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Chapter 8: Positivism and the Crisis of Western Civilization

3. The Cult of Science

The characteristic feature of modem Western civilization is not its scientific achievements and their service for the improvement of people's standard of living and the prolongation of the average length of life. These are merely the effect of the establishment of a social order in which, by the instrumentality of the profit-and-loss system, the most eminent members of society are prompted to serve to the best of their abilities the well-being of the masses of less gifted people. What pays under capitalism is satisfying the common man, the customer. The more people you satisfy, the better for you.3

This system is certainly not ideal or perfect. There is in human affairs no such thing as perfection. But the only alternative to it is the totalitarian system, in which in the name of a fictitious entity, "society," a group of directors determines the fate of all the people. It is paradoxical indeed that the plans for the establishment of a system that, by fully regulating the conduct of every human being, would annihilate the individual's freedom were proclaimed as the cult of science. Saint-Simon usurped the prestige of Newton's laws of gravitation as a cloak for his fantastic totalitarianism, and his disciple, Comte, pretended to act as the spokesman of science when he tabooed, both as vain and as useless, certain astronomical studies that only a short time later produced some of the nineteenth-century's most remarkable scientific results. Marx and Engels arrogated for their socialist plans the label "scientific." The socialist or communist prepossession and activities of outstanding champions of logical positivism and "unified science" are well known.

The history of science is the record of the achievements of individuals who worked in isolation and, very often, met with indifference or even open hostility on the part of their contemporaries. You cannot write a history of science "without names." What matters is the individual, not "team work." One cannot "organize" or "institutionalize" the emergence of new ideas. A new idea is precisely an idea that did not occur to those who designed the organizational frame, that defies their plans, and may thwart their intentions. Planning other peoples' actions means to prevent them from planning for themselves, means to deprive them of their essentially human quality, means enslaving them.

The great crisis of our civilization is the outcome of this enthusiasm for all-round planning. There have always been people prepared to restrict their fellow citizens' right and power to choose their own conduct. The common man always looked askance upon all those who eclipsed him in any regard, and he advocated conformity, Gleichschaltung. What is new and characterizes our age is that the advocates of uniformity and conformity are raising their claims on behalf of science.

  • 3. "Modern civilization, nearly all civilization, is based on the principle of making things pleasant for those who please the market and unpleasant for those who fail to do so." Edwin Cannan, An Economist's Protest (London, 1928), pp. vi ff.