The Role of Science in Enlightenment Universalism
When I wrote about Jacob Bronowski on scientific civilization I noted that the book in which Bronowski mentioned scientific civilization was about the history of science, not about civilization, but Susanne K. Langer’s 1961 essay “Scientific Civilization and Cultural Crisis” is a discussion of civilization that takes up the idea of scientific civilization in an explicit way:
“Science is the source and the pacemaker of this modern civilization which is sweeping away a whole world of cultural values. It is with good reason that we are meeting here to discuss the role of science in civilization; I would like to carry the issue a little further, and talk about the effect of this scientific civilization on human culture throughout the contemporary world. For it is not only in countries on which it has impinged suddenly and dramatically, but also in the countries of its origin — in Europe and America — that the technological revolution, with its entirely new mental and material standards, has deeply disturbed local and even national cultures.”
I have previously mentioned this essay by Langer in David Hume and Scientific Civilization, but at that time my ideas about scientific civilization were ill-formed and not yet clear. Now I am much better prepared to appreciate Langer’s essay. Many of the observations that Langer made in 1961 were to become commonplace decades later, so the essay is quite prescient, and there is quite a bit of it I can endorse, but there is also quite a bit that was equally prescient but with which I differ.
While Langer does not reference Oswald Spengler, there are Spenglerian aspects of the distinction she makes between culture and civilization. For Spengler, culture is the expression of a people in their youth, and it is only when culture becomes decadent that culture passes over into civilization, which is by definition the decadent phase of culture. Thus Spengler wrote:
“In this work, for the first time the two words, hitherto used to express an indefinite, more or less ethical, distinction, are used in a periodic sense, to express a strict and necessary organic succession. The Civilization is the inevitable destiny of the Culture, and in this principle we obtain the viewpoint from which the deepest and gravest problems of historical morphology become capable of solution.” (The Decline of the West, p. 31)
For Spengler, then, sequence culture–civilization is an invariant coupling of two periodizations that are found whenever a culture survives for a period of time sufficient to become a civilization. Langer does not go quite this far, but she does distinguish culture and civilization, and notes that, “Like every process of fruition, civilization strains and drains the life which engenders and supports it…” and, “Finally, civilization as a whole descends like an iron grid to crush the heritage of feeling and faith and the beauty of life. Civilization… is like an outline tracing of the culture that begot it. As long as an outline lies on the painting from which it is made it takes special attention to abstract it; but moved away it appears as a stark and empty form, and imposed on another painting it makes for confusion.”
As in Spengler, cultures precede civilizations, and civilization represents a kind of falling away from the heights of culture. This characterization of civilization as a kind of template that is imposed upon circumstances not necessarily fully in agreement with the model occurs in the context of a discussion of the possibility of transplanting civilizations, which Langer presents as simple matter-of-fact.
I emphatically agree with Langer that civilizations can be transplanted, and with the Age of Discovery we saw Iberian civilization transplanted into Mesoamerica and South America, while northern European civilization was transplanted into North America. But the transplanting of civilization involves the uprooting of the transplanted civilization, and when an uprooted civilization is transplanted into foreign soil, and tended by those who did not initially build it, it becomes something else over time. Langer implicitly recognizes this in saying that civilization appears as a stark and empty form when imposed on an unfamiliar context. Eventually that stark and empty form is filled in, but it is filled with different details than those that filled it in its native clime.
