Ideology of/in Contemporary Physics

Jean‑Marc Lévy‑Leblond

    Ideology and the Orientation of Physics
   Physics and the Ideology of Expertise
   Division of Labour and Hierarchy
   Division of Scientific Practice]


The triple division of scientific activity, into the hierarchisation of individual functions, the specialisation of disciplines and the division of labour in practice, which is particularly advanced in contemporary physics, has considerable internal consequences. The privilege conferred to research (narrow sense) leads to an excessive importance being given to fundamental discoveries, exceptional breakthroughs and qualitative advances, which represent the most unforeseeable and irregular moments in the history of scientific progress. The activity of development, nevertheless, plays an essential role in freeing the new‑found knowledge from the mud of the old formulations (this new knowledge is always, at birth, prisoner of the old formulations and at the same time the proof of the need to leave them behind). It is this development which makes it possible to extend, little by little, the area over which concepts are valid, and the functioning of experimental instruments, to the limits demanded by new fundamental progress. Consequently, if scientific knowledge advances by means of qualitative leaps, it also remains the object, between these leaps, of a constant process of re‑casting, essentially under the influence of development and teaching practice.

A good example can be found in the history of classical electromagnetism, which, after a long and rich pre‑history, mainly between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, truly began with Maxwell's formulations of his famous equations. At the time, these were included within a mechanistic context which would eventually be demonstrated as being invalid. Though the equations of the theory, within today's limits of recognised validity, still hold good (yet it would be interesting to analyse the progressive condensation of their symbolic expression leading to simultaneous simplification and enrichment), the concepts, [296/297] underlying them have none the less changed profoundly. Following a long period of work (experimental and technical; from Hertz to the development of telecommunications; theoretical, from relativity to general field theory), it is the concept of the electromagnetic field which has progressively developed over the last decade.

At a period when the various aspects of the division of labour—already discussed—were not so well defined as they are today, the process of re‑casting was largely spontaneous and taken for granted. It is no longer so; today one witnesses a paradoxical situation where the most modern fields of physics are, in one way, the most archaic, and their necessary re‑casting suffers from a long delay. The most striking example of this situation is provided by quantum physics. Several decades after its foundation, it is still not treated with all the seriousness that its advanced age, its established reputation and its unquestioned efficacy (materialised in the transistor and the laser for instance) should deserve.

At present, everyday in the work of thousands of research workers, its practical application has enabled the emergence of a new 'sense of physics', of a specific theoretical intuition, and of a proper heuristic approach. In addition, long theoretical work on its formal structure makes it possible to free the architecture, to make its key concepts explicit and to leave behind the necessary confusion of the phases of conception and growth.

Nevertheless, this rooting in practice and reforming in theory remains for the most part latent and implicit and does not generally appear in pedagogical, epistemological or philosophical discourses on quantum physics. Thus, these discourses are encumbered with obsolete terms, statements and pseudo‑concepts; for example, uncertainty relations, quantum jumps, subjectivity of the measurement with respect to the observer and observables, wave/particle duality, complementarity, disturbance of the system by the measuring instrument, and so on. All this terminology describes less the real structure (the actuality) of quantum theory and its relation to experience, than a certain conceptual, temporary scaffolding which, as useful and unavoidable as it might have been in the past, today only hides (to say the least) or (even) restrains ongoing construction. [14] The time for the necessary re‑casting having come, an indefinite wait will only exacerbate the already visible signs of' sclerosis and deterioration.

In maintaining the proper ideological distance between an implicit practice and an explicit discourse, an essential role has been played by [297/298] the dominant philosophical current within modern physics, namely positivism and its several variants (operationalism, nominalism, and so on), as it manifests itself, for example, in the epistemological concern of many of the founders of quantum theory within the Copenhagen school. This current certainly initially played an important positive role in freeing a whole generation of physicists from the yoke imposed by the mechanistic rationalism which was previously dominant. By 'relativising' theoretical concepts and stressing the role of experimental procedures, positivism has made possible the adoption of radically new ideas, as quantum physics demanded them. But from its beginning, quantum physics led physicists to transgress most of their new philosophical dogmas, which now merely sterilise and immobilise quantum epistemology. Think, for instance, of the debate on the quantum theory of measurement, which had been declared closed or even void of sense by the orthodox positivist view as early as the 1930s. Nevertheless, this debate has lately seen new and important developments which open the path for solving many paradoxes and problems attached to the so‑called 'failure of determinism' in quantum mechanics. A sign of this philosophical domination, which highlights its clearly ideological character, is its almost exclusive imposition by theoreticians (the elite, of course!). Among the authors of the abundant literature devoted to the questions of the basis and the interpretation of quantum theory, such as Bohr, Heisenberg, Born, Dirac, Von Neumann, Wigner, de Broglie, Einstein, Schrödinger, Langevin, where does one find the name of an experimentalist? One apparent exception might be Bridgeman, the high priest of operationalism. But in fact he confirms the rule, since his own field of experimentation was high‑pressure physics, which has no direct connection with quantum physics about which he set out to philosophise. Hence one should not be surprised if, in the whole of this literature, the references to experimental practice—even as numerous and as continual as they are—remain purely abstract.

