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The Uncertain Sciences

The Uncertain Sciences

Bruce Mazlish
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Uncertain Sciences
    Book Description:

    In this wide-ranging book one of the most esteemed cultural historians of our time turns his attention to major questions about human experience and the attempts to understand it "scientifically." Bruce Mazlish considers the achievements, failings, and possibilities of the human sciences-a domain that he broadly defines to include the social sciences, literature, psychology, and hermeneutic studies. In a rich and original synthesis built upon the work of earlier philosophers and historians, Mazlish constructs a new view of the nature and meaning of the human sciences.Starting with the remote human past and moving through the Age of Discovery to the present day, the author discusses what sort of knowledge the human sciences claim to offer. He looks closely at the positivistic aspirations of the human sciences, which are modeled after the natural sciences, and at their interpretive tendencies. In an analysis of scientific method and scientific community, he explores the roles they can or should assume in the human sciences. Mazlish's approach is genuinely interdisciplinary, and he draws on an array of topics, from civil society to globalization to the interactions of humans and machines, to inform his thought-provoking discussion of historical consciousness.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14716-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    My purpose in this book is to inquire into the condition of the human sciences — accomplishments, weaknesses, and possibilities. I deal with the questions What sort of knowledge do the human sciences claim to be offering? To what extent can that knowledge be called scientific? and What do we mean by “scientific” in such a context? I also seek to contribute, however modestly, to changing the way we think about the subject.

    It is hardly an original insight to say that we are humans, who wish to know not only the world around us but also ourselves. When what we...

  5. 1 The Problem of the Human Sciences
    (pp. 10-36)

    The natural sciences allow us to attain relatively certain understanding of, and predictive control and manipulative power over, natural processes — or so it is widely assumed. This view holds, assuredly among scientists, even in the face of postmodernism and the social constructionism of science. Many believe that the natural sciences may, and perhaps should, serve as a model for any attempt at comparable human sciences. Indeed, at the time of the Enlightenment it was widely held that nothing seriously stood in the way of the extension of scientific method to human matters, although there was disagreement over how to carry...

  6. 2 Positivism
    (pp. 37-66)

    Positivism often is, or at least has been, viewed as a royal road to certainty in both the natural and the human sciences. Philosophically, it is seen as an epistemology that grounds all knowledge in experience and declares some objects accessible to observation and others inaccessible; the former are objects about which knowledge can be obtained, and the latter are not. In the human sciences, positivism takes the form of a sociology that claims that scientific knowledge about society is possible.

    In our search for an understanding of the human sciences, we shall not be interested in an abstract, philosophical...

  7. 3 The Human Species as an Object of Study
    (pp. 67-82)

    Any effort at devising and using a suitable form of scientific method must be clear about the subject of study. What are the phenomena into which we inquire? What are their boundaries? Once the field is established, we can ask what techniques (instruments, ways of collecting data, institutional supports, modes of employing evidence, modes of inference) may be suitable to its materials. Involved in this question is the issue of classification, which appears to be a necessary feature of most attempts at science: How can the phenomena under investigation be meaningfully ordered?

    The human sciences have these same requirements. Each...

  8. 4 Hermeneutics
    (pp. 83-128)

    Culture is the key concept in much (though not all) of human science. Yet it is more useful to think of humans first as symbolic animals, rather than cultural animals, for symbolic abilities underlie the existence of both cultures and societies. The species, at the same time that its brain physically evolved, adding a cerebral cortex to its limbic core, increasingly replaced immediate, instinctual responses with delayed, thoughtful actions, mediated through symbols. We need not examine in detail the familiar findings of recent research that tell us of the development of symbolic language, with denotative and connotative characteristics, especially as...

  9. 5 Some Achievements to Date
    (pp. 129-174)

    The future of the human sciences appears unpromising. On one side, we are faced with a positivism that functions in faint imitation of its relatively successful use in the natural sciences. On the other side, we are confronted by phenomena that call for a hermeneutic method. The status of that method, however, is problematic. In sum, the use of an effective scientific method along the lines of positivism is handicapped, and the employment of the interpretive method highly unreliable.

    The human sciences are uncertain, and, at the same time, the natural sciences no longer assume the certainty of past times....

  10. 6 The Uncertain Sciences
    (pp. 175-212)

    Having considered the achievements of the human sciences, let us low inquire into their future possibilities. What combination of positivist aspiration and hermeneutic intent can lie ahead? How can we reconcile past and present work in the natural sciences with that in the human sciences, for the two, as we have seen, are indissolubly tied together, especially, for our purposes, with the cord of evolutionary theory?

    A foremost possibility is that the human sciences can develop only by humans becoming conscious of the ongoing achievements of the human sciences. By becoming conscious, I mean not only possessing ourselves of the...

  11. 7 “Da Capo," or Back to the Beginning
    (pp. 213-236)

    Our conclusion is necessarily inconclusive. This befits the uncertain I sciences. Humanity is still in the process of cultural evolution. Many emergent phenomena are still in the womb of time. In pursuing our inquiry into the nature and meaning of the human sciences, we have had to proceed as if in a fox hunt, not chasing our quarry in a straight line but over hedges and ditches and through the trees.

    To pursue the metaphor, however, we must not lose sight of the quarry for the trees. The one clear call sounded by the hunting horn is that of scientific...

  12. Appendix: Statistics
    (pp. 237-240)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 241-296)
  14. Critical Bibliography
    (pp. 297-318)

    This bibliography is highly selective. It is not meant to be comprehensive but to stimulate further inquiry. It makes no pretense to be exhaustive on any of its subjects (moreover, with a few exceptions, most of the books noted are in English). Because there is no set archive on the challenges and condition of the human sciences, this is an effort to help create one.

    The notes to this book should be treated as part of the bibliography; in a few cases, works mentioned there will be commented on again here. Almost all of the books listed contain their own...

  15. Index
    (pp. 319-328)