Extending the organic metaphor as applied to social institutions further than most have taken it, Nikolay Danilevsky made a distinction between transplanting civilization and grafting civilization in his Russia and Europe: The Slavic World’s Political and Cultural Relations with the Germanic-Roman West (“Danilevsky” is also transliterated as “Danilevskii”; I previously discussed Danilevsky in newsletter 54). Danilevsky was a Slavophile and a Pan-Slavist who was concerned with the distinctness of the Slavic peoples, and their place in history. Danilevsky’s account of transplanted and grafted civilizations is quietly savage in his implied view of colonialism, and he anticipated Langer’s characterization of civilization as a template. Of the transplantation of civilization by means of colonies he wrote:
“If there ever were to be a universal civilization, then for its sake we would have to hope it used this means of dissemination everywhere, so that there would no longer be any other peoples besides those who produced this universal civilization, just as, for example, for the sake of agriculture it would be highly desirable for there to no longer be any weeds. And just as if for the farmer, if you will, all means of destroying weeds are permitted, so the disseminators of the one universal civilization would be permitted to destroy other peoples, which are only more or less hindrance to it. Since the ones who produced this universal civilization in its purest form could both preserve and spread it across the face of the earth, that would be the simplest, most direct and certain method of making progress. This method has been used successfully more than once in America and other places. But if this seems too radical, it would at least make sense to strip the peoples and states outside the universal cultural type of the power to oppose it, that is, their political independence (whether by means of cannons or opium — as they say, by hook or by crook), and over time to make them servants of the highest goals, an ethnographic element soft as wax or clay, without resistance taking any form seen fit to impose upon it.” (Russia and Europe, chapter 5, p. 82)
While aspects of Danilevsky’s views on colonialism sound contemporary, his recognition of the role of cultural-historical types (at the beginning of Chapter 5) in the constitution of civilization, which are essentially ethnic groups and their traditions, is decidedly unmodern — or perhaps I should say that it is an unspoken undercurrent, which remains largely unspoken because a careful and explicit consideration of the underlying presuppositions would raise uncomfortable questions in light of our modern presuppositions. Better to let sleeping dogs lie.
While for Danilevsky, Europe has arrogated to itself to the role of universal civilization, in Langer’s essay we find an explicit recognition of a nascent scientific civilization as a universal civilization, though scientific civilization grew out of European civilization. Langer views science as the first truly cosmopolitan human enterprise, taking science to fully exemplify Enlightenment universalism, and moreover to exemplify this universalism while trafficking exclusively in empirically verifiable knowledge. Langer makes this point of view fully explicit, but elsewhere this is a widely held view that is entertained implicitly more often than it is explicitly stated. One must go quite far afield to find anyone who maintains the contrary and states their views explicitly, and one of the rare examples of this is to be found in Danilevsky.
I have visited a related controversy previously in Perverse Rationality, in which I asked, “If western civilization were to fail, and humanity’s only fully scientific and technological civilizations were to be found in Japan and China, would these civilizations be able to carry on the vision of science and technology to be found in the western imagination in its modern aspirations? Would science and technology, cut off from the root that brought them to maturity, be able to continue to develop? And if they did continue to develop, would they develop in distinctively Japanese or Chinese ways?” Danilevsky would have asserted without hesitation that Japanese or Chinese science would be distinctively Japanese and Chinese, just as he argued that Slavic science is a distinctive scientific tradition, so that very different futures would follow depending on whether Slavic science or European science were to be the leading power in a scientific civilization. In other words, for Danilevsky, scientific civilization is not universal and cosmopolitan, but rather a scientific civilization would be a product of the cultural-historical type from which it grew.
Recall that the Slavophiles rejected the kind of modernization pursued by Peter the Great, who looked to western European models of the Enlightenment, science, and rationalism as a model for Russia — one might even say, a template to be imposed upon the Russian people. Danilevsky would have none of this. He wrote: “…not only does the universally human not exist in reality, but to wish for it means to be satisfied with the generic level, colorless unoriginality, or simply a nonexistent, incomplete form.” (Russia and Europe, pp. 101–102) For Danilevsky, the Slavic peoples and the European peoples (whom he called Germanic-Roman) were distinct cultural-historical types, and, according to his third law of cultural-historical types: “The principles of civilization for one cultural-historical type are not transferable to the peoples of another type.” (Russia and Europe, p. 76)
To what extent is the development of science predicated upon Enlightenment universalism, and to what extent is Enlightenment universalism itself not universal at all, but a distinctive feature of the European cultural-historical type? For quite some time I have been taking notes toward writing something about the distinction that needs to be made between science and the Enlightenment (what follows, then, will have to appear in lieu of a more ambitious exposition); the two are often conflated, but they are conflated for good reason: the great men of the Enlightenment saw themselves not as formulating a new ideology, but as severing themselves from the past and using the resources of science to guide themselves into the future. Both science as a social institution and the Enlightenment as a cultural movement have their own presuppositions, and while many of these presuppositions coincide, and some of them overlap, there is also a remnant that is disjoint, and it is one of the fundamental confusions of Enlightenment thought to believe itself to be a spokesman and advocate of science, whereas in fact the Enlightenment is selective about the science it chooses to advance. This was equally true in traditional civilizations, which were highly selective in the forms and institutions of knowledge cultivated under their authority; the difference is that, after the scientific revolution, science became a much more powerful force, and hence a force that could not be neglected, nor passed over in silence.
