Friday, December 19, 2014

'Scientism' 4 - Brunner, Mills, Havel (cold war)

Fourth in a series of fourteen posts (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 910111213, & 14).

I've found more mid-20th-Century uses of 'scientism'.

First, there is this passage from Emil Brunner's Gifford Lectures (1947-48):
Science and art serve men best if they remain true to their own laws. They must be 'autonomous'. But if this autonomy is ultimately final it cannot but degenerate into sterile inhuman intellectualist 'scientism' and into l’art pour l’art aestheticism. If however their autonomy is understood as theonomy they keep their independence and yet are united to natural life and ethical principles by a unity standing above all of them.
It looks like Brunner dropped 'scientism' from the book that was drawn from his Gifford Lectures. The book in question is Christianity and Civilisation (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948). Interestingly, the latter portions (at least) of that book (beginning at p. 85) echo some of the themes connected with other mid-20-Century uses of 'scientism'. For instance, Brunner mentions Comte and Spencer several times and says that liberalism degenerates and leads to collectivist tyranny (pp. 139-140). Brunner discusses fascist and communist forms of totalitarianism and sees both as threats to individualism and freedom. It was in that context that he had (in his lectures) used the word 'scientism'.

'Scientism' appears once in C. Wright Mills' 1959 book The Sociological Imagination:
In the meantime, philosophers who speak in the name of science often transform it into ‘scientism,’ making out its experience to be identical to human experience, and claiming that only by its method can the problems of life be solved. With all this cultural workmen have come to feel that ‘science’ is a false and pretentious Messiah. (Mills, The Sociological Imagination [Oxford University Press,1959], p. 16)
Finally, the mid-20th-Century, Cold War linkage of scientism and Marxism resurfaces in this 1992 piece by Vaclav Havel. In it, Havel says,
The modern era has been dominated by the culminating belief, expressed in different forms, that the world -- and Being as such -- is a wholly knowable system governed by a finite number of universal laws that man can grasp and rationally direct for his own benefit. This era, beginning in the Renaissance and developing from the Enlightenment to socialism, from positivism to scientism, from the Industrial Revolution to the information revolution, was .... an era of systems, institutions, mechanisms and statistical averages. It was an era of ideologies, doctrines, interpretations of reality, an era in which the goal was to find a universal theory of the world, and thus a universal key to unlock its prosperity. Communism was the perverse extreme of this trend. (Havel, New York Times [March 1, 1992])

3 comments:

Tommi Uschanov said...

And yet in 1964, proto-neoconservative Seymour Martin Lipset could write (p. 273) in a classic and much anthologised example of Cold War political science:

"Still a third factor related to the general decline in ideological bitterness has been the acceptance of scientific thought and professionalism in matters which have been at the center of political controversy. Insofar as most organized participants in the political struggle accept the authority of experts in economics, military affairs, interpretations of the behavior of foreign nations and the like, it becomes increasingly difficult to challenge the views of opponents in moralistic 'either/or' terms. Where there is some consensus among the scientific experts on specific issues, these tend to be removed as possible sources of intense controversy. As the ideology of 'scientism' becomes accepted, the ideologies of the extreme left and right lose much of their impact."

So for "ideological bitterness", scientism could be either a next-door neighbour or a cure, depending on the Cold Warrior who was speaking. Or was the mid-twentieth-century sense which you've discussed already beginning to ebb by this time?

Paul Raymont said...

Thanks, Tommi. The term does appear to have a very complex history. I wonder if Lipset was familiar with a 1960 book called Scientism and Values. It was funded by a right-wing operation (the William Volker Fund) and included papers by libertarians critical of 'fads' in sociology. Perhaps (this is just a wild conjecture) Lipset, though well along his path to the right, took offence at some of this book's critiques of sociology and (like Dantec) embraced 'scientism' as a badge of honour.

Paul Raymont said...

I just found a neat 1951 paper by Philipp Frank, which has this passage: 'All of these groups have attempted to limit science to the collection of material and to enforce a "philosophical interpretation" which supports the "way of life" which they regard as a "good" one. For this reason, they will insist upon an autonomous philosophy that will provide decisions where science, in the narrower sense, has reached a stalemate. Organizations like the Roman
Church or the Third Reich in Germany have denounced in the strongest possible terms the claims of "active positivism" or, as Maritain puts it, of "scientism" to discuss the high-level generalizations of science in scientific terms. We find the same attitude toward "active positivism" in the
announcements of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. They require positively a philosophy which is to control scientific work...." The quotation is from Frank's paper, 'The Logical and Sociological Aspects of Science', Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 80 (1951): at 38-29.