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Young, R.M. (1988). Biography: The basic discipline for human science. Free Associations, 1(11):108-130.

(1988). Free Associations, 1(11):108-130

Biography: The basic discipline for human science

Robert M. Young

This is the second in a series of studies I have undertaken on the nature of the genre of biography and its significance for the study of human nature and society. I am interested in its potential for personal and social change. The first study sketched some features of the genre and the light it sheds on the historicity and anthropocentricity of scientific knowledge, using Darwin as a case study (Young, 1987).

In this paper I shall try to persuade you at least to consider a role for biographical studies in university courses in what we hopefully and contradictorily call the human sciences. Following Russell Jacoby (1971, pp. 143-4), I would prefer to call them the sciences of second nature, but that is another paper.

Why then biography? As I see it, our work has to find its place between two very extreme interpretations of the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. At one extreme we can see matter as the limiting case of human purposiveness. At the other, we can treat human purpose as a specially complicated case of complex states of matter, and the only problem we are left with is that of electrochemical decoding. Lest these seem bizarre over-simplifications, I give you the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, aspects of that of C.L. Morgan, of S. Alexander and others who argue for organicism and emergentism, treating, as I say, matter as the limiting case of purposiveness (Collingwood, 1961; Rorty, 1983). This point of view is undergoing considerable revival in more or less mystical forms in the wake of the environmental, ecology, and women's movements (Merchant, 1982; Worster, 1985).

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