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Week of July 12, 2020
On Reading Scientific Classics
Progress may be a shibboleth of the modern academy, but an idea of forward movement nevertheless guides intellectual endeavor. Belief in the advancement of knowledge and the improvement of theory, especially in the social and natural sciences, amounts to an implicit realism on the part of the academic. The increasing demands of technical education and the specialization of research, meanwhile, have led to a diminished self-consciousness about the epistemic nature of the work. Fewer and fewer graduate students today, at least proportionally, will have read deeply in the philosophy and sociology of science; both disciplines are regarded as “soft” at best, and distracting at worst. So long as scientific research continues to yield results, whether in the form of discoveries, confirmations, or technological power, most practitioners can afford to adopt a pragmatic position—learning, practicing, and employing standardized techniques (which observably work) on faith. Thus most individuals engaged in a particular science will not stray from the educational mores of the existing paradigm or program. This inability to reflect constitutes full commitment to the predominant scheme: acceptance of foundational axioms and assumptions, quotidian use of verified methods, and reference to accredited facts. Proceeding from the current fundamental principles, by way of the usual (or related) tools, to the disciplinary frontier constitutes a straightforward formula for puzzle-solving. The utility of technical education is thereby maximized, as any individual with sufficient training can make recognizable contributions simply by applying imparted methods to an array of presented problems.
Most of the above is a recapitulation of Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm, none of which is necessarily for ill. Science is a results-based practice, and in lieu of a standard metric for progress, economic and technological substitutes can be offered to conjure up justifications for optimism. Indeed, a non-reflective science whose practitioners generally remain securely within the confines of the dominant paradigm may achieve discoveries more quickly. Ortega y Gasset, for example, wrote in The Revolt of the Masses that “the solidity and exactitude of the methods” employed by “experimental science” ensure that most problems involve “mechanical work of the mind which can be done by anyone.” “The work is done under one of these methods as with a machine,” Gasset laments, “and in order to obtain quite abundant results it is not even necessary to have rigorous notions of their meaning and foundations.” Philosophy, history, and sociology rarely offer much to the actual labor of theory confirmation but speculative retardation. As Alfred North Whitehead famously declared, “A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost.” Classical and heterodox positions will rarely achieve sufficient influence in a vigorously advancing discipline; indeed, a “healthy” paradigm should have little cause for backward glances or existential doubt. The “Great Books” will be relegated to the status of relics and artifacts, stricken permanently from the list of required reading. Innovations, discoveries, and methodological improvements will have rendered such tomes obsolete, if not unintelligible.
Yet that very unintelligibility may, in some cases, offer a prospect of utility. If communication across paradigms represents the primary obstacle to a progressive view of science, past texts represent the alternate languages long since discarded—the reference points, complete with justifications and implications, for unused programs. Extending a paradigm is, to the sociologist, an epistemically limited mode; comparing paradigms, however, undergirds the entire notion of positive historical change. The classics are benchmarks drawn from (and often representative of) separate traditions in a science. Only a form of qualitative comparison of the methodology of old paradigms will reveal anything about the advantages of choosing a new agenda beyond mere path dependence. This act may, but will not necessarily, be stricken by the problem of incommensurability; the answer, in any case, lies in the text of the Great Books. Literary critics, for example, recognize Longfellow and Ginsberg as members of wildly different traditions of American poetry, separated almost beyond resemblance in style, approach, and subject. Nevertheless, the two are still compared technically in anthologies. Moreover, some entire traditions are omitted from anthologies—sometimes for historical importance, but also as a result of stylistic or aesthetic judgments. Even in this most subjective of realms, therefore, meta-experts constantly evaluate paradigms. Moreover, looking through the anthology demonstrates how poetry has changed over time, weakening cleavages between schools and yielding a more evolutionary picture of technique. The same might be, and frequently has been, accomplished by the history of science.
Self-Hugging, by Andrew O’Hagan
An entertaining and diverting analysis of Boswell’s autobiographical tendencies, which suffuse his Life of Johnson to such an extent that the book seems to be as much about the author as the subject. The portrayal is compellingly and eloquently sympathetic, but still humorous throughout.
Recent insights on the role of religion in economic history, by Sascha O. Becker, Jared Rubin, and Ludger Woessmann
The authors survey the surprisingly small, Weber-biased, but steadily-growing body of research examining the complex interrelationship of religious affiliation and economic development.
After the Liberal International Order, by Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye contemplates a potential Biden-era effort to reinstate international relations after the fall elections, and concludes—as many have of late—that the historical “order” purportedly buttressed by American power should be replaced by a more limited global mission. This would involve renewed alliances with friends, accommodation with foes, and a generally pragmatic approach accepting the consequences of multipolarity.
The Political Foundations of Modern Economic Growth, by Gregory Clark
Opposing the classic narrative advanced in 1989 by Douglass North and Barry Weingast, Clark demonstrates that the Glorious Revolution of 1688—which replaced the corrupt, autocratic Stuarts with a constrained Protestant regime—had a no observable effect on English economic stability. Asset prices were rising throughout the period and interest rates fell regardless of the incumbent regime or the extent of political turmoil. In the contemporary Netherlands, by contrast, periods of warfare caused land values to collapse and spiked interest rates.