December 6, 2005

Disciplinary reading recommendations

Congrats to Margaret Soltan (aka University Diarist), whose Inside Higher Ed column today explores the nature of English as a field, or the lack thereof. It's not my discipline, but I understand her concerns. History was in the midst of such consternation a while ago, or maybe it's still there and I haven't noticed.

And while we're on disciplinary-pondering recommendations and the inevitable debates about postmodernism, may I suggest Ian Hacking's The Social Construction of What? (2000), which is currently irritating a group of honors-college students here at USF. Or, rather, his elliptical references are irritating them. Nonetheless, it's a good and important read on the philosophy of science, and the third chapter is invaluable for distinguishing different questions in social-construction and deconstruction arguments:

  • Contingency—the extent to which a concept's development and history could have been different
  • Nominalism—whether a concept reflects some outside-humanity reality or whether our concepts are human bins (or pigeonholes) for a reality that is either not structured that way or has no structure we can recognize has humans
  • Explanations of stability—whether the long-term viability of a concept reflects the utility and consistency within a field or the social and professional factors that impose a certain inertia on disciplinary conventions

Hacking describes Kuhn as high on the social-construction scale for all three dimensions and rates himself most highly in nominalism. I think Hacking is right in rating Kuhn high for contingency and explanations of stability (he's the one who abused paradigm for the first time, after all), but is dead wrong on nominalism. (Incidentally, I never met Kuhn but did meet his son, as he and my older brother Stan were college friends.)

For the record, I'd rate myself relatively high (on the social-construction scale) in his contingency category and medium on nominalism and stability. Then again, we historians naturally argue for contingency, or we'd have nothing to talk about.

Update (noonish): I forgot to credit my brother Ron (a geographer at ASU) for ties to some of the work discussed by Hacking in his chapter on rocks. Yes, rocks. Hackins discusses the work of McKenzie and Vasconcelos and their theory that nanobacteria are responsible for creating dolomite, and since my brother has some experience with biological explanation of geographic/geologic phenomena, I asked him if he knew of this stuff. He said it was fairly complex, since it touches on what's called the faint-sun paradox. This is far beyond my knowledge. That's why he's the geographer and I'm the historian. Now, ask me about the irony of Daniel Schreiber's career as an educator, and I'm there.

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Posted in Random comments on December 6, 2005 7:37 AM |