As for specialists in the philosophy of science, they are also now the victims of the fragmentation of knowledge. They have less and less access to true scientific knowledge as experienced, and generally they must be content with the vulgarised interpretations that some scientists are willing to give them. This knowledge, in the course of the process of vulgarisation, loses its active quality and becomes purely passive. No longer an analytical tool, it instead carries the weight of ideological and philosophical positions which are not so strongly and not so perniciously expressed in the original and 'proper' scientific papers. These [298/299] positions are generally claimed by the scientists to be necessarily linked with the scientific truth of the theories and methods under discussion (this is the very mark of positivism); but, in fact, they only are reactualised echoes of external and earlier philosophical theories and methods. Yet, short of a proper scientific practice, those who receive the theories and methods at second hand are not able to separate the core of rational knowledge from the ideological shell. The latter then grows gradually thicker with successive editions, whether secondary education texts, or, even worse, popularised versions for the 'public at large'.

In this way, major advances in modern physics, especially in relativity and quantum mechanics, have paradoxically fed an intensely irrational current. One knows the popular expression for scepticism and unconcern: 'everything is relative . . . as Einstein said' (and this is not so harmless as one would believe). At a seemingly more elaborate level, the mad attempts of Bergson to criticise and reinstate the theory of relativity within his own philosophy, even if they took place fifty years ago, still give evidence of a serious crisis in the relations between science and philosophy. The case of quantum physics is even more obvious. The alleged 'crisis of determinism', which, quantum physics brought about (in fact, it was a modification of the forms of physical causality), opened the gates to a flood of philosophical, ideological and even political lucubrations. Heisenberg's 'uncertainty principle' (very wrongly named too!) [15] was generalised out of any proportion and combined with the vague notion of 'complementarity', laxly applied and beyond its field of validity. It was thus used to assert the impossibility of understanding both the physico‑chemical and biological properties of living matter at the same time:

each time physical and chemical laws could be applied to living organisms, they found their confirmation there, therefore it appears there is no more room for any 'vital force' alien to the laws of physics. But this is precisely the argument which has lost most of its weight because of the theory of physics. [16]

Many of Bohr's papers expressed the same view. Yet, twenty years later, the prodigious development of molecular biology, partly due to the role of quantum chemistry, refuted these sceptical views. Thus it is rather amusing to see the same 'uncertainty principle' called to the rescue of an illustrious biologist in his own ideological reflections today: ‘Finally, there exists on a microscopic scale, an even more [299/300] radical source of uncertainty, rooted in the quantum structure of matter itself. Now a mutation is in itself a microscopic quantum event, to which, consequently, the uncertainty principle can be applied.’ [17] It is true that a few lines further one can read: 'one must underline that, even if the uncertainty principle had to be forsaken one day, it would nonetheless remain, etc.'.

How can one admit more clearly that quantum physics has intrinsically nothing to do in the discussion and is an authority cited merely to buttress an argument? Even more of a caricature was the explicitly political use of quantum physics, quoted against Marxism:

Eastern (sic!) Marxism teaches that communist economy is a historical necessity, and from this conviction stems its fanaticism. . . . Physics has now developed the statistical interpretation of the laws of nature which correspond better to reality; from this new viewpoint, the belief of the communists in the inevitable realization of Marxist predictions seems grotesque. [18]

It would be easy to quote numbers of similar examples. The 'free will' of the electron was invoked to prove that of humans. Under the name of 'complementarity', general laws of social evolution were even opposed to those of individual behaviour. In brief, one has witnessed a true ideological exploitation of modern physics. It must be added that the philosophical idealism, which made this procedure possible, was shared by the very people who proposed to fight it on behalf of materialism. A complete rejection of relativity and quantum physics because they were 'idealistic bourgeois theories'—as was the case in the Soviet Union during the years 1940 – 50—partook in the main of the same conception of science. This conception was at the same time too restrictive (limited to the results of strict practical research work) and too large (linked to the philosophical and political discourse which claimed to be built upon it). The proper ideological space in which to draw the necessary demarcation line was thus concealed.

If today that kind of argument has lost its virulence, it is precisely because the practical rooting of 'modern physics', both in the work of a large scientific collective, and in the many technical products created thanks to this 'modern physics', has made it far less convincing. How, today can one preach idealism, subjectivism or irrationalism in the name of a science which, from transistor radio to laser bomb, demonstrates its efficacy and rationality to the contrary in the hands of those who dominate it? It is upon biology (molecular biology in particular) [300/301] on the one hand, and upon social ('mathematised and structuralised') sciences, linguistics for example, on the other, that new ideological arguments, delivered under the name of science, tend to be built today. This is why previous considerations about the ideological exploitation of the content of modern physics are inclined to lose some of their importance, and have occupied, so far, only a relatively limited place in this discussion, whereas, even fifteen years ago, they would have constituted the essential part of a text devoted to these questions.

However, if the philosophical and epistemological crisis of modern physics has lost some of its importance outside its own sphere of activity, it is different inside, where it continues to have serious repercussions in teaching. Devaluation in teaching practice, and delay in re‑casting, each leaning on and perpetuating the other, are here fully revealed. As far as the theories of relativity or quantum physics are concerned, the last fifty years have hardly witnessed any major evolution in their mode of presentation. Most handbooks are surprisingly similar, repeating indefinitely the same schemes of inner organisation. As a general rule, a historical or rather chronological introduction—of dubious accuracy—is followed by some philosophical reflections in which traditional dogmas are enunciated under a much more schematic and poorer form than that of their creators.

