Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn

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.

Joel Isaac is University Lecturer in the History of Modern Political Thought at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Christ’s College.

Joel Isaac’s Working Knowledge is intellectual history at its best. Isaac’s subject is the development of several of the human sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, history of science) at Harvard University between 1920 and 1960. But as Isaac makes clear, this is more than a story of disciplinary expansion; as the social sciences took root at America’s most prestigious university, so did a distinctive view of the epistemological underpinnings of social-scientific inquiry. Given both the centrality of Harvard in the twentieth-century academic world and the importance of many of the figures at the center of this shift—James Bryant Conant, Thomas Kuhn, Talcott Parsons, W.V. Quine, and B.F. Skinner, among others—Working Knowledge is a local study of broad implication and interest.”—Robert Westbrook, Bookforum

“Unlike physics, chemistry and biology, which took on their modern forms in the nineteenth century, the social sciences coalesced only during the twentieth. The tale of their consolidation, rise and subsequent slide is often narrated as a clash of ideologies: scientific versus humanistic. In Working Knowledge, historian Joel Isaac reveals how institutional circumstances shaped the field. He does so by putting its pioneers, including sociologist Robert K. Merton, psychologist B.F. Skinner and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn back into the contexts in which they learned their crafts. He explores Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where each spent formative periods. Isaac documents brilliantly how they made their ways on the margins of departments. Elders of the university aimed to restrict specialization, so rising fields such as psychology and sociology were pursued in informal, interdisciplinary groups. Isaac’s elegant study shows how debates over method spring from efforts to embed new types of inquiry in the classroom.”—David Kaiser, Nature

“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

“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

“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