More on Dialectics and Science

Chris M. Sciabarra sciabrrc at is2.NYU.EDU
Wed Jun 21 12:06:13 MDT 1995

    This is in response to Justin on the issue of dialectics
and science.

    Justin says that he disagrees with me and Hans.  But I
don't believe that Justin and I are THAT far apart.  Perhaps
my first posting was not the clearest, but as I stated in my
second posting, I do not believe that there is some kind of
eternal divide between first- and second-order questions.
My whole point was that dialectics really has little if
anything to say about the methods of empirical investigation.
Dialectics is more concerned with a broader commitment to the
whole picture.  However, Justin thinks that this kind of
argument confirms the "skeptic's deepest worries" since it
makes dialectics compatible with virtually everything except

    Yes, I agree... the real question is HOW things are
related, and dialectics itself tells us nothing about HOW
things are related.  It merely tells us, methodologically,
that they ARE related.  Perhaps such a banal claim is without
any significance to the natural sciences.  But natural
science has a leg up on the social sciences.  There's no such
thing as Marxist physics or Austrian chemistry (or at least
there SHOULDN'T be such a thing, the early Soviets
notwithstanding).  In the natural sciences, there is simply,
PHYSICS and CHEMISTRY.  But in the social sciences, there are
SCORES of theoretical variations, illustrating not only a
lack of consensus, but a basic primitivism.  Hence,
we don't have the luxury of ECONOMICS or POLITICS or
PSYCHOLOGY.  We have Austrian economics.  And Marxist
economics.  And Neoclassical, Keynesian, Classical, post-
Keynesian, Sraffian schools, etc., etc., etc.  And in
psychology, we have behavioralism, and psychoanalysis, and
Freudianism, and Jungianism, and so on.  And in politics, and
in philosophy, we have the linguistic analysts, positivists,
postmoderns, hermeneuticians, and so on.  Of course, given
the fact that we deal with human agency as a primary, I tend
to think that social science may always be condemned to such
"primitivism."  It was Mises who eschewed scientism in the
social sciences precisely because of the fact that human
praxis is purposeful.  The central question then becomes:  In
a defined context, which approach to the social sciences is
the most accurate, or which approach offers the best

    For social science, a method, such as dialectics, gives
us an "orientation" to social reality.  But even in social
science, methods must be related to substantive theories
about the constituents of that reality.  This is why, as a
libertarian, I can claim that F. A. Hayek and Ayn Rand show a
dialectical sensibility, even though they differ
SUBSTANTIVELY with Marxism on so many issues.  And yet, the
simple fact that Hayek and Rand are able to look at the
whole and its constituent internal relations, leads them to
some very provocative theoretical convergences with their
opponents on the left.  Hence, Hayekians and Randians
sometimes sound rather "leftist" in their analyses of modern
neofascist political economy, even though nobody would
consider them card-carrying Marxists.

    So, I agree with Justin that it is the substantive issues
that are crucially important.  But let's not kid ourselves
completely.  I come from a discipline (political "science")
that is loaded with game theorists and rational choice
theorists and NOBODY looks at the whole.  They are willing to
analyze the election results of 1994, and they wonder if it
signifies a "realignment."  None of them sees the conjunction
of Republicrats as symptomatic of the larger problems that
plague American political economy, culture, and social
psychology.  They don't RELATE this election result or that
poll to the SYSTEM.  Their conception of history extends back
about 50 or so years (if you're lucky!).  And somehow,
history is merely a collection of dates or charismatic
leaders or "defining" policies, like the New Deal, or the New
Frontier, or the Great Society.  Sometimes you get vague
references to "American civilization" and "American
philosophy," but even here, there is no predisposition to
understanding the relationship between philosophy and
economics and culture and sex and race and power.  There's no
understanding of class or social repression.  When you
question the role of the state, they inquire:  "Which state?
Georgia?  Alaska?  New York?"  It is as if the very idea of a
fundamental (i.e., radical) approach is foreign to them.
Amongst Marxists, the dialectical emphasis on the whole seems
rather ordinary.  Take it from me.  It is not.

    So, I agree with Justin, that dialectics is best suited
to social questions.  My attempt to "apply it" to natural
science was an attempt to show that it really is purely an
orientation, and remains agnostic on questions of empirical
investigation.  Perhaps natural scientists are more oriented
to the whole by their very nature.  I know of no biologist
who would think about the body in fragmented terms, as if the
arms were unrelated to the hands, or the feet were unrelated
to the legs (even if we do allow for specialization of
medical knowledge amongst orthopedic doctors and
podiatrists.)  Of course, a case can be made that there are
more "dialectical" approaches to human biology than others.
Western medical science, up until recently, was always a bit
obsessed with the "body" to the virtual exclusion of the
mind (another vestige of philosophic dualism).  More
"holistic" approaches now recognize the necessity to probe
the relationship between body and mind.  Dialectics will tell
us NOTHING about WHAT the relationship is; but at the very
least, it tells us that there IS a relationship.  The move
toward psychosomatic medicine, biofeedback, and other body-
mind medical techniques is a welcome one.  I'm not saying it
is a direct result of dialectical method; I'm just saying
that it is great that medical science is paying more
attention to the intricate, internal relationship of
seemingly disparate factors.

    Now, as for Justin's other points:  I agree that
philosophy can humbly reflect on such issues as the place of
science in human life, and its relationship to values, etc.
My whole point was that because our knowledge is constantly
evolving, nobody should dogmatize the results of empirical
investigation and make them axioms upon which to base all
future investigation.

    Please remember that philosophy had a unique role in the
very birth of modernity.  We take it for granted in modern
societies that science has a revolutionary potential to
transform human life.  This attitude took centuries to
achieve, and it was an outgrowth of the secularization of the
human mind.  The belief in the efficacy of the mind to grasp
reality is one philosophic precursor to modernity.  It took
generations to achieve this victory over cultural mysticism
and the cultural predominance of religion.  No doubt, there
was an "internal" relationship between the achievements of
philosophy and science in this development--growing
philosophic confidence in the ability of the mind to deal
with natural phenomena was confirmed by the material
achievements of science, and vice versa.  The whole point of
my second post was that the growing influence of cultural
neomysticism might have a long-term deleterious effect on the
very efficacy of science.

    Finally, a dialectical approach demands that we not
disconnect science from those ever-important social
questions.  State monopolization of scientific research has
had a definite effect on the direction of that research.  And
the dualism that plagues modern culture, the vestige of
Kantianism that fragments facts and values, means and ends,
has inadvertently led to advances in techniques apart from
any understanding of the morality of the goals that such
techniques are designed to achieve.  This is partially what
motivated the Frankfurt theorists to contemplate the
nightmare of Auschwitz.

                                  - Chris

Dr. Chris M. Sciabarra
Visiting Scholar, N.Y.U. Department of Politics

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