Review of Joel Isaac, Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012).
Review: Hmiel on Isaac’s *Working Knowledge*
Reviewed by Erik Hmiel
Defending Philosophical History
The standard narrative through which we understand Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions goes something like this: following its publication in 1962, there emerged in its wake a seismic epistemological shift. In the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences alike, scholars and thinkers of various stripes were all faced with assessing the implications of Kuhn’s ideas of a “paradigm” and “incommensurability,” what these exotic words meant for the status of objectivity, the historically contingent nature of knowledge, and the primacy of the “hard” sciences over those more effete or interpretive disciplines. Kuhn led the charge against positivism, so the story goes, and cleared the path for post-positivism, hermeneutics, and post-structuralism to weaken the hold on the academic mind of a positivist, verificationist epistemology. In the decades following the appearance of Kuhn’s book, the vice grip was loosened further by influential works like Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, Michel Foucualt’s The Order of Things, and Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, all of which can be rightly considered philosophical histories that point to the contingency of knowledge and the primacy of Cartesian epistemology in preserving the subject/object divide. Joel Isaac’s remarkable new book Working Knowledge: Making The Human Sciences From Parsons to Kuhn tells a different story.
Isaac deflates the radical arc of this narrative by placing Kuhn in a larger context, what he calls the “interstitial academy” of human scientists and philosophers at Harvard University during the first half of the twentieth-century. Instead of a story in which post-positivism and interpretation decisively overcame “traditional” epistemology, only to remain at war with positivists and empiricists, we get a narrative with much greater nuance. And the narrative begins and ends with Isaac’s interstitial academy at Harvard, which includes the social scientists Talcott Parsons and B.F. Skinner, the physicist Percy Williams Bridgman, the biochemist and physiologist Lawrence Joseph Henderson, the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, along with Kuhn, all of whom met outside the confines of their various disciplines in various seminars, discussion groups, and societies. In re-constructing this context, Isaac focuses on their attempts to ground the social sciences epistemologically, through an embrace of “scientific philosophy,” a way of thinking that had its roots in the repudiation of Kantian transcendentalism. Scientific philosophy was especially concerned to overcome Kant’s view of knowledge based on the synthesis of the concepts and the “pure forms” of intuition made possible by a transcendental subject. Such attempts at overturning Kantian epistemology had been the object of various thinkers throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ranging from the Vienna Circle, to the mathematician Gottlieb Frege, and the philosophical scientists Ernst Mach and Henri Poincare.
The social scientists at Harvard during the first half of the twentieth-century inherited this project. And in seeking to combat their marginalization, they sought crucial points of commonality among the human sciences, the most crucial for Isaac being an epistemology grounded in research practices, pedagogy, and communities of inaugurated and qualified inquirers. In reconstructing this moment in the history of the American social sciences, we see how the “practical, ‘everyday’ aspects of the theory of knowledge…in the Harvard complex present a salutary contrast to the inflated role often granted to epistemological rubrics like ‘positivism and ‘interpretivism’ in the formation of the human sciences,” aspects that cast the “revolutions” of late-twentieth century thought, most notably Kuhn’s Structure, in a new light, and beg further questions about idea of the social sciences itself.
The first half of the book centers on two important ideas that took root among the inchoate human science departments during the first half of the twentieth-century: the sociology outlined in Vilfred Pareto’s 1920 Trattato di Sociologia Generale, and the “Operationism” of Percy Williams Bridgman’s 1927 book, The Logic of Modern Physics. The Pareto Method was informally inaugurated among Harvard’s social scientists in 1932, beginning with a weekly seminar led by Henderson entitled, “Pareto and Methods of Scientific Investigation.” For many of the participants, Henderson was an authority on exactly what made science “scientific,” and so the participants looked to the seminar as a way to put the social sciences on more solid, “scientific,” ground. The seminar’s first assignment was to read the French translation of Pareto’s Trattato di Sociologia Generale, Pareto having recently turned to sociology from economics after realizing that the rational choice model assigned to the agents of his economic models “fell short of social reality.” The participants included notable figures in the future of the social sciences, which included Joseph Schumpter, Talcott Parsons, and Crane Brinton, all of whom deferred to Henderson’s teachings. Moreover, Henderson’s emphasis on the nature of cases as a sound empirical method for understanding human behavior appealed to departments and circles outside the Pareto-seminar including his own course on “Concrete Sociology,” the Society of Fellows, and the Graduate School of Business Administration, all of which bore the mark of Hendersonian sociology.
