Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Corporate social-scientism in Whyte's 'Organization Man'

Seventeenth in a series of seventeen posts (123456789101112, 13, 14, 15, & 16)

In the previous post in this series, I distinguished between, on the one hand, the social-scientism of the early positivists and, on the other hand, the X-club's scientism, which was championed by T. H. Huxley, among others. I hummed and hawed about the latter variety's label (e.g., reductive-scientism, eliminative-scientism). I should simply have called it physical-scientism. For adherents of physical-scientism, the physical sciences, armed as they were with the new evolutionary theory, were poised to solve all the erstwhile mysteries about human beings, thereby putting the humanistic and social sciences out of business.

I've said that critics of social-scientism trace its lineage to 19th-Century France, particularly to the work of Comte and Saint-Simon. Hayek and others trace it back to the founding of the École Polytechnique.

French social-scientism was largely a left-wing creature. The French association of social-scientism with the political left probably inspired the American cold-war use of 'scientism' as a term of abuse in political debate. On that note, it's interesting that one of the more famous deployments of 'scientism' in 1950s America saw the word applied not to big government but, rather, to big, private corporations. I have in mind William Hollingsworth ('Holly') Whyte's use of the term in The Organization Man (1956), the third chapter of which is called 'Scientism'.

[Here's Whyte interviewed on PBS. I think Whyte would have liked The Wire.]

Citing Hayek and Voegelin, Whyte introduces 'scientism' as follows:
The first denominator is scientism. This is the practical part of the Social Ethic, for it is the promise that with the same techniques that have worked in the physical sciences we can eventually create an exact science of man. (Whyte, The Organization Man [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002/1956], p. 23)
That's a nice, in-a-nutshell statement of social-scientism.  Like Hayek and van Duzer, Whyte traces the ideology back to France:
With the founding of the École Polytechnique in Paris at the end of the eighteenth century scientism was given another forward push; Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte energized a formidable school with the promise of positivism (Ibid., p. 25)
To display the extent to which private corporations have taken up social-scientism, Whyte quotes from advertising, personnel, and public-relations journals. He quotes an editorial in Public Relations Journal, according to which, 'The challenge of social engineering in our time is like the challenge of technical engineering fifty years ago' (Ibid., p. 26). Whyte embraces the phrase, 'social engineering' (Ibid., p. 27), a locution with which I, myself, was more familiar as an epithet for the batch of concerns that he addresses. Perhaps 'social engineering' has displaced 'scientism' as the preferred term of abuse for social-scientism.

I believe that social-scientism in its corporate incarnation is the brand of scientism on which Sebastian Benthall and Adam Elkus focus in their interesting posts on scientism. Benthall links this kind of scientism to recent enthusiasm about 'big data'. Elkus characterizes scientism as,
a generalized philosophy that argued modern life was too complex, bewildering, and dangerous for the common man to navigate without the aid of enlightened elites, who would use supposedly scientific methods to direct society through managerial control of social life and the flow of information. Hence, Scientism is really about the idea that a small group of people might be uniquely endowed to engineer the fates of others due to superior knowledge and rationality.

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