How Have Ideology and Politics Affected the Advancement of Scientific Knowledge?

By Anna-Maria Geftar

Paradoxically, the social construc­tion of reality is accompanied by logical positivism; it is only through the, if I may call it so, paradigm, of the latter that the former is possible. It is only through our increasing desire to objectify the world around us that we have come to put that very world under the eye of scrutiny. As Thomas Kuhn has ingeniously observed, ‘when Aristotle and Galileo looked at swinging stones, they first saw constrained fall, the second a pendulum,’ likewise, we continuously seek objectivity.[1] Not­withstanding relativist assumptions, it is difficult to deny that the production and reception of knowledge is a communal and social process. Historians have only recently adopted this new image of sci­ence, whilst still some scientists have not yet approved of such an image.[2] The concept of scientific knowledge has, as seen through the internalism-external­ism debate, come to be considered as dis­tinct from the concept of scientific prac­tice; but this in itself entails a distinction that was initially supposedly disregarded.[3] Scientific knowledge and activity are inextricably linked, the one presupposing the other. Thus the epistemological and methodological origins of scientific thought and inquiry, as usually, or ide­ally, practiced today, can be dated to the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, an inheritance expressed in the mechanisation of the world picture. The link between epistemology and social theory can only be seen through an insti­tutional perspective; hence only through the institution can a connection be formed between science and, say, indus­try or politics. Institutions in turn cannot exist without political support and politi­cal support cannot be exercised without political influence. All this may look somewhat pessimistic and deterministic but, nonetheless, there is ample reason for such worldviews in an age of uncer­tainty. Thus I endeavour to understand how we have come to be so uncertain about our present and future, and hence our past.

Education, like all other social en­tities, contributes to the formation of an individual’s personal, social and collec­tive identity, establishing certain images of science and creating ideas and percep­tions of the unity of scientific thought and inquiry. By the late eighteenth cen­tury, the pursuit of scientific inquiry was no longer the pursuit of an avocation, but rather, an increasing realisation of the Baconian vision.[4] An examination of the education, science and industry nexus could yield to an understanding of how such a vision became an integral part of the social consciousness. The social util­ity argument is based on the interconnect­edness of social uses, on the one hand, and production and reception, on the other.[5] The increasing social use of the ‘mechanical’ sciences, seen in the eight­eenth and nineteenth centuries, was not an autonomous process, but rather, some­thing that existed in relation to all other social processes; it formed and reformed the individual’s relationship to knowledge, through public spaces such as the university, academy, and, with the large-scale expansion of print, the jour­nal, too, began to play a vital role, which in turn had an effect on the nature of knowledge itself. Alas, this would not be possible without substantial state-support, which was becoming all the more notable during this period; the utilitarian belief in the value of the so-called ‘scientific en­terprise’ for the advancement of manu­facturing and agricultural techniques, medical improvements, and, most im­portantly, the military industry, had served as an impetus for the funding of scientific research.[6] The formation of royal academies such as the Parisien Academie Royale des Sciences, the Ber­lin Academy, the London Royal Society, and the British Association for the Ad­vancement of Science, which could be in­terpreted as potential servants of the na­tional interest (although this mode of thought does presuppose an element of unity in modernity and its manifestation i.e. thinking in terms of general interest and the key word in such claims is ‘po­tential’).[7]

The need to align the science of academicians to the novel diversifications of the manufacturing industries for the end of refinement and improvement could not have been possible in the first place without, for instance, the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in 1769. In other words, the causal relation­ship was reciprocal. The prestigious value of such scientific achievements was also acknowledged by respective govern­ments; such cultural value-formations can only be expressed when in comparison to some other state and hence necessitates an element of political rivalry, that may be attributed a causal force, in this case. Hence the promotion of scientific discov­ery and the idea of an enlightened monar­chy went hand in hand.

The organization of science could not have proceeded they way it did without state interventionism; the in­creased bureaucratization and profession­alization of scientific inquiry had led to the generation of a different ideal of the ‘man of science’.[8] From a sociological perspective, ‘ideology’ does not neces­sarily have to be defined in political terms, or even as a ‘false consciousness’, it could, according to Mannheim, be taken to mean the position of an individ­ual within society, entailing a common conceptual and linguistic framework within groups in that society.[9] In accord­ance with the material interests and utili­tarian motives of individual nations, the ideal of man as civic expert was propa­gated and consequently, to some extent, realised in society; in contradistinction to its antecedent, the ideal of a high-minded, anti-utilitarian science for a ‘polite’ soci­ety. This is particularly true for the Napo­leonic era; the setting up of the grandes ecoles system e.g. Ecole des Arts et Metiers, Ecole des Mines de Paris, etc. Other examples, such as the fact that many of the prominent Enlightenment thinkers and scientific discoverers had been closely associated with the industry – Joseph Banks and the East India Com­pany, Leibniz as engineering consultant for the Duke of Brunswick – to name but a few, are very illustrating. Although the term ‘scientist’ was not coined until the nineteenth century and came to be widely used only by the twentieth, the differenti­ation between the epistemological and social subject previously characteristic to scientific inquiry began to dissolve; a systematization of science was being so­lidified in the gradual classification and diversification of ‘applied’ science – in­stitutionalized in the German Realgymna­sium, Technische Hochschule – into, for example, modern physics and thermody­namics. Inheritors of Newtonian mechan­ics though they were, they came to serve new roles in the continuously developing industrial and technological world.[10]