There is a similar confusion between science and the Enlightenment on the part of scientists. The institutional expression of science today in western nation-states is primarily that of the culture of universities, where much pure scientific research is undertaken. Scientists today, in so far as they are part of the milieu of the contemporary university, are part of the culture of universities, which shape the growth of knowledge. In the same way that the culture of the university dictates what kind of scientific research is pursued and what kind of research is nipped in the bud (or never even proposed, because the potential researchers fully understand the fruitlessness of proposing research that contradicts the public ideological position of the university), the culture of geographical regions and of the nation-states that dominate cultural regions (as India dominates south Asia and China dominates east Asia) dictates what kind of science will be pursued in local educational institutions.
Scientists largely see themselves engaged in the kind of universal project of knowledge described by Langer, and not as representatives of a cultural-historical type, as described by Danilevsky — except that the milieu of the world-class research university has become its own cultural-historical type, and the cultural-historical type of the university is largely based upon Enlightenment presuppositions. The ongoing vigor of the Enlightenment project is evident through the many forms and permutations that the Enlightenment has exhibited since its appearance, and it is far from being played out at present. The dialectic of the Enlightenment will continue to animate western political institutions, and as the Enlightenment comes to be better understood and more clearly defined, the counter-Enlightenment, already present early in the Enlightenment in figures like Comte de Maistre (himself part of the western tradition, unlike Danilevsky), will be more clearly defined, and will grow in stature as a rival to the Enlightenment. The better the Enlightenment is known, the better its alternatives will be known, and it will not be until the Enlightenment engages with the counter-Enlightenment critique that the dialectic of western history can move forward.
It is a different position to maintain that history moves forward only on the basis of an exclusive embrace of the Enlightenment project, so that no engagement with the counter-Enlightenment is necessary, or even desirable. Indeed, if one fully adopts the Enlightenment perspective, one sees the sacrifices necessary to achieve the historical goals of the Enlightenment as no sacrifice at all, but a joyous liberation from an oppressive past. We find this, but less directly connected to science, in Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, where the Enlightenment development of civilization has liberation from oppressive tradition as its telos.
Langer does not go this far. She is not insensitive to the losses entailed by scientific universalism; her essay on scientific civilization begins by recounting these losses and allowing them their full measure. In looking forward to a future scientific civilization, she acknowledges the feelings of emptiness and anomie that are often the result of the loss of tradition:
“Our technological civilization… seems to overtake and overwhelm us as though it were something foreign coming in upon us; it makes all our traditional institutions seem inadequate, so we tend to abandon them. State religion, marriage, paternal authority, deference to the aged, piety toward the dead, holiness and rank and royalty — all these ancient values have lost their inviolable status and need to be defended against the iconolastic ‘modern spirit.’ Sometimes, for all the defenses that the older generation can put up for them, a younger generation sweeps them away as relics of a superstitious, slavish, uncivilized past. But with them it sweeps away its own social symbols and the materials of its own world orientation; then personal life suddenly feels empty, and the civilization that shatters its spiritual comforts in the name of practical improvements seems to have come upon it like a superimposed power from outside.”
Presumably, the losses, while lamented, will ultimately be justified by the gains when a truly scientific civilization takes shape. And Langer does see a scientific civilization taking place. She unambiguously positions science as a universal force that is transforming the world along universalist lines, and she forecasts a world culture that will eventually emerge from science itself to create a scientific civilization:
“This is, I think, an inevitable transition which really marks one of the great crises in human history — the final emergence of world society from the long ages of self-sufficient cultural groups. For science, which is certainly the keynote of our era, is international. It is a human achievement, not a national one. The civilization which is sweeping the whole world, though it is expressed mainly in commerce and new kinds of industry, is a product of science. We are in a socially anomolous state between a world populated by societies with tribal religions and interests, and a world of global industrial organization, populated by a society with global interests but no symbols to express them, no religion to support the individual in this vast new theatre of life.”
