Monday, December 12, 2022

Review: Marxism and the Philosophy of Science by Helena Sheehan

It’s possible to study deeply in biology, to get a doctorate of philosophy in biology, without taking a single class in philosophy, let alone the philosophy of science. (The one philosophy class I took in my eleven years of post-secondary education, I took purely electively!) Concepts like evolution and genetics are (rightly) taught from a young age. Phenomena like the wave-particle duality and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle you learn a little later. All these concepts are taught in a “and here’s what this means for biology/physics” sense, and not connected to a broader picture of how this impacted our understanding of knowledge and our relation to the world. For the most part, scientists approach their craft with an unexamined and eclectic form of positivism. It’s a worldview that doesn’t lend itself well to moving from genes to organisms to societies to history. Or, as Marx puts it:

The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality. (Capital, Vol 1)

Perhaps because of an awareness of these failings, many scientists shrug their shoulders and remain narrowly focused in their domain. We then continue to teach our craft as distinct threads of development. Sure, maybe advances in physics help advance our understanding, like using X-ray crystallography to deduce the structure of the basic macromolecules of life, but we don’t integrate these discoveries into a unified understanding. And so the next generation of unexamining eclectic positivists is born.

The stakes for failing to come up with a cohesive grand narrative of the world are high. We become materialists within the bounds of our own specialties, but stray into idealism, postmodernism, nihilism in our politics. Such a scientist might say “we tested fifty undergraduate students in a lab, and they all tried to maximize the amount of money they were rewarded in a game. From this, we can conclude that capitalism is the natural state of humanity, and any fight for a better system is futile.” A scientist with a unified theory of the world, one that recognizes we are shaped by our environments and that we shape our environments, and that the world is constantly changing, would conclude instead that this experiment demonstrates nothing more that in capitalism, our current economic mode, individuals are incentivized to maximize their capital.

Like fish might not remark on the water they swim through (I am not a fish psychologist), it’s difficult to step outside the philosophy you hold of the world (however eclectic it might be). One way to do so is to understand the history of philosophy of science, particularly the cataclysmic effect discoveries like evolution and quantum physics had on thinking in the nineteenth century. Rather than keeping these concepts in tidy separate boxes of thought labeled “biology” and “physics”, thinkers of the time reeled as they tried to fit these revelations of the earth as constantly changing and limited in its determinism with their prior conceptions of the world being composed of objects with unchanging essences requiring external impulses to bring them into movement.

To understand these debates, and the many philosophical pitfalls scientists and philosophers fell into (and continue to fall into!) when trying to deal with these contradictions, Helena Sheehan’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Science is a worthwhile read. She starts with how Marx and Engels translated Hegel’s dialectics into a unified understanding of the world, examining how dialectics describes not only history but also the natural sciences, as laid out in Engels' Dialectics of Nature. She traces the philosophy of science through the idealism versus materialism debates in the latter half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century as philosophers responded to the crises of science (Heisenberg uncertainty principle, relativity, evolution, sub-atomic particles), ending in the mid-twentieth century at the end of the Comintern and start of the Khrushchev era of the USSR. It's a sweeping survey of perhaps a hundred different thinkers, covering the origins, strengths and muddled parts of their theories. 

I saw my own experiences reflected in the biographies of scientists like Haldane and Bernal, who began studying Marxism as fully-trained, practicing scientists and found in dialectical materialism a better way of understanding their own field of expertise, as well as the world around them. 

On the other hand, I found the blind spots of Sheehan's narrative to be frustrating, to the point that I began to lose confidence in the areas she discussed in which I did not already feel reasonably well versed. The strength of her account was, I thought, the first three chapters, which focused on Marx, Engels, and the philosophy of science up until around 1917. Amply quoting her sources, she demonstrates the fool's errand of trying to "rescue" Marx from Engels or from Lenin. She also traces how philosophical differences (or ambiguity) towards science and materialism devolve to political differences (eg, Kautsky versus Lenin).

The fourth and fifth chapters, which made up well over half the book, were more flawed. The fourth chapter is a slow, 80-page build-up to how Lysenkoism took hold in the USSR in the late 1930s and 1940s. Sheehan approaches the political and geopolitical context of the 1920s-1940s USSR with surprisingly little historical context, positioning Stalin and Lysenko both as leaders who know how to dazzle people but are self-centered and power-hungry in any strategic thinking they manage to stumble into, rather than leaders dealing with high stakes decisions in low resource environments with fascists threatening to invade. Where her discussion of philosophical positions is generally very well-cited, historical occurrences are stated with few sources, complicating my efforts to learn more about the subjects at hand.

The fifth chapter, which surveyed the development of philosophical thought from 1920-1950ish, was disproportionate in both length (some 180 pages) and emphasis, which was overly focused on the works of British thinkers of the time (100+ pages, of which 40 pages were Christopher Caudwell alone). The works of French and German scholars was quickly summarized in a half dozen pages each, and a smattering of paragraphs were devoted to the US and Yugoslavia. There was a complete absence of discussion of thought in China, Africa, the Caribbean, and other parts of the global south. Every scientist was assessed according to their critique of Lysenkoism; those who wrote against him were correct and brave, while those who did not critique his ideas (Bernal) or who were open to some form of environmentally determined inheritance (Haldane) were naive or uninformed or, despite their perspicacity in other spheres of thinking, not able to "realize the gravity" of philosophical debates.

Despite these flaws, as a scientist, I found this to be a valuable read for better understanding Marxism, Philosophy, and Science. The footnotes often have fun anecdotes, and Sheehan's writing style is clear and often a little humorous.

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