To assert that the progression to a scientific experimental methodology, en­twined with a mechanical and reductive consciousness, an instrumentalist concep­tion of human nature, fostering a posses­sive individualism, is the direct result of the rise of capitalism, would be one thing; to assert that the Scientific and In­dustrial Revolutions are causally linked, would be another. Notwithstanding mate­rialist assumptions, Marxists would go on to argue that this causal link can, in fact, be ascribed to class conflict between landed and mercantile elites, manifesting itself in the need to explore and exploit the world around them.[11]  Hence knowledge, an entity for investment and profit, is becoming increasingly ‘capital­ized’, with American companies such as General Electric setting up research la­boratories (1900).[12] Be that as it may, the historicity of the inevitability of the capi­talist mode of production, even more so the Industrial Revolution itself, and hence, in this mode of thought, the sys­tematization of science, remains a matter of debate.

The historical fact that, since the Renaissance, to which the epistemologi­cal origins of science could be dated, the development of scientific knowledge pro­gressed simultaneously with industrial­ism cannot be denied. This relationship remains an ontological curiosity; idealists would have us believe that, ultimately, the social and epistemological ‘problem’ of modern science can be traced to the Platonic ideal of true knowledge being accessible only to the ‘philosophers’ who, being the only ones who know things ‘as they really are’, should also be the ones to rule. This ideal was carica­tured by Bacon to the point of being em­bodied by the formula ‘knowledge is power’; the prophecy, which became very much adopted by the Enlighten­ment, of the self-liberation of mankind through knowledge.[13] Such ideals give rise to various political and psychological implications; power over whom? Thus scientific inquiry is reduced to man’s quest for the domination of nature; the ra­tionalization of scientific methodology into a ‘mathematized’ (or mathematically mechanized) nature. However, material­ists would raise an important objection; do such generalisations have any reality, or are we just trying to unify our thought? An important question, to which materi­alists provide a less than satisfactory an­swer; to-wit, opportunism, the idea that science only advances when the appropri­ate political or social circumstances exist, or certain individuals have an immediate advantage. But does not this mode of thought presuppose a consciousness that takes the proverb ‘knowledge is power’ all too literally? Furthermore, the politi­cal, military, social and religious expres­sion of the idea of the domination of na­ture and the bringing of order can be seen recurrently throughout history, to the ex­tent of interlinking with the cosmological warfare of the ancients. In an age of in­dustrial, nuclear, ecological and demo­graphic crisis, the nature of scientific knowledge and its progression is continu­ously reassessed, leading to new socio­logical, philosophical and historiograph­ical approaches to science; notably, social constructivism and the rejection of the possibility of objective truth. Wittgen­stein’s theory of meaning serves as the fundamental basis of such relativist ap­proaches; there exists a conceptual and linguistic framework outside of which we cannot communicate our ideas. But per­haps we should try to cross these barriers, not only to realise our common biological fate as individu­als, but also in order to discover something new.


[1] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th ed. (London, 2012), p.121.

[2]  See for example G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, The Ferment of Knowledge (Cambridge, 1980).

[3] See Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, 1996), pp. 141-42. For sociological perspectives on science see R. K. Merton, The Sociology of Science, in Norman W. Storer (ed.) (Chicago, 1973), and Ian Hacking, The Social Construction Of What? (Cambridge, 1999).

[4] Bacon, Francis, The Advancement of Learning, in Michael Kiernan (ed.) (Oxford, 2000). For a contextualisation of the importance of Bacon’s thought see Margaret C. Jacob, The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution  (Philadelphia, 1988),  pp. 31-37.

[5] For an interesting account see Steven Shapin, ‘Social uses of science’, in G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter (eds.), The Ferment of Knowledge (Cambridge, 1980).

[6] For various approaches to the relationship between science, technology and industry, see Roy Porter, The Cambridge History of Science, 4 (Cambridge, 2003), and J. D. Bernal, Science in History, 2 (London, 1969). As well as ), as well as Anna Guagnini and Robert Fox, Education, Technology and Industrial Performance in Europe, 1850-1939 (Cambridge, 1993).

[7] For more information see Robert Fox, ‘Science and Government’, in Roy Porter (ed.), The Cambridge History of Science, 4 (Cambridge, 2003).

[8] Steven Shapin, ‘The Image of the Man of Science’, in Roy Porter (ed.), The Cambridge History of Science, 4 (Cambridge, 2003).

[9] K. Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (London, 1936).

[10] For an interesting portrait of German science see M. Heidelberger, ‘Some Patterns of Change in the Baconian Sciences of the Early 19th Century Germany,’ in H. N. Janke and M. Otte (eds.), Epistemological and Social Problems of the Sciences in the early Nineteenth Century, (London, 1981).

[11] Margaret C. Jacob, The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution (Philadelphia, 1988), p. 6. For a variety of Marxist perspectives, see J. D. Bernal, Science in History, 1 (London, 1969), pp. 27-54, and G. Ciccotti, ‘The Production of Science in Advanced Capitalist Societies,’ in H. and S. Rose (eds.), The Political Economy of Science (London, 1976).

[12] Terry Shinn, ‘The Industry, Research, and Education Nexus’, in Mary Jo Nye (ed.), The Cambridge History of Science, 5 (Cambridge, 2002).

[13] For a well-articulated account of this mode of thought, see Karl R. Popper, The Myth of the Framework: in defence of science and rationality, in M. A. Notturno (London, 1994), pp. 185-209. And William Leiss, The Domination of Nature (New York, 1972).


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