Having fulfilled this first task, the author then approaches the ‘strictly scientific’ content of the book. It consists, in general, of purely theoretical, exaggeratedly formalistic accounts, from which references to real experiments steadily vanish. Not a single impression is left of the real procedures of scientific activity, of the dialectic between theory and practice, heuristic models and formalism, axioms and history. Modern physics appears as a collection of mathematical formulae, whose only justification is that 'they work'. Moreover, the 'examples' used to 'concretise' the knowledge are often totally unreal, and actually have the effect of making it even more abstract. Such is the case when the explanation of special relativity is based on the consideration of the entirely fictitious spatial and temporal behaviour of clocks and trains (today sometimes one speaks of rockets . . . it sounds better . . . but it is as stupid!). This kind of science fiction (which is not even funny) is the more dangerous as erases the existence of a large experimental practice, where the theory of relativity is embodied in the study of high-energy particles, involving hundreds of scientific workers, thousands of tons of steel and millions of dollars. In this field, things are beginning to change, but after a long delay. [301/302]

In quantum physics, the situation is even more serious. Introductory courses are often limited in fact to the study of the resolution of a particular partial derivative equation (Schrödinger's equation), without stating its real significance. An excessive and often archaic formalisation (wave‑mechanics is sometimes privileged compared with other more general forms of quantum theory) hinders any systematic conceptual work. Only very recently, at an introductory level, a certain breakaway from the rigid tradition has occurred, and new, truly modern, textbooks have been produced, for example those of Feynman or Wichmann, [19] though these books show the necessity of going still further. Characteristically the use of these books has met strong resistance on the part of teachers, under the pretext of excessive difficulty; yet they are technically (mathematically) much simpler than the traditional ones. It is, then, the effort at conceptualisation, which such books have the great merit of demanding, which is refused.

This teaching situation, even if it appears unhealthy and harmful with regard to the simple aims of training and teaching (transmission of knowledge), is however in perfect ideological harmony with the general context of modern physics. A closed arduous, forbidding education, which stresses technical manipulation more than conceptual understanding, in which neither past difficulties nor future problems in the search for knowledge appear, perfectly fulfils two essential roles: to promote hierarchisation and the 'elite' spirit on behalf of a science shown as being intrinsically difficult, to be within the reach of only a few privileged individuals; and to impose a purely operational technical concept of knowledge, far from a true conceptual understanding, which would necessarily be critical and thus would reveal the limits of this knowledge. This is why discussions about educational problems take on the form of ideological struggle. It is also why, because of the essentially political nature of the resistance to change in this field, no reformist illusions should be entertained as to the possibility of any major successes, as long as such a struggle only relies on the internal critique of scientific workers and teachers, remaining within the framework of an unchanged technical and social division of labour.

The Frontiers of Science

The dominant ideology therefore plays a considerable role in adjusting the various forms of practice which contribute to the development of each sphere of science (here, physics), by way of control over their relative emphasis and relative advance. However, even more than within [302/303] the various fields of scientific knowledge, it is in the tracing of their frontiers that the influence of ideology is felt at the epistemological level. Each scientific discipline needs a system of representation, norms and values which give it definition and set its limits. The implicit consensus of all scientists in the same discipline over this truly specific ideology is essential for their activity to take place, since this is the price they must pay to work within a common understanding of problems. The type of questions which are permissible, the approved procedures of demonstration, the accepted methods of work, the authorised forms of communication, are thus fixed. [20] The most obvious purpose of these partial ideologies is to permit the specific constitution of each particular science, by establishing its place and boundaries within the over‑all field of scientific knowledge.

So 'physics', like other sciences, cannot be defined once for all in an abstract and definitive way by referring, for example, to the physical ‘method’, even less to the aims of its study. On the contrary, it is precisely scientific work itself, starting from the reality being studied, which defines its own proper objectives. The best proof of these ideological results is given by the historic development, the modifications of the borderlines (and, on occasion, the change of name) of each discipline.

Thus the fact that between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries physics replaced 'natural philosophy' could not fail to produce a serious modification in point of view. And, even though it may be justified, there is a real abuse of language in calling Galileo, Kepler and Newton ‘physicists’. One also knows how long and complex was the pre‑history of electricity and magnetism. Before being assigned to 'physics', at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, they were, for a long time, related to conceptions much closer to the life sciences. It would be very interesting to study, in detail, the borderlines between contemporary physics and the other sciences, and the territories of disciplines with mixed status. For instance, the periodically renewed and still unsuccessful attempts to constitute a science of 'biophysics' doubtless reflect the existence in physics of an ideological current at the same time 'reductionistic' and 'imperialistic', a refusal to recognise the possibility of autonomous yet rigorous biological sciences Yet molecular biology, for example, has acquired characteristics which are unquestionably scientific, with a well‑defined field of work and proper concepts and methods. It has really become 'a science', whereas the word 'biophysics' does not seem to cover more than a heterogeneous [303/304] collection of biological problems to which the experimental theories and methods of physics can be applied, problems which do not seem to be the most numerous nor the most fundamental.

Conversely, it may seem curious that the development of quantum mechanics, and its lightning success in molecular physics, has not brought a great part of theoretical chemistry back into the bosom of physics. Though many statements of principle from the golden age of quantum physics during the 1930s proclaimed that chemistry could in principle be reduced to physics, it was essentially as quantum chemistry that this has developed. I discuss here the position of this particular branch of chemistry, which, from all theoretical and experimental points of view, is in perfect continuity with what is called 'molecular physics'; it is not a question of the (legitimate) existence of chemistry in general. One can see in the existence of quantum chemistry, it seems to me, a true phenomenon of rejection on the part of physics, based on the devaluing of an area of scientific work essentially devoted to development. We have, therefore, exact symmetry with the previous case, where the attempt at incorporating part of the life sciences into physics, clearly corresponded with the (real) character of fundamental research as defined above. The combination of two hierarchies, that of different sciences and that of differing scientific practices, leads once more to a confirmation of the elitism which impregnates contemporary physics.

