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Sophomore Reading List

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Lawrence Friedman, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet 

            If your undergraduate years coincided with the tumultuous 1960s or early 1970s, as you exercised your newly-found freedom you could not have escaped Erich Fromm. His books seemed to be everywhere, and he seemed to have answers for a generation more than a bit despondent about where the world appeared to be heading. His first major work, Escape from Freedom, published during World War II, was a penetrating study of why people may prefer authoritarianism to democratic government. His later works, notably The Art of Loving and The Sane Society, expressed the ideals and growing pains of those angst-ridden 20 somethings who saw all too well the imperfections of the world they were poised to inherit from their parents.

              If Fromm was everywhere then, he seems to be nowhere now. Escape from Freedom remains a cogent statement of what Fromm’s native Germany had become, and transformed itself after the war into a critique of post-war consumerism and materialism. The Art of Loving and The Sane Society, although published in the 1950s, seem like relics of the tumult of the 1960s, psycho-babble speaking to readers who were also lapping up Charles Reich’s fatuous The Greening of America, a work that now reads almost as a caricature of that era. Fromm’s works can’t be ridiculed in quite the same way, although from a perspective of 40 years later, they strike me as sophomoric. But, let’s face it, many of us reading them back then were more than a little sophomoric ourselves, even if we had evolved into juniors, seniors or young graduates.

           Now, for those of us who haven’t thought much about Fromm in recent decades, Lawrence Friedman has produced The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, a penetrating biography of the man behind those books for a generation of sophomores. Digging deeply into his many books, Friedman accents Fromm’s “remarkable capacity to convey complex thoughts in psychoanalysis, ethics, theology, political theory, social philosophy, cultural creations and much more in simple, direct prose that appealed to the latent ideals and fears of his time” (p.xxi-ii).

                Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1900, into a middle-class German-Jewish family. He was an only child and never felt particularly close to his parents. His mother in particular was distant. Looking back on his childhood, Fromm found her uncaring — she had not mastered the art of loving was probably a thought that passed through Fromm’s adult mind, perhaps at the moment when the title of his future book crystallized for him. Although his immediate family was not religious, from his earliest years prophetic Jewish teaching had much influence on his writings and thinking, an influence that never vanished as Fromm drifted away from formal Judaism. Throughout his adult life, Jewish law and ethics proved to be an anchor for Fromm, an illustration of universal human needs and experiences.

              Fromm became a psychoanalyst and began to make a name for himself at the Frankfurt Institute in the 1930s. But the 1930s were not among Germany’s better years and, with Hitler in power, most of the Frankfurt Institute moved to Columbia University in New York. Fromm migrated to the United States in 1934, and made what seems to have been a seamless transition to becoming an American in all senses of the term. Unlike most of his German colleagues at Columbia, Fromm was very comfortable in America and in using the English language, which he mastered in an amazingly short time.

          Fromm’s field, psychoanalysis, was one which Sigmund Freud had essentially invented during Fromm’s early years. As a young psychoanalyst, Fromm developed views that set him apart from Freud. Fromm regarded Freud’s view of human beings as too dark, too focused on libidinal impulses. Fromm “modified but did not eliminate [Freud’s] centrality of instinctive life” (p.225). In some senses, Fromm’s life-long mission was to replace libido theory, the “underpinning of Freudian orthodoxy” (p.60), with a view of humans as “social beings whose lives are shaped by social structure and culture” (p. xii), and in this sense Fromm never seriously wavered from his counter-views of Freud.

            The other central figure in defining Fromm’s professional career and shaping his views was Karl Marx. Early in his career, having deviated from Freudian orthodoxy, Fromm became convinced that the correct psychoanalytic view of man could be found through a synthesis between Marx’s rigidly materialistic emphasis on social-economic conditions and Freud’s focus on the inner psyche. While at the Frankfurt Institute in Germany, Fromm stumbled upon an early, unpublished manuscript Marx had written in 1844, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (also called the Paris Manuscripts), in which Marx had emphasized the estrangement that capitalism inflicted upon the human psyche. Blending this younger and “more psychologically compelling Marx” (p.188) with the insights of Freud, Fromm developed his notion of “social character structure,” a notion based on the interplay between individuals’ “impulsive energy, religion [and] political ideologies” and the “economic organization of society” (p.60).

