The following text has been automatically reproduced by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) algorithm. It may not have been checked over by human eyes. For matters of precision please consult the original pdf.

Ideological Commitments in the Philosophy of Science

Ideological Commitments in
the Philosophy of Science
Jerry Ravetz

To outward appearances the academic discipline of ‘the
philosophy of science’ has in recent times been an austere
and abstract study. Its concerns have been with one major
problem, to the near exclusion of all others. The truthclaims of completed scientific knowledge have been considered to be the only area of really worthwhile philosophical
inquiry. The process of discovery, or the ethical problems
of research, or of applications, have often been relegated
to the status of non-problems or at best peripheral ones.

Even now, as these other sorts of problems gain in interest
among philosophers, the absence of a coherent framework
of ideas for constructive study inhibits their development;
while epistemology, the theory of scientific knowledge, still
dominates teaching because it at least provides materials
that can be taught .

Furthermore, the sort of science considered worthy of
study is very special. So special in fact, that it might not
even exist. For the main tradition in the philosophy of
science, including its variants and critics, has been devoted
to considerations of matured ‘exact’ sciences, in which
quantitative experiments and mathematical laws combine,
to give the most assured knowledge to which humankind
can attain. Other sorts of disciplines are deemed ‘immature’; and their main assigned task is to find ways to
approach or achieve the proper state. The obvious paradigm
case for a genuine science is physics, whose solidity is
attested by its triumphs both in theory and in application.

It has been noticed that the theoretical end of physics has
been in a state of continuous conceptual turmoil and revolution for nearly all of this century, and so its own credentials as a steady, perfected matured science are not beyond
criticism . However, practitioners and defenders of this
philosophical tradition can argue that even if this philosophy of science describes no actual science, it tells what
any genuine science must be like. Its claims to special and
unique status as a philosophical inquiry are not therefore
dependent on whether its objects of study are precisely
reflected in the imperfect world of human experience.

Such a conception of itself is quite legitimate for an
academic discipline, particularly a philosophical inquiry. We
do not ask geometers to go about measuring the earth, so
we should allow philosophers of science a corresponding
freedom to develop their own autonomous discipline. It is
unfortunate that some people so misinterpret the field as
to try to glean insights from it about the status and
methods of confessedly immature descriptive sciences ;
but that cannot be the responsibility of philosophers. The
philosophical task of showing how assured human knowledge
can in principle be obtained in some sorts of natural
science, is one that takes priority over merely practical


If all the foregoing argument for purity seems as
reasonable as I have tried to make it, we are well prepared
for an historical paradox. This is, that many of the main
protagonists in the development of twentieth-century philosophy of science have been deeply committed to causes directly involving humanity; and their doctrines of the philosophy of science were shaped with those broader ends consciously in view. The reason that ‘science’ in this tradition
seems unlike ordinary practice is not because of its being a
purified object of abstract conceptual analysis, but because
of its being a symbol of the Good and the True in a certain
ideologically engaged tradition of philosophical polemic. If,
as I believe, it is time to move on beyond ‘the insights and
scholarly problems of that tradition, we should appreciate
its sources of commitment so as to make an accurate and
sympathetic assessment of its permanent achievements.

Also, we will be better able to understand its particular
weaknesses and thereby to remedy them in our own studies.

The Vienna Circle: Proclaiming the True in Science

The focal point of the coherent tradition of philosophy of
science was Vienna during the 1920s and early 1930s. There
flourished the ‘Vienna Circle’, a grouping of philosophers
and other scholars which included Karl Popper on its periphery. While Popper’s writings, philosophical and autobiographical, are clear on his deep and abiding political commitments, the better-known English language writings of
the members of the Vienna Circle do not overtly depict
such influence. However, a recently published translation of
a manifesto issued in 1929 over the names of the members,
makes it plain that it saw itself as participating in a tradition extending back to the Enlightenment. Here we find the
struggle against ‘dogma and metaphysics’ (the intellectual
tools of the reactionary clerical forces) emphasised, as well
as the invocation of ‘science’ as the unique way to truth
and human improvement:

‘The increase of metaphysical and theologising leanings which shows itself today in many associations
and sects, in books and journals, in talks and universi ty lectures, seems to be based on the fierce
social and economic struggles of the present: one
group of combatants, holding fast to traditional
social forms, cultivates traditional attitudes of
metaphysics and theology whose content has long
since been superseded; while the other group, especially in central Europe, faces modern times, rejects
those views and takes its stand on the ground of
empirical science. This development is connected


with that of the modern process of production which
is becoming ever more rigorously mechanised and
leaves ever less room for metaphysical ideas. It is
also connected with the disappointment of broad
masses of people with the attitude of those who
preach traditional metaphysical and theological doctrines. So it is that in many countries the masses
now reject these doctrines much more consciously
than ever before, and along with their socialist attitudes tend to lean towards a down-to-earth empiricist view. In previous times, materialism was the
expression of this view; meanwhile, however, modern
empiricism has shed a number of inadequacies and
has taken a strong shape in the scientific worldconception. Thus, the scientific world-conception is
close to the life of the present. Certainly it is
threatened with hard struggles and hostility. Nevertheless there are many who do not despair but, in
view of the present social situation, look forward
with hope to the course of events to come. et
-:ourse, not every single adherent of the scientific
,orld-conception will be a fighter. Some, glad of
solitude, will lead a withdrawn existence on the icy
slopes of logiC; some may even disdain mingling with
the masses and regret the ‘trivialised’ form that
these matters inevitably take on spreading. However, their achievements too will take a place
among the historic developments. We witness the
spirit of the scientific world-conception penetrating
in growing measure the forms of personal and public
life, in education, upbringing, architecture, and the
shaping of economic and social life according to
rational principles. The scientific world-conception
serves life, and life receives it’ .

