Positivism and Scale: Problematic Subjects in Late 19th-Century European Intellectual History

AHA Session 269
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom F (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Emily J. Levine, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Emily J. Levine, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Session Abstract

Looked at from a certain angle, Comtean positivism with its ambition to escape metaphysics and to complete science by empirical investigation of determinate relations between facts, is perhaps the nineteenth century inheritor of Enlightenment. As Comte—and his positivist inheritors—turned from physics and chemistry to sociology and history, though, problems of scale and narrative became unavoidable. Comte himself, famously, finished by constructing a new religion. By the end of the century, positivism was well on its way to becoming the slur that it today by and large remains.

Yet history as a discipline continues to wrestle with conceptual problems framed first in the wreckage of the positivist project. Intellectual historians in particular continue to argue over the best way to understand the transformation that took place in European intellectual and cultural life in the late nineteenth century. Indeed as the arguments collected in the volume edited by Darrin MacMahon and Samuel Moyn suggest, intellectual historians are at their most useful for the discipline as a whole when the material of our investigation intersects with conceptual and methodological debates of interest across historical sub disciplines. Investigation into the layers of ruins and old building underneath our “disciplinary fortress,” as Gabriel Finkelstein puts it in his proposal, can tell us much about its weaknesses and strengths.   

All the papers on this panel are concerned, in one way or another, with the consequences of positivism as applied to the study of the study of humans. Finkelstein’s paper is perhaps most explicit in this, asking after the consequences for history as a discipline of rejecting a mode of historiography to which “positivist” could be attached as a derogatory term—and returning when positivism has itself come back into favor. Larry McGrath’s paper examines the arrival of brain-science into the teaching of philosophy in France. Why and how did the philosophers of the Republic embrace a science that might be seen as directly challenging their legitimacy? Can institutional politics explain the spiritualist embrace of brain science? Or its consequences? Eric Brandom’s paper charts the interplay between two of the great anti-positivists of the early twentieth century in order to re-assess the political significance of their rejection of a certain kind of science.

One might legitimately ask how far either Sorel or Croce escaped positivism in explicitly rejecting it. It seems broadly true that Croce, in his insistence on historiography as a discipline focused on concrete specificity, on individual reality, prevails in the contemporary academy over the grand narrative of, say, Buckle. At what cost? It is further the case that historians—and many others—struggle to integrate the findings and arguments of neuroscience, often seen as an imperialistic enemy compromised by positivistic assumptions, into actual historical practice. McGrath’s investigation into one institutional and disciplinary field in which a similar conflict played out is not without relevance here. The record of late nineteenth century anti-positivism contains valuable lessons for arguments over new iterations of positivism in the present.

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