Sunday, April 27, 2008

Science, Jews, & Secular Culture

My knowledge of intellectual history was pretty sketchy when I first encountered David A. Hollinger, in 1980 at a lecture he delivered on John Dewey, at a time when I became most suspicious of the irrationalism seemingly engulfing academia. That was long ago and far way. Then, in July 2001 I read this collection of essays:

Hollinger, David A. Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Ch. 1 Introduction 3
Ch. 2 Jewish Intellectuals and the De-Christianization of American Public Culture in the Twentieth Century 17
Ch. 3 The "Tough-Minded" Justice Holmes, Jewish Intellectuals, and the Making of an American Icon 42
Ch. 4 Two NYUs and "The Obligation of Universities to the Social Order" in the Great Depression 60
Ch. 5 The Defense of Democracy and Robert K. Merton's Formulation of the Scientific Ethos 80
Ch. 6 Free Enterprise and Free Inquiry: The Emergence of Laissez-Faire Communitarianism in the Ideology of Science in the United States 97
Ch. 7 Academic Culture at the University of Michigan, 1938-1988 121
Ch. 8 Science as a Weapon in Kulturkampfe in the United States during and after World War II 155
Index 175

See also: Publisher's description, and:

Gad Freudenthal . "Review of David Hollinger, Science, Jews and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History," H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews, March, 1997. URL:

Here is what I wrote about the book on 31 July 2001:
This book purports to fill in a gap in US intellectual history, on a generation of intellectuals that came to fruition in that interval sandwiched in between those legendary constructs known as "The Fifties" and "The Sixties" and not limited to the cohort of the "New York Intellectuals" or to people in high-profile areas in the humanities. The question is, what was the influence of secular Jewish intellectuals on academia and American intellectual life, helping to redirect the intellectual consensus away from Protestant hegemony and Catholic influence, towards a secular cosmopolitan ideal? This fellow has a number of interesting things to say in his introduction alone. He begins his first chapter with the contrast between the fascist T.S. Eliot's views (including his anti-Semitism and scandalous alliance with the segregationist Southern agrarians) and the Jewish secular cosmopolitanism he proposes to discuss.

There is also a curious footnote down the line claiming that contemporary multiculturalists are unaware of . . . the ethnopluralists of the immigrant generation [of a century ago]. . . .
Three of these essays, which I have just re-read, reveal implications for the value and limitations of the idealization of science. While this book does not explicitly mention freethought or humanism, obviously the valorization of the "scientific method" in the atheist/humanist literature must be related to the overall intellectual history regarding the purported value system of science. This material must be factored into an historical perspective on the ideology of secular humanism. I will comment on the relevant essays, citing their original journal publication.

First, a note on chapter 2:

Hollinger, David A. "Jewish Intellectuals and the De-Christianization of American Public Culture in the Twentieth Century," in New Directions in American Religious History: The Protestant Experience, ed. D. G. Hart & H. S. Stout (New York, 1996).

Also accounted for here is the general influence of the 1880-1924 mass immigration of various European ethnic groups, including the role of Catholicism in the WASP / immigrant /Jewish / secularization nexus. Hollinger claims that Jewish intellectuals exerted significant leverage and that they inspired progressive Protestants in the secularization process. The footnotes are especially valuable, esp. on the historical, sociological, and political dimensions of religion in the USA.

Hollinger, David A. "The Defense of Democracy and Robert K. Merton's Formulation of the Scientific Ethos," Knowledge and Society, 4 (1983): 1-15.

Merton's seminal 1942 essay "A Note on Science and Democracy" was inspired by the fight against fascism, but it was depoliticized with successive reprintings and citations. Merton, conscious of the Nazi hostility to democracy and science, formulated fundamental principles of the scientific enterprise: universalism, communism (i.e. common, public ownership of scientific knowledge, vs. secrecy), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. Merton's emphasis on institutionalization of these values was a significant innovation, in contradistinction to other thinkers' linkage of science and democracy--e.g. Sidney Hook. Merton was also familiar with the work of the British Marxists on science, e.g. J. D. Bernal. Reference is also made to the formulations of Mark A. May at the April 1943 "Conference on the Scientific Spirit and Democratic Faith." Note also C. H. Waddington's 1941 The Scientific Attitude. How democracy related to socialism and particularly the USSR was a matter of dispute. Hollinger summarizes Merton's innovations (book, p. 91)., among which I will single out the notion of the "scientific community".

Hollinger, David A. "Free Enterprise and Free Inquiry: The Emergence of Laissez-Faire Communitarianism in the Ideology of Science in the United States," New Literary History, 21 (1990): 897-919.