        Fromm’s first major work, Escape from Freedom, which Friedman terms “one of the most profound and captivating books ever written on the conflict between freedom and authoritarianism” (p.62), came out in 1941, with war raging in Europe. Escape was one of the first works to merge psychology and history although, Friedman notes, most critics found that Fromm’s psychology “outshone his history” (p.107). The central thesis which Fromm articulated in Escape was in many senses the central thesis of his writings for the remainder of his career:

[M]odern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man (p.99).

              Although the future for liberal democracy appeared exceedingly bleak at the time of publication, Escape ended on an upbeat note. Fromm predicted the eventual spread of humanistic values, “almost as historical inevitability” (p.115). Friedman attributes Fromm’s optimism in part to his Jewish heritage and learning, noting that the Jewish prophetic tradition burst forth at the end of Escape from Freedom and helped make it a classic. As Fromm wrote the book, he was preoccupied with the rescue of family members and others from a “Holocaust in the making,” indicating that “much of his daily life was deeply embedded in the fabric of the book” (p.97). “The force and clarity of the work,” Friedman concludes, was “surely influenced by his almost daily interventions for émigré assistance” (p.76).

              With the defeat of the Nazis and the onset of the Cold War, Escape from Freedom demonstrated its versatility by evolving into a book speaking to the conformist tendencies of the 1950s in the United States. Friedman argues that Escape can be fitted into the same niche as David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, William Whyte’s The Organization Man, and Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, works which also addressed the comfortable middle class materialism that seemed to characterize 1950s America. Escape from Freedom had a wider focus than The Lonely Crowd, which was centered on the United States. In Friedman’s interpretation, one can see a 20th century version of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in Escape from Freedom, a statement of the perils of democracy in which people “dread their own free agency [and] fear themselves” (p.66-67).

              In 1950, Fromm relocated to Mexico and a post at the National Autonomous University, where he taught until 1965, although he retained substantial ties with the United States throughout his time in Mexico. During the 1950s, Friedman contends, Fromm ceased to write as a scholar and “evolved into a best-selling author” and “icon of popular culture,” particularly in the United States (p.155). In an unremitting series of books — rarely supported, Friedman wryly notes, with “much logic or evidence” (p.155) — Fromm advanced emotionally powerful ideas about the importance of love, the dangers of nuclear war, and the insipidness of consumerism and materialism.

             The Sane Society, published in 1955, focused on the Cold War culture of consumerism. Here, Fromm argued that love was the only force capable of counterbalancing narcissism and social conformity. A society achieved sanity where its citizens were “self-directed,” depending upon “their own capacities to love and to create, to think and to reason, to feel connected to themselves and to others” (p.188). Fromm relied heavily upon Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which he had discovered while at the Frankfurt Institute in Germany. “We consume, as we produce,” Fromm wrote in The Sane Society, echoing Marx, “without any concrete relatedness to the objects with which we deal; we live in a world of things, and our only connection with them is that we know how to manipulate or to consume them” (p.189).

             The following year, 1956, saw the publication of The Art of Loving, Fromm’s best selling book. With few footnotes or quotations and no index, the slim, 120 page volume was “quite short on scholarly paraphernalia,” as Friedman puts it (p.173). Here, Fromm posited that loving others starts with loving one-self. Self love opens an “entry way to the love of another and human kind” (p.175). Much to his chagrin, The Art of Loving was often paired with 1950s “self-help” best-sellers such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, works which “valued material acquisition and enhanced popularity as the avenues to happiness” (p.174). Quite unlike these works, The Art of Loving contained a scathing indictment of market capitalism and consumerism that emphasized the “severe limitations on love inherent in modern capitalist society and its focus on materialist acquisitiveness” (p.181), helping to explain the book’s appeal in the 1960s, when Carnegie and Peale seemed conspicuously out of step with the times.

               In these and his other books written in the 1950s and 1960s, Fromm became what we might term today a “public intellectual,” speaking out on the issues of the day and engaging actively in politics. Fromm’s signature issue centered on the threat that nuclear weapons posed, a threat he considered more serious than the dictatorships of the 1930s. Fromm was a co-founder of the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy (usually referred to as “SANE,” a reference to The Sane Society). Fromm advised a wide range of American public officials during this time on the dangers of nuclear weapons, including John F. Kennedy, William Fulbright, Adlai Stevenson, and Eugene McCarthy.

