Lakatos for intellectual historians?

KuukkanenIn a recent issue of History and Theory, 47(3), Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen (pictured left) sought to defend intellectual history. In an email sent earlier this year, Brian Fay — the journal’s executive editor — described the article thus:

Some historians, such as Arthur Lovejoy of the great chain of being fame, have claimed that intellectual history is about unit-ideas, but critics have countered that there are no such units that cut across historical epochs; they propose, instead, that it is linguistic entities that are the object of study, or they wonder whether the whole notion of intellectual history isn’t a non-starter because there is nothing stable enough to count as the object of such a history. To these critics Kuukkanen responds that we should accept ideas and concepts as the basis for an intelligible history of thought — so his is a return in a way to Lovejoy — but that we have to be more sophisticated than Lovejoy about what this means. He proposes that concepts and ideas are comprised of a core and a margin, and that conceiving of them in this way solves a number of problems that Lovejoy’s original formulation could not.

Although I am sympathetic to Kuukkanen’s goal, his remedy looks to me like little more than an application of Lakatosian philosophy to history. Normally, I would celebrate this kind of interdisciplinarity. But Lakatos isn’t cited.

Are the ideas really the same?  You be the judge.

Here is how Kuukkanen introduces his proposal:

…we can assume that a historical concept is composed of two main components: the core of concept Xc, and the margin of concept, Xm. The core is something that all instantiations must satisfy in order to be “the same concept.” This is the basic tenet of what might be called concept postulation (or the subsumption of concepts under a covering concept). The margin is composed of all the rest of the beliefs that an instantiation of X might have. They are variable from one conceptual representation to another. Because of Xm, we are able to take into account and describe context-specific features; in this way, the criticism from historical insensitivity is neutralized. (Kuukkanen, 2008, p. 367)

Imre LakatosNow compare this with Imre Lakatos’ proposal from the classic essay in which he synthesizes the ideas of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. There, he introduces the notion of the “hard core” as part of a discussion of the role of criticism in scientific research.

All scientific research-programmes may be characterised by their ‘hard core‘. The negative heuristic of the programme forbids us to direct the modus tollens at this ‘hard core’: it bids us to articulate or even invent with great ingenuity touchstone theories ‘auxiliary hypotheses’, which build up a protective belt around this core, and redirect the modus tollens on to these. It is this protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses which has to bear the brunt of tests and get adjusted and readjusted, or even completely replaced in the defence of the thus hardened core. A research-programme is successful if in the process it leads to a progressive problem- shift; unsuccessful if it leads to a degenerating problem-shift. (Lakatos, 1968, pp. 168-169)

Kuukkanen’s Xc and Xm seem to correspond exactly to Lakatos’ hard core and protective belt.  If criticism alters the protective belt (Xm), then the core concept (Xc) remains the same.  It can therefore be traced through history.

If Kuukkanen’s contribution is a synthesis of Lovejoy and Lakatos, then it should be examined on that basis. But if the argument is different, then the differences should be made clearer.

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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

2 thoughts on “Lakatos for intellectual historians?

  1. Just reading the excerpts here, it seems to me that where Lakatos is presenting a dynamic for describing a progress or disintegration of disciplines, Kuukkanen is describing a historical taxonomy of disciplines. So, for example, Lakatos would take “quantum theory” to be a hard core for describing the behaviors of subatomic particles and resultant effects, the “protective belt” would be things like the “quantum mechanical model of the hydrogen atom”. Criticisms of the quantum theory can only be directed around the sufficiency or failure of quantum mechanics to to produce a workable model of the hydrogen atom. “Quantum mechanics” cannot be attacked head-on.

    Where I take Kuukkanen to be saying that if we have a concept like “Enlightenment political thought,” one might be inclined to attack it by saying there “is no such thing as a unitary Enlightenment thought,” (Xc), following Kuukkanen you can say, well, actually, if we define Xc as simply a commitment to developing a secularized political philosophy, we can identify Rousseau’s take, or the Scottish Enlightenment, or whatever other takes you might have, as separate Xm’s around (within?) the more general Xc’s.

    Maybe it’s more complex than that, but Kuukkanen’s approach seems like basically a common sense defense for identifying historical concepts against particularist critiques. Or maybe, somewhat more radically, he is arguing for a transhistorical sociological and political theory with differentiated manifestations?

  2. Just as Lakatos’ view was far too simple to take into account most historical examples, so, it would appear, is Kuukkanen’s. Many concepts are not structured so neatly as a hard core surrounded by a marginal or auxillary belt. Consider the concept “motion.” For Aristotle is included growth. When Newton came along, his laws covered many kinds of motion, but “growth” was not among them, so it got dropped from the (scientific) concept of motion. The only way to to account for this on Kuukkanen’s (or Lakatos’) point of view is that “growth” was somehow “marginal” or “auxillary.” But that is just a post hoc justification (a “hack”) in order to save the theory. Growth was a part of the “core” Aristotle’s concept of motion. When Newton came along, his laws served to break the concept apart into pieces that could be handled by different intellectual means. Thus, there isn’t a “core” concept of motion that exists through time. It changes as different problems and methods present themselves to different humans throughout time.

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