[part one of two]

The Contemporary Attack on Science

András Gedö

With the exception of socialism, the cure is quite generally sought regressively: in turning away from the present. For unbound human beings, the old bonds are recommended: faith, pre-scientific thinking.

Robert Musil (1923)

Is there a crisis of scientific rationality?

A striking characteristic of late-bourgeois thought in recent years has been a rising wave of attacks on science. These attacks are directed primarily at science as knowledge, at its rationality and objectivity, and similarly at its interrelationship with technology, as well as at science as social activity and at its institutionalization. Responsibility for the present-day crisis--and for crisis as such--is laid at the door of science; to it is ascribed virtual omnipotence in conjuring up the process of degeneration of modern times, the "forgetfulness of Being," yet also impotence in unlocking what is original and essential in recognizing its own nature and destiny, its irrational motives and consequences, and the shipwreck of the modern age. "The still undeciphered history of belief in the modern world has been written by science in the name of truth and precisely thereby has also been veiled: it is unrecognizable as the history of belief," declared Tenbruck in the middle of the 1970s. "Compelled by the triumph of its own advances, science has quietly gone back on its promise; belief in its power of legitimation has waned. The great ideas, with which it has written the history of belief in the modern age, are worn out" (1976, 6, 11). The shrill, incessantly repeated catchphrase regarding the failure of science or, rather, of science as destiny, together with that regarding the priority of faith, is a fashionable phenomenon, through which and in which, however, the orientation of life-philosophy s critique of science and technology, of its mythologizing of crisis (and of history in general), is revealed.

The new cult of the mythical and the longed-for return to belief in the "Sacred" (Bell 1980b, 326ff.) appear as an alternative and counterforce to the indicted rationality of science and as a stage of that critique of objective knowledge which has to establish the failure of "scientific-technological civilization."1

In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-intellectualism of life-philosophy's myth of crisis overflowed the lower and higher levels of bourgeois consciousness, from the little-differentiated and reflected stratum of the awareness of life up to the dazzling and etherealized region of philosophical abstractions. Reproduced were the traditional and blatant, yet all the more persisting, versions of obscurantism, as well as the refined and sophisticated philosophical forms of antiscientism. At one pole, the celebration of religious "revival," astrology, theosophy, and anthroposophy; at the other pole, antirationalism of a Nietzschean and Heideggerian stamp. The homogeneity and proximity of these poles is nowadays more visible and obvious than in periods in which positivistic scientism predominated, where there was the appearance that life-philosophy s critique of science was enveloped by an aura of untimely timeliness, of the fascinating paradoxicality of conservative revolt, of the aristocratic and subtle intellectuality that renounced the intellect, of an intellectually attractive anti-intellectualism.2 The critique proclaimed a more highly valued--and more profound--depth of ultimate mystery, which was foreign to the common obscurantism intended for the everyday crowd. That which seemed disparate in those periods arises in our time, borne simultaneously or successively on the same tide, as in the fresh, yet still amorphous atmosphere of crisis of the turn of the century or as in the bourgeois experience of decline after 1917.

The haunting reoccurs. The cups rattle. Occultism, spiritism, transcendental meditation, eurhythmy, Zen Buddhism all of them anodynes and narcotics from the jar of the irrational, which are offered as means of invigoration for the stress-debilitated inner life of the achiever-type in industrial society. . . . Also experiencing a boom are faith-healers, quacksalvers and herbalists. . . . Behind all this, as varied as it is, stands, to a greater or lesser extent, a trust in irrational forces, which are supposed to bring results in those areas where reason and rationality seem to have failed (and to which they no longer extend).. . . . This skepticism toward reason and this readiness for the irrational have grown, in the recent past, virtually by leaps and bounds, and they are found in all camps: on the right as well as on the left, among conservatives and among environmentalists. (Reinhardt 1979, 158ff.)

And the more the torrent of life-philosophy's critique of science soars upward and the more it expands, the less tenable becomes the illusion that the assumption of a fatal collision between "scientific-technological civilization" and "life" together with the disillusionment over, and revolt against, science and reason are merely transitory and isolated expressions of the current state of late-bourgeois thinking, the illusion that they belong to the particular character of the intellectual world of the New Left or, as the case may be, to the ideological reformulation of the uneasiness of frustrated scientists.