However, the problem of the real definition of each science is not only—and is indeed less and less—epistemological, even taking into account the underlying ideology. The growing institutionalisation of science, and sociological sluggishness, make the question somehow trivial: would not today's physics simply be the activity of physicists, and they themselves be defined through their belonging to a laboratory or institute of physics? As long as one remains within the scientific establishment, the answer seems to be clearly yes. Then, perhaps it is necessary to ask a question which is in the long run more important than that of frontiers between the various sciences: where are the lines which, in a given field of knowledge, settle the boundaries of what can properly be called 'scientific'? Or, more precisely, how can we recognise a science from other forms of knowledge and action related to the same reality?

Before posing the problem as a whole, it would be as well to consider the usual distinctions between 'fundamental' and 'applied' science and between 'applied science' and 'technology'. Today, these distinctions [304/305] are at stake in a conflict between, on the one hand, the dominant ideology, in the dichotomy it has established between theoretical and practical intellectual and manual, elite and mass, always with the privilege attached to the first term of these pairs, and, on the other hand, the economic and political needs of capitalism, which tends more and more to subordinate knowledge to power, research to production, science to profit. I have already shown that the particular status of particle physics was the result of this interplay of contradictions. It is also in this perspective that one can understand why the corpus of a science does not develop in a cumulative way, but—independently even of the re‑casting of the existing or new parts—sees whole areas breaking away from it. Disciplines such as acoustics, the mechanics of fluids, elasticity, and even classical thermodynamics and the resistance of materials, which were at the zenith of physics in the nineteenth century, are increasingly slipping out of the field of 'contemporary' physics. They are practically no longer taught at university, and in spite (or because) of their considerable importance in production, on account of their lack of ideological prestige (as they are not 'top' subjects, development has taken precedence over research), they have very little place in the  popularisation and public image of physics in general. Physics—in its strict, maybe academic sense—the physics which is explicitly meant in such expressions as 'contemporary physics', progresses more through removal and exclusion than through continuous expansion. Today's physicists, apart from their own exaggerated specialisations, and considered collectively, do not know more than last century's physicists, they know different.

Based on this problem is that of the frontiers, not to say barriers, between any one science, with its apparent ineluctable esotericism, and familiar knowledge linked with current everyday practice in the same domain of (natural and/or social) reality. A considerable mass of practical knowledge still conceived not so long ago as 'scientific' is at present directly incorporated into the industrial—sometimes even artisan—development of production. Here lies the core of the problem; the theoretical content of this science is devalued or forgotten to the benefit of a purely technical conception. P. Langevin once described how the notion of electric potential, included in the final‑year programme of his French Lycée, represented, at the time of his education, the acme of theoretical abstraction and of difficulty. The daily use of electricity has concretised this concept today in the familiar '110' or '220' volts of electric bulbs or domestic applicances, in the discharge [305/306] children get in their fingers when they touch objects around them, in cattle behind electrified fences—and in the electric chair which was used to kill Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Yet this knowledge remains partial and empirical. Here, the division between theory and practice reaches rock‑bottom. For years, French children were taught the laws of Ohm, Kirchoff, Joule, and the theory of simple circuits, without knowing how to replace a fuse or to repair a two‑way switch. The situation is perhaps even more preposterous in classical mechanics, whose concepts (speed, force, power) and technical applications (from wrist watches to machine‑tools) are at the same time omnipresent and perfectly dissimulated under daily usage. One reaches, therefore, the paradoxical situation in which the more a science is involved in daily production, or even more simply in everyday life, the more it loses its ‘scientific’ nature. How many would think, while discussing 'contemporary' physics, to include in it, not just the electrical techniques of domestic circuits and the telephone and the mechanics of an automobile, but also the elementary electronics of radio and television, the fluid dynamics of plumbing, the physical chemistry of 'amateur' photography, and so on?

One can conceive, however, all the implications, first educational, then ideological, that teaching and training based on this kind of daily practice would have. But knowledge is truly reified, and once it has got out of the specialists' hands, it loses its 'scientificity', in the sense that every theoretical assimilation and therefore criticism is excluded to give room to mere empirical manipulation. The consequences are tremendous and contribute more than a little to the support of the ideology of expertise and competence.

Today, there is an increasing demand for 'specialists', and not just in modern technical‑scientific achievements like nuclear power stations, Concorde and the moon race. To repair the smallest domestic appliance, a car break ‑down, or a gas leak, one relies more and more on a 'specialist', even if he is less prestigious—though it would be very interesting to analyse the differences in status between the repair professionals, the nice‑man‑of‑all‑trades‑round‑the‑corner, and the 'after‑sales service' provided by big firms in a very impersonal and 'technified' form. The break which severs institutional science from the social practice that once originated from it is certainly an imperative of our class society. The fact that it has been for so long implicitly considered ineluctable, and as an element of science as such, only reflects the degree of ideological impregnation of the concept of 'science' itself. [306/307]

If one poses the problem of the break between science (strictu senso) and post‑scientific practice, in which science is at the same time embodied and excluded, one must pose also the question of the discontinuity between science and certain pre‑scientific practices. In fact, large areas of human activity exist which have permitted the long-standing accumulation of empirical knowledge in this or that sphere of reality, a great deal of which has remained at the margins of scientific development, which could—or should—have incorporated it. Indeed, it is from this knowledge that modern science, especially physics, developed, particularly around the time of Galileo:

Salvati: The constant activity which you Venetians display in your famous arsenal suggests to the studious mind a large field for investigation, especially that part of the work which involves mechanics; for in this department all types of instruments and machines are constantly being constructed by many artisans, among whom there must be some who, partly by inherited experience and partly by their own observations, have become highly expert and clever in explanation.