Many of the same discursive patterns were also true of “Operationism,” and its influence of experimental psychology. The chief promulgator of Operationism was the physicist Bridgeman, whose book The Logic of Modern Physicis was highly influential during the inter-war years upon those would soon become Harvard’s most influential psychologists, notably, B.F Skinner, Edwin G. Boring, Karl Lashley, and Stanley Smith. Bridgeman’s Operationism was heavily indebted to Einstein’s theory of relativity, particularly his view of simultanaeity, which held, roughly, that our conception of time was not based on an ideal movement of measureable temporality, but on a concrete set of operations, namely, the coordinating of clocks. It was this view that led Bridgman to the notion that “even the abstract conceptual element in knowledge had to be identified with actual practices of calculation and experimental observation” (104). That is, theories were not tested, but instead made by skilled experts through an experimental process of observation, recording, and revision. “Operationism “was…intended as a characterization of the life-world of the practicing scientist.” The epistemology of operationism, Isaac argues, operated in a way directly similar to that of Pareto’s in that it was not based on a transcendental, or a priori condition of knowledge, but on a craft-like conception in which knowledge was madeby qualified communities of scientific inquiry.
Isaac notes, as well, the role of Harvard’s philosophy department, and specifically W.V.O Quine, in the interstitial academy. Isaac argues that Harvard’s interstitial academy was uniquely primed to receive Quine’s logical proselytizing for two reasons: “the basic orientation toward empiricism, on the one hand, and the methods of logical-analysis, on the other” (127). Logical analysis already formed the basis the emerging trend in analytic philosophy at Harvard, which would come to dominate philosophy departments by the 1950s; empiricism, or, rather, empirical sciences is the foundation upon which epistemological naturalism, the craft like epistemology at the heart of Isaac’s narrative, is based, for which Quine was indebted to the epistemologist C.I Lewis.
Of course, Quine’s enthusiasm for logical empiricism took years to be fully embraced. But Isaac points to our attention that it was in Harvard’s interstitial academy where he found, arguably, the warmest reception of his ideas. The Harvard philosopher, Herbert Feigl, who had a significant influence on Quine’s development as a graduate student and encouraged him to travel to Vienna, had come to Harvard after being attracted to the ideas of Bridgman; the Society of Fellows of which Quine was a part became host to a number of interdisciplinary discussions and activities regarding the nature and status of the social sciences and scientific philosophy, and also included many of the émigré members of the Vienna circle. Moreover, Harvard played host to the fifth annual congress of the Unity of Science movement, which attracted the local interstitial academy, the Vienna émigrés, and other scholars devoted to the cause of Scientific philosophy, logical positivists among them.
Out of this interdisciplinary institutional culture, in which Quine and the Vienna circle interacted with members of the Pareto Seminar and the Operationist experimental psychologists, there was finally formed in 1946 the “Department of Social Relations.” The department was supported by the new cultural and financial imperatives of militarization that were greatly expanded during the cold-war era, and included an interdiciplinarily oriented group of behavioral scientists who sought a theoretical foundation for the human sciences. The most exemplary figure among the group was Talcott Parsons, who, as Isaac points out, found in Henderson’s Pareto a favorable theory for human action, specifically his emphasis on the connection between the conceptual and the empirical. But Parsons put Pareto to his own uses, revising his distinction between logical/non-logical behavior, and positing a continuum on which means-ends relationships for analyzing human behavior should be situated. Parsons, along with Clyde kluckhohn, O.H. Mowrer, and Henry Murray, emerged from the Pareto circle with a desire for unity among the social sciences, and “in consideration of the many levels on which behavioral phenomena required consideration,” brought attention to the need for conceptual frames through which the human sciences could be united.