In the early 1970s, however, this illusion was still accepted in the scientistic currents of bourgeois thought (or in those inclining toward scientism), even in their reflections in the awkward experiences of the antiscience movement. Edward Shils stated even then that "science, scientists and the institutional setting of science are being criticized and indeed more voluminously and more harshly than they have been for a very long time." According to Shils, the antiscience tendency arose, first of all, from the social context and circumstances of science. However, from his observations (and positivistic premises) he still concluded that no serious danger threatened science: "In general the purely intellectual reputation of science has never been better." In the view of Shils, there existed simply "a crisis in the external technological, economic and political relations of science not in its external intellectual relations." He also cherished the hope that the fundamental differences between the two main groups of the antiscience movement, "the anti-science scientists and the romantic-anarchist wing of the new left," would diminish the strength of that movement and take away the seriousness of the crisis (Shils 1972, 38ff.). Even though, to be sure, this diagnosis by Shils noted or implied certain special features and paradoxes of the present intellectual crisis around science--the contemporary critique of science can hardly appeal to such general critical situations in the development of science as was the case with the "crisis of physics" around the turn of the century, the expectations of research have further increased, and the "science business" has not suffered a loss of status and import in either an economic or a military respect--it did not at all, however, do justice to the seriousness of that intellectual crisis. In spite of Shils's confidence, precisely the "external intellectual relations of science" were profoundly disturbed; the antiscience movement (although splintered) unfolded as a component of a broader anti-intellectualist wave, making for a powerful ideological current.3

Although, in the early 1980s, Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker reflected that intellectual state of crisis, he emphasized--in distinction to Shils's earlier, rather reassuring judgment--the drama of the situation. Removed equally from overall accusations against science and from illusory attempts to withdraw from scientific-technological civilization, Weizsacker grappled with the tension of a philosophical attitude which, on the one hand, is committed to scientific investigation, to its claim of objectivity, and to its dialectical problematic, and, at the same time, becomes conscious of the danger of a thermonuclear war and of the conflicting social and ecological consequences of science applied to technology; on the other hand, it feels attracted to Heidegger's thinking. From this tension resulted a crisis-picture of the spiritual condition of science, which, it is true, was not quite Heideggerian; yet, in the final analysis, it caused pregnant observations concerning that condition to merge into the conclusions of Heidegger's critique of science. "The crisis taking place at present has one of its causes in the modern shape of science" (with Heidegger, it is looked upon as the cause of the crisis). Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker saw the emerging identity crisis of science in the fact that it was not able to understand its own role and its own implications. In his train of thought, then, there obtruded the relevant--and non-Heideggerian--realization: "Science is obligated to recognize, as well, how social relations must be changed, if society is to survive the transformation of the world, which is made possible by science." This cognition--or, rather, demand upon cognition--seems to come into a strained relationship with the conclusion of that train of thought, which yearned for the solution of the identity crisis of science in a renewed religiosity.

According to Weizsacker, neither as theoretical nor as moral insight does the conception of knowledge of modern European culture afford "a home for the affective awareness of that on which it depends. Religion as bearer of culture was, at one time, such a home. It would still be, I believe, the only home if it could be reconciled to modern consciousness" (1980). In its contradictory character, Weizsacker's diagnosis indicated both the philosophical dimensions and the wrong tracks of the crisis-consciousness of science, as well as the possible entanglement involved in becoming aware of its objectively social motives and its spiritual, religious transfiguration. However, it also contained the idea that the philosophical consideration of science has to reflect the social sciences, because, to begin with, it has to include consideration of the social status and the social presuppositions and consequences of science.

