U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tired Thoughts on Social Psychology, Neoroscience, and Intellectual History

I just got back this afternoon from an overly long–and far too eventful–family vacation (should that last word be in quotation marks?) that consisted of spending almost a month driving back and forth across about a dozen-and-a-half states.*  I hadn’t intended not to post to USIH during the trip, but life seemed to get in the way. Though I have neither the time nor the energy for a longer (or more polished) post today, I wanted to put up a little something to mark my return home. And for a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking a bit lately about whether and how social psychology and neuroscience might inform the practice of intellectual history.

I’ve begun reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a fascinating book that raises a lot of important questions about how people think. What I particularly appreciate about Kahneman’s approach is that it seems more grounded in empirical research than a lot of “evolution psychology” that purports to explain social behavior, but often seems merely to affirm dominant cultural prejudices via a series of just-so stories.  While reading Kahneman, I’ve repeatedly asked myself whether work like this might inform my understanding of intellectual history. While at some abstract level I think it might, I’m not entirely sure how it would do so.

Meanwhile, I find myself back in Oklahoma during yet another record heatwave.  We’re apparently expecting 113º weather on Wednesday, with highs over 105º the rest of the week.  Bearing in mind that hot weather no more proves global warming than mild weather disproves it, heat like this makes me wonder, yet again, why people (especially in Oklahoma) are so resistant to the idea of global warming, which has, in fact, been pretty conclusively proven via actual science.  Obviously, (well-funded) ideology has a lot to do with it. But given the fact that, in a state like Oklahoma, things have become uncomfortably hotter, why do people believe ideology over what appears to be empirical evidence to the contrary?

I should point out in raising these questions that I don’t have any answers (I suspect that I wouldn’t on a day on which I hadn’t driven from Atoka, Tennessee to Norman, Oklahoma…I’m certainly not going to have them on a day on which I have).  I should point out, however, that, about a year ago, Mike O’Connor raised some similar issues on this blog.  I’ll add that I agree with those in comments on Mike’s post who caution against taking at face value many claims about extraordinary new discoveries in neuroscience and cognitive science.  However, the existence of a lot of bad cog sci and, with it, bad social psychology, doesn’t mean that we intellectual historians might not still learn from good cog sci and good social psychology.


* The itinerary was:  OK to NC, NC to OH, OH to VA, VA to MA, MA to NY, NY to MA, MA to NY, NY to VA, VA to NC, NC to OK.  It should be stressed that each of these legs served a tangible family purpose (none was merely a matter of tourism), though some of them were caused by an utterly unexpected family emergency.  But if that looks exhausting to you, I can only affirm that it was!

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. One cannot “believe (or disbelieve) in global warming” without specifying what component of that concept one believes or disbelieves. It’s possible, for instance, to believe that global warming is occurring (average surface temperatures have been rising lately) without believing that the increase is caused by human activity, or that the average CO2 level in the atmosphere (whether naturally changing or changed by human activity) is the culprit. Although some global warming “deniers” think there is no rise in average temperatures at all, which seems to be contrary to the evidence, many more “deniers” simply point out that rising and falling average temperatures are natural processes, the science of which is not completely understood. This has become politicized because “global warming activists” (to use a clumsy but recognizable term) believe (and more importantly want policies to be made accordingly) that 1) temperatures are rising, 2) CO2 level is the culprit, 3) human-caused CO2 emissions are to blame and 4) that dialing back human-emitted CO2 levels will halt the process. Some reputable scientists do not believe all four assertions, and most “deniers” in the political sphere oppose making (expensive) industrial policy decisions to combat CO2 emissions, while that particular claim that dialing CO2 up or down can control the climate is still falsifiable.

  2. If you want to see a list of studies that helped establish the causal relationship between CO2 and warming, click here. For a list of scientific organizations who concur that CO2 is the culprit, click here and be prepared to scroll for a long time.

    Then stop at the list of dissenting organizations, because there aren’t any.

    The idea that CO2 traps heat is basic chemistry and has been around for well over a century. The studies I linked to above tease out CO2 as a cause of current trends.

  3. I also think a lot about the role of psychology and cognitive science in intellectual history. There are particularly interesting questions about free will and predestination–does our brain chemistry determine our actions?

  4. The only place I’ve seen brain science effectively deployed in historiography is in the history of emotions. there, it to demonstrates first that emotions themselves are plastic and, in a sense, discursively constituted and therefore historical, and second, that they are nonetheless not infinitely plastic, and vary along some basic axes or functions.

    aside from giving intellectual historians a frame within which to think about certain kinds of discourse, i’m not sure what relevance brain science could have. color me skeptical. but i haven’t read “thinking, fast and slow”—so perhaps i’ll be surprised?

