Mini book review: WORKING KNOWLEDGE, by Joel Isaac

May 30, 2021

This spring I read Joel Isaac's Working Knowledge: Making the human sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (Harvard 2012), and I have to say I found myself enjoying it quite a bit.  Not so much for the forest, as for the trees; the story he tells is about the career of "human science" at Harvard from basically the 1920s till the 1960s, which mostly means sociology, with a bit of psychology and philosophy tossed in on the edges.  It's a fun book, telling an interesting story pretty well.

The journey this book takes is more interesting than the destination it finally reaches, but that is no reason not to read it. The conclusions are a bit generic and platitudinous--uses of scholarship, once produced, are often different than the forces and energies in contacts which led to that scholarship's production--but as so often with historians, the failure at or hesitation or chastity towards Grand Theory is counterpointed by the innumerable fascinating small details. Again, Isaac may not tell us much knew about the forest, but he has a great many interesting and valuable insights about its many trees. For instance, it was fascinating to think about Kuhn's background (which strikes me as quite Romantic), Parsons's many different struggles (not all of them other-produced), and Quine's poor and fragmentary education (which is telling for this most important of American analytic philosophers).  Above all, it is interesting to think about the impact of Pareto on minds at Harvard in the 1930s, and the kind of scholars most interested in the social theory Pareto and other European thinkers such as Weber were seeking.

In general, books like this often fill in for me an important blank space in my own education. I was taught by my teachers the things that were most agitating and exciting them, which is a common thing for a teacher to do. But this means that the settled conclusions and the jettisoned strategies of their earlier selves, and often the positions of their own teachers against which they rebelled, often do not get a "look in" in my own education. I understand that teachers don't want to waste students' time on things that they themselves do not think worthwhile; but I suspect that all of us would benefit from knowing what our elders recoiled against, as much as what they resonated with. Books like this helps with that.

I'm grateful for it, and I recommend it to you, if you're at all interested in social theory, or the formation of academic knowledge (especially in mid-century America).  And the pathos of reading about all these scholars, once so revered, often so well-regarded, even feared, and how little we think about any of them today (even though many of them were really interesting and worthwhile thinkers)--it adds a certain poignancy to it all.