History of Quantification

History 280S

Spring 2016
Day & Time: 
W 1200-200

This is a graduate reading seminar querying how it came to be that we understand the world through numbers: how quantification happened, who we are who did it, what understanding means in this context, and what the world becomes in its wake. Quantification stands in for a cluster of processes and ideas (counting, mathematization, formalization, rationalization, objectivity, positivism, history of the “fact,” measurement, calculation, forecasting, standardization). We will take a historical approach with inputs from philosophy, sociology, and STS (science and technology studies). Rather than an intrinsic character of science or an inevitable methodological move, we will look at quantification as a process that happened in time, aligned with other historical phenomena, sometimes in the face of alternatives. We will be tracing intellectual and social-cultural-political-organizational processes, especially how they were entangled. While we will keep an eye on the current state and contemporary dynamics of quantification -- how could we not? -- we will be trying to understand the present through the past, rather than trying to make sense of it on its own. We focus on the period since the Scientific Revolution, with a heavy emphasis from the 19th century to today.