    • I certainly haven’t tried applying brain science to my work (and don’t have any plans to do so), but it would seem to me that it might tell us something interesting about the social transmission of ideas.

  5. Might I suggest:

    *The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality* by Chris Mooney. It’s a popular survey of the science. Some of the research is discussed in this post. Here’s a review in Psychology Today.

    ‘The Righteous Mind,’ by Jonathan Haidt The New York Times Review is here. I don’t always agree with him, but he’s always interesting and knows the relevant research.

    *Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics,* by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler. This is the most academic of these three books. Here’s an interview with Weiler at Salon.com.

  6. Rather than turn to neuroscience to offer historical insight, I’d probably be more likely to historicize the idea that neuroscience can offer such insight.

  7. The idea that personality differences are born with us to some extent and that they have an impact on politics is not new–see Jefferson and Hume. What is new is new ways of measuring personality differences, which may or may not be adequate, and may be misapplied, but ways of measuring things *do* improve.

  8. Indeed. But I was thinking specifically of historicizing the idea that neurology — or, more broadly, “science” — offers a “better” way of explaining historical contingency/causality than other approaches. As a historiographic stance, it owes something to the rise of science and scientism in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, with Bury representing in some ways the high water mark of the historiographical argument for history as science and historical research as “scientific.” At the same time, there’s a long development of the notion of the characterological as “measurable” that owes something not only to 19th century anthropology but also to the rise of statistics and the notion of the “average” or “normal” person, an abstraction that can be quantified (see Sarah Igo on this reconceptualization of the quantifiable self — or, interestingly, Lionel Trilling or Harold Rosenberg).

    In terms of the particular appeal of neurology as an explanation for past behavior of historical actors (individuals, classes, people in general?), there are a few things going on — an oscillation towards (older?) ideas of biological determinism (as opposed to mid 20th century notions of culture-and-personality — there’s a great article by Joanne Meyerowitz in the March 2010 number of the JAH on social constructionist thought), a privileging of nomothetic reasoning (see Mink’s essay on the autonomy of history here), and an effort to find some epistemic ground beyond (or away from the slippery slop of?) the cultural turn. This is a turn towards the epistemic “certainty” of science. The notion that human nature is unchanging is an old idea, as is the notion that there is a necessary and close correlation between the biological and the characterological (see humoral theory here for early iterations of this idea). But it’s an idea that tells us more about the thinking of those who have applied or are applying it to past historical subjects than it does about the historical subjects themselves. But of course you are free to come up with a neurological explanation to explain my skepticism about the explanatory value of neuroscience!

  9. Oh mercy. I meant “the slippery slope,” of course — a Freudian slip, a glitch in neurology? Either way, “the slippery slop of the cultural turn” is rich with metaphoric possibilities. Maybe I’ll post tomorrow about off-road driving…

  10. I never made a claim that character wasn’t something changeable, or about science being a “better” way of understanding character.

    In fact, I’d say that often the physical sciences are lousy ways of understanding human beings. On the other hand, certain evidence is compelling and hard to ignore without being *anti-science.* Reductionism is one thing, and I’m usually sympathetic to arguments against scientific reductionism, but if some people are more prone to, say, feelings of disgust than others, and that’s measurable with strong correlations with ideological conservatism, I think that’s interesting and worth discussion.

    Again, people have been interested in personality differences and politics as least as far back as the Enlightenment and probably earlier, so if you’re going to argue against observable differences in personality you’re going to have to explain how you’re not arguing against a number of other figures interested in these differences well before the 20th c. It may be that they would have been interested new ways of measuring differences that weren’t around in their time…

  11. Yeah, I have too many quotation marks in my comment — some are scare quotes (“better”) and some are direct (e.g. re: measurability). Sorry for the mixup.

    But I think the logic of arguing for neurology as a way of understanding the past is pretty mixed up. First, the assumption that any present situation, whether a lab result or a labor dispute, with all its infinite historical contingencies, can be used to measure a past situation which, time in history being what it is, actually contributed to making the present situation what it is, seems ill-considered.

    Then there’s the transhistorical assumption that the human brain has always behaved in the way that we can observe it behaving now (along with the assumption that our observation plays no role in constructing/constituting the subject we observe). There’s the question-begging assumption that “ideological conservatism” of today is analogous/comparable to ideological conservatism of the past, as well as a similar assumption about the basic sameness-through-time of emotions like disgust — as if emotions (the very notion of them, how they are experienced, how they are expressed) do not also have quite particular, culturally specific histories of their own.