It was this common concern that led these early Pareto acolytes to form the informal group called “The Levellers,” deeming themselves as such out of a desire to find common ground among the social sciences. Their desire was first articulated by the Harvard Committee on Concentration in the Area of Social Sciences (of which Parsons had recently been elected president) in its 1941 report entitled “Toward a Common Language for the Area of Social Science.” The report articulated the need to find commonality among the disciplines, and it was the complexity involved in forging such commonality, the report argued, that necessitated a complex theoretical structure. Such a structure, however, would not be conceived apart from “facts,” but as fundamentally intertwined with them. “Hence abstraction and the creation of theoretical frameworks were hardly to be discouraged; what mattered was finding a conceptual scheme in which the abstractions of the various social sciences could be consolidated and rendered a convenient ‘tool’ for think about human behavior in the round” (166).
The final chapter of Working Knowledge returns to Kuhn, and the reconstructed context out of which The Structure of Scientific Revolutions emerged. The context in which Kuhn’s ideas were incubated begins with Phillip Frank, who sought to “reconstruct the program of the Vienna Circle for the age of nuclear energy and electrical engineering,” and exercised a decisive influence on Kuhn. Frank wanted to bridge the gap between science as an internal, technical discipline, and the human “values” that guided its movement throughout history. This was the basis for his forming the Inter-Scientific Discussion Group in 1944. The goal of the group was pedagogical. It sought to inculcate in students of science the scientific philosophy began by Mach, Poincare, James, and Peirce and the tools of Logical empiricism “for analyzing the formal validity of scientific statements.” This was to be integrated with the humanizing practice of understanding the values driving competing scientific theories in a historical context.
Kuhn seized on this idea, further supported by his mentor James Bryan Conant, but saw in it an inattention to the way new conceptual schemes were initiated and understood by scientists themselves. So he sought to understand these changes-the construction of empirical knowledge by scientists-on both a psychological and philosophical level by collapsing the “pedagogical distinction between ‘demonstration’ for non-scientists and intuitive ‘experience’ for practitioners” (211). After being conducted into the Society of Fellows in 1948, Kuhn further explored the philosophical implications of his emerging ideas by reading heavily in philosophy, lingustics, and logic, and significantly in the works of Jean Piaget’s developmental psychology. This led him to a criticism “of the idea that the relationship between theory and experiment, or between a concept and its application, could be accounted for in the terms of logical positivism or operationism” (216). Kuhn had imbibed, but was significantly revising the philosophical and psychological import of Henderson and his mentor Conant.
In what is the most astute and perspicacious section of the book, almost reading like a peroration, Isaac compares Kuhn’s shift from this period up until the penultimate draft of Strucutre, in which he discarded the idea of consensus during periods of normal science for the idea of a paradigm, and, Isaac argues, returned to his roots in the epistemology in the interstitial academy. The idea of consensus, Kuhn thought, was not adequate to explain perceptual changes in the limits and problems of normal scientific inquiry. In his first book, The Copernican Revolution, Kuhn had placed emphasis on the intellectual history and the sociology of knowledge to explain conceptual shifts in science. But by the final draft of structure, he had come to abandon this notion, which suggested a new period of consenus, in favor of a more radical change in mental outlook and “way of seeing the world.” Isaac suggests that this was a way for Kuhn of returning to his earlier orientation, bred in the context of the interstitial academy, which emphasized “the psychology of learning and the referential properties of words” (225). This was in large part due to the book’s hero, Ludwig Wittgentein, but, as Isaac points out, can be equally credited with the Harvard Complex, specifically L.J Henderson and Conant.