In support of this interpretation of the orientation and
commitments of the Vienna Circle, we have the personal
testimony of the Norwegian social philosopher Arne Naess.

He recalled,
‘The Vienna Circle was a nucleus of a movement for
“rationality” and against certain forms of metaphysics which at the time were closely allied with
fascism and national socialism. It had all the missionary zeal of a movement, and it was touching but
also somewhat alarming to watch Otto Neurath
embrace aloof and aristocratic Polish logicians of
various philosophical affiliations and proclaim, “We
agree! You are one of us!” If Neurath sensed that
one was somehow on the right side, one was identified as a sort of logical positivist. Protestations
were of little use and disagreements were conceived
as due only to “unhappy formulations” (unglUckliche
Formulierungen) and there was always a remedy for
that’ .

There is a stylistic feature of the Vienna Circle’s studies which supports the interpretation of their being prophets in analysts’ clothing. For their vision of science was
quite deliberately abstracted from the processes of personal creation and historical development; and in this regard
they were more extreme in their demarcations than their
predecessor, Ernst Mach. For in his own critical studies, as
of mechanics , Mach allowed for the maturing of a discipline through several phases; the earlier, anthropomorphic
ones as important and valid in their own way as those
which were appropriate to a more perfected state. The
Vienna Circle showed no interest in such origins or their
vestiges, being concerned solely with the establishment of
the credentials of statements in fully matured science.

Why these aspects of the Vienna Circle’S programme
have not been made prominent is a matter beyond my present purposes to explain fully. Let it suffice that with the
rise of Nazism in central Europe, the surviving members of
the school dispersed to the Anglo-American cultural area.

There, the ideological battles were in a totally different
style and on different issues. Given their new situation, it
was understandable that the apparent content of the

scholarly work should be emphasised and its ideological
commitments (themselves severely shaken by the defeat of
the anti-Nazi forces) left in discreet obscurity. Only now,
when an avowedly ideological attack has been mounted on
the very foundations of the positivistic programme, does
this broader commitment again emerge explicitly.

Popper: Rescuing the Good in Science

In the case of Karl Popper, the clues to ideological commitment are available in one of his best-known works, Conjectures and Refutations. In a classic autobiographical
essay, he describes how he came to conceive of the criterion of falsifiability in the demarcation of genuine science
from its spurious imitations. Even allowing for the inevitable rationalisation in the recollection of an event after a
lapse of nearly four decades, the story has all the intensity
and drama of a genuine conversion experience . Put
simply, in 1919 the young Popper was a radical student who
was inspired by four great thinkers who styled themselves
‘scientists’: Karl Marx mainly (Popper regarded himself during this period as a Communist), Sigmund Freud, Alfred
Adler and Albert Einstein . After the defeat of the
Central Powers in 1918, the way seemed open for the
forces of scientific rationalism to achieve their goals in
society as well as in nature. But things began to go wrong:

failures and complications in the political struggle, doubts
and confusions in the intellectual debate.

Popper began to sense that the pretensions to ‘scientific’ status (meaning, that is, embodying the good and the
true) of Marxism, psychoanalysis and individual psychology
were not correct. Yet by the accepted criteria of the time,
they were indubitably scientific. An adherent of Marx or
of Freud could display numerous confirmations of their
theories (very close to the principle of ‘verification’ that
was at the heart of the Vienna Circle positivism). And
Adler relied on the inductive evidence of his clinical
experience for the development of his theories.

What strikes me as one of the most fateful instants in
the philosophical thought of the century occurred when
Popper queried one of Adler’s instant diagnoses, and was
assured of the psychologist’s ‘thousand-fold experience’ of
such cases. Popper reports that he could not help saying
‘And in this case, I suppose, your experience has become
thousand-and-one-fold’ . This could be read as a sarcastic little joke; but actually it sends a searchlight beam
into the weak centre of straightforward inductive reasoning.

So Popper saw that the ordinary criterion used to distinguish real science from obvious pseudo-sciences such as
astrology, its ‘inductive’ character, was incorrect; this did
not capture its essence. Worse yet, once the practitioners
of such pseudo-sciences were confident of their status,
they could then use them in a particularly insidious fashion
to insulate them from criticism. The critical Marxist is

deemed ‘petty-bourgeois’, the sceptical patient is diagnosed
as ‘deeply neurotic’ and so on. Thus immunised against criticism, such essentially speculative, non-specific studies
could become really pernicious pseudo-sciences. (This point
is not developed very explicitly in Popper’s own account
but it is worth emphasising, as it shows he had two distinct
criteria for a pseudo-science: that which merely confirms
theories and that which discredits criticism.) In this respect
these supposedly ‘liberating’ sciences take on the worst
feature of traditional theology; damning all disagreement as
heresy. (I am indebted to Dr R. Sinsheimer, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, for this observation.)
Where, then, to find an example and a criterion for
real science? Einstein’s bold theory of general relativity,
and, more, his dramatic challenge to the astronomers to
test it in the eclipse of 1919 provided the experience. For
Einstein had argued that Isaac Newton had been wrong on a
fundamental point of his system of the world. And now he
was calmly inviting the scientists to test his claim, to
determine whether he was more correct than Newton – or
himself only the author of a misconceived theory. That was
real science – not fake confirmations entrenched–ri1″” dogmatism, but bold conjectures ruthlessly put to the test.

