Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reading This Roger Smith Fellow

I'm reading a new book. Roger Smith's Being Human: Historical Knowledge And The Creation Of Human Nature.

I will say a few things. First about the author. The second thing about my impression of the arguments. The third thing about my reason for turning to this book.

So, the thing that concerns me about Mr. Smith is that I know very little about his credentials. He is a historian of science, and the human sciences in particular. He lives in Russia and is affiliated with a couple universities including Durham University, and a institute in Moscow. I have no idea who he is. Hayden White has a very intense blurb on the dust jacket and so it seems to be legit. His bibliography is most interesting. Collingwood, Foucault, Ian Hacking, Hegel, many others. He seems to have earned his chops as a historian, but n this work he is pursuing an expressly philosophical. But he still seems to be using history as his major point of reference. So, the first problem is this: Mr. Smith is a mystery to me. I worry about his credentials. And I find his personal life to be a mystery. I don't know who he is, and I seem to be having a hard time finding information about him. The book, however, was published by Columbia University Press, and so that gives me a little bit of hope about its quality.

The last book I finished was Edward Hallett Carr's What Is History?. In that book Mr. Carr says that to study history you must also study the historian and the situation in which that history was being written. So I am eager to approach books in that way.

So, the second part, the arguments: Mr. Smith wants to make sure that history as a form of knowledge is properly understood. In particular, he thinks that the discourse around the issue of 'human nature' needs to have historical and philosophical perspective if it is to be valid. In the English speaking world, Smith claims, we are apt to think of science and specifically biology as the most important source of knowledge about what it means to be human. Smith claims, on the contrary, that biology cannot provide us with the information that we need to understand what it means to be human, what it means to be both the subject and object of knowledge about human nature. He claims that Ian Hacking's work in the field of historical ontology is the foundation of his work. This pleases me because I have read much of Hacking's book Historical Ontology. He quotes Hacking when he says that "Categories of people come into existence at the same time as kinds of people come into being to fit those categories, and there is a two-way interaction between these processes" (Smith, 12). Foucault is one of Hacking's major influences (if not his most important influence). Indeed, Foucault provided the phrase 'historical ontology' in his fascinating essay from 1984 "What Is Enlightenment." Furthermore, this idea of the interaction of behavior and categories is implicit in much of Foucault's work, most notably in Discpline & Punish and Volume I of The History Of Sexuality. Moreover, this notion is explicitly corroborated by John Searle's work in Making The Social World. So, having read only the introduction and a little bit of Mr. Smith's book I see a sort picture forming: a picture in which human nature is something that can be self-consciously created by reference to the ability of language to constitute certain experiences and forms of behavior. I suspect that my journey through the whole of the book will give me a much more nuanced view of the way that these issues relate to the natural and human sciences, and to history.

The reasons I have turned to this book are many. For one thing, I have been personally invested in the union of Foucault, Collingwood, Hacking, Searle, and others for the last few years. I care a lot about the philosophy of history, I think it has been largely ignored, and I suspect that its implications are quite significant. Further, my (very) recent realization that the issue of relationships is at the core of my thought has pushed me to think about humans, history, human nature, technology, etc., has pushed me towards it.

I have a lot of thinking left to do (as usual). But I am pleased to be reading this book. Richard Restak's Think Smart turned out to be too dry. And Roberta Wohlstetter's Pearl Harbor: Warning And Decision turned out to be too difficult for me right now. So this book will be a wonderful way to continue my philosophical reading while maintaining a historical orientation.

I wonder sometimes, especially with me frustration with Wohlstetter, if history is the discipline for me. I feel so much more inclined to be a philosophical thinker. I thrive so much in terms of philosophical reading. That doesn't mean that I can't become a powerful historical thinker, or that I couldn't become a good historian. It just means that my reading over the last year has been devoted to this kind of philosophical reading. I just have so much work to do to become a historical thinker.

But I suspect it to be of the highest importance.

Hopefully Mr. Smith can take me somewhere.

Over and out.

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