Book Review

Author’s Response

Author’s Reponse by Andrew Jewett

Let me start by thanking Christopher Shannon and Ethan Schrum for engaging so thoughtfully with my book. It’s a great pleasure to see that the issues I raised have produced such a lively discussion.

Christopher Shannon’s impassioned response is ironic because he has long been one of my invisible conversation partners. As I wrote the dissertation on which my book is loosely based, the example of Shannon’s Conspicuous Criticism (1996) reinforced my sense that one should not filter the history of the American human sciences through a reductive warfare model pitting the good, progressive, deliberative thinkers who saw through the sham of value-neutrality against the bad, technocratic, elitist thinkers who blindly deemed their own commitments objectively true. Like Shannon, I wanted to take other angles, address other questions, explore other axes of agreement and disagreement between my characters. Shannon also figured in a second way. I sought to write my book so that readers with profoundly different philosophical views than my own could still accept my strictly historical arguments about the existence and contours of certain phenomena, change over time, causation, and so forth. For that reason, I minimized my use of highly loaded terms such as “liberal,” “modern,” and “rational” that would overwhelm nuances of meaning by introducing powerful resonances the actors did not intend. Instead, I chose to stick as closely as possible to the vocabularies, and ideally the actual words, of the characters I treated, with the unavoidable exception of the central category “scientific democracy.” Of course, my perspective comes through in various ways. But I tried to avoid layering my own commitments too heavily over the narrative, barraging the characters with rebuttals of their views. In this, of course, I diverged sharply from Shannon. Still, when I imagined a reader with views unlike my own, to whom I hoped my historical claims would be legible, I often thought of Shannon. As it turns out, he finds the resulting book noxious. I stand by my choices.

Philosophical and methodological differences aside, Shannon’s review contains a number of errors that I want to address. First and foremost, he assumes that my views are identical with those of my subjects (and also those of my graduate adviser, David Hollinger, the target of Shannon’s satire in his title and first sentence). The scientific democrats I discuss in the book are my protagonists, but they are not my heroes. Although I find their views preferable to most of the alternatives on offer at the time (at least within intellectual circles), I include a series of rather damning critiques of them in the book’s conclusion. Shannon equates me with the figures I treated partly because I eschewed direct criticism in the body of my book, but also because his capacious category of “liberalism” sweeps into its maw all who deny the existence of fixed, transcendent moral principles. I do not see evidence of such principles. Nor does David Hollinger. Nor did John Dewey—or, arguably, Reinhold Niebuhr. Therefore, we are all identical, to Shannon. This definition of liberalism leads Shannon to view virtually all of American thought as of a piece (and to equate pragmatism with scientific democracy, which I do nowhere in the book). By contrast, I tend to find most compelling the substantive differences between superficially similar thinkers.

As for historiography, Shannon declares my interpretation misguided: Kloppenberg, Rodgers, Haskell, and Hollinger constitute an intellectual-historical establishment that long ago put to rest the version of post-New Left thinking I challenge. Well, it all depends on where one looks. One can find nuanced insights about the historical and political meanings of science in the writings of those four authors. But when one reads the literature dedicated expressly to the past political engagements of American science, and especially the political engagements of the human sciences—a literature written in part by intellectual historians and in part by practitioners interested in the past trajectories of their fields—one finds the interpretive approaches I target alive and well, even flourishing.

A few smaller matters: I would never call pragmatism a version of virtue ethics. I invoke it as an illustration of the consequentialist approach on page 113. As for MacIntyre, I certainly would have engaged him extensively had I written a “history of ethical thought,” but my book is a history of arguments about the political implications of science. Shannon also misreads the context for my words “simply need to take additional care to embed the scientific enterprise in adequate frameworks of social value”; this is not a recipe for the renewal of scientific democracy but rather, in my view, a moral obligation for all citizens of the modern world. And I fully agree—indeed, I assert in my conclusion—that the scientific democrats “confused the social relations of their professional communities with society as such.”

On the matter of citations, finally, the appearance of Shannon’s Conspicuous Criticism or any other secondary source in a footnote does not mean that I believe it squares with my interpretation. Obviously, I would not be offering an original argument if my footnotes held that meaning. Rather than make a large book larger by littering the notes with rebuttals of other historians or rafts of ambiguous “Cf.”s, I chose to simply direct readers to those secondary works that address similar subject matter.

That citation pattern may also explain Ethan Schrum’s description of my method as largely “reinterpretation from secondary sources.” It is true that I use very little archival material in the book, but the narrative rests squarely on my own readings of printed primary texts, a method that dovetails with my emphasis on the contours of public and academic discourses.

Schrum’s main concern is my interpretation of postwar shifts in American thought, about which he has written eloquently. I’m now exploring that terrain more fully as part of a second book project, and my narrative certainly stands open to revision, pending further research. It’s important, however, to distinguish the public discourse on the political meanings of science—a discourse in which the opinions of Conant, Oppenheimer, and other atomic scientists carried great weight, as did the views of celebrity humanists such as Mortimer Adler and Jacques Barzun—from debates among the likes of Gaylord Harnwell over curricular priorities and research centers. Perhaps the difference between my account and Schrum’s is also partly temporal; the applied social sciences came into the public eye in the early 1960s in a way that they had not in the late 1940s and 1950s, except as a matter of scorn. But neither then nor in the years of the President’s Commission do I see much that was particularly Deweyan in postwar advocacy of the social sciences, unless we reduce Dewey’s views to a bare commitment to advancing those disciplines plus a problem-centered approach. Another potential challenge to my argument is the enormous commercial success of a few works by postwar social scientists, most notably David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. However, such texts often gained their resonance from widespread fears about the massification and standardization of modern society—precisely the alarming outcomes to which applied social science was so frequently linked in postwar public discourse.

Whatever historians ultimately conclude about the fortunes of the twentieth-century social sciences, I hope they will continue to explore the compelling themes that Schrum highlights: the construction of the category of “values,” the rhetorical functions of consensus liberalism, the contours of curricular reforms, the impact of the Western Civ discourse, and so on. More broadly, I hope readers of my book and this symposium will think carefully about how they view science in relation to contemporary ethical concerns, social changes, and political questions. At a time when so many pressing issues—environmental degradation, bioengineering, and the information revolution, to name just three—center on science-based technologies, we need to grasp a simple fact that most scientific democrats got only half right: Science is always inextricably entwined with normative commitments, but those commitments are cultural products that can and do change dramatically over time. Whether we believe moral principles are inscribed in reality or worked out by fallible human actors, the task of weaving them into the fabric of science falls to us.

Andrew Jewett is Associate Professor of History and of Social Studies at Harvard University. His other recent writings include “Academic Freedom and Political Change: American Lessons”; “Canonizing Dewey: Columbia Naturalism, Logical Empiricism, and the Idea of American Philosophy”; “The Politics of Knowledge in 1960s America”; “The Social Sciences, Philosophy, and the Cultural Turn in the 1930s USDA”; and “Naturalizing Liberalism in the 1950s.” He is currently a fellow at the National Humanities Center.