                 Throughout his time of activism and engagement, Fromm continued to write prolifically, with his search for the ideal synthesis between Freud and Marx continuing. His 1959 work Sigmund Freud’s Mission: An Analysis of His Personality and Influence invoked Marx as a “remedy” to Freud, but From still asserted that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious had struck a blow to conventional rationalists. More an “extended philippic than a closely reasoned or well-researched manuscript,” Sigmund Freud’s Mission nonetheless represented Fromm’s “most explicit reckoning with Freud” (p.221). Marx’s Concept of Man, published in 1961, relied again on Marx’s 1844 Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts to portray Marx as “deeply sensitive to inner, often unconsciousness psychological motivation” (p.223). Beyond the Chains of Illusions, published in 1962, represented Fromm’s “fullest effort to present his thoughts on Freud and Marx between two covers” (p.224). Unlike Freud, Fromm found that Marx had “delineated the psychologically crippling effect of class exploitation inherent in capitalism” (p.225). Marx thus helped Fromm establish an essentially social-democratic position as an alternative to a “repressive, class-based society” (p.226).

             Fromm termed his social-democratic position “socialist humanism,” a creed that sought to elevate individual self-fulfillment as the centerpiece for structuring human institutions. Fromm utilized his socialist humanism project to connect like-minded humanists in the United States and Western Europe with Eastern European dissidents in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In 1965, Fromm edited a volume of essays entitled Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium, which became “perhaps the most cited and celebratory global expression of 1960s third world socialism, providing an international context to the increasing number of works by members of Fromm’s expanding circle of colleagues” (p.245-46).

            In the 1960s, Fromm also began to explore what he termed “necrophilia,” a predilection for death, force, and destruction. Fromm posited “biophilia” as the counterpoint to necrophilia, a “heightened sense of aliveness” through which man “confirmed his powers and his sense of self” (p.215). This binary theme underscored Fromm’s 1973 work, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Here, Fromm argued that the authoritarian character type he had been describing since Escape From Freedom and the necrophilic character type “operated in tandem, forming a partnership between the two most evil potentialities of the human condition” (p.308). To illustrate this lethal partnership, Fromm delved briefly into the character of Adolph Hitler and more fully into that of his notorious lieutenant, Heinrich Himmler, a sadist who “sought total control over others and enjoyed inflicting misery” (p.309). Fromm’s analysis of Himmler provided concrete details for “some of the generalizations about the authoritarian personality that he had simply outlined in Escape from Freedom. It was Fromm at his peak as an intellectual and scholar in his last decade,” (p.310), Friedman concludes.

            To Have or To Be, published in 1976, Fromm’s last major work, synthesized Fromm’s “most important ethical and psychological observations over the decade” on authoritarianism, necrophilia, consumerism and a depleted sense of self (p.318). The book presented another binary contrast, between “having” and “being” modes, across a wide range of human experience. Fromm suggested that the world would transition from having to being when such qualities as relatedness, love, and solidarity “permeated society’s current bureaucratic, greedy, materialistic, and unhappy existence’” (p.327). To Have or To Be enjoyed only modest success in the United States but was exceedingly popular in Europe, particularly with young Germans and Italians who were speaking out for “less materialist and consumer driven lifestyles” (p.327). Some Europeans characterized the book as a “counterpoint to problematic American values” (p.327).

              While probing Fromm’s many writings, Friedman does not neglect the emotional and romantic side of the man. Friedman lets the reader decide whether Fromm the man adhered in his personal relationships to the principles which Fromm the writer had articulated. Fromm’s generally cold and distant relationship with his mother prompted him to seek emotional closeness in a wide variety of women. Fromm’s first wife, Frieda Reichman, whom Fromm married at age 26, was nearly 11 years older, and already a prominent psychoanalyst. After Fromm’s divorce from Reichman and shortly after his arrival in New York, Fromm had a long affair with prominent American psychoanalyst Karen Horney, also considerably older than Fromm; and another with an African-American dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham. Fromm’s second wife, Henny Gurland, committed suicide in 1952. The next year Fromm married Annis Freeman, to whom he stayed married for the rest of his life.

