Department of Theory of Science
University of Göteborg
Report no. 118
20 January 1980


A Plea for a Two-Pronged Attack on
Positivism and Irrationalism

Aant Elzinga

This series of reports consists of compendiums, reports of research in progress including work relating to academic theses from the Department of Theory of Science at the University of Göteborg. The series includes pilot studies and partial reports as well as final productions (accepted theses etc.). Earlier reports in the series are listed at the back of each number.

Editor for the series is Jan Bärmark and distribution is managed by Alice Malmström, address Institutionen för Vetenskapsteori, Västra Hamngatan 3, S-411 17 GÖTEBORG, Sweden. Tel. 031/11 78 44.

Copyright 1980

CONTENTS*        Page

Introduction . . . . . 1

Current attitudes towards science . . . . . 3

The objective side of the world of crisis . . . . . 8

Karl Mannheim’s view on populism . . . . . 11

Merton’s view of the anti-science movement in the 1930’s . . . . . 14

Positivism and obscurantism — two sides of the same coin . . . . . 19

*This is an expanded version of a popular lecture delivered at the Science Faculty of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Unit for the History and Social Aspects of Natural Sciences, Thursday April 20 1978.


Today there is a deep-going economic crisis, and the danger of a new world war ignited by the rivalry of the two superpowers, USA and USSR. Science and technology are drawn into this process, and the attitude towards scientific knowledge is an important issue. Also within smaller industrial countries like Sweden, expansion of the state apparatus and therewith the increased need of research in the decision-making process, has been accompanied by greater political control over science. This constitutes a further challenge to the integrity of science.

After the Second World War, and especially during the period of the cold war, the monopoly bourgeoisie in Western countries, particularly the United States, displayed a technological optimism. On the philosophical front this was paralleled by a form of positivism and positivist rationalism. Today when the economic conjuncture is in the grips of crisis ideological notions like "the limits of growth", "zero growth", the "risks" and "harmful effects" of intensive industrialization are being propagated. The real social causes of degeneration in the economic field are often hidden by putting the blame on science and technology, or on industrialization per se. Furthermore, a petty bourgeois stream of protest against the current situation tends to bring irrationalism to the fore, even in philosophical discourse. Whatever the mechanism whereby social and economic crisis gives rise to obscurantist thought, the scientific intelligentsia as a stratum in society cannot remain uninfluenced. Indeed positivism is a philosophy that has helped ideologically disarm and paralyze the intelligentsia, thus making it more susceptible to pseudoscientific ideas about social phenomena.

Currently a new form of populism seems to be on the rise. Among philosophers and scientists there are some who encourage this anti-intellectualist trend. An example is Theodor Roszak who opposes scientific objectivity to the values propagated within the counter-culture of hippies, and takes a stand for the latter against science.

In this lecture I will focus on some developmental trends in the science and technology of the period following the Second World War. The study on which I base my observations pertains to developments in Sweden, but the general trends noted can be found in most of Western Europe. The reform of the universities and the protest against this are also seen in this context.

My thesis is that, just as during the prewar period of the 1930’s the scientific intelligentsia is reacting to a situation of crisis, and it is ideologically split in three ways. One part responds by raising the question of science in society, and does so with increasing political awareness. This corresponds to the radical English critics of the 1930’s, Bernal, Needham and others, whose ideas paradoxically today form the core of a respectable reformist strategy or way out of the crisis. Today’s radical critique of science is not the same as that of the 1930’s in content, only in as far as function and perhaps form. The particular issues and the complications are of course very different.

Another part of the intelligentsia tends to give uncritical support to the ruling economic class to whose fortunes science is tied. If it does not propagate a philosophy of developmental optimism serving technocracy, it may well be that it lends its voice to certain notions of "limits of growth" which would serve to legitimate dismantling of industries and increasing unemployment.

A third sector of the intelligentsia allows itself to vacillate into a position of irrationalism and obscurantism. It is this trend that I will mostly try to focus upon. In doing so I will also make a note of what sociologists of knowledge like Karl Mannheim and Robert K. Merton have had to say on the subject.

One issue that complicates the present situation, but which will not be explored here, pertains to the struggle within the bourgeoisie between private monopolists (the traditional guardians of capitalism), and the forces of bureaucratic and the state capitalism located in large corporative managements, in government as well as in the tops of trade unions and other organizations with a popular base. Here one also find sources of technocratic optimism.

A further issue that is left out here is the one concerning points of contact and contradictions between "critical science" within the traditional institutions of research and learning, and the romantic "anti-science" stream outside. A further distinction can also be observed, between the romantic protest (anti-science) on the one hand, and the more constructive stance of sections of the "alternatives movement", calling for "alternatives" in perspective, social links and practice on the part of scientists. I am aware of this distinction, but being mainly interested in the ideological dimension, I will refrain from going into this important question of alternatives. The points I shall make are, in the main, addressed to the romantic wing and its manifestations in Neo-populism. No doubt some of you will regard this as an unsatisfactory limitation, perhaps even a major weakness in my approach. [—>table of contents]

Current attitudes towards science

There has been quite a bit of debate about science during the last ten years. One can locate several specific issues, around each of which there is some form of debate. Not only this, the general public is being drawn into the discussion more than before, and the tone of the discussion also seems to be sharper. Today it is not uncommon to hear people speak of "anti-science" and "counter-movements" or suppressed forms of knowledge and alternative practices, sometimes called "folk science."

