Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn

Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn

by Joel Isaac


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The human sciences in the English-speaking world have been in a state of crisis since the Second World War. The battle between champions of hard-core scientific standards and supporters of a more humanistic, interpretive approach has been fought to a stalemate. Joel Isaac seeks to throw these contemporary disputes into much-needed historical relief. In Working Knowledge he explores how influential thinkers in the twentieth century's middle decades understood the relations among science, knowledge, and the empirical study of human affairs.

For a number of these thinkers, questions about what kinds of knowledge the human sciences could produce did not rest on grand ideological gestures toward "science" and "objectivity" but were linked to the ways in which knowledge was created and taught in laboratories and seminar rooms. Isaac places special emphasis on the practical, local manifestations of their complex theoretical ideas. In the case of Percy Williams Bridgman, Talcott Parsons, B. F. Skinner, W. V. O. Quine, and Thomas Kuhn, the institutional milieu in which they constructed their models of scientific practice was Harvard University. Isaac delineates the role the "Harvard complex" played in fostering connections between epistemological discourse and the practice of science. Operating alongside but apart from traditional departments were special seminars, interfaculty discussion groups, and non-professionalized societies and teaching programs that shaped thinking in sociology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, science studies, and management science. In tracing this culture of inquiry in the human sciences, Isaac offers intellectual history at its most expansive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674065741
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 06/11/2012
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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.

Table of Contents

Prologue: How Paradigms Are Made 1

1 The Interstitial Academy: Harvard and the Rise of the American University 31

2 Making a Case: The Harvard Pareto Circle 63

3 What Do the Science-Makers Do? Migrations of Operationism 92

4 Radical Translation: W. V. Quine and the Reception of Logical Empiricism 125

5 The Levellers: Harvard's Social Scientists from World War to Cold War 158

6 Lessons of the Revolution: History, Sociology, and Philosophy of Science 191

Epilogue: The Great Disembedding 227

Notes 239

Acknowledgments 301

Index 305

What People are Saying About This

James Kloppenberg

Joel Isaac deftly balances contextualist intellectual history with science studies and the sociology of knowledge in this bracing account of the human sciences. Examining crucial incubators (the Pareto Circle, the Society of Fellows), tools (the case method, operationalism, behaviorism, logical empiricism), and pioneers (Talcott Parsons, B. F. Skinner, W. V. O. Quine, T. S. Kuhn, among many others), Isaac masterfully illuminates the practices engineered in Harvard's "interstitial academy." All historians and social scientists--even those allergic to positivism--will find in Working Knowledge a feast for the mind.
James Kloppenberg, Harvard University

Samuel Moyn

A major breakthrough in American intellectual history, Working Knowledge illustrates the great value of the study of past debates to the future of the human sciences. A brilliant historian of twentieth-century American philosophy, Joel Isaac has written a literate and erudite work that is sure to be a classic. Those who read it will find their understanding of American intellectual life transformed.
Samuel Moyn, Columbia University

Ian Hacking

This is the forgotten story of how collaborative projects for teaching and research changed the face of American social sciences forever. Isaac's novel and brilliantly argued account of how Kuhn's radical Structure of Scientific Revolutions matured in this matrix will be news to almost every reader.
Ian Hacking, University of Toronto

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