             Fromm retired with Annis to Locarno, Switzerland in 1976. He continued to write up to his death in 1980. While his works after Escape from Freedom may have lacked the rigor that would endear him to academics, Fromm nonetheless struck a responsive chord with an anxious reading public in the United States and throughout the world. Benjamin Friedman’s splendid interpretative biography provides those of us who are no longer sophomores with an opportunity to take another look at Fromm’s critiques of consumerism and materialism and reflect upon his formulations for achieving happiness.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
February 7, 2015

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Filed under American Politics, Biography, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Politics, United States History

Dummy for Science

Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature 

Steven Shapin, The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation

I revere science.  Those who know me know there is much irony in that simple sentence.  Here’s the sorry record: I struggled with high school chemistry, knowing throughout that I was in way over my head.  I dropped out of high school physics, realizing early on that I was even further over my head and headed toward a failing grade.  In an overall lackluster undergraduate academic career, by far my worst grade came in fulfilling the science requirement during my sophomore year in introductory geology, affectionately known as Rocks I — a science course deliberately tailored to the scientifically challenged.  I never again came close to a science course.  Yet, I revere science.  So I was drawn to Timothy Ferris’ “The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature,” and Steven Shapin’s “The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation.”   Although both are about science, these are very different books: Ferris treats how the scientific spirit influences democratic governance; Shapin addresses how the scientist fits into our society.

A professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, Ferris contends that the rise of modern science and the scientific spirit are linked to democratic governance.  The democratic revolution, Ferris argues, was “sparked – caused is perhaps not too strong a word – by the scientific revolution.”  Science “continues to foster political freedom today. . . [S]cientific skepticism is corrosive to authoritarianism and . . .scientific experimentation provides a better model for governance than any of the systems that preceded it”  (p.2).

Shapin, a professor at Harvard specializing in the history of science, describes the role and perception of the scientist in Western societies, particularly the United States, from the mid-19th century to the present day.  During this time, a career in science transformed from a calling to a job.  Scientists enjoyed an exalted role in the 19th century, when they were likened to philosophers whose calling was to discover the laws of nature.  This role gradually yielded to one more in keeping with modern democratic sensibilities, where scientists began to work in large corporations and government, advancing corporate and governmental interests rather than simply pursuing scientific knowledge for its own sake.  In the process, the scientist came to be perceived as being on the same moral plane as the engineer, insurance salesman and automobile mechanic.  Shapin terms this the “moral ordinariness” of the scientist.

I

It is important to note what Timothy Ferris’ book is not about.  It is not an argument for utilizing the scientific method to resolve the problems democracies must confront.  Nor is it an argument for government by technocrats.  It does not emphasize technical expertise as the key to democratic governance.  Rather, to be successful, democracies need the same open-minded, open-to-change spirit which characterizes scientific inquiry.  Both science and democracy “start with tentative ideas, go through agonies of experimentation, and arrive at merely probabilistic conclusions that remain vulnerable to disproof” (p.13).  Like scientific experiments, democracies tend to be “untidy, patched up affairs that seldom work out as expected.” Although repellent perhaps to the perfectionist, democracy has proven to be “tougher, more resilient, and better able to answer the needs of its citizens than any other.” And that is because democracy, like science, is “not built on hopes of human perfection but on an acknowledgement of human fallibility” (p.103).  Indeed, claims of perfection are anti-scientific and anti-democratic.  “The scientist who claims his theory is perfect is a crank; the politician who claims his administration is perfect is a tyrant” (p.14).

Although written well before the outbreak of democratic sentiment in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere during the “Arab spring,” Ferris’ view of science leads him emphatically to the conclusion that democracy is not inherently Western.   Just as science is “practiced by persons of all races and religious beliefs, speaks a universal language, and evaluates results on the basis of merits rather than place of origin,” democracy is the province of “no particular culture but belongs to everyone willing to plant and cultivate it” (p.13).

Democracy first appeared in states where science and technology were most advanced, Ferris argues, in England, America and the Netherlands (and “more fitfully” in France, Italy and Germany) because “science demanded liberty and demonstrated its social benefits, creating a symbiotic relationship in which freer nations were better able to carry on the scientific enterprise, which in turn rewarded them with knowledge, wealth and power” (p.7). The notion of democracy gained strength in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, when philosophers turned away from traditional beliefs and toward the  values of inquiry, invention and improvement.  Although other forces were at work, the Enlightenment without science would have been a ”steamship without steam” (p.57).

