Re: Anthro, History, Physics-Envy

karl h schwerin (schwerin@UNM.EDU)
Wed, 11 Oct 1995 15:37:48 -0600

On Mon, 9 Oct 1995, SS51000 wrote:

> In response to M. Tomaso, D. Yee describes himself as believing that
> history is "just as much a science as physics." I don't share Danny's
> view, but I applaud his implication that being scientific can be
> considered a matter of degree rather than all-or-nothing. How
> scientific is history as a discipline? Well, many historians are
> committed to an ongoing interaction between evidence and reason; and
> that surely is scientific. On the other hand, historians have produced
> virtually nothing in the way of deductive-nomological explanations, and
> precious little in the way even of inductive-statistical explanations.
> (See C.G. Hempel's *Aspects of Scientific Explanation* for background.)
> One thing historians have tried to do, it seems, is study "everything at
> once," so to speak. The individual personalities and episodes of
> history create a buzzing, booming confusion of seeming singularities.
> Maybe if some scholars tried to focus on customary ways of life, which
> show a structure and stability not apparent in the general stream of
> history, explanatory progress could be made? That was the dream of
> Edward B. Tylor (1871); and I think we can claim some modest progress.

Alfred L. Kroeber made some very enlightening arguments about the
contrasting natures of science and history, see
"So-Called Social Science," Jl. of Social Philosophy 1:317-340.
reprinted 1952, pp. 66-68 in The Nature of Culture, by Alfred L.
Kroeber. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Kroeber identifies four types of discplines, scientifici, historical,
practical, and logistic. In his view anthropology is clearly a historical discipline (although he
allows for the possibility that there _could_ be a scientific
anthropology. He concludes that anthropology shares with history the
feature of never having considered itself of practical utility, but
rather assuming that its lend of understanding is sufficient
justification in itself. The logistic is quasi-scientific, and since
about 1900 anthropology has been free of logical systematizing, although
Kroeber considers that this is what both sociology and economics are
still (or at least as of the 1930s) doing!

> In terms of its products, Anthropology compares favorably, as a science,
> with history; but very unfavorably, with physics. No doubt there are
> some excellent reasons for these differential successes in explaining
> phenomena; but it is counterproductive to deny or ignore them. What's
> so bad about physics-envy? --Bob Graber

Anthropology has traditionally drawn inspiration for its paradigms and
explanatory models from other (mostly scientific) disciplines. (One can
cite biology, geology, linguistics, psychology - I do have trouble
seeing where physics has played a big role in this process). I don't
know whether this expresses a disciplinary insecurity, or an attempt to
associate ourselves with the more prestigious and well established
disciplines. While these models may be stimulating, and even fruitful
(there is even some recognition on this list that pomo ideas, derived
from literary theory, have had utility in anthropology - but that is
another debate), one wonders what it is about anthropology that prevents
us from creating our own independent paradigms and models? Might this
not create a much stronger and more influential discipline? Can we cite
Levi-Strauss as one such, or has he constructed his structuralism on
linguistic models?

Karl Schwerin SnailMail: Dept. of Anthropology
Univ. of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM 87131

Much charitable endeavor is motivated by an unconscious
desire to peer into lives that one is glad to be unable
to share. . . . . Edward Sapir