The popular presentation of science in the USA was as a detached, individualistic enterprise until the explosion of a sociological conception of science in the 1960s. Vannevar Bush's writing on science in the 1940s was imbued with the language of individualism, reflecting the still-dominant discourse of laissez-faire capitalism and the popular characterization of science of earlier decades. The entanglement of the scientific research enterprise with big government in the wake of World War II would ultimately undermine this characterization. Bush saw the potential danger of centralized planning during the war as a threat to basic research.

Alfred North Whitehead saw science as driving history. Hans Reichenbach and the logical positivists fostered an individualistic conception of science. John Dewey, however, was unhappy with the notion of isolating science and society, but he was not equipped to grapple with the planning issue. The British Communists of the 1930s (Bernal, J. G. Crowther, et al) were advocates of planning, but they were as idealistic about science in their own way as others and their ideas were compatible with the notions of Dewey and Merton. Michael Polanyi opposed Bernalism and the practice of science in the USSR. (Note his essay "The Autonomy of Science".)

The notion of the autonomous scientific community can be traced from Merton to Polanyi to Edward Shils. Through this notion, laissez-faire and government-funded planning could be harmonized. The advancing notion of a virtuous, autonomous scientific community (a model of democracy in itself) was the precursor to the science studies of the '60s--enter Don K. Price and Thomas Kuhn.

Hollinger, David A. "Science as a Weapon in Kulturkampfe in the United States During and After World War II," Isis, 86 (1995): 440-454.

"Science" was an ideological weapon in the anti-fascist ideological struggle, outside of a strict concern for scientific method in the conduct of science itself. Robert K. Merton and Mark A. May linked science and democracy, in opposition to reactionary American Catholic intellectuals and Mortimer Adler. Other leading intellectuals, including John Dewey, contributed to the ideological struggle. Note the ties of the Catholic Church to fascism and the anti-Semitic dimension of the notion of a Christian culture. The anti-fascist orientation expanded to incorporate Soviet communism into the notion of totalitarianism. Popularizers of the scientific spirit included Margaret Mead and James B. Conant. Conant, however, did not idealize the scientist. Conant did not advocate an imitation of the actual practices of the scientific community (in which individual behavior was incorporated into a system of institutional checks-and-balances) but rather a cultivation of the independent scientific spirit of inquiry among the general population.

Even William H. Whyte's 1956 The Organization Man preserved an individualistic notion of the scientific spirit. Hans Reichenbach rigidly separated fact from value, (note his work The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, 1951,) but once the value of democracy was presumed, everything else was to follow strictly logically, i.e. on the basis of scientific method. Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger also promoted the morality of science in the struggle with McCarthyism.

In 1959 C. P. Snow was to enjoin the battle by highlighting a prevalent hostility in the humanities to the sciences in his controversial work The Two Cultures. Snow attacked literary modernism in particular as fostering political reaction and declared science as democratic and anti-racist. This was initially a British controversy, but humanistic intellectuals in the USA also grappled with the issues, but in a changed social context, in which traditional barriers--particularly anti-Semitism--were coming down in academia.

By the early 1960s the end of ideology and modernization theory were prominent themes. In this period seminal works on the historiography and sociology of science and the knowledge industry were produced. Hollinger mentions several individuals but devotes special attention to Don K. Price, Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, and Merton. Popper, still fighting the old battles against totalitarianism and irrationalism, was unremittingly hostile to Kuhn and the sociological perspective. Merton, in a politically quite different context from the 1940s, became an inspiration to a new generation of sociologists of science.

Kuhn alone survived as a major voice in the "postmodernist" dispensation to come, and Michel Foucault provided ammunition for the anti-scientific revenge of the humanists reversing Snow's accusations and turning them against the scientists.

Hollinger does not avow a wish to return to the past, nor that the ideas of the 1940s through mid-'60s should survive unmodified, but while "science alone is not a sufficient foundation for culture", the heroic cosmopolitan scientific ideals of this now-eclipsed era would have to constitute the common language of any multicultural utopia.

I hope it is evident that the importance of work like Hollinger's cannot be gainsaid. These ideas in philosophy, sociology, the public advocacy of science, and related intellectual pursuits also interpenetrate the sphere of activity of freethinkers and secular humanists, who have much to learn from this history, and from intellectual history as an actual discipline. Atheists and humanists have advocated the scientific method for several decades, without specifying what it is and how it is to be applied beyond the natural sciences to all spheres of human knowledge and action, and without differentiating and accounting for the distinction between a set of scientific ideals and the actual institutionalized practice, politics, and economics of science. In this way the atheist/humanist movement itself becomes ideologically opaque.

Note also that white Christians and ex-Christians are not the only people in this society to be taken into account. A "Christian" nation has always been and must always be an anti-Semitic nation, and no infusion of Christian Zionism will ever make it otherwise, whichever political opportunists may wish to turn their heads. Nor can the tokenist fictitious construct of a "Judaeo-Christian tradition" obscure the underlying nastiness of a theocracy based on either of these components.

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