The question of pollution was brought up during the 1960’s. Thereafter came the energy crisis and the nuclear issue. Today there is a heated discussion around the sociobiology of E.O. Wilson who argues that cultural differences between for example Negroes and whites in the USA might in part be genetic, based on race. Further there is the controversy around the be or not to be of hybrid-DNA research, more popularly known as genetic engineering. One could go on to enumerate a number of such debates in various other branches of science and technology — e.g. the one around the introduction of the minicomputer. In each case there are clear attitudes for and against the research and technology in question, and this is not limited only to the community of scientific investigators.

I will not attempt to deal here with any one of the single issues. Rather I want to note the sharpened tone in the discussion compared to ten years ago when Rachel Carson's Silent Spring made the headlines.

In Sweden the question of an anti-science movement has been enunciated clearly during the last years in connection with the debate on the establishment of a high risk laboratory for experimenting with hybrid-DNA, and the institution of security measures in this regard. Leading cultural personalities are demanding that this project be stopped, the risks are too great. Defenders of the project are saying that this is nonsense, and try to dismiss the critics as doomsday prophets who are against progress in science. To be anti-intellectual, they say, means to look down upon knowledge and reason, to appeal only to feelings and instincts instead of to people’s understanding. Journalists in particular are attacked for dramatizing risk situations and accidents. The field of reactor technology and the handling of atomic wastes has of course been brought into the general "risk-discussion" too.

The phenomenon of anti-intellectualism, as it is discussed today, is furthermore associated with Neo-populism, which nay be regarded as both an ideological tendency and a movement with traditional roots in the agrarian community and certain sectors of the white collar workers and students. Even if we do not agree that there is any visible populist movement, Neo-populism as ideological tendency with strong anti-science inclinations does exist and should be analysed in historical perspective. I shall be concerned with Neo-populism as ideological tendency. Also I shall assume that there is some kind of mechanism whereby this kind of phenomenon appears particularly in times of social and economic crisis. I shall not try to analyse the workings of this social mechanism. This is a question which, indeed, forms a suitable topic for an interdisciplinary research, where historians, philosophers, sociologists and psychologists of science might cooperate. It would be of value more systematically to seek interrelations between class differentiation, ideologies and views of science. There seem to have been at least four different periods in recent European history when there was a sharpening of the contradictions between developmental optimists and pessimists. The first period was shortly after the French revolution, when the ideological representatives of different classes clearly confronted each other: petty bourgeois theorists warned for too rapid economic growth, against machines, etc. (Sismondi, Proudhon, in part the Luddites); emerging industrial and banking interests as well as the technical intelligentsia-to-be painted enthusiastic technocratic utopias (Saint Simon); and the industrial proletariat put forth its belief in the future (Marx), a perspective that was defined in partial opposition to its two competitors, the romantics and the technocrats. The difference was that both the latter focussed on technology and industry per se as something negative or positive, while Marx discussed the social relations and the political framework in which the productive forces develop. Here we thus have the emergence of three ideological traditions, each with roots in different sections of society. The conflict between the perspective sharpened once more in the 1890’s, the 1930’s, and now again during the 1970’s. An historical study of these earlier periods when science and technology were criticized would deepen our understanding of the present day conflicts.

Populism as it reveals itself today is still a petty bourgeois reaction to crisis. What is significant is that this populism today is also defining itself more definitely in relation to science. This is perhaps because science and technology in various ways permeate the life of industrialized countries more than ever before, and furthermore that they are associated with the established views of "progress". Now when this "progress" for many people turns out to be hollow, turns out to be unemployment, pollution of the environment, stress, etc. so also the science and technology associated with it arc called into question. And certain demagogues go further and exploit the situation for their own political ends. You may know the name Glistrup (in Denmark), a typical figure that emerges in times of crisis. His anti-science policies are documented through his attacks upon Roskilde University in Denmark. He wants to see the site and buildings of Roskilde University emptied of students and teachers and turned into a motel. On the other hand I don’t think he worries that much about pollution.

An indicator of a negative attitude to science has recently also been read into the marked decline in the number of students choosing to study natural sciences and technical subjects at university level. In Sweden this trend has not yet reversed. Some analysts are predicting that this is going to create a bottleneck for Sweden’s industrial growth in the 1980’s, due to a lack of qualified scientific-technical intelligentsia. Others have interpreted the dropoff as a result of the fact that there is a considerable academic unemployment, and that this scares off potential students of natural sciences and technology.

It is interesting to note that biology is a subject that has not suffered so much of a decline as other branches of the natural sciences. Perhaps this may be attributed to the indirect social relevance it is felt to have in connection with the issues that have become so important, like pollution.

Finally, in the realm of philosophy where the attitudes are reflected in sophisticated conceptions, one can also find the neo-populist tendency. Internationally a philosopher like Theodor Roszak represents one of the more articulate people who has formulated the fundamental sentiments and theoretical considerations which one can meet in some of the ecology movement and the debate on science. In his book The Making of a Counter Culture which came in 1972, he glorifies the anarchistic drop-out wing of the youth movement, hippies etc. and claims:

"They are the matrix in which the alternative, but still excessively fragile future is taking shape. Granted the alternative comes dressed in garish motley, its costume borrowed from many exotic sources — from depth psychiatry, from mellowed remnants of left-wing ideology, from oriental religions, from Romantic Weltschmerz, from anarchistic social theory, from Dada and American Indian lore, and I suppose, the perennial wisdom. Still it looks to me like all we have to hold against the final consolidation of a technocratic totalitarianism in which we shall find ourselves ingeniously adapted to an existence wholly estranged from everything that has ever made the life of man an interesting adventure" (op. cit. Introduction, p. xiii).