So the context in which Kuhn developed his idea of a paradigm, which Isaac argues is significant considering his last minute abandonment of the notion of “consensus” in the penultimate draft of Structure, sheds new light on his affinity for Wittgenstein and his pedagogically informed epistemology. Thus it is that Isaac wants us to historicize Kuhn, and cease conflating his reception with the historical circumstances surrounding his intellectual development. Such conflation, Isaac argues, has led to the view of epistemology qua ideology behind the epic “philosophical histories” of modernity put forward by Taylor, MacIntyre, Foucault, Rorty, and the like; works that make sweeping claims about the historic character of knowledge production, and the production of a modern, representationlist self in the wake of Descartes.
But might there be something more to these philosophical histories, missed in Isaac’s dismissal of their significance? It might be suggested that works like Macintyre’s After Virtue, Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and that of the later Foucualt, were indicative of something like a crisis not only in philosophy, but modern culture and thought more generally, which might explain why the idea of a “science” of human beings may have set off such a polarizing debate in the first place. Whether or not this is true, the convergence on certain existential themes of human understanding in these works raises an important question: is the historicizing of Kuhn really enough to deflate this crisis? Does Isaac’s remarkable and painstakingly researched history of the human sciences at Harvard put our minds at ease given his goal of “deflating” the putatively epic epistemic struggle between positivists and post-positivists? Does it quell the existential stakes raised by these philosophical histories?
What I want to suggest is, in this sense, a limitation of contextualist intellectual history in understanding the philosophical import of Kuhn’s work. For although Isaac’s brilliantly crafted narrative sheds light on certain crucial details about Kuhn’s intellectual development and context (and, of course, the book isn’t all about Kuhn), it seems to me that this light cannot throw into historical relief the philosophical debate over positivism and interpretivism simply by elucidating Kuhn’s epistemic context because it misses the existential implications and philosophical meanings of this debate, implications and meanings that cannot simply be deflated by a more nuanced understanding of context. In fact, it seems that asking this of the reader based on empirical evidence assumes a certain verificationist epistemology that obscures the way we derive meaning from the histories we create, obscuring the dialogical aspect of intellectual history which is more conducive to reflection upon meaning itself. 
Take for example the neo-pragmatist Richard Bernstein’s 1981 book, Beyond Objectivity and Relativism. Here, Bernstein pointed to what he perceived to be a persistent “uneasiness that has spread throughout intellectual and cultural life,” an uneasiness that had seemingly set the stakes of intellectual culture in the terms Isaac describes, one between epistemic, Cartesian certainty on the one hand, and a subjectivist relativism on the other. Like Isaac, Bernstein sought to deflate this purportedly either/or choice by canvassing some of the most important thinkers involved in such debates: Hannah Arendt, Hans Georg Gadamer, Richard Rorty, and Thomas Kuhn. In his chapter on Kuhn, which dealt with the reception of his work as well as its philosophical import, Bernstein argued that the terms in which Kuhn had supposedly set the debate were flawed; Kuhn’s work shouldn’t be seen as leading the charge of relativism or unfettered interpertivism. Instead, it should be viewed as rendering science as one among competing discourses, or as Wittgenstein would have it “forms of life,” the terms of which involve learning certain rules, and participating along the given guidelines set by a community of inquirers. Bernstein made a point remarkably similar to Isaac’s, albeit in a philosophical rather than historical register, a point that rightfully helps to deflate the epistemic stakes between a fanatical relativism and a hard and fast objectivity. But is there something more at stake here?
In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty made a similar point, but suggested something Isaac seems to miss in his writing off of “philosophical history.” Rorty noted his indebtedness to Kuhn, and the significance of his work, but along with Kuhn, (as well as Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, the heroes of the book) cites Quine and his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” as helping to overcome the view of privileged representations, helping philosophers to see the “social” and “practice oriented” nature of knowledge. For Rorty, Quine represented what he referred to as “epistemological behaviorism,” a way of “explaining rationality and epistemic authority by reference to what society lets us say, rather than the latter by the former…an attitude common to Dewey and Wittgenstein.” The fact that Rorty was attuned to the “craft-like” epistemology Isaac finds in Quine seems somewhat to undermine, on the one hand, his claim that his “philosophical history” in particular should have contributed to such a polarizing debate, given that this was the exact opposite conclusion he wished the reader to draw. It seems that Rorty came to something of a similar conclusion as Isaac: he wanted to deflate the debate between positivism, and empiricism on the one hand, and the more interpretive dimensions of thought.
