Facts and intellectual history

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In September 2017,  while preparing for the workshop on Sieber that we hosted in Lausanne, I listened to the podcast of a lecture by David D’Avry on “How to do intellectual history“. I immediately thought this was relevant for my attempt at understanding Sieber’s intellectual world and that D’Avry’s approach could help me clarify my position in some of the protracted debates I had with my colleagues at the Centre Walras-Pareto for the study of economic and political thought.

Historians of economic thought have long internalized a distinction  – typical of the history of science – between an externalist and internalist way of doing history. The former concentrate on the social and economic circumstances that influenced the development of economic thought, while the latter stresses the inner logic of disciplinary development and how ideas emerged in reaction to other ideas. Although many of my colleagues think I have an extreme externalist position – which is probably why I have mostly published in history journals –  I have never felt confortable with this distinction (and I am not the only one to feel uneasy).

D’Avry suggested me one possible strategy to evade the externalist/internalist dilemma. In the podcast, he explored possible “post-Skinnerian” approaches to intellectual history. He resorted to Niklas Luhmann’s concept of a “social system” to describe intellectual debates. To my shame, I must confess that when I heard of Luhmann for the first time – from Ivan Boldyrev, I believe – I thought: “Oh, another German, theory-heavy sociologists!” and decided I could not care less.

D’Avry made me change my mind. He explained how that specific instance of a social system, namely an intellectual debate, develops according to its inner rules. Each contribution to the debate of ideas, then, is an “event” in Luhmann sense, and a response to a previous event.

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Anna Zemankova’s social systems

When the podcast was over, I went searching for “social system” on Google and found out about Luhmann’s use of the concepts of operative closeness and interactional openness. They were explained by means of the metaphor of a plant which grows according to it DNA but it is not a close system, it needs nutrients from outside and it is exposed to the dangers etc.

Operative closeness and interactional openness suggested me a way to describe what I am doing. True, intellectual debates are regulated by disciplinary standards, scientific criteria, logic etc. They are operatively closed. But they need to incorporate facts, they must rely on some sort of evidence. Ideas and concepts talk about the world-out-there. They must be interactionaly open. But how do facts become evidence and enter the social system of an intellectual debate? Through representations, each intellectual discussion locally determining how to select credible representations. Once facts are in, once they metamorphosed into representations of fact, they are available for every participant to the discussion to use them as building blocks for his or her argument, just like they would use any other idea.

My work on statistics, on enquiries, on 18-century information gathering deals precisely with this issue: I investigate different ways facts enter intellectual debates. Reports, figures, descriptions are not facts, they are intellectual arte-facts, they are ideas. The agricultural crisis of the late-19 century which economic historians nowadays sometimes question ever existed might or might not have been a fact, but I do not study the fact as such, I scrutinize the fact’s representations as they where constructed and how the affected the activity of men and women.

Is this externalist or internalist history? I don’t really know, since it investigates both the system and it environment. I think of it as a history of borders and border-crossings.

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