Roszak sees the drug culture as the alternative for the future. Hippies, cult, mysticism and magical rites are set up as an alternative to scientific modes of thought and action.

What Roszak is attacking is the very concept of objective science — not positivism's alienated standpoint — but all scientific method, which he declares to be a myth on par with other forms of mythology. In the counter-culture he sees a movement that turns away from objective consciousness

"as from a place inhabited by plague — and in the movement of that turning, one can just begin to see an entire episode of our cultural history, the great age of science and technology which began in the Enlightenment, standing revealed in all its arbitrary, often absurd, and all too painfully unbalanced aspects" (ibid., p. 215).

Note that this is an overall attack on science as a cultural phenomenon. Science is made to blame for all our woes. Roszak wants to turn his back on the whole epoch which began in the Enlightenment.

Norman O. Brown goes even further. Debunking science, he wishes to replace rational thought, not with the intuitive attitude of mysticism as such (Roszak), but with the sensate qualities of poetry and love.

Stuart Blume in his book Towards a Political Sociology of Science (London, 1974), suggests that the critique of science advanced by Habermas and Marcuse may be seen as more restricted steps in the same direction. For them too established science represents something negative, one-dimensional, anti-human and dangerous. Blume has the following table indicating the various positions with regard to what is rejected and the kind of recipe that is advocated in each case, one going further than the other.

What is Rejected
What is Prescribed?
Norman O. Brown
(Blume, Towards a Political Sociology of Science, p. 51)

Against the anti-intellectualist current there are two counter-tendencies in the debate on science. The one is the elitist standpoint in favour of leaving experts alone and keeping the general public away from questions of science policy. Representatives of this standpoint have recently referred to critique of hybrid-DNA research as being a veritable witch-hunt.

The elitist standpoint implicitly supports the ruling economic class to whose fortunes science is largely tied today.

The other standpoint is the one of critics who dismiss both anti-intellectualism and elitism, and hold these to be two sides of the same coin, a reaction to crisis. In both cases the connection between science and society is obscured, and it is on this connection that the radical critique of science wants to turn the spotlight. It is not science and technology as such that are to blame for our woes; it is the system, the society in which they are embedded that contains the root causes.

By and large there was a similar division of opinion on science during the late 1930’s.

There was the anti-intellectualist stream associated with the populist movement and Nazi politics in Germany. (But as Etienne Balibar has pointed out, irrationalism and obscurantism of the Nazi regime constituted an anti-scientific philosophy only in ‘theory’, that is on the surface: in no sense did it aim in practice to limit or block Germany's scientific and technological development in the service of large-scale industry and militarism — on the contrary) [1]

There was the elitist tendency of scientists who said that science justifies itself, and who came out against planning and for the "freedom of science" in an abstract sense.

And there was the radical critique of the group around John Bernal who pointed to the degeneration of imperialism and the prostitution of science within such a society. They demanded a reorientation in the social function of science, away from elitism and towards a service of popular needs.

Now it is interesting to note how the three-way split in the opinion is the same, but that the content of the various standpoints are different from what was the case in the late 1930’s.

The elitist standpoint today accepts state intervention to a certain extent. The old idea of the "Free Republic of Science" is generally recognized as unrealistic in modern day industrialized societies. However the idea of keeping at least the public outside remains. The elitist concept today is more of a technocratic one, whereas earlier it was anti-technocratic.

Another difference is that the radical critique today also strikes out against the kind of ideas put forth by Bernal. Bernal's theory of productive forces, which actually goes back to the mechanical materialist philosophy of Nikolai Bukharin, is today incorporated in a state bureaucrat-capitalist planning apparatus in the Soviet Union and some of the Eastern European States. It is also used in countries like Sweden to legitimate a Social Democratic variant of technocratic science policy, the sectorially oriented policy which insists in relating every research activity to some social goal whose implementation falls under the domain of one or another Ministry or Department (sector). [—>table of contents]

The objective side of the world of crisis

Before proceeding to take up two viewpoints from the thirties, let us look at the objective side of the conflict. People are asking — where is science heading? Pollution. The "mistakes" of pharmaceutical companies —dangerous job environments in highly technologized industries, technocracy, do these depend on modern science and technology in themselves, or on social conditions, or on a combination of both? Should research be run as a self-regulating system, or should scientists be made to follow goals set by others than themselves? Who should set the goals, and who is competent to discuss them? Should the public be brought into the debate on hybrid-DNA research, nuclear energy, the freedom of science, or not? Is science a threat to mankind and to nature as some people are claiming, or is it only science in specifically undemocratic social formations that is at issue? Is the convergence between social evolution of the US and USSR to be explained in terms only of technological development, or is the basic factor involved here a political one, the transition of the Soviet Union from socialism back to capitalism?

UNESCO has published statistics which reveal that five of the great powers in the world were putting between 30% and 50% of their research resources into the military sector in 1967. What is the situation today?

There are some figures which suggest that 80% of the government budget for science in the United States and the Soviet Union is going to the war machine. In the US about half of the scientific-technical intelligentsia is connected to the military. Pentagon has dozens of research centers under it. Contracts between the military and science exist at about one hundred universities and other higher educational institutions throughout the country. Over one half a billion dollars yearly go to the production of chemical and biological weapons of terror. This program alone employs about 14,000 civilian and military experts in the US.

