Saturday, July 19, 2008

Historicization and Dehistoricization

If you asked the average molecular biology student what a transposon was, they could tell you. But how many could then go on to tell you that Barbara McClintock was the discoverer (and Nobel Prize winner for that discovery) of transposons? In the hard sciences, it is more the facts than the people who discovered those facts which are of primary concern, so it should probably not come as a surprise that as psychology and economics become more scientific in their methodologies (consider, for example, the short article in the latest Science: Homo experimentalis Evolves) that they have stopped focusing on personalities, notwithstanding historian Russell Jacoby's complaints. It's not that to some degree he's not right in lamenting the kind of information we lose by not talking about important people in a field, but what are we to do when scientific discoveries end up proving that the ideas of people we previously considered mainstream are in fact extremely marginal, if not almost completely wrong? No biology department is going to talk about the Russian biologist Lysenko or his theories, because they were utterly wrong. His ideas are a historical footnote pointing out some of the absurd ideas that came out of Soviet-style Marxism. Along those lines, what we are learning about economics disproves almost everything Marx ever had to say. We was, besides, a philosopher, not an economist -- notwithstanding Jacoby's mischaracterization of Marx. Freud probably still has some relevance in studying psychology, as the founder of the field, despite one of his main theses, the Oedipus complex, being shown to be completely wrong, as demonstrated by the Westermarck Effect (which can be seen at work in the very play "Oedipus Tyrannus").

I will say, though, that Jacoby is absolutely right about the situation in philosophy. Too many philosophers forget they are in a humanities department, meaning they are necessarily a historical department. It is especially ironic that Hegel is being ignored, as his ideas on dialectics are so important to the burgeoning field of complex systems. Jacoby is also right in suggesting that we need to pay a bit more attention to the history of our fields. We too often come away from university classes thinking that the few scientific heroes we hear about were pure scientists, with no outside interests, and no wrong ideas. We need to understand how they succeeded, which means understanding how they failed, as well. ANd what their quirks were. Newton was also an alchemist, after all -- and that's some pretty interesting information.
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