    For an argument from biology to have a chance of relevance, you would first have to demonstrate the historical continuity of all the terms that are presumably correlated — conservatism, disgust, how emotions are experienced/expressed, etc. — and you couldn’t do that via biology. You’d have to do it with plain old historical argumentation, by constructing an argument for comparability based on an interpretive analysis of textual evidence. You’d have to do your history, making certain aspects of the past seem similar enough to the present to allow for comparison, before you can apply your biology — so what is the point of the biology? If you have to make a good historical case for making a neurological case, how does neurology have any explanatory value compared to the history you’ve had to do just to be able to introduce it?

    Laboratory experiments conducted on present subjects can tell us precious little about past subjects, unless we first of all assume a basic likeness of mind/experience/meaning/intent between past and present subjects at the outset. And if that’s the case, who needs history?

    Past subjects did not leave behind “measurements” for experiments designed two or three centuries later, but rather texts and documents that we must understand and interpret not via abstraction but in the context of their own time/place.

    Finally, as an intellectual historian, I’m not “arguing against” past historical subjects. Indeed, I’m arguing very strongly that we treat them with the dignity of attempting to understand their ideas and interests as they meant them, in the context of their own time, rather than assuming that people “as far back as the Enlightenment and probably earlier” would have been, or even could have been, as interested in “measuring differences” as some are today.

    It may be interesting to speculate about, say, whether or not Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolution was physiologically conditioned/determined, but interesting and useful are often two different things.

    • I noticed one of your contributors here doesn’t have a problem with Hetherington and Weiler:

      From the late 1940s through the early 1960s, it was quite common to explain the American right in terms of political psychology. Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, and Daniel L. Levinson’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950) was perhaps the key work in this line of thought. But its tendency to understand conservatism as somehow socially and psychologically pathological was also reflected in such works as the essays edited by Daniel Bell as The New American Right (1955; later expanded and republished as The Radical Right (1963)) and Richard Hofstadter’s essay on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

      This pathologizing line of thought has in more recent years often been dismissed by historians for not taking conservatives and their ideas seriously. But I suspect that there is an analytical middle ground here. One can accept that some people are more drawn to authoritarian points of view than others without entirely dismissing or pathologizing them. Political scientists like Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, for example, have tried to use the idea of authoritarian dispositions descriptively rather than pejoratively in their study of polarization in American politics.

      (Actually, looks like it’s Ben Alpers, same person who wrote this post.)

      I think what you have to do is read the authors I linked to above and then decide how successful they are at avoiding the pitfalls. And yes, of course it’s difficult to make judgments about the biology of complex beings that no longer exist. On the other hand, the basics do persist.

  12. Aw, come on, JJ — now you’re just yanking my chain! “I noticed one of your contributors here does not have a problem with Hetherington and Weiler.” Do you mean to tell me that you have discovered incontrovertible proof that the historians on this blog might have different ideas about the best way to go about our work? And this from someone who commented on the irony thread! You have a wicked sense of humor. This made me smile too: “I think what you have to do is read the authors I linked to above…” Yeah, I’ll get right on that — after I read this and this.

    But to be serious for a moment…the Hetherington and Weiler could be an interesting point of comparison to Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind, which I will be reading in tandem with Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers.

    One of the challenges (I think) posed by the panel that we’re doing in November is going to be how the inquiry ends up bringing these scholars and their interlocutors into conversation across disciplinary borders, or how it fails to do so. This is the risk/reward — or, I should say, one of the risks/rewards — of this kind of a panel. But hey — nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    Anyway, thanks for the discussion — at the very least, I am more confident about the fact that I have made good sense of the historiography section of my reading list. I may pass those exams after all.

  13. Cognitive science and social psychology may have something to offer, especially in the growing catologue of cognitive biases, but I doubt neuroscience will be of much use, at least for most purposes. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but one should read Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen, 2011) to dispel any illusions or temper undue excitement about the possible contributions of neuroscience.

    On a somewhat related manner, I’m curious as to what extent those doing intellectual history are familiar with works in the philosophy of social science(s). For instance, are works like Richard W. Miller’s Fact and Method: Explanation, Confirmation and Reality in the Natural and the Social Sciences (Princeton University Press, 1987), Elster’s many books on methodological issues (having to do with rational choice, irrationality, social norms, etc.) and “nuts and bolts” for the social sciences, but especially, Explaining Social Behavior; More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2007), Harold Kincaid’s Philosophical Foundations of the Social Sciences: Analyzing Controversies in Social Research (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and recent important works on group agency and social practices by Christian List and Philip Petit, and Raimo Tuomela considered necessary reading?

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