But in fact, it was this intention that led Rorty to want to abandon the notion of epistemology altogether, suggesting that the idea of having a “theory of knowledge” was more or less fruitless. And it was this conclusion that led Rorty to argue that Kuhn still clung to a view of epistemology that contained within it traces of Kantian idealism. As Rorty put it, “Kuhn was right in saying that ‘a philosophical paradigm initiated by Descartes and developed at the same time as Newtonian dynamics’ need to be overthrown, but he let his notion of what counted as a ‘philosophical paradigm’ be set by the Kantian notion that the only substitute for a realistic account of successful mirroring was an idealistic account of the malleability of the mirrored world.”
What Rorty pointed to, and arguably dismissed too glibly, was in his mind the need to dispense with epistemology altogether in favor of hermeneutics. Noting his indebtedness to Gadamer’s Truth and Method, he suggested that hermeneutics was significant not as a replacement of epistemology, but as an embrace of the fact of incommensurability pointed to by Kuhn. Such an embrace acknowledges that the distinction between people and things is only that people use language. “If one draws the hermeneutics epistemology distinction…there is no requirement that people should be more difficult to understand than things; it is merely that hermeneutics is only needed in the case of incommensurable discourses, and that people discourse whereas things do not. What makes the difference is not discourse versus silence, but incommensurable versus commensurable discourses” (347). The point, however, is not to attribute to language a metaphysical essence, to attach significance, as did Charles Taylor, to the fact that language facilitates a metaphysical or transcendental means of self-definition and re-definition, but to deal with the fact, or the normativity of language use itself, and to cope with this fact to the best of our ability.
What such coping amounts to, for Rorty, is something at once very similar, but at the same time significantly different than the implications Isaac wants us to draw. Rorty argued that Gadamer separates the “romantic notion of man as self-creative” or self-defining from Cartesian dualism or transcendentalism. “He does this by substituting the notion of Bildung(education, self-formation) for that of ‘knowledge’ as the goal of thinking.” The significance of education, again, seems to belie the claim that such philosophical histories as Rorty’s are the fodder for debates over positivism versus post-positivism. “From the educational, as opposed to the epistemological or the technological, point of view, the way things are said is more important than the possession of truths.” But of course, one is left to deal with this way things are said, and the place of the human self from this educational point of view, which is a fundamental part of the second aspect of Bildung suggested by Rorty, via Gadamer: the process of self-formation.
I want to suggest that it is the process of self-formation as an existential issue that is, arguably, the larger message and significance of these philosophical histories, and perhaps exactlywhy they’ve caused the polarized debate that Isaac wants to deflate. That is, we see in Rorty’s book and the other so-called philosophical histories a suggestion that the connection between self-formation and education, participation in our collective “forms of life,” takes on a particularly anxious character in the latter part of the twentieth century, with “science” acting as the dominant paradigm in a globalized, post-industrial, technological society. For there to be a “science” of human beings speaks to an issue larger than epistemology, but rather our condition of Being-in-the-world itself. Isaac argues that the limitation of these philosophical histories is that they are explicitly self-interested, and implicitly accede to the side of interpretivism that keeps the debate between positivists and so-called post-positivists alive, thus preventing the hope of interdisciplinarity intimated by the interstitial academy. “Consequently, the philosophical history of the human sciences has made the postwar fragmentation of the disciplines seem at once inevitable and-given the incommensurable theories of human nature that supposedly underpin differences between practitioners-intractable.” It seems, however, that it is not competing views of human nature that keep the debate alive, but rather how those views are determined, historically, by what it is we take knowledge to be, what it’s good for at a given moment in time in relation to how we view ourselves. Calling this fact to our attention as a philosophical gesture thus seems less self-interested than self-reflexive, a gesture pointing to the fact that we’ll likely always be having this debate, and arguably, for good reasons.
