In The Big House of Theory

The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences

edited by Quentin Skinner
Cambridge University Press, 215 pp., $8.95 (paper)

It has been more than a quarter-century now since C.P. Snow first told us that we educated Anglo-Americans belong to two mutually uncomprehending and antagonistic cultures, one scientific and the other humanistic. In 1959, with the beeping of Sputnik still echoing in the public ear, no one expected Snow to accord the two camps equal sympathy, and he did not. The forbidding technical intricacy of the sciences, he declared in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, was hardly a sufficient reason for humanists to turn their backs on science, retreating into spiteful ignorance and misrepresentation. Nonscientists grumbled under Snow’s tongue-lashing, but many of them secretly agreed with the consensus that they had better mend their ways. Certainly it would have been an unpropitious moment for anyone to launch a major counter-offensive against scientific authority.

That episode came to mind as I was reading the Cambridge political scientist Quentin Skinner’s introduction to a collection of essays by various hands on influential recent thinkers, portentously titled The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences (RGT). Snow’s name is never invoked, but the idea of the two estranged cultures pervades Skinner’s introduction, which spells out for us how radically the academic mood has altered. Moreover, Skinner begins his story just around the time that Snow’s polemic appeared.

In those days, we are reminded, the most prestigious general model of explanation was logical positivism, the view that the meaningfulness of a statement is vouchsafed by its testability. Judged by that criterion, much of what had long passed for important discourse had to be dismissed as vacuous. Consequently, a generation of no-nonsense philosophers abandoned metaphysics for more modest pursuits, including, for example, clarification of the exact meaning of scientific terms. Social scientists, caught in the same wave, declared an “end of ideology” and steeled themselves to perceive only narrow empirical issues. And historians followed Sir Lewis Namier in rejecting all theoretical “flapdoodle,” as he had called it, and in fixing their attention on “the detailed manoeuvres of individual political actors at the centres of political power.” Thus, while most academics may have been as scientifically illiterate as Snow alleged, their own work implicitly honored what they took to be the heart of science, namely, deference to the almighty fact.

But by now, Skinner reports, a dramatic change has occurred. Among recent “general transformations” in the “human sciences” (which I will call, more neutrally, “human studies”), “perhaps the most significant has been the widespread reaction against the assumption that the natural sciences offer an adequate or even a relevant model for the practice of the social disciplines. The clearest reflection of this growing doubt has been the revival of the suggestion that the explanation of human behaviour and the explanation of natural events are logically distinct undertakings.” Thus,

During the past generation, Utopian social philosophies have once again been practised as well as preached; Marxism has revived and flourished in an almost bewildering variety of forms; psychoanalysis has gained a new theoretical…

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