Commentary Magazine

The Scientific Intellectual, by Lewis S. Feuer

Such were the Joys

The Scientific Intellectual.
by Lewis S. Feuer.
Basic Books. 441 pp. $10.00.

For decades now, but especially since the first Sputniks went into orbit, the slogan, “Science Can Be Fun” has been used by teachers and others of missionary bent to attract the interest of indifferent children and even to persuade fully grown adults that they should keep up on such matters as the Expanding Universe or the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is a curious slogan, for its wording suggests that everybody knows in his heart that science really stands for something altogether different. And, indeed, there is hardly a Congressional hearing at which some pundit does not avow that science will lead us to prosperity, or immortality, or victory in the cold war—but hardly to fun. So it is refreshing that a book has been written which sets out to prove with scholarly sobriety not merely that science can be fun but that, in its origins at least, it was hardly anything else.

More formally, the thesis of Professor Feuer’s book runs as follows: “The scientific intellectual was born from the hedonist-libertarian spirit which, spreading through Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, directly nurtured the liberation of human curiosity. Not asceticism, but satisfaction; not guilt, but joy in human status; not self-abnegation, but self-affirmation; not contempt for one’s body and one’s senses, but delight in one’s physical being; not the exaltation of pain, but the hymn to pleasure—this was the emotional basis of the scientific movement of the seventeenth century.”

This constitutes a very proper challenge to the standard assertion that modern science sprang from the ascetic doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. The trouble is, however, that Professor Feuer’s eagerness to uncover traces of the hedonist-libertarian spirit in the history of science and in the doings of scientists leads him into frequent exaggerations and occasional absurdities of his own. His demonstration, for instance, that the austere Newton was really a hedonist at heart demonstrates only that Professor Feuer would not be daunted by a demand to prove that Falstaff, say, was really an ascetic. Similarly, the argument that the anatomists (led by Vesalius) could openly undertake the systematic dissection of the human body at this point in history only because of a secular decline in the tyranny of Oedipal guilt may have a grain of truth in it, but not nearly enough to make a half-truth. It is also somewhat comic to see what use Professor Feuer makes of the well-known fact that some (but not all) of the founders of the Royal Society of London frequented the Restoration coffee-houses. In these meeting-places, he writes, “The hedonistic movement had found its symbolic beverage.”

This invocation of the teetotaling hedonists of the 17th century raises the question of just what the hedonist-libertarian spirit could consist of, but Professor Feuer does not have a clear answer. He says that hedonism implies freedom from guilt, and that libertarianism means independence of character, but these definitions are pretty vague and remarkably limited as descriptions of human behavior. People, even when they are scientists, are more complicated than that.

The important failing of this book, however, is historical rather than psychological or scientific. In spirit as well as in time, the new science was part and parcel of the Renaissance and cannot be separated from it. It is, after all, no more remarkable that Copernicus should have made the first attempt to describe the solar system as it really is than that Chaucer should have begun to write about people as they really are. To single out science, as Professor Feuer does, and to put forward a separate and special explanation for the scientific aspect of the Renaissance, is to do violence to the spirit of the time. What right have we to suppose that the 16th and 17th centuries were also riven into two cultures, but had not the wit to invent Sir Charles Snow?

These qualifications are important because they affect our assessment of what science is for, and our expectations of what it can (or cannot) accomplish. The sting in the tail of Professor Feuer’s argument (labeled “Epilogue” in the book) is the assertion that in the last few decades there has been “an erosion of the classical ethos of science.” Scientists, he says, have abandoned their traditional optimistic (and, by implication, humanistic) outlook, and have taken to the manufacture of nuclear weapons and other such things. At the same time, the pleasure of scientists in their own achievements has given way to guilt (on the Oppenheimer pattern) or at least to ambivalence.

Like the historical analysis that takes up most of the book, this is an impetuous over-simplification, ignoring, for one thing, the essential distinction between science and technology. Science is an ordered body of knowledge whose successes are cumulative, stacked on top of each other like bricks in the structure of a house, while technology, on the other hand, is capricious. Society chooses what it wants and technology delivers it—as, in the last few decades, it has delivered the polio vaccine, color television, and the atomic bomb. Both science and technology are shot through with a kind of optimism, science allowing that increased knowledge with no utilitarian considerations must somehow improve the human condition, technology limiting itself to the claim that it can transform society, for better and for worse.

So far as science is concerned, it is true that there have been alarming signs recently that scientists are losing sight of the basic ethic of their calling—the ethic which asserts that understanding is an end in itself, whether it makes people happy or miserable, and whether it yields real benefits or not. Granted that science has, of late, been making more promises in the real world than it will be able to keep; that it has become unhealthily dependent on the expectations of its patrons—industry, the military, and those of us who would like not to die of cancer; that there is too much second-rate work being done, and far too much that is third-rate. The remedy for such maladies, however, is to be sought not in science itself, but in the universities and patronage committees where quantity is stressed over quality.

Technology, also, is in a bad way, but it is mischievous to blame the scientists (or the technologists) for this, and it is humbug to say, as Professor Feuer does, that the creation of nuclear weapons and their continual development amount to an “erosion of the classical ethic of science.” The existence of nuclear weapons is an indication of the failure of nations to conduct international affairs sensibly and most certainly not of the extent to which science may be supposed to have forsaken the “hedonist-libertarian spirit.” Since the dropping of the very first bomb, scientists have been as uncertain as laymen over the virtues of nuclear weapons, a division which persists in the present disagreement about whether or not to race the Russians to the surface of the moon. Certainly it is hard to believe that this particular technological enterprise would have been undertaken at all if the politicians had not decided that its accomplishment is necessary for the prestige of the West. Society, and not science, calls the technological tune, and hence society, and not science, must take responsibility for what technology does or does not do.

Professor Feuer is most misleading, then, in suggesting that science is an autonomous phenomenon that derives its strength from some self-contained and distinctive driving force. Many of his fears are genuine enough, but it is about as reasonable to hope that they will be dispelled by some change of heart within “science,” as it would be for society to deal with the problems of international finance by hoping for the discovery of new gold fields, rich enough to put more money into international circulation. Just as the world must learn to regulate such matters as fishing rights off coastal waters, or the size of its population, so must it learn to regulate technology. It is not science that needs an infusion of the “hedonist-libertarian spirit”; it is society at large.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest