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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 orientation with the work of Lacan and his followers; Habermas and other members of the Frankfurt School have continued to reflect on the parallels between the theories of Marx and Freud; the Women’s Movement has added a whole range of previously neglected insights and arguments; and amidst all this turmoil the empiricist and positivist citadels of English-speaking social philosophy have been threatened and undermined by successive waves of hermeneuticists, structuralists, postempiricists, deconstructionists and other invading hordes.

Anyone who has been close to the Anglo-American humanities and social sciences in recent decades will know what Skinner is talking about here. The paragraph, however, is arresting as an index both to the feelings stirred by its subject matter and to a resultant confusion in RGT. A quick reading could give the impression that Skinner is caught up in the irresistible energy of an ascendant movement, but his choice of language points elsewhere: to bewilderment, turmoil, threats, underminings, successive waves, invading hordes. Skinner sounds rather like a hostage on videotape, assuring the folks at home that he is being exposed to a lively new slant on things, meanwhile signaling with grimaces, These people mean business!

This mixed impression deepens when we realize that the “invading hordes,” clearly of uppermost concern to Skinner, are only spottily represented by the nine figures treated in the volume he has edited: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Thomas Kuhn, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, Louis Althusser, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Fernand Braudel.1 What, for example, do Marxists, Freudians, feminists, and deconstructionists have to do with Gadamer, the tradition-minded seeker of interpretive certainty, or with Rawls, the Kantian ethical philosopher who deduces rules of justice from an imagined social contract, or with Braudel, the student of geographic necessities that transcend and outlast all linguistic networks? Why, on the other hand, are such idolized system builders as Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze not afforded chapters of their own? Lacan is mentioned only in passing, Deleuze not at all. One wonders if Skinner wants to allay his doubts about the “invading hordes” by putting them into the most respectable company he can find.

Not surprisingly, some of the contributors to RGT appear less than comfortable with Skinner’s vague notion of Grand Theory. Thus Barry Barnes deems it “ironical” to include Thomas Kuhn, whose “mental universe could scarcely be more distant from that of Althusser, or even Habermas.” And Mark Philp observes that Michel Foucault’s presence in the book “might seem paradoxical,” since “his work is above all iconoclastic in intent.” Skinner himself perceives this latter problem, confessing that it “may well sound dangerously like missing the point” to characterize as grand theorists those extreme relativists who seek “to demolish the claims of theory and method to organise the materials of experience.”

This anomaly remains in place after Skinner has lamely tried to banish it, first by claiming that iconoclasm is itself Grand Theory, then by calling its influence grand, and finally by hazarding that the iconoclasts at any rate “cleared the ground” for other thinkers who have reopened such classic topics as “the character of the good life and the boundaries of a free and just society.” Here we are apparently being invited to imagine that a figure like Rawls must have been made possible by ground breakers like Derrida and Foucault. But even a surface acquaintance with the latter pair would show the absurdity of such a suggestion. If Derrida and Foucault lead anywhere, it is not to social contracts and laws of human nature but to a ban on recourse to such flagrantly bourgeois concepts.

As a set of introductions to important figures, RGT is a sober and useful work, distinguished for the most part by clarity, fair-mindedness, and bibliographical helpfulness. In one contribution, James Boon’s on Lévi-Strauss, it passes beyond utility to significant insight and eloquence. But as a case for a specific return of Grand Theory within determinate limits of time and place, the book is drastically fuzzy. It cannot even make up its collective mind about the meaning of its basic terms or the scope of their application.

In France and Germany, the homelands of all but two of the figures treated, modern philosophical and sociopolitical thought never surrendered to positivism and thus never reverted to sweeping speculation. Heidegger and Sartre, for instance, surely had more to say about “grand” issues of human fate than Foucault and Derrida do. If the new movement arrived with, say, Gadamer’s Truth and Method in 1960, then we must exclude Lévi-Strauss, whose anthropological researches were already under way in the Thirties. And if Braudel is to be counted, Grand Theory began at least as early as 1947, the year that The Mediterranean was submitted as a thèse, and possibly as far back as 1929, when the Annales school of historiography first became known. What kind of “return” would that be?

The editorial muddle behind RGT is worsened by a general reluctance to admit that some currents of theoretical enthusiasm are already weakening in their continental homelands. In one instance, Susan James’s chapter on the structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser, such discretion passes over into apparent disingenuousness. Not only does James fail to report that Althusser’s intricately deterministic and top-heavy system of thought has come to be almost universally repudiated in France; she employs the present perfect tense (Althusser “has revised,” “has held fast,” etc.) to suggest that his position is still being articulated at this hour. But as every “Western Marxist” knows all too well, the curtain rang down on Althusser’s career in 1980 when he strangled his wife and was judged mentally incompetent to stand trial. That culminating shock, as Martin Jay has said, “spelled the end [in France] of structuralist Marxism, whose obituary some observers in fact had written as early as 1969.”

Again, the diffuse idea of Grand Theory obscures a crucial shift of values within the career of Jürgen Habermas, the leading successor to the Frankfurt School, whom Skinner can appreciate only as the harbinger of our brisk Freudian and Marxist renaissance. Anthony Giddens’s chapter on Habermas, though competent and informative so far as it goes, is less candid about Habermas’s self-oppositions than is a still more recent essay of his.2 In RGT Giddens appears to be restrained by the book’s kid-gloves decorum and by the group effort to accentuate “grandeur.” His newer essay, by contrast, is more attuned to Habermas’s dilemma of trying to reconcile traditional intellectual loyalties with a nascent impulse toward the ideologizing of knowledge.

For whatever reason, Skinner has confounded two reactions against positivism, one thematic and the other attitudinal, that are only casually and inconsistently related. The first is Grand Theory proper, the addressing of those general ethical and political questions that positivism had declared senseless. The other is a new peremptoriness of intellectual style, emboldening thinkers to make up their own rules of inquiry or simply to turn their whim into law. Such liberation from the empirical ethos can result in Grand Theory, but it can just as easily lead to a relativism that dismisses the whole idea of seeking truth. Skinner has chosen to minimize the fact that one thinker (Rawls, for example) can be “grand” in scope but flexible in intellectual style, whereas another (Derrida, for example) can be “anti-grand” in a way that brooks no dissent.

It seems obvious which of Skinner’s themes is the more significant for an understanding of our present intellectual climate. The major shift we have witnessed over the past generation is not a growing taste for big ideas but a growing apriorism—a willingness to settle issues by theoretical decree, without even a pretense of evidential appeal. In 1960 nearly everyone, despite the widening fissure between Snow’s two cultures, would have concurred with the American critic R.S. Crane’s observation that one of the most important marks of the good scholar is “a habitual distrust of the a priori; that is to say, of all ways of arriving at particular conclusions which assume the relevance and authority, prior to the concrete evidence, of theoretical doctrines or other general propositions.” But today we are surrounded by theoreticism—frank recourse to unsubstantiated theory, not just as a tool of investigation but as antiempirical knowledge in its own right.

  1. 1

    The contributors, in the same order, are William Outhwaite, David Hoy, Mark Philp, Barry Barnes, Alan Ryan, Anthony Giddens, Susan James, James Boon, and Stuart Clark. Most of the essays originated in a series of BBC radio talks organized by Skinner.

  2. 2

    Reason without Revolution? Habermas’s Theorie des Kommunikativen Handelns,” in Habermas and Modernity, Richard J. Bernstein, ed. (MIT Press, 1985).

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