Henry Cowles, Yale
How We Think: Mind and Method in Modern America
In 1910, John Dewey broke human thought into five distinct steps. While Dewey thought these steps described everyday problem-solving—hence the title of his book, How We Think—his readers thought otherwise. Textbook authors quickly gave Dewey’s steps a new name: “the scientific method.” What was once a theory of mind became a method of inquiry; a description of human thought was turned into a prescription for scientific practice. This talk starts with this transformation and works backwards, revealing the nineteenth-century world from which “the scientific method” emerged. It was a world of psychologists and philosophers turning the mind into a scientific object and studying it in experimental and evolutionary terms. In their hands, human thinking came to seem more and more like an evolutionary process, a fact they used to naturalize their own experimental approaches. As they did, they transformed science—which had once been considered a body of knowledge—into an account of thinking and, later, into a guide for solving problems. This talk argues that the idea of science as a simple method for producing truths was a byproduct of the concrete practices of the human sciences that took hold in the nineteenth century.