Ferris addresses what might appear to be an obstacle standing in the way of showing how science is integrally linked to the 18th century Enlightenment and its democratic revolution: the huge influence that France had on the Enlightenment, and the undemocratic character of much of what passed under the banner of the French Revolution.  Ferris sees the French Revolution as profoundly anti-scientific, the progenitor of modern totalitarianism at least as much as of modern democracy.  French revolutionaries “neglected the fundamental lesson of science and liberalism – that the key to success is to experiment and abide by the results – assuming instead that the point of a revolution was to implement a particular philosophy” (p.113).   The French philosophes  were inclined to regard science as subordinate to philosophy, “bounded by the rules laid down by philosophers past,” thereby downplaying science’s “creativity and its political implications” (p.114).

At the forefront of this anti-scientific philosophy was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who all but dominated French thought from 1760 on and, more than anyone else, invented Romanticism – a “Manichean world view that champions sentiment over logic, caprice over common sense, instinct over civilization, and mysticism over clarity” (p. 115-116).  Ferris’ indictment of Rousseau is scathing.  Rousseau’s “fact-free thought” created a “new and pernicious style of philosophizing – one that consists of basing real world arguments on bald fictions, then retreating into a wounded obscurantism should anyone question the legitimacy of the enterprise” (p.125). The fascist ideal of an “all-powerful ruler who embodies the spirit of the people came straight from Rousseau,” Ferris argues (p.126).  This is a controversial view which many experts reject, but one with which I agree.

So how does the scientific sprit animate democratic governance in, to choose one example randomly, the 21st century United States?  What can that spirit tell us about whether we should surtax billionaires, discontinue tax breaks for oil companies, turn Medicare into a voucher program, or cut the Defense Department budget?  Ferris’ scientific spirit provides a means to answer these and broader questions about the proper role of government regulation in a democratic economy.  Ferris quotes approvingly John Stuart Mill, whose mixed feelings about government intervention in economic matters plainly parallel his own.  “There are some things with which government ought not to meddle, and other things with which they ought,” all the while conceding that the question of which is which “does not . . . admit of any universal solution.” (p.181).  Ferris suggests that democratic societies must find the right balance between Hayek and Keynes, through a utilitarian trial-and-error process.

Portions of Ferris’ argument seem libertarian in nature, compatible with the current Republican vision of a smaller state, with less government regulation and a relatively weak social safety system.  He extols Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations was one of the very rare works which “actually, substantially, and almost immediately started improving the quality of human life and thought,” (174) to the point that its precepts now strike us as “largely self-evident.” (p.175).  Smith advocated regulations and other legal restrictions on economic activity “only insofar as they are required to keep the market fair and free” (p.177).  The beauty of the Smith’s free market, Ferris argues, is that it “benefits society as a whole without requiring its participants to act out of any loftier motive than self interest.” (p.177).  Free markets, “provided that they are kept aboveboard, are more efficient, and grow economies faster, than do markets that are excessively regulated, controlled, or shielded from competition” (p.187).   He emphasizes that in many developing nations, “needless government regulation has driven the majority of economic activity off the radar screens and tax rolls” (p.165).

Although tempted by libertarianism, the scientific spirit leads Ferris away from a dogmatic adherence to unfettered markets as the key to democratic success.  He cites polls that indicate that “those living in nations that distribute their income the most equitably report themselves happiest: The inhabitants of relatively socialistic nations like Iceland, Holland, Finland and Sweden show up happier than Americans, although Americans make more money” (p.155).  Further, “over the past half century the American economy has performed better under Democratic than Republican administrations” (p.185).  Ferris concludes, as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill anticipated, that there is “no one right solution for all peoples when it comes to the proper economic role of government.”  Liberal democracies may and should vacillate between Hayek and Keynes as they seek to reach the most effective degree of government involvement in the economy and extent of their social safety nets.

