The Role of Science in Enlightenment Universalism
A Commentary on Susanne K. Langer on Scientific Civilization
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…