Sagredo: You are quite right. Indeed, I myself, being curious by nature, frequently visit this place for the mere pleasure of observing the work of those who, on account of their superiority over other artisans, we call 'first rank men.' Conference with them has often helped me in the investigation of certain effects including not only those which are striking, but also those which are recondite and almost incredible. [21]

But, once autonomous, science has progressively moved away from its origins and ceased to draw its fruitfulness and inspiration from the mass of popular knowledge. I wish to be clearly understood; I do not intend to make a fetish of the latter, which is generally a mixture of real but empirical knowledge and of pure superstition. Yet the point is that scientific rationality could make the sorting out possible; that is reject the latter and use the former. This type of attitude is well exemplified by the Chinese approach to 'contemporary' medicine which uses modern scientific methods, but, at the same time, instead of excluding traditional medicine, tries to assimilate it.

In the case of physical sciences, a good example is meteorology. The large number of sayings and proverbs on the subject shows the existence of a popular knowledge. There might be evident nonsense in many of [307/308] them, but it is clear that, besides the nonsense, there is some real and useful information (anybody who has lived in the country for a while will know what I mean). A whole meteorology of micro‑climates, in particular, could be derived from this popular knowledge, while, at the same time intervening to eliminate the obvious widespread illusions that also exist. Similarly, who has ever so far considered the relations between modern physical chemistry and culinary art; [22] yet, many recipes are, empirically of course, built on this or that process of the breaking‑down of proteins, the dissolution of lipids, and so on. Are there not here interesting scientific possibilities which would both simplify and help understand cooking, while perhaps posing basic problems of physical chemistry?

My final example is a delicate one, that of water divining. In the country the practice still exists of looking for water with the help of water diviners and their twigs. Is it merely superstition? The apparent regular success of the method and its persistence seems to prove that it is not. Then, is there more than a simple empirical and perhaps unconscious knowledge of local topography and geology? Some people think so. Y. Rocard, ex‑director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure laboratories, also responsible for the initial research work of the French nuclear military programme, and hence a scientifically and socially orthodox physicist, but endowed with a particularly original way of thinking (a combination which is tending to disappear), proposed a physical theory of water divining, [23] and it is disturbing to realise that it was met with virtually total silence. Yet we have here a phenomenon which without doubt interests many more people than such‑and‑such a particular detail of the effective section of proton‑proton collision at high energy. Refutation or ratification of theories of water divining should deserve more attention. But, once more, the gap between the science of specialists and the knowledge (or pseudo‑knowledge) of the people is confirmed.

What is the status of a 'truth', which, at present, can be evident to only a minority? What else can one conclude about the persistence, if not the intensification, of beliefs in astrology, extrasensory perception, and so forth, except the undoubted failure of modern science in its claims to universal rationality? How can one fail to see that the esotericism, elitism, inaccessibility, dehumanisation of—no doubt rigorous—sciences are precisely the counterpart of the false knowledge, easy illusions, passivity, maintained by these other, not so occult, sciences? Astrology today is but the other side of astrophysics. They [308/309] coexist very well, cemented as they are by the dominant ideology, and the former will disappear only when the latter changes radically.


I should like to conclude with two series of comments which concern the limits of the critical account I have given above.

Ideology within Scientific Activity

In the first place, it will be noticed that I have remained practically silent on the relations between ideology and the very act of scientific creation, that is the elementary and primordial activity of the scientific research worker(s), be it the work of the theoretician in front of the blank page or that of the experimentalist in front of the apparatus. What is—in terms of scientific knowledge in physics—the ideological component which results from this? I have already explained that such work is only a very limited part of scientific activity, even if it is the core of it. The ideological effects exercised by (and on) the political, economic, social and epistemological framework, in the centre of which scientific work (strictu senso) is immersed, seem to impose on it such a directive force that only little room for manoeuvre remains. I Directions and priorities of scientific activities are decided at an ever more elevated level of the social apparatus and always further and further from the places of scientific work, especially in the case of sciences with economic and political implications as huge as today's physics. The organisation of scientific activity is determined in conformity with the general hierarchic model. Thus a criticism centred on the apparent forms of scientific discoveries does not seem essential, and in any case it would only have a significance on the basis of the more general criticisms developed in this chapter. To discuss the ideological consequences of the theory of fundamental particles, to understand whether hierarchic compound models are more reactionary than democratic bootstrap models, to evaluate the relations between Eastern philosophies and the eightfold way or bootstrap theory, to express a political judgement on the relative progressive qualities of the axiomatic field theory or of phenomenology based on the analytical properties of the S-matrix, though some have tried to do so' in my opinion means running the risk of becoming a prisoner of the very ideology one tries to denounce; such a procedure, deprived of any possibility of standing [309/310] outside the practice it wants to judge, cannot have any hold over practice, because it can only be heard by the physicists concerned—that is, just those who can ignore it.