There are good discussions here of why real science cannot thrive in totalitarian environments, Nazi or Soviet.  (p.199-203).  There is “no socialist science, no Western or Eastern science, no capitalist or communist or feminist or ethnic science.  There’s just science and while one scientist may do it better or worse than the next, nobody can simply invent a different science and expect it to complete successfully with the real thing” (p.209).

Ferris launches an effective assault on anti-science attitudes which one finds in some academic circles, “deconstructionism, multiculturalism, cultural studies,” which Ferris lumps together as “postmodernism.”  These approaches “became so popular that generations of educators came to believe, and continue to teach their students today, that science is culturally conditioned and politically suspect – the oppressive tool of white Western males, in one formulation.”  (p.237).  This is strong stuff, but I found myself in agreement.  However, I left this discussion thinking that Ferris was also going to hammer the anti-science attitudes that pervade wide swaths of today’s Republican party, those who believe that evolution is just another theory of the origins of life, to be considered on equal grounds with Biblical and semi-religious accounts; or that global warming and climate change are matters stirred up by Al Gore and a band of conspiring, self-aggrandizing environmental extremists.  Although he discusses the climate change controversy, he barely touches on the widespread denial of evolution within much of today’s Republican base.  I would have preferred a little more punching here.

II

Stephen Shapin’s book starts in the mid-19th century, when the scientist was a lonely outsider, working individually on “pure” science, with little expectation of pecuniary reward for his labor (almost all scientists were male in the mid-19th century, a situation which has changed some but not all that much since that time).  Charles Darwin, the century’s most famous scientist, embodied the notion of the “gentleman-amateur.”  Darwin was “never employed to produce scientific knowledge, nor was the knowledge he produced designed to be of use to the contemporary structures of power and profit” (p.42).  The scientist’s role was likened to that of a philosopher whose calling was to discover the Laws of Nature — a higher calling than simply applying those laws.

This exalted role and perception of the scientist changed in the late 19th and early  20th centuries, as industrialization transformed western societies and scientists began to work first for major corporations like Bell Telephone, General Electric, and Eastman Kodak, and then government.  In the corporate world, scientists usually worked in teams rather than individually, applying their expertise to advance the corporation’s interest in greater profits.  Gradually, scientists lost their affinity to philosophers and became more like engineers and technicians, “morally no different from anyone else”  (p.23).  Knowing about nature was, Shapin writes, “no longer like knowing a divinely written book, but like knowing how a car engine worked” (p.25).  This “moral ordinariness” of the scientist is a projection of modern “democratic sensibilities,” suited to “both the quantitative expansions of the scientific role and to changing institutional circumstances in which scientists increasingly found themselves – handmaids to the creation of wealth and enhancement of power” (p.127).

The mobilization of science during World War II –especially the Manhattan project — proved to be a definitive turning point in altering the role and perception of the scientist, bringing about “massive changes in the social and cultural realities of American science, in understandings of what science was and who the scientist was” (p.64).  The war:

propelled a generation of academic scientists into a world that was generally unfamiliar to them: the experience of large-scale organization; of teamwork; of interdisciplinary research; of unlimited resources and severely limited time; of close contact with the sorts of people – especially the military and the commercial worlds – they had not known much about; and, after the end of the war and the beginning of the Cold War, the experience – for some of them – of political power (p.64-65).

Yet, as scientists began to fit ever more easily into corporate and government molds, an “emotionally charged” debate took place throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s over the role of the scientist, with many looking nostalgically at the lost role of the pure, 19th century gentleman-amateur scientist.  According to one “classical trope,” the capacity to produce “genuine scientific knowledge” was only compatible with the “virtues of the free-acting individual” (p.173).  Organized research was said to be a “prostitution of the very idea of science and a visible index of how modernity was going disastrously wrong” (p.96).

The best expression of this mid-century angst was William White’s The Organization Man, published in 1956Whyte saw the “individualism of the Protestant Ethic” being “systematically subverted” by the “deadening hand of corporate collectivism” (p.175).  Whyte’s book came out in the midst of the Cold War, and was one of several works that contended that attempts to transform the making of scientific knowledge into a formally organized endeavor “could succeed only by sacrificing Truth, Progress and ultimately Power” (p.173).  Were Galileo and Einstein alive in the mid-1950s, biochemist Erwin Chargaff wrote wistfully, they “might never get themselves funded by a Federal grant: too individualistic” (p.173).

