Every social scientist his/her own historian?

In the last issue of Modern Intellectual History, one of the journal that I encourage you to look at from time to time I stumble upon an interesting review article by Daniel Geary. In this piece, he makes a distinction between “discipline history” and “intellectual history”, a distinction he borrowed from an earlier and interesting piece by S. Collini (the link is below). According to Collini, “discipline history… offers an account of the alleged historical development of an enterprise the identity of which is defined by the concerns practitioners of a particular scientific field”. It is clear to me, and I assume to most of my readers, that a large portion of history of political economy or of its variants, history of economics and history of economic thought, is still discipline history. Collini (and Geary) contrasts this with “an approach which attempts to treat the history of the social sciences as part of a wider intellectual history”. I have always found the preoccupations of intellectual historians not so different from those of historians of science narrowly defined (that is excluding sociologist and philosophers of science).

There are however some interesting twists. First, though there was an early version known in the US under the label “history of ideas” (and linked to the Journal of the history of ideas), intellectual history in the modern sense is very much linked to the English context (although one of its founding father, Pocock, is an american). It blossomed in Cambridge (Quentin Skinner, Istvan Hont) and Sussex University (Donald Winch, Knud Haakonssen), among other locations. Second, modern intellectual history has originated to a large extent from the refounding of the history of political ideas/thought in the 1970s and 1980s. This may explain why it had, from the beginning, a deep interest in political economy (most notably in Smith and the Scottish enlightenment), and very few institutional links with historian of science. Third, while historians of recent economics have been more  open to history of science (broadly defined) as a heuristic model and to historians of science as people with whom to interact, historians of earlier periods, in a nutshell pre-marginal revolution, have been more likely to talk with and be influenced by intellectual historians. I wonder why.




6 thoughts on “Every social scientist his/her own historian?

  1. Löic, I have not comments, but questions. History of recent economics has been shaped by scholars with inclinations toward history of science. So we get the implication you pointed out. However, these historians I believe are also very open to intellectual history. If this is true, the question is why don’t we have more histories of recent economics as intellectual histories? Has the time proximity anything to do with this? If it has and it is symmetric, it may also partially explain why historians of pre-marginal revolution are more inclined toward intellectual history.
    Do you have any sense on if and how these things appear on the history of other disciplines?

  2. I do not have ready and simple answers to yours questions. My guess is that time-proximity might have less to do with it than the fact that 1. The historian of recent economics have been prominently americans or people trained in an american setting, where a more traditional intellectual history is still important and not so sexy and 2. the form of recent economics makes the connection with history of science perhaps more obvious than for earlier periods (and less obvious with history of political thought). To put it in a nutshell, while the work of Roy, Phil and Judy (to take a sample) set the methodological canon for the history of economics, the works of Pocock, Hont and Winch (to take another sample) is on the whole wider than that of say Margaret Schabas and historian of science on pre-20th century economics.
    About the other disciplines, my belief is that the model intellectual history is very strong among historians of humanities (literature, psychology, philosophy) and political thought, while the history of science dominates the historiography of “harder sciences”. Indeed, mixed disciplins like geography and economics are divided along lines that may have something to do with their subject matter – it would be interesting to see if there are differences betwwen historians of human geography and historians of physical geography in this regard, my guess is that there is.

  3. Loïc, I agree with your conjectures. Following up the point that intellectual history connects more clearly with historians of humanities while history of science dominates the historiography of hard sciences, I would add that intellectual history sounds more like “art” while history of science sounds relatively more like “science”: it is ok to analyze Smith in a context that sounds like “art”, as in the end of the day economics was not then a “science” (in the sense that it is or wants to be nowadays); the same can not be done with modern econometrics or modern macroeconomics. In other words, the scientific practice that is the object of analysis of historians changed substantially its character over time. Adding to this is the audience that historians of recent economics targets: the (legitimate) effort of trying to connect with practicing economists makes it even harder to pursue an analysis as intellectual history (exactly because it sounds much more like an “art” than a “serious” historical analysis to thee folks).

  4. Where would you locate works like Peter Novick’s history of the (American) history profession (The Noble Dream), or Gerald Graff’s history of the literature profession (Professing Literature)?

  5. To Roy: funny you ask, since in this interesting review of Novick’s book (see the thread below), Ann Wilson locates it in the discipline and the intellectual history tradition.
    To Pedro: I am not sure that I share all the undertones of your dictinction between intellectual history as “art” and history of science as “science”. For pre-marginalists, PE was a science as well. That is I believe the difference (because I agree with you that there is a difference) is linked to the actual form of economics rather than to the representation economists have of their own discipline and practices. Doing economics means today a specialised and highly technical training more akin to science than to anything else, this was not true in the pre-marginalist period. I tend to think that intellectual historians are more at ease with a less technical type of economics, that makes relations with humanities more fluid; while historian of science ‘s techniques are maybe more easily transposable to today’s economics. But I am very close to pure guessing, here.

  6. I am fond of topographic analogies. I think scientists carve out disciplinary spaces and cultural spaces and social spaces. I think historians do the same. So for me the terms remain the ones of distance and overlap. Some history of economics is about economics, the community is the same, as Pedro suggests, the conversation is the same. For some other history of economics, the subject is not the subject. It is economics but it could be fried chicken, economics is a way in into a history of culture, society, and ideas. Novick is writes the history of the historical profession. His interest is in its existence in a changing American society. Although the discipline is the subject, he tries to resolve no professional polemic. He suggests new questions. To me it is more productive although in our present circumstances it is hard to see how it might be rewarded.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s