Science & Method

"Our attention here is on the counterposition of idealism and materialism in sofar as the latter can explain the former expressed as Mysticism, Religion and Ideology (false consciousness which bolsters a class system of domination). Idealism is not seen as good or bad but as serving a function in social development, reaching its limits and being eroded at the level of ideas by science, and at the level of social practice by the revolutionary consequences of liberation, which require no blinders on reality but which flourish in the bathing light of clarity. However, this clarity cannot be wished into existence but must emerge out of the process of development itself. The role of the human subject in unearthing and revolutionizing reality is the analog of the interaction of emerging and evolving nature and society. This, rather than detracting from the significance of the conscious actor, gives the actor that significance--his/her stage and materials out of which he/she forges his/her tools and weapons. Another key aspect of this question is the possibilities of science in clarifying our relation to nature and in aiding us to supplant the function of religion in reconciling us to change, catastrophe and death.

"In relation to the study of capitalism, this methodology enables us to pierce through the opacity of commodity fetishism which turns our relation to each other and nature topsy-turvy. The effects of de-fetishization enable us to see the real power of the working class as the producer and universal scientist who projects that power onto the capitalist, and to see the real social relations which, under capitalism, are expressed indirectly through things that are presented as the conditions and instruments of our domination."

Arthur Felberbaum, from Science & Method: A Summary of the Ground Covered in the July Intensive School, 1977

Part I. What is science and scientific thinking? Why do we need theory?

An important concern of Marx and Engels, and subsequent revolutionary thinkers from Lenin to Bertolt Brecht, Amilcar Cabral to Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Paulo Freire, Che and Fidel, was that, basing understanding of self and society directly on immediately lived experience and common sense knowledge, is not sufficient for empowering people to act in the world to change it as historically transformative subjects. As Amilcar Cabral puts it, "...reality itself which the man lives is what defines the things man has in his head....To the extent to which he acquires consciousness of reality, to the extent in which reality influences his consciousness, or creates his consciousness, man can acquire the potential to transform reality." Given these issues about the nature and cognition of reality as such--of both the natural world and ourselves as a part of the natural world--and the particular problem of knowing within capitalist culture, marxists have identified the question of science and scientific thinking as a central concern to the possibility of humanity revolutionizing reality.

Some Questions:

1. Let us begin by clarifying what we mean by science and scientific thinking. How does this relate to the question of knowledge and truth about reality and ourselves? How can we say we "know" when there is no absolute truth? How is contemporary science at once bourgeois and universal? And how does this understanding help us both appropriate and critique science? Why is this important to the left? How do we distinguish science from ideology and common sense? How do these ways of thinking about reality relate to each other at any historical moment?

2. Why do leftists need theory and how does this relate to changing consciousness and movement building? What are "theoretical tools"?

3. What is and what do you think needs to be the relation of "modern" science to other ways of knowing and knowledge? This is complicated by the dual character of "modern" science as both universal and class based. Is this an arena of ideological struggle and if so why and for whom? What are the practical liberatory consequences or possibilities of this struggle?

4. We need to take on the question of the nature of reality (ontology) and how our thinking about, our concepts of, and cognition of, reality (epistemology) relates to the nature of reality which we at once study and of which we are a part. We at the New York Marxist School, refer to this as the question of method. So, we must discuss dialectical historical materialism and its relevance to understanding natural and social existence. How does a dialectical materialist look at something? What kind of questions do they ask and answers do they search for? How does this scientific practice differ from the established way science is done?

5. What kinds of educational and pedagogic work needs to be done by the left to advance “scientific” thinking, as you understand this, in our own movements and within society at large? Does our/your concept of scientific differ from the dominant view and if so in what ways?

Part II. Relation of the natural and social

We make and reproduce ourselves through our particular species capacity for labor, which is purposeful activity--not simply the exertion of energy or work, but a material/social activity, which is at once a product of consciousness, itself is a product of natural history. And we acquire our capacities through learning, a social activity transmitted to each individual from the moment they are born through the teaching/training/educating/socializing activities carried out by the members of their community in relationship to each person and to generations. This is our specific adaptive development within natural history and how we survive and reproduce ourselves and our cultures within the natural/material/social life worlds we are a part of. These natural human capacities are the actual basis for the idea that we can transform our society and that human emancipation is not simply a good idea but can have practical meaning. Science (and the scientist) is a part of social knowledge (and labor) and is culturally developed and transmitted (as scientists are educated and consumed) over generations through the institutions and motivations within society.

Some Questions:

1. The period we are going through, encapsulated by the slogan "End of history" (which only means the historical continuation of capital's domination over the people and resources of our planet for some time longer), has seen a worldwide retreat, even surrender, of socialist movements. Many socialist, and specifically marxist, intellectuals now speak about the separation of nature and society conceptually and have rejected the significance of dialectical materialist thinking. This retreat of the social scientists is occurring when the "bourgeois" scientists are more and more explicitly incorporating materialist, historical and dialectical thinking into their methodologies at the level of analysis and at the level of their conceptualizations about the nature of the reality they are studying. Even physicists are debating the need to develop a model that incorporates chemistry (the universe is composed of "real" matter) and history (our universe develops and transforms itself over time). And all the sciences are now speaking about explaining phenomena and its transformation on the basis of existence itself. This is a basic premise. Yet, within the social sciences, the various disciplines that study ourselves, the basic premise is that we cannot know. The human subject is too complicated and variable, as if we, a tiny part of nature, in making ourselves, are more complicated than all of existence. Part of this thinking, I think, rests on a misconception that science is synonymous with prediction and if you can't create a laboratory setting for experimentation then you don't truly have science and knowledge. And this is overlaid with the inherent class-biases embedded in science. We would like to ask our panelists: How do you situate yourself within this discussion? How does it impact your area of work? And do you consider it to be an important ideological battle front for radicals?