It is exactly this issue that is addressed by the latter Foucault in the second two volumes of The History of Sexuality, the 1982-83 “Government of the Self and Others Lectures” and his essays “What is Enlightenment” and “On The Geneaology of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress,” where he addresses the significant existential and ontological weight carried in making a claim in the absence of metaphysical certainty and established authority. It is a recognition that in the late twentieth century what might be called for is a an ethics of self, bound up in reflection, ties with others, and a fundamental relation to one’s self-formation that dispenses with “knowledge” as something that might wed us closer to the world, or closer to “progress, and instead seeks an existential and ontological relationship to oneself, in relation to one’s historical circumstance. 
For Foucault, the perceived need for such an ethics was a characteristic mark of modernity. But, of course, it was not only Foucault who shared this view. Aside from the volumes of literature on so-called “alienation” in the history of twentieth century intellectual history, those philosophical histories Isaac wants to dismiss address similar features of a perceived existential crisis of modern, post-industrial societies, features that come to bear in various ways on the importance of Bildung. Stanley Cavell, for example, (arguably the most important and underrated American philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century) places enormous emphasis on the role of education (he was a close friend and colleague of Kuhn’s) and its connection to epistemology and self-formation, while holding to the belief that the process of self-formation involves a recognition that “the human creature’s basis in the world as a whole, its relation to the world as such, is not that of knowing, anyway not what we think of as knowing.” Perhaps this explains his suggestion that his work “crosses paths at alarmingly many points with what Foucault translates and perceives as the care of the self.” Further, perhaps it opens a window onto the more existential import of Kuhn’s work; not in the sense that he should be seen as having “led the charge” towards interpretivism or post-positivism, as Isaac rightly notes, but in the sense that his book sparked an important conversation about “knowledge” itself, what it is we really take this thing called “knowledge” to mean, and how this consideration might come to bear on issues of selfhood. It seems that this is a large part of the significance of the Catholicism underlying the existential questions addressed by Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue; they attune us to a lack in the modernity of the twentieth-century that converges most significantly on the existential and ontological dimensions of knowledge, education, and self, a convergence that neither begins nor ends with Kuhn, but should certainly be considered. As Cavell put it in a response to Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, “Kuhn’s book-whatever its shortcomings-(say in providing an epistemology for the concept of a world and of the change of a world), and however much its frame has overshadowed its teaching (so that it is cited as in support of relativism and even irrationality)-did more than any other text to weaken the hold of a positivist/pragmatist verificationist picture of scientific progress on the academic imagination.”Perhaps this is exactly what the academic imagination needed.
Joel Isaac, Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2012). Specific page citations from Isaac’s book will be given in parentheses in the body of this essay.
I’m taking cues here from Dominick LaCapra, who suggests that a more “documentary” approach to history, especially intellectual history, often comes at the expense of a fair and complex interpretation of the meanings of great texts, and obscures what can be a more fruitful, dialogical relationship with the past that understands historiography as a series of self-understanding. See his “Rethinking Intellectual History and Reading Texts,” History and Theory19 No. 3 (1980): 245-276. See also Martin Jay, “Historical Explanation and Event: Reflections on the Limits of Contextualization,” New Literary History 42 No. 4 (2011): 557-71.
 Richard Bernstein, Between Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 1-20.
 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009,1979), 174.
Isaac, Working Knowledge, 15.
See Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader ed. Paul Rainbow (New York: Vintage Books, 2010); idem. The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1982-1983, trans. Graham Burchell , Arnold I. Davidson ed. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011); idem. Michel Foucault, “On The Geneaology of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress” in The Foucault Reader; idem. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1982):
Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 242.
Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know: Excerpts From Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 479.
Stanley Cavell, “Who Disappoints Whom?”, Critical Inquiry 15:3 (1989).
Erik Hmiel is a second-year P.H.D student at Syracuse University. He is a 20th century U.S intellectual historian and his research interests are primarily in the history of American and Continental philosophy and theory.