The tribalism that Langer sees being displaced by universal science is exactly what Danilevsky called cultural-historical types, and which he viewed as the basis of civilization. While Langer’s vision of a universal science that is the possession of all will sound very familiar, perhaps even comforting, to those to whom the Enlightenment project comes naturally, and for whom likely remains unquestioned, Danilevsky’s denial of the universality of science will sound strange, perhaps incoherent. Here is Langer’s take on the universality of science:
“…scientific thinking is the only one of our great and prevailing activities which is universal in fact as well as in principle. We already claim the universality of art, and gradually come to appreciate other people’s art, but it still starts by being exotic and often remains so even if we know and love it, Science is not native or exotic; it belongs to humanity and is the same wherever it is found.”
Most of us will recognize these ideas. Most of us (those of us who are westerners) will not so easily recognize Danilevsky’s contrary view. Danilevsky cites three arguments for the universality of science (p. 108), 1. Science is singular, i.e., there is one and only one science, 2. Science is cumulative, and can be taken up and put aside by different peoples as they please, but the cumulative results are indifferent to this process, and to who develops what parts of science, and 3. Science can be formulated in any language, and therefore presumes no particular audience. He grants the strength of these arguments, but disputes all of them.
Danilevsky’s argument is subtle and detailed, taking up the whole of Chapter 6 of Russia and Europe, so there is much more to it than I can summarize here. He considers all the special sciences in their turn and makes his case for each of them. His remarks on Linnaeus and Enlightenment science are particularly telling, and I hope to return to this exposition in another context. To the three arguments he cites for the universality of science, Danilevsky opposes three arguments for the national character of science:
“1) the preference shown by different peoples for different branches of knowledge; 2) the natural one-sidedness of each people’s distinctive abilities and worldview that cause it to see reality from a unique point of view; 3) a certain admixture of objective truth with individual, subjective peculiarities that (like all other moral qualities and traits) are not randomly distributed among all peoples, but grouped by nationality and, taken collectively, constitute what we call the national character.” (p. 112)
Danilevsky develops each of these points in detail, and does not hesitate to apply this view even to mathematics. We think of mathematics (and, to a lesser extent, logic) as the purest exemplification of pure science, completely devoid of the subjective admixture of which Danilevsky writes, but it is in mathematics more than in any other discipline that the infinite development of science is most obvious, and it is in the infinite extrapolation of science that Danilevsky’s argument unfolds most powerfully:
“…a one-sided perspective, or an admixture of falsehood, is inherent in everything human, and constitutes precisely the realm of the national within science… It is true that in the course of time, from the variety of national perspectives (and more importantly, through that variety) these admixtures are refined and eliminated, leaving the pure noble metal of truth. However the role of nationality (that is, of certain individual peculiarities, grouped by nationalities) in science is not reduced or weakened by this, since science opens newer and newer horizons which require the same work, it cannot produce anything except by means of admixing the individual, and thus also national, traits to the reflections of reality in the mirror of our consciousness.” (p. 110)
If science always opens new horizons of knowledge, where the purity of knowledge without admixture is not yet possible, then science — especially the most advanced science, pushing the furthest edge of knowledge into the unknown — must always reflect the peculiarities of the individuals and the ethnic community in which that science unfolds.
Science is, in principle, infinitistic, and Danilevsky implicitly recognizes the infinitistic nature of science in his argument for the continued admixture of pure and impure knowledge at the point of scientific advancement. The infinite possibilities of science means that science could be independently practiced by two distinct populations and have very little overlap, although in practice the scientific knowledge most useful and most interesting to human beings will be that science which is directly relevant to human concerns, but these human concerns will also vary with cultural-historical types. To employ the method of isolation in order to make this point clearly, we can posit the existence of two scientific civilizations, each of which takes a different branch of science to emphasize according to its own peculiar perspective, while deemphasizing precisely the branch of science that the other emphasizes according to its peculiar perspective. These two scientific civilizations could develop in parallel and yet look little like each other.
I think it is clear that Langer would have categorically rejected this conclusion, but how is the argument against Danilevsky to be made? In western thought, the preferred way to dismiss these difficulties about science (which are also difficulties for scientific civilization) has been to make a distinction between genuine science and ideological corruptions that masquerade as science, or to make a distinction between science acceptable within a given ideological framework, and other science that lies outside this ideological framework, but which, as science, is perfectly sound, but which is beyond the pale because it is ideologically unpalatable. Science outside the Overton window is still science, however much we would like to pretend that it is not, though we can at least preen ourselves on our virtue for having forsaken ideologically unpalatable science.