The Indictment of Science

Positivistic scientism and life-philosophy's indictment of science had already taken shape by the middle of the nineteenth century in the form of philosophical conceptions and attitudes which could be supported by their own traditions and which also follow traditions enduring into late-bourgeois neutrality. Almost simultaneously, but independently of each other, Renan and Kierkegaard formulated the standpoints, respectively, of scientism and of hostility to science, with a radicality difficult to surpass. "It is no exaggeration to say," Renan declared in 1849, "that the future of humanity lies in science, that science alone can make known to a human being his or her destiny, that it teaches one the way and means to attain one's goal" (1947, 230). The proclamation of scientism belonged to the process of turning away from classical bourgeois philosophy, while the concept of science was also modified. The objective generality and necessity contained in science was first pushed into the background and veiled, then was lost. Being made empty this concept of science was subordinated to the primacy of faith. The fetishizing of science, which was entangled with its epistemological devaluation (if not obviously, then in the depths of philosophical consciousness), not only gave ideological expression to bourgeois interests in the development of science--and in the boundaries of this development--it also awakened the illusion that science in capitalist society has as its spontaneous and inevitable result the reconciliation or the resolution of social contradictions and tensions. Since Renan's time, positivistic scientism has gone through a manifold and essential change: its present-day variants are linked with the scientistic principle of Renanian provenance only in their core content and through historical mediations. The later versions of scientism were accommodated to alterations in the social position of science, to modifications of positivism, to the emergence of the program of "social technology," then to its changing ideology and practice.

Kierkegaard's indictment of the natural sciences sounds so "modern," indeed "postmodern" (although it is virtually coeval with Renan's scientism-prophecy), that it could be situated at the outer pole of the current antiscientism of life-philosophy: "In our time, it is, in particular, the natural sciences which are dangerous. . . . All ruin will come, in the last analysis, from the natural sciences. . . . Natural science in its entirety, as also all of the science of modern times, is sophistry. . . . In dealing with the natural sciences, nothing at all can help. Here one stands defenseless and is utterly unable to control anything" (Kierkegaard 1954, 126ff.). This basic idea was common to the Kierkegaardian and the Nietzschean-Heideggerian versions of the negation of the spirit of science; in the present intellectual crisis, however, Nietzsche's and Heidegger's form of this attitude predominates. In distinction to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche pronounced science blameworthy, not so much for the reason that it is incompatible with the personal inwardness of the individuals, with his or her moral and religious existence, but rather for the reason that it is alien and antagonistic to the irrationality of life: "Even our desire and will for knowledge is a symptom of a monstrous decadence" (Nietzsche 1969, 3:697). To Nietzsche, as also to Kierkegaard, science seemed "an inhuman abstraction" (Nietzsche 1969, 1:293). The objectivity of science did not count so much for Nietzsche as an immoral and irreligious danger threatening the "ego"; he explained objectivity more as a mere fiction and understood science as general falsehood and mendaciousness (Nietzsche 1969, 2:113), which leads to the fate of desolation. To be sure, this interpretation did not remain free from hesitations and inconsistencies; even in the last periods of his course of thinking, when he radicalized his critique of science, Nietzsche looked for scientific arguments for the principle of eternal recurrence of the same. Nevertheless, in his philosophy the openly proclaimed "battle against science" and the idea of exorcism of the "spirit of science" developed into a multilayered, leading theme.

With Nietzsche, the indictment of science had already overlapped the lament about the "machine." In this respect, despite his critique of romanticism, he continued its anticipations of life-philosophy:4 "Science--transformation of nature in concepts for the purpose of domination over nature--this belongs in the category of 'means' . . . . science is set on bringing about this enslavement of nature" (Nietzsche 1969, 3:440 and 859). The combining of the ideas of the nugatoriness of science, due to its epistemic vanity, and its fateful all-powerfulness into one, even if discordant, concept persisted, after Nietzsche, in the current of life-philosophy. It became the core element of the crisis-myth which at first presaged, then reflected, the general crisis-condition of capitalism as the fate of scientific rationality. The apologetic character of this crisis-myth was so strong that it also could assimilate the awareness of the capitalist embodiment of science, while it subordinated this awareness to the critique of scientific rationality, to a conception, therefore, which defined scientific rationality as the ground and source of decay and destruction.5

The present-day indictment of science by life-philosophy is formulated most distinctly in Heidegger's interpretation. His critique of science is radical in two respects--both in the assertion of its emptiness as knowledge and also in that of its fatal omnipotence--yet, at the same time, it is philosophically sublimated, invulnerable to prima facie objections. Heidegger's critique of science and technology intends to strike at their essence; it neither detracts from their actual use nor has a need to evoke a customary demonology of technology. It sees in the essence of technology the danger threatening humanity. According to Heidegger, this essence is inherent in "modern science," since "modern science is based on the development of the essence of modern technology" (Wissel 1970, 72). Science, as theory of reality, as attached to "being," and authentic thinking mutually exclude one another. Science destroys things; it is, from the beginning, technological, occasioning the "withdrawal of Being." In science lies the world-destiny of humanity: "We do not need an atom bomb at all; the uprooting of humanity is already here. We only have purely technological relations. It is no longer an earth on which human beings live today" ("Nur noch. . . . " 1976, 206).