In the Soviet Union the number of scientists and engineers and technicians linked to the war-machine is supposed to be about 200,000. Scientific institutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Eastern Germany are forced to work towards the same end.

Since 1958 the Soviet Union and the US have sent up 980 and 850 satellites (including space ships) respectively around the earth and into space, They are classified as communications satellites, navigation, or weather satellites. But in most cases they are spy satellites which are there to watch over what people in various parts of the world are doing.

90% of the total number of scientists and engineers in the world live and work in the industrialized countries. 95% of all research projects are carried out in 25 countries, those that are the most advanced in industrial capacity. 75% of the world’s research potential lies with the two superpowers, and only 2% with the underdeveloped countries.

The global situation is one of great imbalance of scientific resources, and intense exploitation of research for war purposes. It is no wonder that people are sceptically inclined towards modern science and technology, which is associated with oppression, unequal distribution of wealth and also war.

If we add to this the situation of economic crisis and the threat of a new world war, there is much that reminds of the 1930’s. Of course there are also important differences. The economic crisis hits in a different way today, not least because of the role of the state. Also there is the existence of the Third World as an anti-imperialist force stronger than before. This is witnessed for example in the actions towards a New World Economic world order, a process which is already forcing the industrialized nations to reconsider their relationships with the Third World. A third major difference when we compare the present-day situation with the 1930’s is that science and technology permeate ordinary life much more than before. In the US for example 90% of homes are touched by television. In France it was 60% in 1970 (making for a total of 11 million TV sets in that country, compared to about 4000 in 1950 and 2 million 1960). These figures are of course only symbolic of the penetration of science and technology into the everyday lives of people, but they are indicative. A look at the overall expenditure on R&D in various countries reveals an equally explosive increase during the last two decades.

It is not surprising then that the populist movement emerging in the wake of a present-day economic crisis defines itself more distinctly on issues concerning science and technology.

Also the populism of the 1930’s was more of an agrarian-based phenomenon, whereas today the proportion of white collar workers and intelligentsia may well be greater. This would be expected in a country like Sweden, where the agrarian community is decimated and only accounts for 4% of the value of the country’s total economic produce today. Small farmers have been swept off their land and forced into the city suburbs, the service sector and the state apparatus in society have swelled, and so has the number of intellectuals living in semi-proletarian conditions.

The post World War period in Sweden has been one of intense concentration of capital and the creation of very strong monopolies of the multi-national type. The fact that a mass of small farmers and petty bourgeois people in towns have been thrown into the working class is related to this development. So also is the development of the technical-scientific revolution during the same period which has given rise ‘to a great increase in the number’ of students and petty bourgeois intelligentsia. These are some of the objective conditions underlying the student protest-movement of the 60’s, and the (for the most part petty bourgeois) protest movements today which go against the power of monopoly capital and the negative effects of present day scientific and technological developments at the hands of the monopolies. All these groups experience insecurity, and some of them have reacted against the negative sides of the technical scientific revolution — i.e., pollution of the environment, urbanisation, "consumer society", the commercialisation of culture, etc., — even if they do not always see the root cause of these in the capitalist system.

The transformation of the university should also be seen in this historical perspective. The reforms of the last decade of the university system have geared to producing scientifically trained manpower on a wide scale. Therewith the function of the universities has changed — from an upper class institution serving to prepare the youth of the ruling classes for careers in the clergy, teaching, law, diplomacy, state administration or medicine, to an institution for the training of qualified manpower in a vast realm of occupations (the "multiversity").

Traditionally the universities could enjoy a certain related autonomy vis a vis the state as long as they fulfilled the task of reproducing a loyal intelligentsia competent in the various special functions. The education of the technical-scientific intelligentsia — in Sweden at least — came to lie outside the domain of the university system. Here one had the trades schools and later the technical universities (tekniska högskolorna). It is only since the Second World War that the two systems have been integrated into each other, a process which has taken place especially during the years of university reform — and under strong protests from a significant section of the student and teacher population. The structural rationalization of the university system, streamlined to meet the modern needs of both monopoly capital and state, has turned the universities into a system for vocational training, a glorified trades school with fixed curricula. At present there are investigative commissions which in their reports recommend a further rationalization which will cut into the life of graduate studies and research. In this situation the question of autonomy for science cannot be regarded as merely a tactical consideration.

In a study of the developmental trends affecting post-war science in Sweden the following factors should be noted:

(1) the concentration and centralization of capital and a rapid development of productive forces, including the technical-scientific revolution.

(2) the more active role of the state in planning and running (investment etc.) of various social sectors in accord with the needs of monopoly capital. The state plans for a certain class, for that one on which its own power is constituted.

(3) monopoly capitalist industry and the state apparatus have an increasing need of highly qualified manpower. This is connected with the general transformation of job-structures and associated with the technical-scientific revolution as well as structural rationalizations within the economy.

(4) the demand that the state regulate the educational system so as to meet the shifting needs of the labour market.

(These and other factors have been dealt with in some detail in Aant Elzinga, "Den vetenskaplig-tekniska revolutionen i Sverige — kort översikt över betingelserna för forskningspolitiken", in Torsten Björkman, Planeringens gränser (Forum Books, Stockholm 1975, pp. 147-164).

