Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Historism, Politics and Science

The debate about the integration of history into science seems to have been split into two apparently opposing positions; one which advocated the necessity of scientific laws over historical particularity, the other one which advocated the primacy of history over universal scientific laws. The most famous expression of this debate is the so-called “Metodenstreit” – an epistemological struggle between methods that lay at the hearth of the establishment of European social sciences in the 19th and the 20th century. It opposed the so-called German Historical School and the Austrian School. The former had German nationalist and romantic roots, and emerged as legal school in opposition to the utilitarian, classical political economy – found in Adam Schmitt, David Ricardo and others. It used the ideas of historicity and local particularity to criticize the universalisms of “modern” positivist scientific laws. They “blamed economics for being "abstract"”, instead they advocated a "visualizing" (anschaulich) mode of dealing with the problems involved. They emphasized that matters in this field are too complicated to be described in formulas and theorems and that “differences” cannot be comprehended by a uniform theory”. (Mises 1984) According to the followers of historismus, the scientific laws are themselves a product of history; are in continuous change and are therefore never universal.  

The Austrian school, with Ludwig von Mises, Carl Menger and Friedrich Hayek reacted against this perspective, and considered the ahistorical Hume, Smith and Ricardo as “the most exquisite outcome of the philosophy of the Enlightenment” (Mises 1984). The Austrian theoretical school based its political and economic models on Mengers “Methodological Individualism”; a theoretical perspective which assumes that “every correct theoretical abstraction of social and economic changes is the result of actions of individuals and agents in the economy.”(Azad 2005; Udehn 2002) a perspective closely linked to the neoclassical/neoliberal ahistorical “homo-economics” hypothesis. According to them, the German historical particularization ultimately leads to “as many economic theories required as there are nations and races”, and thus denies the possibility of any “such a thing as an economic science valid for all countries, nations, and ages?” (Mises 1984, 7–8) Would it not mean that “there could be no such a thing as a science, other than history, dealing with aspects of human action(Mises 1984), if we would take the historicists seriously? 

The debate between positive science and history was the main inspiration of Karl Popper’s work, whose work became the standard for scientific epistemology of the twentieth century. Popper is often categorized in the Austrian and positivist school - although he assumed himself a critic of positivist science, vigorously attacking it for being metaphysical itself. Popper’s main critique of what he calls historicism is towards its form as historical positivism that deduces laws of history; laws that according to him can never be falsified and are therefore excluded to be scientific. 

Popper associates this historical positivism with Marxism. Doing so, however, he reduces it to a very, positive, reductive and structural version of Marx’s approach towards history – an odd analytical Marx without dialectics. According to Popper the problem of this historicism lies in the holistic approach of history: as “the whole” is too complex, it can never to be fully known. Therefore all descriptions of reality must be selective; and real “predictions” such as in the historicist approach can therefore never be made. As history is made of singular events, history can only reveal trends: The best historical analysis could give would be a “so-far-unfalsified hypothesis.” Concretely, Popper argues Marx’s “scientific socialism”-thesis which proposes the historical necessity of capitalism revolutionizing into socialism, to be wrong, as such hypothesis could never a priory be falsified.  Such a position about the laws of history can be contrary to some views of Marxism, but is not necessarily opposed to Marx’s perspective. The latter’s approach “the whole” mirrors the Hegelian approach to totality, which according to Hegel cannot be understood analytically but only through dialectics. If there was one person who has consistently defended that man “made” and thus constantly changed it was Marx. His development of the concept of praxis, in which objectivity and subjectivity merge into human activity, is the basis of his conception of history. We will come back to this later, but for Marx, history is a political project, which is scientific in so far as science is political. 

Popper’s initial approach toward “principle of falsification” is nevertheless rather interesting from a critical perspective: it lays bare some fundamental political aspects of modern scientific knowledge. Falsification is first presented as an alternative to the empirical and positivist logic of the “principle of induction”, as a means whereby science decides upon truth. (Popper 2005p5) According to the positivist approach to science; all objective scientific theory is the product of sensorial observations, and should be able to be tested and reproduced in similar circumstances. Popper argued that the fundamental logical flaw in inductive reason consists in that one can never infer universal statements based upon singular/particular statements. (Popper 2005) Alternatively he proposes a method based on deduction rather than induction. It consists in the testing easily testable singular statements, deduced from a theory. If the decision of the falsification process is positive, the “singular conclusions have been verified, then the theory has, for the time being, passed its test... But if the decision is negative, or in other words, if the conclusions have been falsified, then their falsification also falsifies the theory from which they were logically deduced.” 

In his Logic of Scientific discovery, he defines the criterion for falsification as intersubjectively tested” (Popper 2005 p. 22). According to Popper science is what has become “justified”; meaning tested and understood “by everyone so far”.  These are important elements that leave room for a critical appropriation of Poppers approach. Subjectivity – in contrast to the objectivist approach of the positivists - thus plays a major role, and “by everyone” means that science depends on the existence of social consensus, hegemony and conflict. More-over, the “so far” incorporates a temporal dimension in the conceptualization of scientific knowledge. This definition re-opens the possibility of a historical dimension of science, as different “times” can mean different judgements about what is scientifically true. 

It should be noted, that in his polemic with Marxism, Popper later amends these points by giving them a liberal political content. In corresponding footnotes – referring to Poverty of Historicism – in later editions, he attributes a failure of scientific evolution (Popper 2005, 279 footnote) to the fact that knowledge is not “free” to advance; as freedom is not guaranteed, the state of art of science can stop or even be reversed. A posteriori, in his “Poverty of Historicism” – a critique of Marxism – he also redefines intersubjectivity in a fundamentally more liberal – Habermasean - notion by adding the idea of rational deliberation to the definition: “intersubjective rational criticism” to the definition. As rational communication - instead of social struggle for example - becomes the ultimate test of validity, he forecloses alternative, anti-hegemonic forms of scientific epistemology and sanctifies hegemonic bourgeois rationalism. 

Nevertheless, Popper admits that exactly within the context of “crisis”, scientific epistemological consensus is challenged: in such time “conflict over the aims of science … become acute”, then “the ‘classical’ system of the day is threatened by the results of new experiments which might be interpreted as falsifications”… “The system will appear unshaken to the conventionalist… by blaming our inadequate mastery”, others - in which Popper includes himself - “will hope to make new discoveries; and we shall hope to be helped in this by a newly erected scientific system.” (Popper 2005, P88-89) Crisis open up “new vistas into a world of new experiences.” (Popper 2005, P88-89) Isn’t the way how Popper links “crisis” and “falsification” with the ideas of “conflict”, “hope”, “a new scientific (justificatory-normative red) system” to be implemented, against “the conventionalist”, to be achieved in a “world of new experiences”, a perspective very much linked to Marx’s “scientific socialism” and political truth?

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