An internal and pertinent ideological criticism is certainly called for, but on the essential condition that the criticism is articulated with the mediations linking its particular sphere with other instances of social life. Moreover, as I have just said, the target which presents itself to purely internal criticism is extremely small. For example, I think that there are not many ways, at present, of doing high‑energy physics. The Soviet example shows well that, once the principle of such an activity is admitted—notwithstanding a bow in the direction of so‑called 'Marxist orthodoxy'—then, whether in the Soviet Union or in the United States, it is a question of the same physics. The scarce information we possess on the work being done in China—apparently little developed in this field—suggests that, apart from some formal discussions on the materialistic merits of compound models, it is not easy to radically change a point of view on the internal content of any science. One could say the same of all the most fundamental research work, for instance in astrophysics, in general relativity and (therefore) in cosmology, though their philosophical implications are considerable. However, it could happen that clearer differences appear in sections of physics more closely linked with economic production, such as low‑energy nuclear physics; research on controlled thermonuclear fusion (in this field the Soviets seem to show more originality than the Americans); in solid‑state physics (where China could give us a surprise some day). But, once more, it appears to me that the risk of dogmatism and schematism in seeking to identify ideological influences on the forms of scientific discovery is considerable.

In addition, bourgeois ideology itself has successfully opposed the ‘neutrality’ of scientific results and the lack of correlation with their author's ideological and philosophical position to certain, though well‑intentioned, criticisms. For instance, the theory of relativity does not seem to reflect Einstein's democratic humanism, quantum formalism bears no mark of the aristocratic detachment of Dirac, quantum principles of symmetry are unaffected by the political ideas and reactionary attitudes of Wigner or Gell‑Mann, and so on and so forth. Constructive attempts have been made to build heterodox physical theories on an explicitly ideological (sometimes allegedly 'Marxist') basis; such was the case of the determinist sub‑quantum constructions of Bohm or Vigier. These attempts have so far failed, as Lysenko's [310/311] theory failed in biology. The reasons for this are clear if, as I have tried to demonstrate, ideological determinations operate institutionally much more than individually; that is to say, far up‑stream or down‑stream from the place where the flux of scientific production emerges as a delimited, formulated discovery.

For all that, I should not like to make anybody think that total indifference is recommended. To use the same metaphor, it might be extremely fruitful to study the underground movements of the flux before its resurgence, via the twisted paths of the scientist's unconcious. A psychoanalytical point of view, on condition that it remained critical and aimed at supplementing instead of supplanting the other aspects of ideological analysis, could reveal itself as very rich. It would a new light on the link between individual and subjective motivations of research workers and their objective collective role. Moreover, the growing and mutual influence of psychoanalytical and linguistic research could be relevant here. At the level we are considering, such approaches would perhaps permit the understanding of at least one bond, whose existence, if not its nature, seems clear. This bond, between ideology in general and scientific discovery in physical sciences in particular, materialises in the relation between both mathematical (formalised) and ordinary (heuristic) languages. This duality, which to me is fundamental to physics, poses a serious problem. It is much more t than a simple question of terminology and thus of an apparently arbitrary choice between such‑and‑such a word of a language used to designate a physical concept, whose proper definition is attached to an abstract formalism.

It is not a question of a simple relation between signifying (the word) and signified (the concept), since, through its very pre‑existence within current language (except in the case of absolute neologisms), the term chosen will suggest a series of well‑determined (ideological in particular) connotations, which will react on the meaning then attributed to the concept and consequently on the manner it will be used and sometimes exploited. It would be worthwhile examining, to that effect, the vocabulary used in classical mechanics. Work, force, energy, power, and so on, are all words whose links with economic production are perfectly clear, and the ideological aspect of the choice in terminology can hardly be denied. Reciprocally, the exploitation of the names borne by physical concepts, through abuses of language, should be examined closely, and their propriety scrutinised; for instance, Marx's productive forces, labour power; or Freud's libidinal energy, to quote but a few major [311/312] examples. A study of the terminology of contemporary physics would be the more interesting as this terminology reveals itself—in the light of epistemological criticism—as absolutely inadequate and clumsy, and very often tends to hinder the physics seriously. The theory of relativity, uncertainty relations, observable quantities: here is some froth on the surface of scientific writing, the result of previous obstacles met by the current and at the same time a cause for further disturbances. However, this kind of analysis is extremely difficult; it demands both very fine apparatus and—as said before—a very general framework. The question is wide open.

Ideological Crisis and Criticism

The very availability of an essay as this reflects the existence of a deep ideological crisis in the scientific milieu. This crisis is particularly obvious in the field of physics. [24] It is expressed, on the one hand, by a lack of motivation on the part of many young research workers, and, on the other hand, by the efforts of readjustment and self‑justification on the part of the establishment. It is characterised by a serious loss of credibility in traditional values, which before had made it possible for research workers to create acceptable self‑images. The esotericism of peak physics makes it more and more difficult to argue that knowledge in itself is in the 'interest of the whole of humanity'. The military and technical applications of more traditional branches undermine any prospect of using scientific progress for the benefit of humankind. It would be wrong, however, to think that such political or ideological views have led to the present situation. Far from being an explicit criticism that has started the crisis, it is the development of the crisis that has made criticism possible. Indeed, in the past, there were many scientists, and (great) physicists in particular, who were liberals, democrats or even 'left wing' (Einstein is an example); they were never driven to criticise the content of scientific activity. On the contrary, they lived with the idea that 'scientific method' supplied a means of universal analysis of reality, and that physicists, because they were physicists, were able, for instance, to understand social mechanisms.

