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 The Fontana History of the Human Sciences, by Roger Smith

London, Fontana, 1997 Pp. xvii + 1036. paperback 12.99

(ISBN 0-00-686178-4)  

Reviewed by Nick Crossley  

There is a great deal written today about the way in which human beings and societies have become objects of scientific investigation. Governments, employers and advertising agencies, not to mention professional social scientists, it is argued, are all eager to find out what it is that makes us tick as psychological and social beings. Comprehensive attempts to map out the history of this reflexive project of modern societies are somewhat thinner on the ground, however. And there is a good reason for this. The history of the human sciences is immense in both size and complexity. It spans centuries and has been subject to a process of internal division, both within and across nations, from its very inception. It is a history of proliferation and diversification with no benchmarks of ‘normal science’, as such, around which it may be said to be anchored.

That Roger Smith has managed to map out this vast terrain and to do so with a degree of clarity and liveliness seldom matched in much more modest works is truly an achievement therefore. One cannot but admire the ambition of this project and the skill and determination that have brought it to fruition. Inevitably there are omissions. In fact Smith deliberately narrows his scope as he moves closer to the present day, so that he is focusing exclusively upon psychology by the time he reaches the twentieth century. Furthermore, many traditions are dealt with in a matter of pages or even paragraphs, so readers with a passion for or interest in particular schools and traditions will doubtless find much to object to in the characterisations, both historical and theoretical, which are offered. The complexity and diversity of the human sciences is such that problems of this type are inevitable, however, and it would be somewhat beside the point to take the text to task, at least in this context, on specific details. Smith’s book is about the bigger picture and when viewed in this light it cannot but fail to impress. Furthermore, an extremely useful and extensive bibliographic essay is appended to the book, which both informs the reader of Smith’s own sources and provides an invaluable guide to the wider literature and debates. This essay forges the link between Smith’s own ‘big picture’ analysis and the more specialised literature and should meet the needs of most.

The text comes in the five sections. The first is a brief introductory section which offers a number of reflections on the text and a note on the project of writing history itself. The next two sections, which follow this, deal with the 16th, 17th and ‘long’ 18th centuries respectively. The focus of these two sections is relatively broad, including the most significant philosophical contributions to the history of the human sciences as well as a discussion of the general historical conditions which gave rise to these works. On the one hand, for example, Smith draws the reader’s attention to the impact, both personal and political, of civil war on writers such as Hobbes, thus allowing us to grasp the very real social and political instabilities which have informed the philosophical theorisation of ‘the problem of order’. And on the other, he describes with great effect the shock which the discovery of other nations and cultures had upon European intellectuals, allowing us to see their various philosophies of ‘man’ (sic) as responses to the challenges posed. One gets a very vivid picture of a world shaken by the discovery of difference and the consequent revelation that its ‘universals’ are somewhat particular, and from this one can see the very real concern and energy that fuelled the birth of the human sciences.

These sections had two quite distinct and perhaps even contradictory effects for me. Firstly, one is forced to confront the recalcitrance of the key philosophical dilemmas of the Modern age and, indeed, the social and political forces which keep them in the public domain. There is something all too familiar about the big issues of the long 18th century. On the other hand, Smith is able to convey the sense in which some of these problems, at least, were formulated in these centuries for the first time and might perhaps have been different but for chance events or outcomes.  There is almost a sense in which we, the human science community, are being offered a form of psychoanalysis or psychotherapy. We are being offered a chance to go back to the childhood of our sciences, to discover the decisions and events which have locked us into particular conundrums and ways of behaving that have repeated themselves through the ages. Whether this alone will be sufficient to liberate us from these patterns of repetition remains to be seen of course. Smith records many projects which were supposed to fulfil this goal but didn’t and, with hindsight, were very a part of the world they sought to master. Furthermore, historical projects such as his own are, as he himself admits, quite clearly enmeshed in the culture they investigate.

Over and above these more analytic concerns, what is particularly striking about these early sections is the manner in which they manage to bring the big questions of the human sciences and philosophy alive. It is all too easy when discussing social theory or the philosophy of social science to allow context to fall away, such that philosophical questions seem simply to be the musings of clever ‘men’, and this is especially so where distant figures such as Hobbes, Locke and Descartes are concerned.  Indeed, philosophers often seem particularly keen to divorce the ideas of these thinkers from their context. It is a genuine pleasure, therefore, to read an account, such as Smith’s, which discusses these writers as flesh and blood individuals whose ideas might just have had something to do with their lives and the social-historical worlds in which they lived them. Such contextualisation does not relativise the ideas nor otherwise detract from issues relating to their internal validity. Quite to the contrary. Their ‘reality’ and importance seem all the greater when their occasioning circumstances are brought to light, and one is actually all the more impressed by them for this reason.

The fourth section of the book deals with the nineteenth century. It is deliberately narrower in scope than the second and third, focusing more exclusively upon the human sciences and excluding all but the most central philosophical works. The birth of both sociology and psychology are covered, as is the impact of both Marx and Darwin. And again the intellectual developments of the age are contextualised by reference to social and political developments. In particular Smith shows how the conditions of intellectual production themselves were changing, through a reform of education.

