2 December 2011
"A Naturalizing Instinct: A History of Brain Science and Politics in Postmodernity"
A Workshop at the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, Berlin.
Increasingly practitioners of sociobiology, evolutionary and political psychology, anthropology, and economics find value in relating neurological observations to social, political, and economic behavior. They appear to possess a naturalizing instinct; they and their new disciples in history, law, ethics, and philosophy claim that inquiries into innate characteristics and study of acquired traits reveal much about why societies and cultures have evolved in the way that they have and furthermore why there are thus biological or neurological limitations place upon policy choices and economic opportunities.
Such claims to hard scientific knowledge of society and culture have elicited great controversy in academia. A variety of scholars working in the sociology of science, feminist and disability studies, history, and philosophy have challenged the conclusions of many of these studies. They have argued that little in neurobiological terms is “hardwired,” that human behavior demonstrate high adaptability, and that the proliferation of metaphors and similes to explain biological and neurological claims reveals that much of this science raises little above word games. Putting it differently, those who resist the new meta-narrative offered by neurobiology claim that scholars possessing the naturalizing instinct have inadvertently passed from the realm of natural science to metaphysics.
The history of these so-called nature/nurture debates might well be claimed a product of a long developmental story stretching from Aristotle to our contemporary moment. But these naturalizing arguments possess a peculiar force in Postmodernity, a time when, as Paul Forman notes, ends justify means, technology trumps science, methods and procedures matter less than uses and outcomes, and enlightenment tensions between equality of opportunity and condition seem practically nostalgic in comparison to certainty that hereditary inequalities will increasingly divide societies. This paper will make a stab at demonstrating that these arguments are exerting such forces in society, that the logic of these naturalizing arguments is of very recent origin, and that there is an important connection between the emergence of the neurosciences and the material and political circumstances in which people now mobilize that knowledge.
5 December 2011
"Psychometric Means: Neuropsychiatry and the Ends of Psychometric Testing"
University College London: Rm B15, UCL Anatomy Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT
The Rorschach Test, Slosson Intelligence Test, Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – each test is a psychometric tool that transformed neuropsychiatry. Judged one way, such tools readily fit into the developmental history of psychiatry and neurology; they are a part of the narrative of those field’s advances in understanding, intervening, and treating people with mental illnesses. At the same time, the advent of such tools also fits into a history of neuropsychiatry as a record of the rise of obsessional observational and evaluative techniques and technologies that formed, disciplined, and supervised individuals, groups, and societies.
Both narratives rather neatly parallel a more general thesis recently advanced by Paul Forman that revises contemporary understanding of the relationship between science and technology in the (distinct) ages of modernity and postmodernity. Using psychometrics – especially the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – to illustrate its case, this paper compares these two narratives for the history of psychometrics and contrasts both with Forman’s more general observations. It appears that the advent of psychometrics, the contexts in which psychometrics developed, as well as the alternative historical narratives themselves, parallel Forman’s more general historical claims.
15 November 2011
From Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America:
In America, the majority has staked out a formidable fence around thought. Inside those limits a writer is free but woe betide him if he dares to stray beyond them. Not that he need fear an auto-de-fe but he is the victim of all kinds of unpleasantness and everyday persecutions. A political career is closed to him for he has offended the only power with the capacity to give him an opening. He is denied everything, including renown. Before publishing his views, he thought he had supporters; it seems he has lost them once he has declared himself publicly; for his detractors speak out loudly and those who think as he does, but without his courage, keep silent and slink away. He gives in and finally bends beneath the effort of each passing day, withdrawing into silence as if he felt ashamed at having spoken the truth. (Penguin 2003 p. 298)From Paul Feyerabend's Against Method
Now it is, of course, possible to simplify the medium in which a scientist works by simplifying its main actors. The history of science, after all, does not just consist of facts and conclusions drawn from facts. It also contains ideas, intepretations of facts, problems created by conflicting intepretations, mistakes, and so on. On closer analysis we even find that science knows no 'bare facts' at all but that all 'facts' that enter our knowledge are already viewed in a certain way and are, therefore, essentially ideational. This being the case, the history of science will be as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as are the minds of those who invented them. Conversely, a little brainwashing will go a long way in making the history of science duller, simpler, more uniform, more 'objective' and more easily accessible to treatment by strict and unchangeable rules. (Verso 2002, p. 11)
Posted: Stephen T Casper