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Chapter 2: The Activistic Basis of Knowledge

4. The Chimera of Unified Science

The aim of all brands of positivism is to silence the sciences of human action. For the sake of argument we may abstain from analyzing positivism's contributions to the epistemology of the natural sciences both with regard to their originality and to their soundness. Neither do we have to dwell too long upon the motives that incited the positivist authors' passionate attacks upon the "unscientific procedure" of economics and history. They are advocating definite political, economic and cultural reforms which, as they believe, will bring about the salvation of mankind and the establishment of eternal bliss. As they cannot refute the devastating criticism that their fantastic plans met on the part of the economists, they want to suppress the "dismal science."

The question whether the term "science" ought to be applied only to the natural sciences or also to praxeology and to history is merely linguistic and its solution differs with the usages of various languages. In English the term science for many people refers only to the natural sciences.2 In German it is customary to speak of a Geschichtswissenschaft and to call various branches of history Wissenschaft, such as Literaturwissenschaft, Sprachwissenschaft, Kunstwissenschaft, Kriegswissenschaft. One can dismiss the problem as merely verbal, an inane quibbling about words.

Auguste Comte postulated an empirical science of sociology which, modeled after the scheme of classical mechanics, should deal with the laws of society and social facts. The many hundreds and thousands of the adepts of Comte call themselves sociologists and the books they are publishing contributions to sociology. In fact, they deal with various hitherto more or less neglected chapters of history and by and large proceed according to the well-tried methods of historical and ethnological research. It is immaterial whether they mention in the title of their books the period and the geographical area with which they are dealing. Their "empirical" studies necessarily always refer to a definite epoch of history and describe phenomena that come into existence, change, and disappear in the flux of time. The methods of the natural sciences cannot be applied to human behavior because this behavior, apart from what qualifies it as human action and is studied by the a priori science of praxeology, lacks the peculiarity that characterizes events in the field of the natural sciences, viz., regularity.

There is no way either to confirm or to reject by discursive reasoning the metaphysical ideas that are at the bottom of the blatantly advertised program of "Unified Science" as expounded in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, the holy writ of logical positivism, panphysicalism, and intolerant empiricism. Paradoxically enough, these doctrines, which started from a radical rejection of history, ask us to look upon all events as part of the subject matter of a comprehensive cosmic history. What we know about natural events, e.g., the behavior of sodium and levers, may, as they say, be valid only for the period of cosmic aggregation in which we ourselves and earlier generations of scientists lived. There is no reason whatever to assign to chemical and mechanical statements "any kind of universality" instead of treating them as historical ones.3 Seen from this point of view, the natural sciences turn into a chapter of cosmic history. There is no conflict between physicalism and cosmic history.

We must admit that we do not know anything about conditions in a period of cosmic history for which the statements of what we call in our period the natural sciences will no longer be valid. In speaking about science and knowledge we have in mind only the conditions that our living, thinking, and acting permit us to investigate. What is beyond the conditions of this—perhaps temporarily limited—state of affairs is for us an unknown and unknowable region. In that sector of the universe which is accessible to our searching mind there prevails a dualism in the succession and concatenation of events. There is, on the one hand, the field of external events, about which we can learn only that there prevail mutual constant relations among them, and there is the field of human action, about which we cannot learn anything without resorting to the category of finality. All attempts to disregard this dualism are dictated by arbitrary metaphysical prepossessions, bring forth merely nonsense, and are useless for practical action.

The difference that exists in our environment between the behavior of sodium and that of an author who in his writings refers to sodium cannot be wiped out by any reference to the possibility that there were once or will be in the future periods of cosmic history about the conditions of which we do not know anything. All our knowledge must take into account the fact that with regard to sodium we do not know anything about final causes directing its behavior, while we know that man, e.g., in writing an essay about sodium, aims at definite ends. The attempts of behaviorism (or "behavioristics"4) to deal with human action according to the stimulus-response scheme have failed lamentably. It is impossible to describe any human action if one does not refer to the meaning the actor sees in the stimulus as well as in the end his response is aiming at.

We know also the end that impels the champions of all these fads that nowadays parade under the name of Unified Science. Their authors are driven by the dictatorial complex. They want to deal with their fellow men in the way an engineer deals with the materials out of which he builds houses, bridges, and machines. They want to substitute "social engineering" for the actions of their fellow citizens and their own unique all-comprehensive plan for the plans of all other people. They see themselves in the role of the dictator—the duce, the Führer, the production tsar—in whose hands all other specimens of mankind are merely pawns. If they refer to society as an acting agent, they mean themselves. If they say that conscious action of society is to be substituted for the prevailing anarchy of individualism, they mean their own consciousness alone and not that of anybody else.

  • 2. Says R. G. Collingwood (The Idea of History [Oxford, 1946], p. 249): "There is a slang usage, like that for which 'hall' means a music hall or 'pictures' moving pictures, according to which 'science' means natural science." But "in the tradition of European speech ... continuing unbroken down to the present day, the word 'science' means any organized body of knowledge." About the French usage, see Lalande, Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (5th ed.: Paris, 1947), pp. 933-40.
  • 3. Otto Neurath, Foundations of the Social Sciences (International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. II, No. 1 [3rd impression; University of Chicago Press, 1952]), p. 9.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 17.
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