Since the ideological framework concerned in this connection is, of course, the ideology of the Enlightenment, how are we to know — other than through the intensity of our faith in the Enlightenment — that counter-Enlightenment science is an ideological corruption of science, rather than Enlightenment ideology itself being the ideological corruption of science? Is there any objective measure, that is to say, is there any scientific measure, by which we can determine the more corrupt ideology? If we maintain the is/ought distinction, there is, and there can be no, scientific measure of corruption. We can make a moral judgment regarding the ideology we prefer, and we can defend this judgment with moral reasoning, but science must remain silent on this point.
Churchill would not have warned us of “…a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science” if he had not seen that science, while in principle universal, is not universal in practice. Science in practice is informed by the culture that practices the science in question. The science of a new dark age might consist of all of the experiments that we cannot do, or do not do, for ethical reasons. Take, for example, the utilitarian thought experiment of a doctor with five patients in need of organs, and one healthy patient in his waiting room: is he morally justified in harvesting the organs of the one healthy patient in order to save the lives of the other five, who would die without the organs? (This is a variation on the theme of the trolley problem.) Even familiar moral theories like utilitarianism can have monstrous implications, from which we distance ourselves by the virtuous expedients of inconsistency, dishonesty, and hypocrisy.
We could posit a scientific civilization that was the mirror image of Enlightenment scientific civilization, revaluing and overturning all the moral judgments of the Enlightenment and replacing them with their opposite numbers, so that science forbidden within the Enlightenment project was affirmed by this mirror image of the Enlightenment, while science celebrated by the Enlightenment project was rejected by this mirror image. I am not suggesting that this would be an adequate basis for a scientific civilization, but we cannot exclude this possibility, even if we reject it on moral grounds.
There are, then, ways of arguing Langer’s Enlightenment universalism with respect to scientific civilization — by way of distinguishing the theoretical and practical reality of science, or by distinguishing morally acceptable and morally unacceptable science — but is this the best way to apply Langer’s insights on the problems of civilization, and upon the problems of scientific civilization in particular?
Langer was particularly known for her philosophical treatment of feeling (cf. her books Philosophy in a New Key:A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art and Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key), and she leads her essay on scientific civilization with a sketch of her views on feeling:
“…every human life has an undercurrent of feeling that is peculiar to it. Each individual expresses this continuous pattern of feeling in what we call his ‘personality’, reflected in behavior, speech, voice, and even physical bearing (stance and walk) as his individual style. On a larger scale, every human society has its undercurrent of feeling which is not individual, but general. Every person shares in it to some degree, and develops his own life of feeling within the frame of the style prevailing in his country and his time.”
This is something Danilevsky might have written, had he lived in the twentieth century instead of the nineteenth century. This undercurrent of feeling, whether individual or social, is not universal, but is roughly shared within what Danilevsky called cultural-historical types. If we challenge Langer’s commitment to Enlightenment universalism, and to a model of science based on Enlightenment universalism, I think we find a far better fit of her thought with Danilevsky’s cultural-historical types and with his observations of science being practiced within a particular cultural-historical milieu, which gives to the science in question a distinctive cast.
If there are multiple permutations of science, as its develops within the traditions of terrestrial civilization, and therefore multiple permutations of nascent scientific civilizations, we may have to sacrifice some of the presuppositions of the Enlightenment in order to acknowledge this, but it also means that we need not necessarily surrender utterly to the annihilation of all traditional cultures in the face of the scientific juggernaut that will eventually result in scientific civilization.
And if we allow ourselves a moment of optimism, in which human beings enter upon a grand future of exploration and expansion into the cosmos, this exploration and expansion would grow outward in every direction — like a big bang of the human spirit. In such a thrilling scenario, far from seeing traditional cultures swept away by modernity and science, we would see distinct scientific civilizations moving outward, each in a distinctive direction and in a distinctive way. Because the science human beings would be pursuing is infinitistic, each distinctive scientific tradition could grow without limit, and since it is at the point at which new knowledge is generated is the point at which knowledge is most distinctive to a given cultural-historical type, the further this expansion is perpetuated, the more we will affirm our human, all-too-human traditions.