A Letter to American Teachers of History

A Letter to American Teachers of History 2
Adams’ 1910 A Letter to American Teachers of History, employs human molecular theory logic, nebular hypothesis social contraction models, and thermodynamics, and implores history teachers to begin teaching students about historical events, e.g. the rise and fall of civilizations, via the “physico-chemical social dynamics” model, has he refers to it.
In famous publications, A Letter to American Teachers of History is a 1910 treatise by American historian Henry Adams, written at the age of 72, following nearly five decades of rumination on the physical sciences applied to historical explanation, setting forth the argument that the teaching of the second law of thermodynamics in the curriculum of the history departments of universities instruction should be mandatory, based on the argument that the second law undermines all of human history.

The following is a noted quote: [5]

“If thought is capable of being classified with electricity, or will with chemical affinity, as a mode of motion, it seems necessary to fall at once under the second law of thermodynamics. Of all possible theories, this is likely to prove the most fatal to professors of history.”

Adams suggestion outlines, generally, the field of human thermodynamics called history thermodynamics. [1]

Of note, Adams’ Letter was the first American publications to use the term “human molecule” as the definition of a person.

The central conclusion reached by Adams, in his Letter, according to American historian William Thayer, is where Adams states that:

“The department of history needs to concert with the departments of biology, sociology, and psychology some common formula or figure to serve their students as a working model for the study of vital energies; and this figure must be brought into accord with the figures or formulas used by the departments of physicists and mechanics to serve their students as models for the working of physico-chemical and mechanical energies.”

Adams concludes:

“Without the adhesion of the physicists, the model would cause greater scandal than though the contradictions were silently ignored as now; but the biologists—or, at least, the branches of science concerned with humanity—will find great difficulty in agreeing on any formula which does not require from physics the abandonment, in part, of the second law of thermodynamics.”

In reconciliation of this issue, Adams declares that “either the law must be abandoned in respect to vital energy altogether or vital energy must abandon reason altogether as one of its forms and return to the old dilemma of Descartes.”

William James’ response
Adams’ friend American psychologist William James, author of the 1906 Energies of Men, famously argued against Adams’ Letter on his death bed, sending a response letter and two follow-up postcards, the latter dated exactly two months prior to his death. [2] In commentary on this, James’ biographer Robert Richardson concludes: [3]

“What can one say about the philosophical bravado, the cosmic effrontery, the sheer panache of this ailing philosopher with one foot in the grave talking down the second law of thermodynamics? It is a scene fit to set alongside the death of Socrates.”

In short, Adams’ Letter essentially laid question to James' magnum opus theory of innate reserve energies and this may have quickened his end.

William Thayer’s review
In 1918, in commentary on Adams’ A Letter to American Teachers of History, wherein Adam notably “calls for the aid of another Newton”, American historian William Thayer comments, in his 1918 presidential address to the American Historical Association, that:

“In reading Henry Adams’ astonishing tract, I can not help suspecting at times that he is making fun of us historians; for he proposes, as I think you would agree with me, something which is not only impossible for anyone to carry out but which he himself never even attempted to carry out. In all the nine volumes of his American History, is there a hint of the second law of thermodynamics? Can you discover the slightest trace of a common formula for history and physical chemistry?”

In his address, Thayer seems to be ambivalent in his review, but at one point concedes:

“The time may come when human affairs may be described no longer by words and sentences, but by a system of symbols or notation similar to those used in algebra or chemistry … then it may be possible, as Adams suggests, to invent a common formula for thermodynamics and history.”

In end comment to Adams premise, to note, Thayer goes into a discussion on other past conflicts between the use of science in the humanities, such as the use of Darwin's "survival of the fittest" by the Germans in WWII and distinction of races, morality, as well as overlaps with religion.

There is some suggestion (Ѻ) that Isaac Asimov’s 1942 to 1993 theory of “psychohistory”, a “science of human behavior reduced to mathematical equations”, as Asimov describes, as described by the fictional character Hari Seldon (Ѻ), in his seven-volume Foundation series, is similar to Adams 1908 “physico-chemical social dynamics”, as Adams calls it.

In 1944, Asimov, it seems, was passingly referring to Henry Adams (Ѻ), as the name of one of his characters, in his science fiction stories; so possibly, Asimov may have had some type Henry Adams model behind his character of Hari Sheldon.

1. Adams, Henry. (1910). A Letter to American Teachers of History (pdf). Washington.
2. James, William. (1910). “Letter: To Henry Adams”, June 17, Bad-Nauheim in The Letters of William James (pgs. 343-47), 1920, by William James, Henry James, Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press.
3. Richardson, Robert D. (2007). William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism: a Biography (pgs. 518-19). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
4. (a) Thayer, William, R. “Vagaries of Historians”, Presidential address prepared to be read before the American Historical Association, at Cleveland, Dec. 28, 1918. (Reprinted from the American Historical Review, January, 1919).
(b) Thayer, William R. (1921). “Vagaries of Historians”. Annual Report of the American Historical Association (pgs. 77-88, esp. pgs. 80-84). G.P.O.
5. (a) Adams, Henry. (1910). A Letter to American Teachers of History (pg. #). Washington; in The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (pg.195). MacMillan, 1919.
(b) Matthias, Ruth. (2011). “Entropy, Economics, and Policy”, in: Thermodynamics and the Destruction of Resources (ch. 16, pgs. 402-28; quote, pg. 402). Cambridge University Press.

TDics icon ns

More pages