restricted access The Norton History of the Human Sciences (review)
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The Norton History of the Human Sciences. By Roger Smith (New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 1997) 1036 pp. $29.95

In the second half of the eighteenth century, a “science of man,” or “science of human nature,” became a project in Western European thought. In that same period, the term “social science” gained currency. Subsequently, the phrase “human sciences” arose as a cover term for the previous inquiries, taking over from alternatives such as “moral philosophy” and “Geisteswissenschaften.” Its opposite number was the natural sciences, a phrase that had also undergone a complex historical development. And, indeed, it was the inspiration of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century that inspired all of the efforts to understand human phenomena “scientifically.” 1

Smith’s The Human Sciences, part of the Norton History of Science series (edited by Porter), is an extensive tome that reflects the ambiguities and contested nature of its subject. Smith, who has been teaching the history of science and intellectual history at the University of Lancaster, delivers a “weighty” work in both senses of the word: It is an extensive work, and an important one. Smith’s range is extraordinary. He starts in the Renaissance and moves chronologically in parts devoted to the sixteenth and seventeenth, the long eighteenth, the nineteenth, and the twentieth centuries. Along the way, he touches, sometimes at length, on humanists, theologians, and medical doctors, on thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes, and on jurisprudents such as Hugo Grotius and Samuel von Pufendorf in Part II (his introduction is Part I); on John Locke and Immanuel Kant, on Julien Offray de La Mettrie, on an obscure figure named Johann Nicolaus Tetens, on wild men and orangs, and on Giambattista Vico in Part III; on philology, race, Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Emile Durkheim, along with the emergence of academic disciplines based on some of their work, in [End Page 294] Part IV; and, in his final part, on an enormous array of figures in the psychology of the twentieth century, coming all the way up to Jacques Lacan.

The whole is a tour de force. What is extraordinary is that Smith has something fresh and informed to say about so many of the topics and figures whom he touches on. (A bibliographical essay of over 100 pages attests to the scholarly grounding of his wide-ranging coverage.)

Necessarily, both the term “human sciences” and the term “science” are problematic, and Smith treats them as such in his introduction. He contends that no single definition of the human sciences is possible, though, for him, the core problem is human nature. To know human nature, he tells us, “is to know what has been thought and said about human nature” (14). Thus, “to write history—the history of that [human] self-creation—is essential to our knowledge of what we are” (32). Can such knowledge be “scientific?” The term itself is in dispute, with different meanings attached to it, for example, in German and English. For Smith, the human sciences are a “quest,”, not a matter of accumulation (as in the natural sciences); “What counts as objective knowledge in the human sciences is always in dispute” (15). (Is Smith really claiming that “objective” knowledge is not always in dispute in the natural sciences as well?) 2

For some, the most disputatious aspect of Smith’s work (though not for this reader) will be his decision to restrict his treatment of the twentieth century to its psychologies. Though he claims to explore interconnections with other disciplines, the focus is clearly on psychology. Ours, he points out, is a “Psychological Age.” What is also worthy of note in this regard is that the main force up to now in trying to establish the human sciences as a disciplinary field has been Cheiron, an international society for the history of the behavioral and social sciences, the members of which for thirty years have been mainly psychologists. 3

However looked at, Smith’s Human Sciences is a heroic effort. It is an attempt by one unusually gifted scholar to encompass the whole field of the human sciences and the methodological problems...