Popper concluded that what made a theory scientific was
not that it was verifiable, but that it was falsifiable. But
the heart of his insight was that what differentiated a real
scientist from a fraud was the moral quality of daring to
be shown to be wrong.

–This is a very deep insight into the essentials of our
science and indeed of our modern European civilisation. If
there is any doubt as to Popper’s political commitment in
its development, that can be removed by acquaintance with
his influential works in political philosophy, The Poverty of
Historicism and The Open Society and its Enemies, which
emerged between 1935 and 194-3. The achievement had its
own cost, reflected in Popper’s use of the ‘falsifiability’

principle in the philosophy of science. For Popper was not
content to leave it as an essentially ethical principle of
genuine scientific behaviour; he needed to adapt it to function as a principle of epistemology and of method .

Severe problems were then encountered, for it turned out
to be exceedingly difficult to demonstrate how knowledge
could increase as a result of applying tests designed to falsify hypotheses: if such a test was successful we gained
only the knowledge that some particular statement is false;
while if it was unsuccessful we learned only that the statement was not yet proved false. As a principle of method,
the projection of bold, very general hypotheses is not even
a good caricature of the way scientists work. And, as an
historic joke of the sort frequently associated with Einstein, the astronomical observations he suggested would not
have been admitted by himself as a refutation of his theory
even if they had gone against it .

The contemporary student derives from Popper’s work a
sense of urgency and commitment, something absent in the
technical writings of the Vienna Circle philosophers. It is
not made clear what the urgency is precisely about, since
the scheme of ‘science’ portrayed there is arguably unlike
the practice of either the ordinary or the great scientists.

But with the help of the autobiographical essay and the
political writings, we can appreciate the kinship of Popper
to the Vienna Circle, both participating in the tradition of
Central European rationalism, in which ‘science’ was not so
much a particular social activity as a cause. However, we
should recall the strong difference between them. Whereas
the Vienna Circle proclaimed the good news of True
Science in a thoroughly traditional Enlightenment way,
Popper jettisoned the True of Science in order to rescue
the Good. Post-Popperian philosophy of science may be
seen as a test of whether even this desperate measure
would suffice for the ideological defence of Science in the
later, troubled years of the twentieth century.

In the history of ideas, time does not run at all
smoothly. The matured programme of ~the Vienna Circle was
developed after the revolution in ‘atomic’ physics was well

under way, and also after the insolubility of the ‘foundations crisis’ of mathematics had been proved by the most
rigorous of mathematical arguments. Hence its confidence
in the security and intelligibility of matured exact natural
science was betrayed by events even before it became the
basis of a programme. With Popper, time played other
tricks: his insights of 1919 waited some fifteen years
before appearing in print; and by the early 1930s the
German language market for politically-liberal philosophy
of science was drying up rapidly. So he spent long years in
New Zealand preparing his political philosophy, on the basis
of which he came to London. Only in the later 1950s, nearly forty years after the initial experience, did his philosophy of science begin to affect English-language academic
opinion . It is a mark of the quality of this philosophy
of science that it survived still fresh and stimulating; the
long reign of the Vienna Circle philosophers and their associates and students was at last being challenged. Popper
also had the pleasure of seeing a school develop around
himself. But, inevitably, there soon appeared a threatening
and in some respects sinister rival philosophy: that of
Thomas Kuhn.

Kuhn: Kicking Open Pandora’s Box

The enormous influence of Kuhn’s work is partly due to the
fact that he seems to be describing science the way it
really is, and doing so in a manner which combined extensive historical knowledge and reflective personal experience. His scientists are neither the impeccable truthgatherers of the positivist tradition, nor the heroic conjecturalists of Popper, nor yet the paradox-genera tors of
Lakatos. They are, normally, just ordinary people concerned
only to solve research puzzles within an unquestioned
framework of concepts and methods. Kuhn’s own experience
of science was in postwar America, where ideological
struggles were very muted and science was well on the way
to becoming big business. His account, reaching its audience when a rapidly expanded world of science and science
education had lost most of its earlier serfse ·of adventure
and commitment, reads like the plain unvarnished truth.

Because of this close relation to a new, disenchanted
commonsense of science, its ideological significance is more
difficult to discern and also more devastating.

According to Kuhn, scientific progress alternates vetween ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’ phases, in which (respectively) scientists make piecemeal advances, or choose between rival grand systems. By his account, it appears that
normal science is boring, and revolutionary science incomprehensible. He offers no methods or criteria for helping
scientists decide in a revolutionary situation. Hence the
genuine ‘progress’ of science (so vi tal for its traditional
ideological message) becomes impossible to account for, and
hence to guarantee, in ‘revolutionary’ and ‘normal’ science
alike. Indeed, Kuhn eventually reflected on the way that
ultimate purposes are implicit in our idea of scientific ‘progress’, and wondered whether we couldn’t dispense with it
in the evolution of human knowledge just as we have done
in the evolution of the species . With disarming candour, he describes normal scientific work as ‘the strenuous
and devoted effort to force Nature into the conceptual
boxes provided by professional education’ .

