, on June 21, 2017.[1] In that letter, he bemoaned the secretary’s rejection of empirically based knowledge about climate change. At the same time, he underlined the importance of related research and of taking the resulting evidence seriously. Continue reading “Negotiating and Communicating Evidence: Lessons from the Anthropocene Debate”