In 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)
Now 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.