Today, however, the extent of the division of labour in scientific work has considerably altered the image that research workers have of themselves. I shall deal with the case of the great majority of these workers, leaving out the simpler cases of scientists at the top of the hierarchy. Under its three essential forms of accentuated social hierarchy, specialisation and esotericism, this fragmentation of scientific [312/313] tasks demands from researchers a subjective adjustment to their social function, which occurs at present in three different ways, reflecting three types of professional ideology.

(a) Elitism. This is the method adopted by 'brilliant young scientists' who arrived at research through prestigious channels such as the Higher Schools (Polytechnique or Normale Supérieure, in France) or famous universities of Britain or the United States. They generally hold a position in full‑time research and may ignore the serious ideological and economic problems of teaching and relating to students. They are convinced of their own personal value and of the interest, in itself, of the notions they are trying to unveil. They play the games of intense competitiveness and productivity, which prevail, for instance, in particle physics. Their ascent in the hierarchy seems to them scientifically jutified (and, as I have said before, so it is, ideologically).

(b) Professionalism. This is the present ideology of the largest number of research workers. [25] They think of themselves as having a profession ‘like any other profession’, 'rather well paid for not too much work'. They do not believe in their 'mission' but find that what they do is ‘rather more interesting than something else’. And as long as they are paid for doing research work, they do not ask too many questions. The speed in which 'fashion' succeeds 'fashion' in research topics leaves them indifferent; they do not try to follow the rhythm and are quite contented to write just enough to fill in the yearly report of activity. The professional types, however, are more and more coming into sharp conflict though they minimise the amount of energy put into it—with the demands of 'profitability' and 'mobility' imposed on research workers by the bodies to which they belong, such as CNRS in France.

(c) Criticism. Still a small, yet increasing, number of scientists are less and less prepared to tolerate their alienation within a scientific system which is more and more obviously integrated into the social mechanisms of production, exploitation of work, political domination and oppression (I shall come back soon to the forms, limits and perspectives of this critique).

If this trend is developing today, it is less because of a sudden influence of external, ideological and political criticisms within scientific practice, than of the consequences of the increase of sharp inner contradictions [313/314] between the traditional professional ideology and the subjective reality of scientific work. It was possible in the past to separate global, political and ideological positions from scientific practice. This practice was considered neutral by the conservatives, progressive by the left. If the latter did not ask deeper questions as to the nature of their work, it was because, although failing to control the motivations for support or the repercussions of their work, they could at least control the process itself. The major consequence of the mechanism of the division of labour, was, it seems to me, to end this control. Now, the production of knowledge, as the production of material goods, is fragmented. Average scientists do not even control the meaning of their own work. Very often, they are obscure labourers in theoretical computation or experimentation; they only have a very narrow perspective of the global process to which their work is related. Confined to a limited subject, in a specialised field, their competence is extremely restricted. It is only necessary to listen to the complaints of the previous generations' scientists on the disappearance of 'general culture' in science.

In fact, the case of physics is eloquent on the subject. One can say that, until the beginning of this century, the knowledge of an average physicist had progressed in a cumulative way, including progressively the whole of previous discovery. The training of physicists demanded an almost universal knowledge in the various spheres of physics. The arrival of 'modern' physics has brought about not only the parcelling of fields of knowledge, but also the abandonment of whole areas. I have already said that important sections of nineteenth‑century physics are today excluded from the scientific knowledge of many physicists. Therefore the fields of competence are not only getting narrower, but some of them are practically vanishing altogether. If physicists no longer know about physics, a fortiori they know nothing about science! The idea of a ‘scientific culture’, of a 'scientific method', of a 'scientific spirit', which were common to all scientists and used to give them a large capacity for the rational understanding of all reality, have turned into huge practical jokes. True, some scientists have access to a global vision of their field or even of the social organisation of science and social ties, but that tends to depend solely on the position of power they occupy. The others, massively, are dispossessed of all mastery over their activity. They have no control, no understanding of its direction.

One result of the loss of control is the growing anarchy in scientific publications. There is a flood of papers, often of mediocre quality and on topics of no interest, except that of maintaining their authors in [314/315] their positions. 90 per cent of scientific papers are never mentioned in other publications. The increase in the number of scientific journals makes for a good commercial business for the publishing houses, yet with all this massive production it is impossible to assemble a serious, large up‑to‑date documentation. Then, intensive and short‑lived fashions flourish on such or such an idea launched by a big name. But the bone is abandoned half‑eaten, abandoned when it gets too hard, and then the next one is tried. The path of theoretical physics has been lined for the last few years with incomplete, derelict buildings: peratisation, Regge's poles, bootstrap, unitary symmetries, current algebra, and so on, as many fashions as notions, certainly useful but with badly delimited concepts whose validity was partial and uncontrolled. The style of scientific work is becoming superficial, the direction is lost inside the global project; the research scientist works on a short‑term basis and no longer knows the general significance of his or her production.

Here is a question of a real intellectual proletarianisation; scientists are as dispossessed of the products of their minds as workers of the products of their hands. The ideological crisis in science arises from the contradiction between this reality and the image, mentioned above, of a science considered as a general and global control of reality. Evidently, and of first importance, there are economic aspects of the crisis: insecurity of employment, demands for increased productivity, and so on. This description is particularly relevant in physics.