As a result of the present wave of life-philosophy's animosity to science, there emerges once more the spurious appearance of an absolute disjunction between positivistic scientism and life-philosophy's critique of science. The noisiness and impact of the indictment of science make scientism seem almost absent, while the same indictment attributes to scientism, which is equated with science, an incontestable supremacy. The contrast between positivistic scientism and life-philosophy's antiscientific stance, seemingly absolute, is bridged by means of their interdependence. Even Heidegger's radical antiscientism accepts (tacitly, it is true) two assumptions of positivistic scientism: on the one hand, he operates with a positivistic concept of science; on the other hand, he accepts a scientistic interpretation of history, in that he allows science and technology to be invested with omnipotence in the determination of modern history. The scientistic absolutization of the position of science is immanent within the present-day kinds of late-bourgeois "sociotechnological" ideology, and not only in disguised forms as a latent presupposition. According to Bell, scientific-theoretical knowledge is the decisive factor in postindustrial society. For that reason, the sites of the production of this knowledge--the universities--are its key institutions (Bell 1973). If, later on, crisis-consciousness got the upper hand in Bell's depiction of postindustrial society (Bell 1976), the scientistic nucleus of his conception remained intact, which not only tolerates but also involves the demand for a return to the Sacred. Positivistic scientism survives also in its traditional forms, formulated in this connection not always and under any circumstances in philosophical theses but also as attitude and outlook, which have the appearance of a self-evident attribute and necessary presupposition of scientific activity. Scientism and reductionism bound up with it even have buoyancy alongside the advance of antiscientism. Complementary to this, sociobiology develops as a "new synthesis," which sets about a universal explanation of society and the individual, history and spirit, and becomes an influential trend,6 in which the orientation prompted by E. O. Wilson encounters the sociophilosophical views of K. Lorenz and the tradition of older bionaturalistic conceptions of society. Sociological system-theories of the kind of Niklas Luhmann, which radicalize the scientistic positivism of a Talcott Parsons into a conception of society without the individual as subject and without history7 and which make the human being appear only in terms of the environment of the system of society, show, at the same time, affinity for the religious and manifest themselves as expressions for the fetish of anxiety. And for a positivistic-scientistic representation of science, the philosophy of "critical rationalism" stands prepared. In the disputes with the branches of postpositivism critical of science (above all, with the relativistic theories of knowledge of T. S. Kuhn and Feyerabend), it turns out, however, that they are connected with Popper's "critical rationalism" not only through divergence and controversy but also through continuity in substance; and the irrationalistic approach is even indwelling in Popper's philosophy.8

Nowadays, however, the overt indictment of science is preferred, above all and on all sides.

Where nothing else is to be devoured, reason must also devour itself. Progress has long since been dismissed. In addition, the magnum opus of Adorno and Horkheimer has now been corrupted into the "Dialectic of Pseudo-Enlightenment [Aufklarichts]." The fantastic and anarchistic self-extravagance of reason celebrates the festival of dissolution: "Reason exults in its dithyrambic cry." Transgression. Even the transcending of self-critical thinking becomes empty movement. The mawkishly [philobatisch] sickly critique, reflection only as reflex, appears as the mania of someone deranged. (Nordhofen 1986)

