Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: March 10, 2021, 8:22 a.m. Humanist 34.267 - psychology of quantification

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 267.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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        Date: 2021-03-10 08:06:36+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: academics as ordinary citizens?

I return to E.H. Carr's fascinating observation in What is History?
(1961), to which Manfred Thaller referred in our recent discussion of
quantification. Manfred wrote,

> [Carr] observes the
> discussion, particularly virulent at the time, how far history has to be
> understood as a series of chance events and how far as a sequence of the
> results of various processes. In that context he notices, that
> historians seeing there society in a successful phase have always had
> the tendency, to describe it as the result of structures and processes,
> while historians living in a society in crisis had a tendency to
> emphasize that everything at the end is a matter of chance.

followed by Manfred's own application to modern German history:

> The more historians considered it necessary to overcome the
> tradition, the friendlier they looked at social sciences as a
> provider of broader models, which lead to an interest in empirical
> methods, which lead to quantification. The more they wanted to write
> an apologia of history, the more they abhorred models and
> quantification.

This is very helpful. But I have a somewhat different question. 

The opposed reactions to disciplinary change -- the drive to quantification, 
the abhorrence of it -- makes perfect sense at the disciplinary level of 
awareness. But if one considers the eruption of over-the-top passionate 
outbursts by professional historians such as University Professor Carl 
Bridenbaugh in his Presidential address to the American Historical 
Association in 1962, "The Great Mutation",

> The finest historians will not be those who succumb to the dehumanizing
> methods of social sciences, whatever their uses and values... Nor will the 
> historian worship at the shrine of that Bitchgoddess, QUANTIFICATION. 
> History offers radically different values  and methods.

does one not learn more by considering the academics involved as ordinary
citizens as well as scholars, asking what was going on at the time,
reported in the newspapers they read, discussed with the neighbours and
friends they had etc? In the period I am studying (1949-1991) it was the
Cold War, with the threat of nuclear annihilation seeping in everywhere,
the product of the physical sciences, esp physics. Would that not have
had something to do with some scholars' reluctance to have anything to
do with computers?

Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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