Back to Alpbach: Reflecting on reductionism fifty years later

Organizer: Jeremy Burman

In 1968, a group of influential scientists — including Bruner, Inhelder, von Bertalanffy, Waddington, and Weiss — met in Alpbach to discuss how fundamental issues of science (including human science) could be reconsidered from the perspectives of process, dynamics, and interaction. We return to these concerns fifty years later with four historians who will reflect on the past as a way to see the future.

Jeremy Burman introduces the session by reflecting on the goals of the Alpbach meeting, taking advantage of archival documents from the Waddington archives. Harry Heft then considers the agenda of the Alpbach organizers, and shows that their concerns could be found even in the late 1890s in William James’ critique of “automaton theory” and his move toward field-theoretical thinking, as well as the related anti-mechanistic debates between Loeb and Jennings. Brady Wagoner, similarly, examines the interests and influence of Frederic Bartlett: schemas of memory were always more flexible than has been assumed, and Inhelder showed this in her experiments with Piaget. (“Memory and Intelligence” was published the same year as the Alpbach meeting, which itself included memory as a theme.) Marc Ratcliff shares archival documents discovered at the Piaget Villa showing that much of the Alpbach agenda was anticipated by Piaget, who had attempted to organize a similar meeting in Geneva — for 1965 — that would have brought many of the same attendees together to discuss similar issues (although in explicit connection to Genetic Epistemology). But that meeting never took place. Instead, Piaget returned “to [his] first loves as a biologist” alone, without the high-level interdisciplinary interactions that characterized many of his other theoretical projects. Burman then concludes the session with some discussion of the presented papers, and especially of the role history can play in advancing contemporary science.