SAAP Annual Meeting 2015

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Society for U.S. Intellectual History: The Rise and Fall of Scientific Humanism in the Twentieth Century

Saturday, 7 March 2015
11:00 - 12:40

Directors Room C

Chair: Fred W. Beuttler, Carroll University

PANEL Session: Society for U.S. Intellectual History

The Rise and Fall of Scientific Humanism in the Twentieth Century

“Humanism” is a richly evocative term in American intellectual life, suggesting classical learning to some and the triumph of scientific over religious authority to others. Humanists of all varieties made humans, as free and self-determining actors, the focus of study and placed human capacities for reason, study, and investigation at the starting point of knowledge about the world. This panel examines the way in which a variety of American intellectuals, including philosophers, religious thinkers, literary and social theorists, educational reformers, literary critics, and psychologists, hoped that a scientific “humanism” would vouchsafe new understandings of human beings (as free and capable of democratic citizenship), of knowledge (moving through empiricism to a new holism), and of society (as both enlightened and integrated) in the 1930s. There is a chronologically distinct arc to this story, as those who formed a loose scientific humanist movement discovered a complex “politics of knowledge,” facing internal disagreements, resistance from rival intellectuals on matters of curricular reform in the universities, and, by the 1960s, rival scientific conceptions of humanity that challenged the very basis of scientific humanist thought.

Chair and commentator: Fred W. Beuttler, Department of History, Carroll University

Panelists and Panel Abstracts:

1. “Philosophy, Religion, and Intellectual Integration in The New Humanist, 1928-1936”
Paul Murphy, Department of History, Grand Valley State University

“I wish we could start a ‘crusade,’” John Dewey wrote his friend and fellow philosopher Max Otto in 1929, “—not for any particular philosophy but for a more enlightened outlook on life and a more integrated intellectual direction.” What Dewey wanted was for knowledge to build a cohesive community. Could a new worldview accomplish the necessary integration? A group of religious scholars, divinity students, Unitarian ministers, and philosophers, including Max Otto and Roy Wood Sellars, were engaged in the kind of movement he imagined. United as “humanists,” this particular coterie of progressive, non-theistic religious thinkers coalesced in Chicago, established a short-lived “Humanist Fellowship,” and published a journal called The New Humanist between 1928 and 1936. The paper analyzes their ambition to find something beyond pragmatism, beyond the commitment to science as the source of knowledge, and beyond the general sense of an emerging “modern temper” that would accomplish the quixotic goal Dewey articulated.

2. "Scientific Humanism in the Yale Interwar Curriculum"
Bryan McAllister-Grande, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Paul Murphy has identified some of the major puzzles occupying intellectual historians who study the mid-twentieth century. Especially striking is his question of why John Dewey and other intellectuals felt that a new American-driven "humanism" was needed to integrate intellectual life. This is striking, not only because Dewey was a committed pragmatist, but because most historians generally agree that American intellectuals saw science and specialization as sources of freedom and better knowledge, as against "authoritarian" approaches of religion and the humanities.

My paper contributes to the puzzle by focusing on an institutional setting: Yale University of the '30s and early '40s. I will focus on a group of "scientific humanists" and their curricular proposals. This group, which included such figures as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, led a movement through and beyond empiricism into grand contemplations of the structure of reality. However, their efforts were sharply resisted by literary humanists and philosophers associated with classical modernism and the New Criticism. This paper discusses the politics of knowledge while being situated in a concrete curricular debate that culminated during the midst of World War II.

3. “Reductionism and Holism in Humanistic Philosophy and Psychology”
Stephen P. Weldon, Department of History of Science, University of Oklahoma

This paper looks at the philosophical and psychological premises among people who were involved in the Religious/Scientific Humanist movement in America. The Humanist Manifesto of 1933 succinctly expressed an ideological platform that embraced the scientific method but rejected reductionist and determinist explanations of human nature. This holism was justified by humanist philosophers like Roy Wood Sellars and John Dewey, who linked the standpoint to progressive politics and democratic ideals. By the 1960s, however, this framework was no longer so widely accepted, which aggravated tensions among humanists. The situation culminated in a battle in humanist movement over the acceptability of behaviorism as a social theory. This fight opened up a place for deterministic views of human nature that ranged from Skinnerian behaviorism to E.O.Wilson’s sociobiology. As a result, humanists had to reevaluate their philosophical defense of a free and democratic political order. The paper seeks to explain the causes behind this shift.


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