Max Horkheimer on the Duality of
Scientism and Spiritualism in Bourgeois Society

[Paragraph on Kant’s philosophy:] The resolution of the contradictions it produces, the mediation between critique and dogmatic system, between a mechanistic concept of science and the doctrine of intelligible freedom, between belief in an eternal order and a theory isolated from practice, increasingly and vainly occupied his own thought till the last years of his life: this is the mark of his greatness. Analysis carried through to the end and skeptical distrust of all theory on the one hand and readiness to believe naively in detached fixed principles on the other, these are characteristic of the bourgeois mind. It appears in its most highly developed form in Kant’s philosophy.

This dual relationship to truth is again mirrored in the failure of the progressive methods of the scholar to influence his attitude toward the most important problems of the time, the combination of notable knowledge in the natural sciences with childlike faith in the Bible. The association of that particularly strict tendency in modern philosophy, positivism, with the crudest superstition has already been noted in this journal. Auguste Comte not merely laid the groundwork for a whimsical cult, but prided himself on his understanding of the various theories of the beyond. William James turned to mysticism and even mediumism. The brain appears to him not so much to promote as to obstruct the enlightening intuitions which exist “ready-made in the transcendental world” and come through as telepathic experiences as soon as the brain’s activity is “abnormally” reduced. "The word ‘influx’ used in Swedenborgian circles describes the phenomenon very well. The pragmatist F. C. S. Schiller, whom James quotes, declares on this point, “Matter is not that which produces consciousness but that which limits it,” and he conceives of the body as “a mechanism for inhibiting consciousness.” This inclination to spiritualism can be followed through the later history of positivism. In Germany, it seems to have reached its culmination in the philosophy of Hans Driesch, in which a scientism carried to extremes goes together with unconcealed occultism in all questions of this world and the beyond. In this, the occultist dilemma finds a grotesque expression in his logic and theory of knowledge through intentional formalism and rigidity and through the monomaniacal reference of all the problems of the world to some few biological experiments. On the other side, the misconception of a self-sufficient science independent of history appears through the pseudoscientific dress of his barbarous errors in religion and practice.

Only in the decline of the contemporary epoch has it become the typical behavior of scholars to develop high critical faculties in a specific branch of science while remaining on the level of backward groups regarding questions of social life and echoing the most ignorant phrases. In the beginning of the bourgeois order, the turn to specific juristic and scientific studies without regard to social and religious demands immediately produced a moment of liberation from the theological tutelage of thought. But as a result of the alteration of the social structure, this sort of production without regard to the rational relation to the whole has become regressive and obstructive in all fields—in science just as in industry and agriculture. This abstractness and ostensible independence of the bourgeois science industry shows itself in the mass of isolated individual empirical studies, not related to any sort of theory and practice by clear terminology and subject matter.

It is likewise visible in the efforts of scientists, without any significant reason, to divest their concepts of all empirical material, and especially in the inordinate mathematization of many intellectual disciplines. The conventional attitude of the scholar to the dominant questions of the period and the confinement of his critical attention to his professional specialty were formerly factors in the improvement of the general situation. Thinkers ceased to be concerned exclusively with the welfare of their immortal souls, or to make concern for it their guide in all theoretical matters. But subsequently this attitude has taken on another meaning: instead of being a sign of necessary courage and independence, the withdrawal of intellectual energies from general cultural and social questions, the placing of actual historical interests and struggles in a parenthesis, is more a sign of anxiety and incapacity for rational activity than of an inclination to the true tasks of science. The substance underlying intellectual phenomena changes with the social totality.

SOURCE: Horkheimer, Max. “On the Problem of Truth” (1935), in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, translated by G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer and John Torpey (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), pp. 177-215. This excerpt: pp. 180-181 (footnotes omitted). Original article: “Zum Problem der Wahheit,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 4, no. 3, 1935. This English translation by  Maurice Goldbloom previously appeared in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato & Eike Gebhardt, introduction by Paul Piccone (New York: Continuum, 1982 [originally 1978]), pp. 407-443.

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