Having casually dropped the True, he equally lightheartedly dismissed the Good of Science. In his general
account of the argument of his book he describes the response of established scientists to the crisis that precedes a
revolution in such unflattering terms as the following:

‘Normal science, for example, often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments ••• when ••• the
profession can no longer evade anomalies that subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice then begin at last the extraordinary investigations
that lead the profession at last to a new set of
commitments, a new basis for the practice of


Popper did well to entitle his own criticism of Kuhn
‘Normal Science and its Dangers’ .

The most striking evidence as to what was not worrying Kuhn comes from an exchange of the mid-sixties, when
the mischievous Paul Feyerabend observed that Kuhn’s idea
of ‘normal science’ as ‘puzzle-solving within paradigms’

provided no means of distinguishing between scientific
research and other activities, even including organised
crime . The point of this remark was that the association of science with any sort of ethical consideration
(either in goals or in methods) was completely obliterated
on Kuhn’s model. Kuhn’s response was simply to remark
that he never claimed that his model applied exclusively to
science . And there the matter rested.

Kuhn’s work is an illuminating example of the way in
which a doctrine can have ideological consequences in near
independence of the purported concerns and commitments
of the author. It could be, and was, used for a denial of an
objective, universal basis of scientific knowledge, for several purposes. For instance, it seemed to offer a behaviouristic criterion for the genuineness of a scientific field: one
where debate on fundamentals is irrelevant, and all work
proceeds as puzzle-solving within a dogmatic framework.

For insecure scientists in fields of human behaviour, this
offered a justification of arbitrarily imposed conformity.

But rebellious researchers and students could utilise the
relativity of ‘paradigms’ to struggle for a substitution of
their favoured dogma against the officially sanctioned one.

Both sorts of move are destructive of the open dialogue
which is the essence of Western liberal democracy, of
which ‘science’ had for generations been taken by its advocates as the great exemplar. Hence for those with a
strong sensitivity to ideology, Kuhn’s doctrines were a


Because of his early death the Hungarian Imre Lakatos
achieved only a modest bulk of publications; moreover, his
various papers are either difficult or controversial or both.

Like Wittgenstein, the personality of Lakatos seems an
important part of his influence; by his intensity, brilliance,
and wit, he kept the spirit of Popperian committed philosophy alive, and he was also quite clear and explicit about
his own ideological engagements.

From his student days onwards, Lakatos had been, successively: a member of the anti-Nazi underground; a Communist Party activist; a bureaucrat in the Hungarian State
cultural apparatus; a minor victim of the Stalinist purges of
the early 1950s; a candidate for a treason-trial, whose
name happened not to be reached; a non-rehabilitated
(therefore document-less) ex-prisoner in pre-liberalised
Hungary; a rehabilitated person, student and member of the
Petofi circle during the Hungarian ‘spring’ of 1955 and
1956; a refugee after the Russian intervention of 1956; a
research student at Cambridge, completing a thesis on the
philosophy of mathematics; eventually a member of the
Popper group at the London School of Economics; and finally an embattled opponent of the ‘new left’ student revolutionaries who concentrated on the LSE in 1966.

As Lakatos made clear in his published writing ,
the issue was plain: the defence of reason against its
enemies, which (as Popper saw before him) could come
equally well from the ‘Left’ as from the old Right. But,
working so much later than Popper and endowed with
greater self-awareness and subtlety in politics and philosophy, he could appreciate those defects in Popper’s system
which required remedying. This work, undertaken directly
as a response to the challenge of T.S. Kuhn’s book, The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions, occupied the last years
of his life and was of uneven quality. His earliest work,
undertaken before he came under the direct influence of
Popper, is more original and probably more significant. Its
ideological commitments are not so open, but are thereby
all the more worthwhile to explore.


Proofs and Refutations is an essay in the philosophy of mathematics, in my opinion the first really new
move in that field in the twentieth century. Previously,
philosophers and mathematicians had attempted to resolve
the ‘foundations crisis’ in terms of mathematics being a
fixed and rigid intellectual structure, consisting of clear
concepts linked by unambiguous rules of interference. The
various founda tional programmes were devoted to exposing
that structure in such a way as to eliminate the paradoxes
and anomalies that had been discovered there. Lakatos saw
a very different problem: as a preliminary to any genuine
philosophy of mathematics, we must explore the dialectic
of development both of mathematical concepts and of
criteria of rigorous proof. For both these are historically
conditioned, and any philosophy that ignores this fact perpetuates the bad tradition of dogmatism in mathematical
thinking. His method was as radical an innovation as his
doctrine: he expounded his philosophy through a classroom
discussion of terrifyingly clever schoolboys, dissecting their
hapless teacher’s proof of a classic result in topology, the
‘Euler Polyhedron Theorem’.

The roots of Lakatos’ philosophy of mathematics are
clear: the strong Hungarian tradition of problem-solving
mathematics, raised to an art and philosophy by G. Polya
; and a playful Hegelian style of dialectic, derived
from a Marxism purified of its political content. His commitment was not so clear at the time of first publication of
Proofs and Refutations in 1963-4; but it may be inferred
from his life’s work. One can imagine that the demonstration of the falsity of rigid and dogmatic thinking in mathematics, the most abstract of all sciences, could be applied
a fortiori to the ‘science of society’ under which Marxist
socialism was supposed to be constructed.