In the Cold War and McCarthyite context, the scientist was seen as being at the heart of a struggle between “authentic American individualism and the dark forces of conformity and collectivism” (p.120).  The “defense of scientific individualism became a powerful way of reminding American society how much its security and welfare depended upon some of its least sociable and least conforming members” (p.177).  In 1953, Fortune Magazine wrote that the scientist, “particularly the most gifted is, by almost any definition, a maverick. His endowments, drives, interests, political opinions, and even religious beliefs are not, in most cases, those of the majority of society” (p.182).

While Big Science, as it was called, was “celebrated, condemned, and recurrently treated either as a major achievement or a major problem” (p.95), it continued to flourish unabated in major corporations, government, and academic research laboratories.  In 1965, one commentator wrote that the scientist of the day was “typically an ‘organization man’” (p.197).  A corporate science research section touted its virtues:  “No geniuses here; just a bunch of average Americans working together” (p.177). A GE research manager wrote that, as a general rule, “no laboratory can afford to hire men who lack the generous spirit of cooperation” (p.184).   By the mid-1970s, the debate was over: Big Science had won and America had come to terms with the scientific profession as a “route to a comfortably bourgeois style of living” (p.209).

In the last section, Shapin treats the more recent alignment between venture capitalists and scientists, particularly those involved in information and biotechnology.  In what might be termed a new paradigm, the scientist is no longer part of a gigantic corporation.  He or she seeks to help launch a small to medium size business and, often, to run or have a major role in running the enterprise.  This section reads in part like a manual on how to convince the venture capitalist to underwrite and market scientists’ innovative ideas.   The key is to sell oneself as much as one’s ideas.  “Bet on the jockey, not the horse,” is a famous proverb of the venture capitalist world.  “Jockeys live longer than horses, and they’re the ones that have got to steer the horse, to correct the errors of its ways, and to make adaptations to course conditions and the behavior of rival horses” (p.291).  And, especially, avoid the term “new paradigm.”  As one venture capitalist put it, “[I]f I had a dime for every company that has told me it was the new paradigm, I would be rich enough to pay Bill Gates’s legal bill” (p. 290).

III

If there is a link between these otherwise very different books, it probably lies in Shapin’s notion of the moral ordinariness of the scientist and the compatibility of this notion with modern democratic sensibilities.  There is a rough parallel between the demise of the 19th century gentleman-amateur scientist and the expansion of the right to vote beyond its 18th and early 19th century restriction to white male property holders.  As scientists became less like philosopher kings and more like insurance salesmen, so too the expanding franchise brought the property-less, blacks and women to the ballot box.  Today, no one would question the factory worker having the same access to the ballot as the factory owner.  There is a moral ordinariness to all of us in the voting booth.

Nonetheless, Shapin would likely agree with Gary Rosen, who argued in his perceptive review of Ferris’ book that science remains a sort of an aristocracy. “Experiment, equality and freedom of expression are essential to this work, but it is the work of an elite community from which most people are necessarily excluded,” Rosen wrote (New York Times Book Review, February 10, 2010).  Thankfully, he concluded, “participation in the everyday life of democracy does not require a PhD, nor are theories and ideas its basic medium.”

Ideally, rationality and an empirical weighing of choices, roughly analogous to the scientific method, should drive the functioning of our democracy.  But it is difficult to see this degree of rationality at work in today’s cantankerous democratic processes, whether at the ballot boxes or in the halls of Congress.  It is easy to agree with Ferris that science and democratic evolution have historically been mutually re-enforcing.  But science’s influence on contemporary democratic practice seems more suspect.  Further, there is universality to science — as Ferris says, no Eastern or Western science, “just science.”  Democracy, however, is shaped by profoundly idiosyncratic factors, such as history, culture, and tradition.  India, Sweden and the United States are all democracies, yet are far from carbon copies of one another.

Ferris’ interpretation nonetheless provides us with plenty to think about, and I hope his book will prove to be a major contribution to our understanding of how democracy evolved.  Shapin candidly states that his book is primarily for academic historians and social scientists, unlikely to be of interest to the general reader.  But this general reader was pleased to have taken the plunge, finding his work surprisingly engrossing.  Both works enhance a reverence not only for science but also for creative thinking.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

May 20, 2012

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