Yet the critical ideology, which today spreads into the scientific milieu, is far from having acquired a satisfactory strength or shape, particularly because it is torn apart by two opposite tendencies. One pushes towards externalisation, so as to place the weight of the criticism on extra‑scientific institutions, on causes and consequences of scientific production; denouncing, for instance, the disastrous influence of capitalist monopolies or the role of the army. The second, by contrast tries to reduce the field of criticism to the visible core of scientific activity, to the explicit form of its results (I wrote earlier about the difficulty of apprehending it correctly). In both cases we witness the same phenomenon, that is the eclipse of the true judgement of scientific production.

One only has to see how these two tendencies coexist very well in the positions of the orthodox Western European communist parties; they will possibly discuss the validity of the concepts of contemporary physics—separately they will condemn the military use in Vietnam of [315/316] the applications of that physics, but they will be opposed to every active criticism of such or such an American physicist, a genius perhaps, but also a Pentagon war collaborator. As to the most radicalized sections of the scientific milieu, they seem at the moment to have great difficulties in collectivising and socialising their criticisms, in particular for fear—justified no doubt—of failing victims again to more subtle forms of the dominant ideology, into expertise of counter‑expertise, hierarchy of counter‑hierarchy and establishment of anti‑establishment.

In other words, if it is a question of proceeding to an internal criticism of scientific practice, a certain exteriority is absolutely necessary to prevent this criticism from being prisoner of the very trap it intends to warn against. For this, it seems to me necessary to arrive at a materialist conception of scientific activity which takes into account the whole social reality. The feeling of impotence and passivity engendered by technical achievements, and the vanishing of theoretical science from daily life, are not alien to scientists. In everyday life, average scientists hardly know how to deal with their technical environment (how to repair a car, and so on). Thus they find, at an individual level, the alienation and loss of control that I have described earlier as characteristic of the professional situation. Conversely, it is probably from being conscious of this dual incompetence that new forms of criticism could emerge. Thus, it should become possible to pose the problem of a 'science for the people' on a different level than that of rejection or immediate assimilation of 'peak' knowledge and technique, both equally impossible. Of course it is clear that the long‑term abolition of the distinction between the scientific knowledge of an elite and the empirical knowledge of the mass, maintained in existence today by the dominant ideology, will demand a radical modification of science. The collective appropriation of scientific rationality will result in the disappearance of scientists as specialists. At this very moment, without giving up the indispensable struggle for political and ideological rights within the scientific institutions, but in order to wage the struggle with the necessary exteriority, radicalised physicists should spend some time out of their laboratories. Starting from science such as it is, hidden or denied in everyday life, a mass work would be possible, in which scientists would have to lose all elitism and paternalism, in order to exchange their theoretical knowledge for the practical knowledge of others, so that they re‑acquire, together, the whole knowledge fossilised in objects and techniques whose apparent neutrality hide (but less and less well) their political and ideological role.

NOTES AND REFERENCES                                              351-352

14. See, on this subject, M. Bunge, Foundation of Physics (Berlin: Springer‑Verlag, 1967) and Philosophy of Physics (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1972); see also J. M. Lévy‑Leblond, 'Quantique (Mécanique)', in Encyclopaedia Universalis (Paris: Le Seuil, 1971).

15. See J. M. Lévy‑Leblond, 'Les inegalites de Heisenberg', Encart Pedagogique du Bulletin de la Societe Francaise de Physique, 7, 15 (1973).

16. W. Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper, 1962) p. 103.

17. J. Monod, Le Hasard et la necessité (Paris: Le Seuil, 1970) p. 129; English translation, Chance and Necessity (London: Cape, 1972).

18. M. Born, My Life and Views (New York: Scribner, 1958) p. 148.

19. R. Feynman, R. Leighton, M. Sands, Quantum Mechanics, vol. III of Feynman's Lectures in Physics (New York: Addison‑Wesley, 1965); E. Wichmann, Quantum Physics, vol. 4 of 'Berkeley Course in Physics' (New York: McGraw‑Hill, 1967).

20. This idea is very close to that of Kuhn's 'paradigm'; see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

21. Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences, trans. H. Crew and A. de Salvio (New York: Macmillan, 1914).

22. Except for Jean Matricon, from whom I have borrowed the idea; see also the first pages in S. Rose, The Chemistry of Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).

23. Y. Rocard, Le signal du sourcier (Paris: Dunod, 1962); Rocard takes great care in dealing specifically with divining flowing water, excluding as irrational other forms of dowsing (search for hidden materials or persons, and so on, whether it be with pendulums or twigs). To my knowledge the most recent attempts at serious statistical evaluations of the alleged performances of dowsers, such as published by R. A. Foulkes, 'Dowsing Experiments', Nature, 229 (1971) pp. 163‑8, and which concluded their complete failure, did not deal with flowing water‑divining.

24. This is the reason why many contributions collected in the (Auto) critique de la science come from the milieu of physicists.

25. See in particular the chapter 'Crise de la science et crise des scientifiques', in (Auto) critique de la science, and especially the discussions between research workers on pp. 285‑8. One could also call this position the ideology of unconcern (bof . . . in French).

SOURCE: Lévy‑Leblond, Jean‑Marc. “Ideology of/in Contemporary Physics,” in Ideology of/in the Natural Sciences, edited by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, with an introductory essay by Ruth Hubbard (Cambridge, MA: Shenkman Publishing Co., 1980), Chapter 14, pp. 277-316, 349-352. This extract, pp. 296-316, 351-352.

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