It could even be that Lakatos’ philosophy of mathematics was among the most significant intellectual achievements of the ‘Petofi Circle’ of the Hungarian Spring of

There is even a conjecture that his criticism of ‘proof’

was born as a survival-strategy under conditions of interrogation in Stalinist Hungary. We recall the game played in
Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, where the accused Rubashov
had to admit guilt on any crime which he might logically
have committed, given his other actions and beliefs. In that
game, it mattered not that the particular accusations were,
in a non-political factual sense, false. We may imagine that
for an experienced person undergoing such interrogation,
the prime task was to prevent the interrogator from convincing him that entering such a ‘confession’ game was a
personal duty that could be rigorously derived from the
objective needs of Party and Revolution. A denial of the
irresistible cogency of even mathematical proof could,
under those circumstances, provide an escape hatch from
the exigencies of that political logic. (I am indebted to
June Goodfield for this observation.)
The affinity in spirit and commitment between Popper
and Lakatos is plain, at least a posteriori. They came
together not long after Lakatos settled in England, and
then jointly faced the challenge of the ideological consequences of a totally non-ideological philosophy of science.

This was the theory of ‘paradigms’ in Kuhn’s Structure of
Scientific Revolutions.

Through the later 1960s Lakatos attempted to combat
Kuhnism at the philosophical level. The great monument to
this effort is the report on a symposium in 1965 . He
saw that the versions of methodology that can be read out
of Popper’s writings are all too naive to stand scrutiny;
there could be no ‘instant rationality’ in scientific choice.

His task was to construct a ‘heuristic’ that would allow
both for the complexity of the cognitive problems (where
testing of theories could be neither immediate nor decisive) and for the human qualities of scientists (rightly unwilling to throwaway years of work at the sight of the
first unresolved problem) while yet preserving the ethical
and political commitments of Popper. His philosophical
keenness led him into further problems (conveniently over-

looked by most of his contemporaries) including the relations between the history and the philosophy of science,
and also the location of the ultimate source of correctness
of accounts of science (he put it in the successful practice,
as distinct from the theorising of the elite scientists). The
resulting edifice of ideas, further enriched by Lakatos’

delight in polemic and paradox, was impressive but unwieldy. It was also very vulnerable to criticism in respect
both of its historical reconstructions and its philosophical
gener alisa tions. And Laka tos, like Popper, failed to face up
to the political consequences of his philosophical critique:

if the dominant self-consciousness of science, enforced by
its elites, has been false, reactionary, and dogmatic, what
should we conclude about science as a social institution?

Laka tos did not engage in these exercises for their own
sakes; while he was elaborating on his thesis he was also
engaged in a political struggle with antagonists he considered as vicious and as dangerous as the Stalinist thoughtpolice of Hungary. The rebellious students of the London
School of Economics in the late 1960s were, in retrospect,
a small and ineffective minority. But during their flourishing, they disrupted a distinguished educational institution
and announced their intention to destroy it and much else
beside. Even the native English academic staff at the LSE
were caught up in violent struggles, ideological, institutional and personal. For Lakatos, it was the Red Fascists on
the march again, and he reacted, as if back in Budapest.

This struggle convinced him that his version of Popperian
liberal philosophy of science was central to the defence of
civilisation, and so gave his work a compelling intensity.

But it took a heavy toll of his energies, and left him
exhausted and ill.

It is conceivable that he eventually recognised that the
great flexibility he built into his model of rational scientific behaviour effectively undermined his political commitment. The crucial point is of time-scale; as he said, ‘to
give a stern “refutable interpretation” to a fledgling version of a programme is a dangerous methodological cruelty •
••• (it) may take decades of theoretical work to arrive at
the first novel facts and still more time to arrive at interestingly testable versions … ‘ . Decades, for an abstract
scientific theory? What then, for a new social system? By
this criterion, the Soviet intervention of 1956 was quite
possibly ‘historically necessary’ to protect the fledgling
Socialism of Hungary; and Lakatos’ lifelong exile perhaps
the result of an error in assessment of an early version of
a social-development programme. Only an intimate biography could tell whether Lakatos appreciated this latent
contradiction; but I think its logical consequences for the
deduction of political philosophy from such a scientific
methodology are inescapable.

Careful consideration of his arguments shows that they
are not so easily reduced to jokes. If philosophy of science
has any pretensions to help us understand the activity of
science, then his studies of the behaviour of great scientists are troubling indeed. For he shows by example that for
any explicit rule of method enunciated by philosophers of
science, there is an important occasion on which it was
broken by some great scientist. In his Against Method
he goes far towards demonstrating that Galileo was a precursor of Feyerabend, treating all the rules, including that
of simple accuracy (or honesty) in recording observations,
with fine anarchistic playfulness. The epoch-making description of the surface of the moon that Galileo saw
through his telescope, reported in the Starry Messenger,
gives prominent and important reference to a feature (a
large round – crater on the line bisecting the lunar disc)
which can be made plausible only by the most skilful
selection of modern lunar photographs . And Galileo’s
struggle for the Copernican system can be considered
‘scientific’ only because he happened to be right, otherwise
he broke every rule of the game.

