Michael E. Staub (Baruch College) has published a new volume this month that will be of great interest to our AHP readership. In The Mismeasure of Minds: Debating Race and Intelligence between Brown and The Bell Curve, Staub assesses research post-desegregation of education in
latter-half of 20th century America, and the interrelationship between the public and institutional uptake of psychological concepts and growing dissatisfaction with IQ as a measure. In doing so, he “charts the paradoxes that have emerged and that continue to structure investigations of racism even into the era of contemporary neuroscientific research.”
Read the full dust-jacket blurb here at the publisher’s website.
Matthew L. Jones’s Reckoning with Matter: Calculating Machines, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage may interest AHP readers. As Lorraine Daston notes in her recent Critical Inquiry review of Jones’ book:
Woven like a scarlet thread through Jones’ account of the ingenuity, stamina, skill, and sheer will to believe required to keep at the improvement of calculating machines until they were reliable enough to be used widely (not until the 1870s) is the puzzle of what, if anything, mechanical calculation has to do with thinking. Pace almost all histories of computers that trace a lineage from Babbage to John von Neumann via Alan Turing, Jones answers: not much. Although some of the inspired tinkerers, such as Charles Stanhope, did toy with the idea that mechanical calculation was a materialization of thought, Jones concludes that the fact that machines could (eventually) be made to calculate did not immediately suggest the idea of artificial intelligence. On the contrary: calculation ceased thereby to count as intelligence.
The book itself is described on the publisher’s website as follows:
From Blaise Pascal in the 1600s to Charles Babbage in the first half of the nineteenth century, inventors struggled to create the first calculating machines. All failed—but that does not mean we cannot learn from the trail of ideas, correspondence, machines, and arguments they left behind.
In Reckoning with Matter, Matthew L. Jones draws on the remarkably extensive and well-preserved records of the quest to explore the concrete processes involved in imagining, elaborating, testing, and building calculating machines. He explores the writings of philosophers, engineers, and craftspeople, showing how they thought about technical novelty, their distinctive areas of expertise, and ways they could coordinate their efforts. In doing so, Jones argues that the conceptions of creativity and making they exhibited are often more incisive—and more honest—than those that dominate our current legal, political, and aesthetic culture.
Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick may be of interest to AHP readers, particular its exploration of agency and intelligence. The book is described as follows:
Today, a scientific explanation is not meant to ascribe agency to natural phenomena: we would not say a rock falls because it seeks the center of the earth. Even for living things, in the natural sciences and often in the social sciences, the same is true. A modern botanist would not say that plants pursue sunlight. This has not always been the case, nor, perhaps, was it inevitable. Since the seventeenth century, many thinkers have made agency, in various forms, central to science.
The Restless Clock examines the history of this principle, banning agency, in the life sciences. It also tells the story of dissenters embracing the opposite idea: that agency is essential to nature. The story begins with the automata of early modern Europe, as models for the new science of living things, and traces questions of science and agency through Descartes, Leibniz, Lamarck, and Darwin, among many others. Mechanist science, Jessica Riskin shows, had an associated theology: the argument from design, which found evidence for a designer in the mechanisms of nature. Rejecting such appeals to a supernatural God, the dissenters sought to naturalize agency rather than outsourcing it to a “divine engineer.” Their model cast living things not as passive but as active, self-making machines.
The conflict between passive- and active-mechanist approaches maintains a subterranean life in current science, shaping debates in fields such as evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. This history promises not only to inform such debates, but also our sense of the possibilities for what it means to engage in science—and even what it means to be alive.
The September 2017 issue of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, is now online. Two articles in this issue may be of especial interest to AHP readers: one documenting the relationship between cybernetics and modern Chinese linguists and the other exploring the construction of “gifted” and “academically talented” students in the context of efforts to desegregate schools following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. Full details follow below.
“From Modernizing the Chinese Language to Information Science: Chao Yuen Ren’s Route to Cybernetics,” by Chen-Pang Yeang. Abstract:
As one of the most famous Chinese intellectuals of the twentieth century, Chao Yuen Ren is known primarily for his founding of modern Chinese linguistics. This essay examines a less familiar part of his career: cybernetics. When he taught at Berkeley in 1947, he read Norbert Wiener’s book manuscript and gravitated toward the subject. His participation in the 1953 Macy Conference marked the beginning of his decades-long work that used the concepts of feedback and information to understand language in general and Chinese in particular. This essay argues that Chao’s exploration of cybernetics was influenced not only by the rise of information science in the midcentury United States but also by the movement to modernize the Chinese language two decades earlier. His phonetic research for dialect surveys, involvement in language reform, and appropriation of structuralism when he worked in China in the 1920s and 1930s shaped his cybernetic interpretations of language in the 1950s and 1960s. This article enriches the current historiography of information science, which stresses disunity and internationalism, by showing how an East Asian context affected an aspect of the early development of cybernetics. It also demonstrates the value of an immigrant scientist’s intellectual biography for studies of transnational science.
“A “Precious Minority”: Constructing the “Gifted” and “Academically Talented” Student in the Era of Brown v. Board of Education and the National Defense Education Act,” by Jim Wynter Porter. Abstract: Continue reading New in Isis: Cybernetics and Chinese Linguistics; Constructing “Gifted” Students Post-Brown v. Board
As reported over on the h-madness blog the Winter 2016 special issue of L’esprit créateur is dedicated to “L’esprit (dé)réglé: Literature, Science, and the Life of the Mind in France, 1700–1900.” Full details follow below.
“L’esprit (dé)réglé: Literature, Science, and the Life of the Mind in France, 1700–1900,” by Florence Vatan and Anne Vila. The abstract reads,
The case studies presented in this special issue illustrate the unique appeal that the puzzle of the mind exerted across fields of knowledge in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They highlight the diversity of approaches and perspectives that the exploration of the mind elicited in literature, philosophy, and the sciences de l’homme. They also testify to the conceptual challenges and persistent nebulousness that surrounded the notion of esprit and its close associates. That fluidity of meaning was, in its way, productive: it provoked debates about the nature of the self, the precarious status of consciousness, and the relevance of human exceptionalism.
“Comment l’esprit vient aux filles… et comment les garçons le perdent: Maladie d’amour, médecine et fiction romanesque au XVIIIe siècle,” by Alexandre Wenger. The abstract reads,
This article proposes a commentary on a little known novel, Les Amours du chevalier de Faublas, written between 1787 and 1790 by Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray. The objective is to show a rivalry that existed in the second half of the eighteenth century between the novel and medical treatises as ways to document knowledge of the human mind. Taking as a point of departure the problematic polysemy of the term “esprit” in the eighteenth century, this article reveals how Couvray’s novel engages in therapeutic writing. Its main hypothesis is that as a fictional narrative, the novel discusses the madness of love and the disturbances of the mind.
Continue reading Special Issue: “L’esprit (dé)réglé: Literature, Science, and the Life of the Mind in France, 1700–1900”