Part III. Science, our species capacities and knowledge & the limitations of science under capital

"Thus capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society…For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production…The universality towards which it irresistibly strives encounters barriers in its own nature, which will, at a certain stage of its development, allow it to be recognized as being itself the greatest barrier to this tendency, and hence will drive towards its own suspension." [Grundrisse , pp. 409-410]

For Marx these tendencies of capital express the latter as both an historical contribution to human development and as a barrier. Learning, thinking, objectifying, reflecting, imagining, are all capacities we have peculiar to our species development and our particular way of existing in nature. What we call science and scientific activity and thinking is a product of our species/collective history and a development of this natural human capacity within natural history. Furthermore, today more than ever, with the direct application of science to human activity, our knowledge is not and cannot be the special preserve of individuals. Yet, within our capitalist culture collective knowledge is not encouraged and species knowledge is not appropriated by individuals as their own.

Some Questions:

1. Every ruling class appropriates the knowledge of the species for its needs to reproduce society in its image and to maintain its power. How does scientific activity and the accomplishments of science do this in our societies? Who does science, how does it get done and for what purposes?

2. Since each of us individually cannot “know” all of our species knowledge how do we ensure that each individual contributes to and appropriates our collective knowledge and how does this relate to the development of a genuine democracy? How might we prefigure in our movement building activities and in our organizations the many-sided development of individuals and the development of collective knowledge, which is then available to us all? But first, I think we need to explicate what we mean by collective intelligence and knowledge. What is the significance of the new Cuban emphasis on universal cultural and scientific education as a prerequisite for freedom?

Part IV. Effects of commodification (fragmentation/alienation and material interdependence) and our movement building activity

The commodification of all aspects of our lives has led to the one-sided development of individuals who do not experience themselves connected to the manifold range of societal developments and concerns from the sciences to the arts. The pervasive division of labor (and of things) fragments knowledge and individual activity, and mental and manual labor become the special domains of “categories” of people. Experts “direct” the political, moral and economic realms of life, which are established as separate arenas of thinking within the ruling ideology, epitomized by the sociologist Max Weber and, in practice, in the institutions of society. Scientists do science. And a corollary to this is that value/judgment is distinct from objectivity/science/knowledge; the old mind/body or matter/spirit split continues to reign in everyday life and in our consciousness.

Some Questions:

1. How do we de-fetishize reality? In other words, how do we make the “real” apparent? How does this relate to the need for theory and science? Why is this question important to movement building? Brecht reminds us to tell those truths that matter.

2. How are and might scientists and activists form common agenda, work together, develop their individual and collective knowledge? Why is this important for movement building and prefiguring new ways of doing things, new ways of organizing ourselves in relation to each other and nature? How might this contribute to creating a left force within society that could become a real pole of attraction to significant sectors of society?

3. With all this thinking in mind, let's now turn to the old discussion pertaining to Marx and Engels' claim that we can now put socialism on a scientific, as opposed to, utopian basis. Is this conception important, or have a resonance for us today? What would you keep or change in this formulation and why? What does "utopian" mean today, when we must dare to dream?

Part V. Towards one science? Overcoming the separations of mind/body; theory/practice; matter/spirit; objectivity/value

"Natural science will in time incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science: there is only one science."

Marx, from The Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 [p. 143]

Some Questions:

1. As we discussed earlier, one by one, the various separate sciences have or are becoming historical, materialist and dialectical. Interdisciplinary approaches to asking and solving questions are common practice and necessary if any meaningful exploration of reality is undertaken. Do the debates around chaos, complexity, levels of integration, systems theory challenge science as usual and/or dialectical materialism?

2. How might we appropriate science for ourselves--reclaim science for people? Can we begin to prefigure and imagine how actual people could organize themselves in society to satisfy human needs in ways that would ensure that "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" and that we do so with an ecological appreciation of ourselves as a part of nature?

3. More and more, teams of scientists work together to develop research programs and they publish their results in common. The development of our knowledge about reality and the application of technology to our study of reality require collective intelligence and practice. No one person has all the information in their heads, nor can any one individual afford the equipment required to undertake scientific study. If this is the direction that could advance human development how do the prerogatives of capital advance or impede our species development at this historical conjuncture?

4. In his notes on the reviews of his play The Mother, Brecht writes about how bourgeois society defames learning by separating education from entertainment and how this separation denigrates both education and entertainment. In our case, scientific knowing is separated from judgement and ethics, likewise denigrating both knowing and judgement. Marx asserts in the Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: "Communism as the positive transcendence of private property, … communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e. human) being--a return become conscious, and accomplished within the entire wealth of previous development." [p. 146]? To quote Richard Levins from a previous occasion, is not our question then: what kind of society do we need to bring into being so that it makes sense to be kind? Simply put, isn't this the question we need to ask to solve the problems posed by Brecht in the Good Woman of Szechuan and to resolve these age-old dichotomies that Marx presents in this passage? What place does science have in this pursuit?

5. Marx claims in the Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 that "Industry [which is nothing else but an expression of human labor, human activity] is the actual, historical relationship of nature, and therefore of natural science, to man. If, therefore, industry is conceived as the exoteric revelation of man's essential powers, we also gain an understanding of the human essence of nature or the natural essence of man. In consequence, natural science will lose its abstractly material--or rather, its idealistic--tendency, and will become the basis of human science, as it has already become the basis of actual human life, albeit in an estranged form. One basis for life and another for science is a priori a lie. " Yet, a cornerstone of bourgeois ideology is the separation of science from ethics? Do we adopt a scientific approach to ethics?

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