Now, this is the sort of thing that can easily ‘blow the
mind’ of a student for whom (like so many) the authority of
science is as absolute as theology ever was in the Middle
Ages. After such an experience of shock and disillusion,
the student may be ready to awaken to the truth that
there is no truth to awaken to. In his role of awakener,
Feyerabend may be considered as a Zen master. But the
analogy is very imperfect: a traditional Zen master operated in an ‘I-thou’ relation, so that the searcher would be
genuinely enlightened and not destroyed. Providing an
anonymous reading public with an exhibition of a lot of
sacred images being sprayed by a philosophical machine-gun
is a very different activity indeed.

Paul Feyerabend and the End of Classical Viennese
Philosophy of Science

Feyerabend is certainly the most confusing and paradoxical
figure in contemporary philosophy of science. It is not at
all easy to decide whether he is a court jester, Zen master,
or Fascist. The first, because he still operates within the
communi ty of philosophy of science, engaging successfully
in highly technical debates on problems within the dominant
style. In this respect, he is more one of the club than even
Lakatos ever was, to say nothing of Kuhn, whose real commitment is to interpretative history rather than exemplified
philosophy. Conventional philosophers of science cannot
dismiss him, for he is capable of publishing a fully expert
and illuminating – or wounding – study of problems or persons at any time. Yet he writes wild and reckless destructive criticisms of the whole programme of mainstream philosophy of science, the explanation and justification of the
methods whereby scientists gain new knowledge. Some
might hope to contain his influence by not taking the critical diatribes too seriously, and treating him as a court jester, who says impossible things as useful reminders of the
human frailties to which even philosophers are subject.

For this reason, and another as well, Feyerabend may
come under suspicion of being in effect (though certainly
not in intention) a Fascist . For what he offers, to
replace the old ideal of philosophy of science, is confused
and unconstructive. It is along the lines of allowing everyone to ‘do his own thing’ freed from the constraints of
convention or of social or logical propriety. Those who recall the connections of Nazi ‘German-Folk’ ideology and
religion with earlier currents of ‘Romantic’ and antimechanical philosophies are justifiably troubled by Feyerabend even more than by other ‘counter-culture’ prophets.

Feyerabend’s prescriptions may be all very well after the
anarchist Utopia has been achieved; but in the short run it
may mean destroying the intellectual barriers to the victory of arbitrary will and brute force in intellectual, and
hence social, matters.

Feyerabend could reply to such an accusation with the
rejoinder that for most of the world’s peoples, aside from
the white, mainly-male middle class beneficiaries of high
culture, this is precisely the unspeakable state of affairs
already; and that it is both concealed and sanctioned by


our dominant ideas of Science and Method. A chronicle of
the oppression and mutilation of subject peoples (including
the whole female sex), at the hands of scientific medicine,
would go far to establish the plausibility of his case .

Indeed, the only really conclusive answer to his critique is
the classic of a departing reactionary, ‘Apres moi, le deluge
– so that all but the most fanatical radical revolutionaries
realise too late the benefits of a rule of law that had been
at least consistent, however harsh and unjust.

So Feyerabend is best seen as a searcher, having tried
one self-advertised guru after another, and every time
finding feet of clay; and finally coming to rest somewhere
in a romantic-radical counter-science milieu. His politics is
that of a. cranky fringe, but his philosophical armoury is
still strong enough to bring pain and respect, if not always
appreciation and agreement, from his conventional colleagues. In him, the ideological motivation for philosophy of
science has become fully explicit, indeed dominant, and finally quite destructive of the tradition from which it

If that tradition had been truly ‘positive’ like the
science it proclaimed, and had tough and resilient roots in
a real understanding of its practice, it would not have been
so vulnerable to the assault of its critics. But, as I have
shown here, the image of ‘science’ that was invoked in that
programme was itself the product of an ideology, though
sometimes unselfconsciously applied; hence when the ideology lost plausibility, the technical articulations made by
philosophers of science were discovered to be hollow and
brittle. Two thinkers, one a quite unsubtle conservative,
and the other an eccentric radical, were sufficient to
destroy the foundations of that whole intellectual edifice.

Where do we go from here?

I do not wish to say that any philosophical system is only a
tissueof rationalisations or assumptions that enjoy a temporary plausibility. Although philosophy is very different in
degree from the more ‘positive’ sciences that enjoy a more
direct foundation in controlled experience, it too leaves
behind a residue of achievement, in understanding rather
more than in detailed knowledge, as each great movement
or school passes through its cycle of growth and decay. But
when all the signs point to a philosophical cycle nearing its
end, it is time to see whether the world which was its passionate concern still exists.

The ideology of the previous phase of philosophy of
science was derived from a centuries-long battle with ‘religion’. This lay not so much in the realm of individual faith,
as that of pretensions to exclusive knowledge, and of
claims to political power partly on that basis. Now, in the
later twentieth century, that old battle is over; the Christian Churches are in an excited and turbulent state that
may indeed herald a great re-birth but which certainly does
not promise either the renewed obedience of the faithful or
deference of the secular powers. Instead, some at least of


the clerical evils that motivated the endeavours of Enlightenment have-now been inherited by the apparatus of antireligious State power. And from science itself have come
new evils, inconceivable once magic was discredited until
the advent of the atomic bomb. So that those who still try
to identify science with the humane, civilised values now
find themselves in a confused night battle, where friend
and foe are ever more difficult to distinguish.