A question of importance is to what extent science-criticism tends ideologically either to unite with or either to isolate itself from the revolutionary movement of the working class which gained momentum 1969-1970 and thereafter in the intermittent waves of wild-cat strikes following in the wake of inflation and stagnation within the capitalist economy as the bourgeoisie tries to shift the burden of crisis onto the backs of those who only can make their living by selling their powers of labour. Also important today is the extent to which this "criticist" trend or "movement" (if there is one) can be led to take sides with the developing countries and their peoples in the Third World, against the warmongering and superpower policies and the cultural interference of the USA and Soviet Union. Two unscientific claims that have to be exploded are the myths that the world’s problems today depend on a combination of "population explosion" and runaway "technological growth" in different parts of the world. These myths obscure the issues that are the root cause of present day world problems, viz. the economic crisis and the aggressive political manifestations. [—>table of contents]

Karl Mannheim’s view on populism

Mannheim analysed populism as an ideological tendency. In his study of conservative thought in Germany he traces the roots of populism, which he finds in the 19th century, the romantic reaction against the Enlightenment.

Recall that it is also the Enlightenment that Theodor Roszak refers to as a dividing line, for him in the opposite direction, i.e. he declares it to be bankrupt and turns instead to populist reaction to it for inspiration.

Mannheim sees populist thought with its strong romantic and irrationalist flavour as a protest against capitalism, a protest from the radical right, combined with the dream of returning to an earlier phase in human history. Where rationalism and optimism had its social base in the progressive bourgeoisie, the monarchy and bureaucracy of the new epoch, the social base of irrationalism, Mannheim says, is located in the petty bourgeoisie and farming population whose livelihood was threatened by emerging capitalist industrialization in the course of the last century. The intelligentsia also, because of its rootlessness tended to join in and give the movement a cultural expression.

In Germany Romanticism developed in a conservative and reactionary direction. All the tendencies of revolt against the new capitalist world and against liberalism were strengthened. Philosophical spokesmen of the Romantic movement pleaded for the seeking of a higher meaning behind the facts which science deals with. Mannheim quotes from the writings of the mystic Novalis:

"By giving a lofty meaning to the vulgar, a mystical countenance to the events of everyday, the dignity of the unknown to the known, thus I romanticize" (Novalis, Schriften, ed. by J. Minor, vol. 2, pp. 304 f.. Jena 1907, cited by Karl Mannheim, Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology, London 1953, p. 129).

This is the sort of thinking that completely negates the method of science. Certainly new light is cast on the facts science deals with, but at the same time this mode of unreason contributes to hiding and mystifying facts. This happens particularly, says Mannheim, when its advocates attack to the reactionary feudal thesis which had been overcome during the Enlightenment.

Mannheim notes that 19th century mystics often glorified the Church, the Middle Ages and nobility. In their writings visionary enthusiasm is set up against scientific theory. A sharp dichotomy is drawn between ‘building up according to a calculated plan" and, "letting things grow", i.e. an absolute contradiction between planning and spontaneous activity (Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, London, 1936, p. 107). Instinct is held to be more authentic than knowledge.

In fascism in our own century, the irrational tendency combines with a philosophy of activism and cult of the strong man. History is no longer interpreted as the creation of ideas or mystical forces, but the result of the willpower of a small but powerful group of men. Mannheim quotes Mussolini, who says:

"You know that I do not worship the new god, the masses, In any case history shows that social change has always first been the creation of minorities, of a small group of men" (ibid., p. 119).

Conservatives and liberals assume that history can in some way be made sense of in intellectual terms. Fascism denied this. Each feat of power is unique, and it is senseless to try and place such events in some sort of temporal perspective. It is uniqueness and the subjective side of history that is emphasized, to the extent that the study of history has only one purpose, and that is its propagandistic value.

"We have created a myth. This myth is a faith, a noble enthusiasm. It does not need to be real, it is an impulse, a hope, a faith and courage. Our myth is the nation, the great nation which we wish to turn into a concrete reality" (Mussolini, quoted by Mannheim, ibid., p. 123).

An ingredient in the opinion-building process of fascism is myth, and the encouragement of psychologizing so as to lay a ground-work for the anti-intellectual attitude, for hostility towards scientific thought. This is an important factor especially in the prewar period, when preparations are made for large scale aggressions.

Now what has all this to do with the sentiments of people like Theodor Roszak?

Certainly the propositions put forth by Roszak are quite harmless in themselves. However it would be shortsighted if we failed to place them in a larger social context. As I have already indicated, we are living in a period of deep-going economic crisis. The two superpowers are engaged in an arms race. They are building up for a third world war. In this context ideological tendencies like Neo-populism have to be taken seriously. We have to ask: is it not a subtle part of an opinion building process in a new prewar period, a process serving to disarm people ideologically and intellectually, so as to make them ready victims of the demagogy of the superpowers and to cover up and confuse people about the economic crisis; Perhaps there is not yet the talk of strong men. But we cannot be blind to the false pretences. My point is that Neo-populism and the anti-intellectual tendency referred to in the introduction is the subjective side of the present day crisis. In an earlier section I have referred to the objective sida of the crisis. A major problem of analysis is to depict the mechanism where through phenomena on the ideological dane "reflect" the socio-economic side of the crisis. I do not take that up here. (This problem has been tackled by Georg Lukács among others). What I want to do now is take a look at Robert Merton’s idea of the scientific ethos, and criticize it. [—>table of contents]

Merton's view of the anti-science movement in the 1930’s

Robert Merton when reviewing the crisis decade preceding the Second World war noted how those years "have directed the attention of intellectuals towards their place in society. Many, having experienced status-insecurities, have begun to re-examine the more general sources of these insecurities, not only for other strata in the population, but also for themselves. Some have come to believe that their wants cannot be satisfied within the existing institutional structure, and their concepts, theories and perspectives. It is now almost respectable to recognize the existence of class conflict. . ." (Social Theory and Social Structure, revised and enlarged edn., Glencoe Ill. 1957, p. 208).

