C Wright Mills on Intellectual Craftsmanship. Mills wrote an important critique of the prevailing fashions in sociology during the 1960s, notably “grand theory” which was represented by Talcott Parsons in his post-1937 “general systems theory”, and “abstracted empiricism” which piled up endless statistics, often questionnaire-based, with little relevance to any theory at all. The Sociological Imagination is flawed by Mills’ ideological leanings but there is a superb appendix on intellectual craftsmanship which should be read and re-read by all aspiring scholars and serious researchers.
Profile of Australian University Students – a Current Affairs Bulletin report in 1967. This is a survey of the rather small number of universities at the time, and the student population, with some highly opinionated but well informed and interesting comments on the attitudes and expectations of students. This is a valuable record, a snapshot at a time of gathering momentum of change in the universities, when only three or four per cent of young people attended, compared with the 30+ per cent these days.
Philip was concerned that many students were losing touch with the physical reality of soil-plant systems due to their fascinating with the neat and tidy mathematical models they could build on computers. There is a lesson here for social scientists, especially economists.
Schwartz on The Pernicious Role of Mathematics in Science.
He noted the familiar comment of computer programmers, that the machine will do a anything that you tell it, without question, hence “garbage in, garbage out”. He warns that theoretical mathematics has some of the same simple or literal-mindedness of the computer, though not to the same extent. He then makes an important point about the conflict between precision and accuracy in dealing with real physical systems (read real social systems as well!)
“It is a continual result of the fact that science tries to deal with reality that even the most precise sciences normally work with more or less ill-understood approximations toward which the scientist must maintain an appropriate skepticism. Thus, for instance, it may come as a shock to the mathematician to learn that the Schrodinger equation for the hydrogen atom, which he is able to solve only after a considerable effort of functional analysis and special function theory, is not a literally correct description of this atom, but only an approximation to a somewhat more correct equation taking account of spin, magnetic dipole, and relativistic effects; that this corrected equation is itself only an ill-understood approximation to an infinite set of quantum field-theoretical equations; and finally that the quantum field theory, besides diverging, neglects a myriad of strange-particle interactions whose strength and form are largely unknown. The physicist, looking at the original. Schrodinger equation, learns to sense in it the presence of many invisible terms, integral, integrodiffereotial, perhaps even more complicated types of operators, in addition to the differential terms visible, and this sense inspires an entirely appropriate disregard for the purely technical features of the equation which he sees. This very healthy self-skepticism is foreign to the mathematical approach.”
His point is that mathematics has to deal with well-defined situations and in science mathematics can only be usefully applied after the science side of things has been sorted out to the point where simplification can be achieved without losing touch with reality. Or at least where the departure from reality is clearly undestood so that the results of the analysis are not confused with reality itself.
“Give a mathematician a situation which is the least bit ill-defined — he will first of all make it well defined. Perhaps appropriately, but perhaps inappropriately.The hydrogen atom illustrates this process…with the danger that…the mathematician turns the scientist’s theoretical assumptions, i.e., convenient points of analytical emphasis, into axioms, and then takes these axioms literally. This brings with it the danger that he may also persuade the scientist to take these axioms literally…In this way, mathematics has often succeeded in proving, for instance, that the fundamental objects of the scientist’s calculations do not exist.”
Philip on the use and abuse of science. This paper moves from some issues in pure mathematics to consider what he called the “Marxist” obsession with the utilitarian aspect of science, its capacity for control. It may be that Bacon was the source of that attitude, however Philip draws on fascinating historical and literary sources to make his point about the need to defend science and scholarship for their own sakes, not just for their applications and their commercial value.
and Czechoslovakia have recently forbidden our tourists to take consumer goods out of the country’.
“Suggestion: We may, perhaps, adopt tentatively, as the fundamental problems of a purely theoretical sociology, first the study
of the general logic of situations, and second the theory of institutions and of traditions. This would include such problems as the following:
1. Institutions do not act; rather, only individuals act, within or on behalf of institutions. The general situational logic of these actions would be the theory of the quasi-actions of institutions.
2. We might construct a theory of intended and unintended institutional consequences of purposive action. This could also lead to a theory of the creation and the development of institutions.”
The pathway to publication of the exchange was complicated by an exchange of ideas between champions of Popper and Adorno (Albert and Habermas). So when the book finally appeared, misleadingly titled “The Positivism Debate”, Popper’s original address was surrounded by hundreds of pages of polemics, mostly by Habermas and Adorno.
Asked “Don’t you believe that the formally democratic political structure must be based on democracy and equality in the economic sphere before it can become fully alive?”
“Allow me to restate your question in a slightly more primitive form. ‘Is the coexistence of wealth and poverty an intolerable social evil?’
My answer is, yes, poverty is a great evil and becomes still more iniquitous when it coexists with great wealth. More important than the contrast between poverty and wealth, however, is the contrast between freedom and its absence, the contrast between a new class, a new ruling dictatorship, and citizens in disfavour who are
banished to concentration camps or elsewhere. Thus I regard the possibility of free rational discussion and the influence of such critical discussion upon politics as the greatest virtue of a democracy. This places me in diametrical pposition to those who believe in force or violence, particularly to the Fascists and to some adherents of the New Left.”