The old epistemological problems of science are, therefore, no longer fruitful for our understanding of that great
creation of the human intellect. As they have become isolated from their roots in committed experience, they can
provide no effective defence against the suicidal application of reason in Feyerabend’s arguments. I suggest that
they be given a rest, and that new critical insights be
applied to the analysis of science, not in a spirit of angry
demystification, but as a complement to progress already
being made in the history and the sociology of science.

There, studies of the actual conditions and constraints on
scientific work are providing a picture that is rapidly being
enriched, of how science can have both successes and failures, virtues and vices, without being the subject of one
simplistic verdict on the degree of its adherence to the
Good and the True.

I can imagine two sorts of changes in the philosophy of
science: in its sty le, and in its topics of inquiry. Concerning the former, we can recall that the Viennese endeavour
had a very Middle-European flavour. In its struggle against
what it claimad were the existing politically-motivated
dogmas of theology and metaphysics, it advanced its own
dogmatic and simplistic version of Truth through Science.

In this respect it participated in a stylistic tradition going
back to Descartes (with his deductions of all truths from
God’s essence), and Galileo (proclaiming ‘the conclusions of
natural science are true and necessary’). The harshness,
indeed arrogance, of their doctrines in natural philosophy
was related to that of the expression of the mathematical
sciences which were their exemplars. This survives still,
most noticeably in teaching, but also ifl popularisation.

Nowhere do the assertions of such sciences (as traditionally
expressed) make a place for criticism; as Popper has observed, the uncritical attitude fostered by teaching in the
‘normal science’ mode is a danger to science and to civilisation .

If, as I believe, the main problems in comprehending
science now derive from the effects of its great successes
and strengths rather than from external attacks, a different style of philosophising may be appropriate for the next
phase. I would rather not try to give it a single label; I
might describe it in terms of some polar oppositions. It
would be empirical rather than rationalistic; motivated
towards improving practice in known difficult areas rather
than articulating standards of unattainable perfection; and
progressing by the sharing of insights, informally expressed,
rather than by the production of abstract formal systems.

The best example of this that can be shown is that of
Francis Bacon, whose goal was a collection of ‘aphorisms’,
analogous to those which in his opinion made English pastoral theology so much superior to its dogmatic continental
counterparts. Those philosophical writings cast as genuine
dialogues can also serve as examples; though it seems that
very few philosophers have been able to resist the temptation of having the correct line triumph in all their intended
debates. I am well aware that style is not a panacea; and
those raised in one style might have grave disappointments
in trying to transform their thoughts to another. Here I am
expressing my personal reaction to the ultimate inadequacies of the Viennese style: if it proved impossible to articulate a single coherent criterion for distinguishing the
true-and-good from its vicious rivals and imitators, perhaps
the attempt should, in retrospect, be seen as a personal
endeavour rather than as a scientific exercise. And with
changed times and problems, we should feel free to think
again about style and about the deeper criteria of genuineness of cognitive discourse which it reflects.





See, for an example of a recent textbook, A. Chalmers, What Is This Thing Called
Science? (Open University Press, 1978).

See, for instance, the remarks in I. Lakatos, ‘History of Science and its Rational Reconstructions’, in The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (Cambridge,
197~), p. 137.


D. Harvey, Explanation in Geography (London, Arnold, 1969) is a good example of such
an attempt; the author subsequently turned to politically radical interpretations of
urban geography.

Vienna Circle, The Scientific Conception of the World (1929) (pamphlet) (Reidel, 1973)
also in M. Neurath and R.S. Cohen (eds.), Otto Neurath: Empiricism and Sociology
(Reidel, 1973), emphasis in original.

A. Naess, The Pluralist and Possibilist Aspect of the Scientific Enterprise (London,
Alien & Unwin, 1972), p. 135.

I return to the question of ‘style’ towards the end of this essay.


E. Mach, The Science of Mechanics (1883, many translations and editions).

See ‘Science: Conjectures and Refutations’, in Conjectures and Refutations, The
Growth of Scientific Knowledge (London, Routledge, 1963@, p. 36.

See K. Popper, !Jnended Quest (London, Fontana, 1976), pp. 36-37.

K. Popper, ConJectures and Refutations, p. 35.

K.R. Popper, ‘Back to the Presocratics’ in Conjectures and Refutations is a very
attractive attempt to show how Popperian method and ethics were responsible for ‘the
Greek miracle’ in natural philosophy.

G. Holton, ‘Mach, Einstein, and the Search for Reality’, in Thematic Origins of
Modern Thought (Harvard, 1973), p. 236.

K. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London, Hutchinson, 1959).

T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962), p. 170.

Ibid., p. 5.

Ibid., pp. 5-6.

~Popper, ‘Normal Science and its Dangers’ in I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (eds.),
Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge, 1970).

P. Feyerabend, ‘Consolations for the Specialist’ in Lakatos and Musgrave, op. cit., pp.


T.S. Kuhn, ‘Reflections on my Critics’ in Lakatos and Musgrave, op. cit., p. 245.