This was in 1942. The war was raging in Europe. At the time there existed both an anti-intellectual and a radical critique of science, the latter founded on theoretical as well as practical considerations of the relationship between science and society.

The situation today may be compared in as far as the existence of deep-going economic crisis and the emergence of both rational and irrational types of science criticism. Also there is the danger of a third world war over the European horizon.

The significant thing here is that the two pioneers of the sociology of knowledge, Karl Mannheim and Robert K. Merton, were both concerned with the phenomenon of an anti-science movement during the 1930’s crisis years. They tried to understand it, not only as a theoretical problem, but also as a practical one — in as far as suggesting more or less implicitly what might be done to immunize the scientific community against fascist ideology and to meet the onslaught of irrationalist critique of science. Merton developed a theory of an ethos of science. In the scientific community there are certain norms that are observed, says Merton. And it is important that these are upheld, otherwise science will degenerate. He depicts the following as the most important internal rules of the game in scientific communities: — universalism, or the universal character of scientific knowledge. In other words a scientific proposition should be the same for both Aryan or Jew, for proletarian or capitalist. This means that the Nazi division of science into Aryan and Jewish involves a negation of a basic rule or norm in the scientific ethos;

communism, or the collective ownership of scientific knowledge. In practice science policies based on making profit and their corresponding institutions collide with this rule;

disinterestedness, as professional attitude of the researcher, and

organized scepticism, a rule of internal criticism which allows the scientific community to make it difficult for new ideas to establish themselves, unless they have stood up to the test of rational criticism.

These four ideals then comprise four components in what might be termed an "internal research ethic." It is this internal ethic of science Merton saw disrupted by the totalitarian nationalist ethos of Nazism. Merton assumes that science must have a non-partisan character, and that it is this which collides with the Hitlerite demand for partisanship, a partisanship defined in terms of race and nationalist prejudice. His idea is presented in an essay of 1937 which deals with science in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. Later the notion of an "ethos of science" is worked out in more detail, in an essay in 1942 entitled "Science and Democratic Social Structure."

Actually Merton’s ideal of science, just like the positivist philosophy of an/the emotion-free scientist standing above and beyond the dirt of politics and class struggle, is an abstraction. It is an abstraction on par with the one of the rational "economic man." In a sense it contributes to the ideological disarmament of the scientist, because in its illusion of the value-free standpoint, it actually weakens the scientist’s ability to resist fascist and obscurantist thought in the field of social endeavour. I shall come back to this later.

In his essay on science in Nazi Germany ("Science and the Social Order" 1937), Merton identifies two sources of hostility toward science. The first is rational, the second is non-rational. The first, he says, involves "the logical, though not necessarily correct conclusion that the results or methods of science are inimical to the satisfaction of important values. The second consists largely of non-logical elements. It rests upon the feeling of incompatibility between the sentiments embodied in the scientific ethos and those found in other institutions. Both sets of conditions underly, in varying degrees, current revolts against science" (Social Theory and Social Structure, p. 537).

We might note that in the case of Roszak’s opposition to science there is a combination of such rational and irrational elements as suggested by Merton. In the case of the radical critique of science, either Bernal’s in the 1930’s or a corresponding critique today, one cannot say that there is an anti-intellectual element present. Indeed, the fact that Bernal’s critique is based on a theory of productive forces which takes no account of the subtleties of class struggle in society, lends it to incorporation in what in Mertonian terms might be described as the "technocratic ethos."

Now for the situation in Nazi Germany of the mid-thirties, Merton points to the presence of the combination of logical and non-logical processes since 1933. He notes two specific effects. The one is the purge of the universities and scientific institutes of non-Aryan scientists, which had the immediate effect of weakening science. The other is the long term effect of anti-intellectualism in the cultural climate, the growth of sects and blossoming of all sorts of irrational and mystic ideas. What we are facing today is of course mainly the second factor noted here, even if one may well ask what effects the Berufsverbut in Germany today has when implemented on a large scale. We might note too that the sharpening of political dirigism and administrative intervention into conflicts between rival traditions in science has a similar weakening effect.

Merton notes further that the approval of science also involves the same elements, both logical and non-logical.

"It might be added, he says, that such reasoning and affective responses are also involved in the social approval of science. But in these instances science is thought to facilitate the achievement of approved ends, and basic cultural values are felt to be congruent with those of science rather than emotionally inconsistent with them. The position of science in the modern world may be analysed then, as a resultant of two sets of contrary forces, approving and opposing science as a large scale social activity" (ibid., p. 538).

This analysis fails to distinguish between the different types of science criticism. For example it cannot handle the case of approval of science combined with the rejection of certain of its social implications in particular societies such as the present capitalist one.

