How can the Past inform the Present, Episode # 23453252345

June 05, 2021

I'm reading a piece on Robert Merton, the great sociologist of science (and so much more--his On the Shoulders of Giants is a tremendous book that anyone should read).  The piece is about his writing in the 1930s and 40s on the intellectual autonomy of science, against those who would radically instrumentalize it for political ends.  It makes me think.

The intellectual tumult of today is different from previous eras of intellectual tumult--most notably the 1930s--because, for all the similarities, there remains no existing rival institutional alternative to the liberal society. Then, you had Naziism and Communism.  Very few take the PRC (or more boutique-y options like Venezuela) seriously (though there was a moment when the Guardian and LBR were trying a bid for Chavismo).

It's also different from the 1960s because then the divide was really quite clearly generational. There are definitely generational divides now as well, but (a) not so much and (b) the divide is not, say, at age 30, but around 40 or 45. Also, there were then faint institutional sympathies then for things like North Vietnam and Maoist China. But again, there's no institutional alternative out there today. The alternatives are all, to more or less degree, usefully imaginary, when specified at all.

Along with the 30s and 60s, two other eras worth reading about, imho, are the build-up to the English Civil War in the 1630s/40s (Clarendon's History of the Rebellion tells the story vividly but with a slant), and the era leading up to the US Civil War (I still like Wm Lee Miller's Arguing About Slavery which is about the 1830s/40s).

I'm thinking about this because I'm reading about what we can call the science wars in the 1930s this AM and struck, again, by (a) how much history can teach us and (b) how now, in retrospect, it is clear that some people were right and some people were wrong.

Social media changes things these days, but I think only in degree and not in kind. But it is enormously illuminating to find models in past behavior who can inspire, and maybe a bit inform, our actions today.

Anyway, just a random assemblage of thoughts this AM.  Big takeaway?  You can read history for inspiration and education.  No shit, Sherlock!  But still.