Joel Isaac

Working Knowledge

Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn

Harvard University Press 2012

New Books in HistoryNew Books in Intellectual HistoryNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Science & TechnologyNew Books in Science, Technology, and SocietyNew Books Network January 28, 2013 Carla Nappi

Imagine the academic world as a beach. The grains of sand making up the beach are the departments, institutes, and other bodies and related...

Imagine the academic world as a beach.

The grains of sand making up the beach are the departments, institutes, and other bodies and related gatherings that make up the officially sanctioned parts of academic institutions and academic life. There is a world between the grains, however – a world of unofficial, accidental, and trans-departmental conversations and inspirations. And it is within that “interstitial academy” that some of the most remarkable work in the history of modern social and humanistic thought has been born.

In Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (Harvard University Press, 2012), Joel Isaac takes readers into the interstitial academy of Harvard University in the middle of the twentieth century. Isaac traces a kind of early history of interdisciplinarity in the American academy in the course of an elegantly wrought argument for situating one of the most pivotal texts of the history and philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, within the emergence of what have become known as the human sciences. Twentieth century philosophers and social scientists sought to replace Kant’s transcendental notions with concepts more firmly rooted in the activities of working scientists and mathematicians, creating an epistemology that was deeply rooted in social practices. Maturing in this context and coming of intellectual age largely in the interstitial academy, Kuhn developed a notion of scientific paradigms that were “revealed in its textbooks, lectures, and laboratory exercises,” grounding his philosophy in a fundamental concern with pedagogical practices. At the same time, Isaac’s book is about so much more than Kuhn: it treats the history of American universities, the sociology of Pareto, the development of the case method in legal education, the changing disciplinary relationships between philosophy and psychology, the development of an idea of “social sciences,” among many other themes and stories. It is an exceptionally rich and persuasive story, and well worth reading – be it on the beach or elsewhere.

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