It is quite true that there are two sets of contrary forces, approving and opposing science today. But the fact is that there also are at least two different kinds of positive interest in science, one that is largely non-critical and one that is critical. This may e.g. be seen in the fact that there are at least two opposing interests in science policy studies expressed today. On the one hand there are those with vested interests in capital and state power — they have a need for persons and planning instruments which they think can help them pull the capitalist countries out of economic crisis by effecting a more efficient control over the expenditure of scientific and technological resources for the sake of a profit maximum. On the other hand there are increasing numbers of workers, students and petty bourgeois intelligentsia who are interested in ruling science policy in order to be able to attack it all the more severely. Both these opposing sets of interests are related to the rapid growth of science and technology connected to production and warfare machinery in major capitalist and imperialist countries. It is only the petty bourgeois anarchist critique of science that is really anti-science. The radical critique of science is pro-science but anti-capitalist. Merton fails to take account of such distinctions, perhaps because his own model of science tends to make an abstract projection of a system that has an internal ethos that is rational but no ideological components to indicate a preferred relationship to different sides in the class struggle in society, nor what kinds of social set-up is needed to "guarantee" the scientific ethos, or at least allow it to function freely. I agree that some principle of autonomy is needed to regulate the relationship between scientific and political institutions, so that attempts to solve controversies between contending paradigms by administrative means is ruled out, but I cannot see that Merton’s "ethos"-rules do the job. Merton’s principles appear to assume a more static situation, where majority rule decides which ideas are "scientific" and which are not.

Lolle Nauta at the Philosophy Department in Groningen argues that Merton’s view is typical of the standard "ideology of science" common to many sociologists and philosophers in the period 1930-1965, and that as such, it is the projection into science, of a bourgeois conception of progress. This notion of progress finds its legitimation in the success of science, at the same time as it leaves its imprint in the form of a standard "frame of reference" within which science is judged. The Mertonian "ethos" not only assumes science as something autonomous, but also the idea of a cumulative process, which has been criticized by Thomas Kuhn. In order to really appreciate this "frame of reference," Nauta says, one must recall that "the bourgeoisie was the foremost producer and profit-maker with regard to scientific development, and came to rely on this in increasing degree for its own economic power" (Lolle Nauta, "Wetenschapssociologie en wetenschapsfilosofie," Kennis en Methode (Meppel) 1979, No. 1, p. 53). The standard conception of science, thus understood, is the ex post projection on the part of the bourgeoisie of its own emancipated position. We find a similar projection process in the case of the conception of law, which from having been manifestly class bound and formulated in a struggle against the aristocracy — thereby deriving its specific historical content — became "universalized" at an abstract level in an ideal world (qua ideal of.justice).

Nauta points out that this particular ideal, which in fact is a manifestation of ruling class ideology, is rather strong or dominant. To support this claim he refers to the case of Mannheim, and his formulation of the problem of science and ideology. Mannheim tried to find links between cognitive and social processes. But in his programm he still observes certain restrictions, he still respects the dominant ideal of science and accepts as inviolate the demarcation implied. Indeed, he distinguishes between sociology of knowledge and sociology of science. In the former one deals with the problem of the cognitive contents of forms of consciousness. In the latter one is restricted to dealing only with the forms of consciousness. In the sociology of knowledge one can take up the problem in connection with religious phenomena and philosophical systems, which are said to have ideological imports, and likewise with "Geisteswissenschaften." But in the realm of sociology of science such problems are per definition out of bounds. It deals with the natural sciences, and accordingly, the analysis must be restricted to the social forms of scientific enterprise and leave the interaction between this and the content of scientific discourse outside of consideration.

Michael Mulkay, in Science and the Sociology of Knowledge (London, 1979) makes similar observations regarding Mannheim, and sees the self-imposed restriction (and its underlying dichotomy between social and cognitive factors) as a strong remnant of positivism. Mulkay himself is one of the several present day advocates of a genuine sociology of science, which must be part of a sociology of knowledge. This program calls for a dissolution of the boundary between sociology of science and sociology of knowledge, and absorbs the former into the latter. In this perspective scientific knowledge becomes a social construction, involving cultural interpretation. The model of science that emerges is one of the social networks bearing specialties, and involving negotiation over definitions, significance of observations, categories etc. Power and prestige within the scientific community become significant for the very contents of science.

Recent scholarship in the history of science, also along these lines, has led to the notion that the principle of "autonomy" itself constitutes a social product of history, a kind of social contract. On one account the Restoration in England 1660 marks the turning point. Before this there was a unified ideal where science, politics, morality etc. were all mixed up in specific movements. With the Restoration, science, having associated with anti-authoritarian and democratic traditions of the Levellers and others, was forced to redefinition for the sake of survival. With the principle of autonomy, science was circumscribed as an activity that would contribute to the development of productive forces, but not to meddle with "Divinity, Metaphysics, Morals, Politicks, Grammar, Rhetorick, or Logick" (Hooke, in his draft for the statutes of the Royal Society 1663).

There were two sides of this contract. The monarch would provide for a development of science in special institutions, if scientists for their part would keep their noses out of politics and social philosophy. This is then the social basis of the demarcation later reflected in philosophy of science, between positive science on the one hand and the social context on the other. We find it also in the distinction between context of justification and context of discovery, where only the former becomes the legitimate realm for positivist philosophy of science.