There are no surprises in this section but Smith does a good job of describing the various points of intersection and influence between the various works he discusses, thus conveying a sense of the key unifying themes of nineteenth century scholarship in the human sciences. From the point of view of the present one can see how, as idols of the past were being were being knocked down, so too were new one’s being erected which would be challenged in the twentieth century. This was, for example, an era of scientism for all of the human sciences. As with the earlier sections, however, the sense of disjuncture that this creates is challenged in equal measure by the continuities that are evident and the sense that our current situation was being built here. Not only are Smith’s brief accounts of the nineteenth century thinkers sufficient to at least put a question mark over the caricature straw models of nineteenth century thought which are knocked down repeatedly in the twentieth century, but one gets a sense that we owe the values that inform these later critiques, with the picture of the academic world that they create, to the very thinkers that are being criticised; or at least, to the context which those thinkers helped to create.

The fifth and final section of the book deals with the twentieth century and focuses exclusively on psychology. There are chapters on the ‘psychological society’; on behaviourism and gestalt psychology; Freud and Jung; crowd and social psychology; and the latest trends and issues, including debates raised by neuroscience, sociobiology and the claims of the postmodernists. The first chapter, on the ‘psychological society’, sets the tone to some extent, by showing how the development of psychology as an academic discipline has been shaped by the administrative needs and problems of society: e.g., problems concerning war, industrial efficiency and delinquency. This serves to illustrate, in perhaps more detail than in earlier chapters, the close relationship between developments in society and social science respectively, that Smith makes a theme throughout the book. Moreover, what comes through particularly clearly is the two-way nature of this relationship. Not only is psychology revealed to be a child of its time, shaped by both intellectual and social trends, but we begin to see the extent to which it shapes the society to which it belongs, the role that it assumes. One is reminded here of Nikolas Rose’s work on the ‘psychological complex’ and the governance of the soul - and Smith does discuss this work in the aforementioned bibliographic essay. For Smith, as for Rose, psychological discourses and practices are integral to processes of social administration and regulation, and the claim to scientificity which psychologists make is, as much as anything, a claim for the legitimacy of this role.

Having said this, it is equally interesting and noteworthy that, by the time Smith writes his final chapter, on contemporary trends in psychology, his history is beginning to catch up with both itself and him. He is describing critical currents in psychology which precisely identify and challenge the administrative role of their contemporaries and immediate ancestors. There is something quite interesting and reflexive about this as it puts writers such as Foucault back in to the histories which they themselves have written and, in so doing, reveals a complexity in the history of psychology or the human sciences which is not evident in their work. Psychology hasn’t just given rise to administrative discourses, on Smiths account, but to counter-administrative discourses, too. Or to put this another way, the critique of psychology is shown to belong very much to the same fabric as the psychology it is critical of.

The sort of history that Smith has written is a very different kind of history to that of Foucault and his followers, however. It is more conventional and more concerned with the surface details of the various theories and approaches that have emerged in the history of the human sciences than with their ‘surfaces of emergence’ and ‘conditions of emergence’. Not that Smith doesn’t contextualise the intellectual developments he is discussing. I have already stated that he does this and does it to good effect. But his approach is more that of the traditional historian of ideas. Read with a cynical eye this may leave the study lacking; one waits without joy for the moment when the surface will crack and the postmodern subversions we are so used to by now will come bounding through. There are many advantages to this way of approaching the issue, too, however. Smith provides the history of the human sciences that Foucault and his followers do not provide; charting out the details and territories that their accounts, at best, presuppose. He provides the map and the groundwork which should be there before anything more critical is attempted but which, all too often, are not. Moreover, his work is more attuned to the differences and disagreements within these discursive formations, and the various ways in which they have been able to problematise themselves. Indeed, one might say that his own more conventional approach to history, which is perhaps less cynical and less concerned with the depth structures of discourse, allows him to both concede and explore the ways in which the human sciences have been able to become cynical about themselves and explore their own depths. Not that all is rosy in Smith’s view. His account has its own critical edge and he by no means undermines the capacity of the human sciences to sit on or otherwise ignore their difficulties. But his work constantly resists the tendency to simplify that is so evident in much contemporary critical work on the human sciences and their place within Modernity. Modern human science, as Smith unravels it, is a complex and much contested territory. Modernists aren’t ‘dualist’ or ‘positivist’ or ‘subjectivist’, at least not straightforwardly. Rather they debate dualism, positivism and subjectivism with no less of a critical eye than their post-modern successors.

Reflecting upon the book as a whole is a difficult task because of its scope and size. It is over 1000 pages long. This will no doubt limit the number of readers who sit down to read it from cover to cover. It should, however, serve as a valuable source and reference book for any social scientist with an interest in the history of their discipline and/or a concern to locate their own practices in historical context. Furthermore, its accessible style should also ensure that it is invaluable to the student readership, who will find every name ever likely to be thrown at them within its pages, and who will doubtless appreciate Smith’s capacity to integrate the exposition and historical location of a body ideas in a seamless and mutually instructive fashion.

Nick Crossley
Department of Sociology
University of Manchester


The Human Nature Review
© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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