The picture is perhaps too crass, the lines are perhaps too sharp. Yet, is not the phenomenon--the blissfully celebrated breakdown of science, the exultation about the irrational--itself crass? Are not the lines, which are thought to be observed on the death mask of rationality, themselves sharp? The new indictment of science builds upon the traditional critique of rationality by life-philosophy. It interprets new developments--the danger of a world war threatening human existence, the consequences of the new stage of the general crisis of capitalism, ecological collisions--from the point of view of this transmitted fund of ideas and subordinates them to it. Collapses of previously operative forms of late-bourgeois ideology--the crisis of sociological theory of the Talcott Parsons kind and that of Keynesian economic theory--are also explicated as demonstrations of the failure of scientific knowledge, as indications of the abyss of reason. Thus, it is said that the endeavor to comprehend scientifically the social character of human beings leads to abrogation of the human being (Tenbruck 1979 and 1984), that the theoretical concept of society is useless and harmful (Schelsky 1981 and Touraine 1980), and that the critical situation of bourgeois political economy shows the limited nature of the possibilities of scientific rationality (Bell 1980a and Kristol 1980). Idealist interpretations of scientific theories and the attempts to demonstrate the irrational in science, to defend the primacy of the irrational on the basis of it9--all these factors are incorporated into the shape of crisis; they are manifestations of a "crisis of perception," which points to the indispensability and higher value of intuitive knowledge. As against rational knowledge, which only makes distinctions, measures, and corrects, which disintegrates into fragments, the physicist Fritjof Capra pleads for a "non-intellectual experience of reality," which synthetically comprehends all that is (1982, 21). The fact that life-philosophy's indictment of science can find endorsement and representation even among natural scientists stands in contrast not only to the scientistic thesis that scientific activity is tied together with a positivistic affirmation of science but also to the phantom of scientism of many critics of the enterprise of science, a phantom which, as a seeming ideological sovereign, obscures the danger of life-philosophy's destruction of science.

Marxism's response to the indictment

In intellectual disputes, Marxism stands on the side of science under indictment. Thereby it also represents and defends itself: the antiscientism of life-philosophy indicts Marxism as science, whereas positivistic scientism denies to Marxism a scientific character. As a nonscientistic advocate for indicted science, Marxism becomes aware of the drama of the present-day social and historical situation of science. However, it opposes the attempt to reinterpret this drama as an existential tragedy in the "history of being"; it is unwilling to relinquish to anti-intellectual resignation the potentiality and the claim of science--including its own. This opposition and this refusal are founded on the fact that Marxism is transsituated beyond life- philosophy's hostility to science and beyond positivistic scientism, such that this farther positioning lies in the middle of theoretical and practical battles and is the locus of learning and inquiry. The materialist dialectics of Marx comprehended the contradictoriness of progress in general, which, in distinction to Comte's or Renan's scientism, Marx did not reduce to science. Instead, Marx understood science in the context of the material and intellectual life-activity of social human beings.

Marx disclosed the consequences, fraught with conflict, of a science subsumed under the capitalist process of production, in which, moreover, the objective grounds for the negative fetishizing of this science are concealed.10 Peculiar to the contemporary drama of the situation of science and technology are trends which could hardly be foreseen at the time Marx worked on Capital. The connections and consequences of these trends are to be grasped afresh by present-day Marxists: the potential for destruction, threatening the conditions of life, by means of a physics transformed into thermonuclear weapons; the environmentally disruptive effects of contemporary scientific technology; the new dimensions of the science enterprise, integrated into the system of state-monopoly capitalism. If there are, no doubt, partial, first-hand experiences of these facts, possibilities and necessities, nevertheless science alone is capable of adequately recognizing these threats and seeking protection from them. And if Marxism and Marxists have to learn from such cognition to reflect on them, it follows from a scientific consideration of the problem of "how humanity can survive the new power which science has given to it" (Commoner 1966, 131), that this problem is of a social nature. Barry Commoner, who, as a biologist, examined the theme of science and survival long before ecology was in vogue, obviously did not proceed from Marxist assumptions. Yet, the conclusions which he drew from this examination approximated, in their essential content, the discovery by Marx. "Each major advance in the technological competence of men has enforced revolutionary changes in the economic and political structure of society. The present age of technology is no exception to this rule of history. We already know the enormous benefits it can bestow; we have begun to perceive its frightful threats. The political crisis generated by this knowledge is upon us. Science can reveal the depth of this crisis, but only social action can resolve the crisis" (Commoner 1966, 132).


SOURCE: Gedö, András. “The Contemporary Attack on Science”, Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 3, no. 2, 1990, pp. 179-195. [Part one ends on p. 189.]

© 1990 Marxist Educational Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Marxist Educational Press.

Click here for part two of this article


"The Historical Character of the Concept of Nature" by András Gedö

Crisis Consciousness in Contemporary Philosophy by András Gedö:
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: "Two Aspects of Bourgeois Crisis Consciousness"
Chapter 2: "The Contemporary Crisis in Bourgeois Philosophy"
1. Neopositivism: Linguistic Philosophy and Critical Rationalism
2. Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie)

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

"Why Marx or Nietzsche?" by András Gedö


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