Some modern writers maintain that one reason why we today begin to see the acceptance of the social and historical character of the standard "framework of science," is the development of an entirely new, an industrial mode of production, in science itself. One points to the transition from one-man research to teamwork, to the technification of science, and not least la dirigisme politique after the Second World war. In my opinion these are important new features, serving to throw into relief the traditional "framework’of science" by contrast to more modern technocratic conceptions as well as protests and counter-ideologies advocated in opposition to these. However, I still see the main problem as being the one of trying to identify the class character of ideals of science, and maintain that here we are faced with the three main traditions that can be traced back to the period in Europe following shortly upon the French revolution. In this perspective we see the present day attack upon the autonomy of science as the manifestation of an attack upon bourgeois principles of civil rights like freedom of speech and association etc., which must be defended against both monopoly and bureaucratic capitalist forces on the one hand, and against anarchist and ultra-leftist subjectivism and over-simplification on the other. [—>table of contents]

Positivism and obscurantism — two sides of the same coin

I have maintained that Merton’s ideal of science, just like positivist philosophy of science, serves to disarm the scientist ideologically and politically. On this point I want to exemplify by citing from a book that came out in Sweden in 1942, a collection of essays written by ten professors at the university of Lund. They were anti-fascist intellectuals living in a university town which was a veritable bastion of fascist ideas at the time. The book of essays posed the question of the relationship between science and society. That this question was posed, and with urgency at that time, is not accidental. The crisis years had directed the attention of intellectuals towards their place in society.

In one of the essays the point is made that:

"the scientific profession in itself has obviously not been a guard against the suggestions of the time. A researcher has been able to maintain his critical penetrating eye, but nevertheless becomes a victim of a teaching which is out to stifle freedom of thought." (Tidspegel Bonniers, Stockholm 1942, pp. 57-60).

Another essay, written by professor of physics Tursten Gustafsson (who had close contacts with Nils Bohr and himself worked in advisory capacity on Swedish atomic energy policy after the war), points out: how in the absence of political consciousness scientists actually can fall for astrological and other mystical conceptions which are incompatible with the outlook of modern science of nature. They are schizoid in their world-view, combining on the one hand their learning in the natural sciences with, on the other hand, the most absurd and obscurantist positions in as far as social questions are concerned. And, says prof. Gustafsson, sooner or later their obscurantism in matters of society will erode their scientific conception of the world in general. In this context the writer makes reference to what had happened in Nazi Germany.

A false neutralist ideal of science, far from resisting in actual fact may contribute to a process of degeneration into irrationalism in scientific circles. By disarming scientists ideologically and politically in regard to the question of the relationship between science and society, the false ideal of neutrality (non-partisanship) actually makes scientists vulnerable to the most fantastic claims, such as those Hitler was making, regarding society and the situation in the world.

It is certainly not strange if there is a widespread popular scepticism in regard to modern science and experts today. The spontaneous scepticism against experts as we meet it amongst the general public is nothing negative. Indeed it is a symptom of good health, a sign that people are not willing to be led by the nose or to remain silent when they know that some experts are allied with Big Business and/or instrumental in the superpowers' war preparations.

Here I think it is important to observe the following distinction. Popular scepticism is not the same as Neo-populism! Popular scepticism is a kind of spontaneous negative response to aspects of science and technology, whereas the anti-science tendency in populism is of a different character. It involves an element of articulation on the part of intellectual opportunists who may try to use popular scepticism such as that within the environmentalist movement, in order to drum up a general anti-scientific attitude. Thus for example petty bourgeois intellectuals with anarchist inclinations, like Theodor Roszak, must be added to the picture before we can speak of Neo-populism. The spontaneous negative response to aspects of modern science and technology is not enough.

Now if the intelligentsia plays an important role in the process of opinion building for or against science, a crucial question becomes the one of how to counter obscurantism in such circles, including amongst natural scientists. From what has been said earlier it becomes clear that in countering hostility to science or a scientific world-picture, more is needed than the internalist analysis of Merton, and more than his "ethos" of science. We need a theory of the relationship between science and society, and parallel to this also a sound critique of the epistemological position of positivism. I do not mean that for example everyone engaged in the environmentalist movement has to be articulate on this score, but one can require of the scientific intellectual that he be aware of the influence of social factors on scientific endeavour.

Positivism is a school of philosophy that denies ethical and political implications on the part of science. In opposition to its thesis concerning a value-free science, today there are philosophers who tend to the opposite position and deny the very possibility of objective knowledge of social events. From the standpoint of total subjectivism everything becomes a matter of taste. One opinion is as good as another. There are no objective criteria to decide if one idea is more scientific than another. This is also to open the door wide for obscurantism. In particular it provides a standpoint which permits criticism of science in the capitalist social formation to become distorted into critique of science as such, i.e., into an anti-science tendency.

It appears then that struggle on the philosophical front, in as far as the questions taken up here are concerned, has to be a two-pronged attack, against both positivism and irrationalism. On the organisational level it is against elitism and Neo-populism. [—>table of contents]


1) E. Balibar, "Irrationalism and Marxism", New Left Review, No.107, Jan.-Feb. 1978, pp. 3-18. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Elzinga, Aant. The Man of Science in a World of Crisis: A Plea for a Two-Pronged Attack on Positivism and Irrationalism. Göteborg, Sweden: Göteborg University, Institutionen for Vetenskapsteori, 20 January 1980, Report No. 118, 21 pp. Expanded version of a popular lecture delivered at the Science Faculty of the Vrije Universiteit [Free University], Amsterdam, Unit for the History and Social Aspects of Natural Sciences, Thursday April 20, 1978.

©1980, 2002 Aant Elzinga. All rights reserved. Published by The Autodidact Project with permission of author. Edited by Ralph Dumain for this site.

Aant Elzinga, Professor, Department of History of Ideas and Theory of Science,
Göteborg University, Box 200 SE 405 30 Göteborg, Sweden
Visiting address: Lundgrensgatan 7, Göteborg
Tel.+46 (31) 773 1931, Fax.+46 (31) 773 4548
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"Scientism, Romanticism and Social Realist Images of Science" by Aant Elzinga

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