The Future of the History of the Human Sciences

A special issue of History of the Human Sciences dedicated to the future of the history of the human sciences is now available. The issue is chock-full of a diverse range of perspectives on the field’s future. Full details below.

“The future of the history of the human sciences,” by Chris Renwick. Abstract:

This special issue is the product of a conference, The Future of the History of the Human Sciences, which was held at the University of York in April 2016. The meeting brought together scholars from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds and at various stages of their careers to reflect on what were identified as major challenges and opportunities for the research that History of the Human Sciences publishes. The articles included here are a sample of the responses that were generated and contain reflections on not only the boundaries of history of the human sciences research but also the methods used within the discipline. As this introduction explains, the overall aim of the conference was to explore these questions in order to think about both future directions for research and ways in which we can ensure the field remains dynamic and vital.

“Resisting neurosciences and sustaining history,” by Roger Smith. Abstract:

The article began life as, and retains the character of, spoken argument for not allowing the neurosciences to shape the agenda of the history of the human sciences. This argument is then used to suggest purposes and content for the journal, History of the Human Sciences. The style is rhetorical, even polemical, but open-ended. I challenge two clichés about the neurosciences, that they intellectually challenge other areas of knowledge, and that they are reconfiguring the human with the notion of ‘brainhood’. The suggestion is that the real challenges lie elsewhere; specifically with understanding the relations of different forms of knowledge and making it conceivable by political action, or simply mode of life, to implement one way of being human rather than another. The conclusion re-asserts the value of the heading, ‘history of the human sciences’, and of the value of the journal with this name, as a forum in which to reflect on the identity and relations of forms of knowledge about ‘the human’ in all their variety.

“The metaphysical standing of the human: A future for the history of the human sciences,” by Steve Fuller. Abstract:

I reconstruct my own journey into the history of the human sciences, which I show to have been a process of discovering the metaphysical standing of the human. I begin with Alexandre Koyré’s encounter with Edmund Husserl in the 1930s, which I use to throw light on the legacy of Kant’s ‘anthropological’ understanding of the human, which dominated and limited 19th-century science. As I show, those who broke from Kant’s strictures and set the stage for the 20th-century revolutions in science – from Hegel, to John McTaggart, to Max Weber – typically were pursuing crypto-theological questions about how a finite being can comprehend an infinite universe. This journey is about the ‘common measure’ of being human, which is what links Plato to Kuhn, but has been most consistently taken up by law. I suggest that in seeking this ‘measure of man’, we may discover that to be human is not necessarily to be Homo sapiens, which would suggest a radical reorientation of the history of the human sciences.

“From the writing cure to the talking cure: Revisiting the French ‘discovery of the unconscious’,” by Alexandra Bacopoulos-Viau. Abstract:

It is often said that the advent of the Freudian talking cure around 1900 revolutionised the psychiatric setting by giving patients a voice. Less known is that for decades prior to the popularisation of this technique, several researchers had been experimenting with another, written practice aimed at probing the mind. This was particularly the case in France. Alongside neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s spectacular staging of hypnotised bodies, ‘automatic writing’ became widely used in fin-de-siècle clinics and laboratories, with French psychologists regularly asking entranced patients to scribble down words to validate their nascent theories on the divided self. This article traces the emergence of automatic writing in French psychological discourse at the close of the 19th century. By focusing on the early work of Dr Pierre Janet and some of his contemporaries, it re-examines the role played by this practice in what Henri Ellenberger famously called ‘The Discovery of the Unconscious’. It also considers the various levels of reconstruction at play in recent historical accounts. What does it mean to give subjects a (written) voice? How does automatic writing differ from the Freudian talking cure as respective expressions of the unspeakable? And how might these questions inform future historical practice?

“The language of social science in everyday life,” Peter Mandler. Abstract:

An ethnographic or ethnomethodological turn in the history of the human sciences has been a Holy Grail at least since Cooter and Pumphrey called for it in 1994, but it has been little realized in practice. This article sketches out some ways to explore the reception, use and/or co-production of scientific knowledge using material generated by mediators such as mass-market paperbacks, radio, TV and especially newspapers. It then presents some preliminary findings, tracing the prevalence and, to a lesser extent, use of selected social-science concepts in the USA and the UK from the 1930s to the 1970s.

“The tool and the job: Digital humanities methods and the future of the history of the human sciences,” Elizabeth Toon. Abstract:

This article, based on a presentation at the Future of the History of the Human Sciences workshop (2016), discusses some of the potential benefits and pitfalls of digital humanities (DH) tools and approaches for historians of the human sciences. It reviews some of the major approaches that form DH and draws on the author’s experience as part of a team creating a large DH resource to consider the complications presented by these.

“Doing ‘Deep Big History’: Race, landscape and the humanity of H J Fleure (1877–1969),” by Amanda Rees. Abstract:

This article argues that current programmes in the human sciences which adopt a multi-disciplinary approach to history need to be wary of treating the knowledge of the natural sciences as being independent of social influence. Such efforts to do ‘Big History’, ‘Deep History’ or co-evolutionary history themselves have a past, and this article suggests that potential practitioners could benefit from considering that historical context. To that end, it explores the career of Herbert John Fleure, a scholar whose career defied disciplinary classification, but who was concerned to understand how the human past and present could be understood as they combined in the physical and social context of their production, and what they implied for the possibility of a human future. It concludes by arguing that Fleure’s major lesson for modern researchers is his confrontation of the contingent nature and political consequences of his conclusions.

“What was sociology?,” by Des Fitzgerald. Abstract:

This article is about the future of sociology, as transformations in the digital and biological sciences lay claim to the discipline’s jurisdictional hold over ‘the social’. Rather than analyse the specifics of these transformations, however, the focus of the article is on how a narrative of methodological crisis is sustained in sociology, and on how such a narrative conjures very particular disciplinary futures. Through a close reading of key texts, the article makes two claims: (1) that a surprisingly conventional urge towards disciplinary reproduction often animates accounts of sociology’s crisis; (2) that, even more surprisingly, these same accounts are often haunted by a hidden metaphorical architecture centred on biology, vitality, vigour and life. The central gambit of the article is that, perhaps in spite of itself, this subterranean image of life actually hints at less reproductively conventional ways of understanding – and intervening in – sociology’s methodological ‘crisis’. Drawing, empirically, on the author’s recent work on urban stress and, theoretically, on Stefan Helmreich’s (2011, 2016) account of ‘limit biologies’, the articles ends with a call for a ‘limit sociology’ – a form of attention that could, similarly, expand rather than contract the present moment of transformation. At the heart of the article is a hope that thinking with such a limit may help sociologists to imagine a less deadening future than that on offer from a canonised discipline cathected by endless crisis-talk.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.