I. Lakatos, ‘Introduction. Science and Pseudoscience’, in Methodology of Scientific
Research Programmes (op. cit.).

I. Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations. The Logic of Mathematical Discovery (Cambridge,

G. Polya, Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning (2 vols.), (Oxford and Prince ton, 1954).

Lakatos and Musgrave, op. cit. This work includes a much revised version of Lakatos’s

Ibid., p. 151.

P.f’eyerabend, Against Method (London, New Left Books, 1975).

Galileo, The Starry Messenger (1610), second drawing of the moon, with crater compared to Bohemia; see S. Drake, The Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York,
Doubleday Anchor, 1957), p. 35.

S. Drake, Galileo at Work, His Scientific BiographY (University of Chicago Press,
1978), p. 145.

See E. Gellner, ‘Beyond Truth and Falsehood’, British Journal for the Philosophy of
Science 26 (1975), pp. 331-43. Feyerabend’s reply, ‘Logic, Literacy and Professor
Gellner’, ibid. 27 (1976), pp. 382-91, where he denies being a Fascist by claiming
court-jester and Zen-master status. The reply is reprinted with modifications in
Science in a Free Society (London, New Left Books, 1978), pp. 145-53.

P. Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society, p. 175. For partial confirmation of one of
his accusations see Science vol. 204 (22 June 1979), pp. 284-5: ‘There is no scientific
evidence that a radical mastectomy gives any better results than a modified one for
early breast cancers, according to the consensus meeting held on 5 June at the
Nationar Institute of Health’. Interesting studies of the role of ‘Medical Science’ in
the oppression of women are B. Ehrenreich and D. English, For Her Own Good
(London, Pluto Press, 1979) and G.J. Barker-Benfield, The Horrors of the Half-Known
Life (NY, Harper, 1976).

K.Popper, ‘Normal Science and Its Dangers’ in Lakatos and Musgrave, op. cit.

Comment on Ravetz
Ray Edgley
Ravetz argues that the Viennese tradition in the philosophy
of science developed an idealised and unrealistic conception of science not because it was doing pure philosophy,
specifically epistemology, but, on the contrary, because of
its political commitments. Participating in a trend going
back to Enlightenment rationalism, it shaped an understanding of science by contrast and in conflict with the ‘dogma
and superstition’, the metaphysics, embodied in unprogressive social institutions and movements. As Ravetz
says, the ideology of this tradition in the philosophy of
science was ‘derived from a centuries-long battle with
“religion”‘. However, ‘that old battle’ is now over, and anyway ‘from Science itself have come new evils’: so it’s no
longer necessary or possible for science to have this ideological value and function. Instead, there should be an end
of ideology in our understanding of science. In a suggestion
deliberately modest, even deflating, by comparison with the
triumphalist rationalism of the tradition now spent, he proposes changes in style and topic, to allow a more ‘positive’

study of the reality of science in its socio-historical context, with more openness in discussion rather than ‘a spirit
of angry demystification’, recognition that ‘science can
have both successes and failures, virtues and vices’, and
the aim of ‘improving practice in known difficult areas’.

Ravetz must be right in advocating a more realistic
study of science, as it is and has been and could be, in
relation to its socio-historical context. But does his argument that science is no longer ideologically sensitive focus
too exclusively on natural science and its philosophy, in the
Enlightenment and the 20th century, ignoring the 19th century and the growth and struggles of social science? The old
battle between science and religion may be over, but, as he
points out, the Viennese tradition used the name and nature
of science to attack not religion but political.ideologies. In
its concentration on natural science, that may have been
the tail-end of the Enlightenment battle. But reviving even
that feature of the Enlightenment would hardly have been
necessary if the 19th century had not intervened, with its
Romantic reaction against the Age of Reason, its continuing secularisation of society, and the transition from social
philosophy to social science. In changing the target of
science and its philosophy from religion to secular politics,
the Viennese tradition was indebted to the 19th century
and was taking part in a new battle: between science as
social science and the non-scientific social ideas involved
in political systems, institutions and movements. In philosophy, the relevant focus has shifted from the philosophy
of (natural) science to the philosophy of social science.

It must be agreed too that ‘from Science itself have
come new evils’, and that ‘philosophy’ in this area inevitably tends to generate abstract Platonic ideas of perfect
science that are of little use in providing criteria for criticism either of other ideas or of actual scientific practice.

But Ravetz acknowledges the possibility of and need for
improving scientific practice, and the criteria involved here
must be applicable to ideas produced by non-scientific
practices. What is distinctive of his position is its advocacy
of a ‘positive’ piecemeal approach and its hostility to what
he calls ‘a spirit of angry demystification’. But there is a
third way between the high priori road of philosophy and
the piecemeal positive approach, namely the approach of
theoretical science itself. And however much the Viennese
tradition was misled by its political commitments, it does
not follow that political commitment as such, and any
‘angry demystification’ that goes with it, necessarily obscures and misleads. A political position provides a point of
view from which important matters otherwise obscured may
become visible. Indeed, is Ravetz’s own position nonpolitical, or does his ‘end of ideology’ theme operate as the
familiar disguise for the liberal position? Does he assume


that though the Viennese tradition has come to an end, the
socio-political commitment of Popper and Lakatos is still
viable and to be preferred? Is it his view, or just attributed to Lakatos, that the enemies of reason ‘could come
equally well from the “Left” as from the old Right’ – not,
apparently, from the centre?

It may be, of course, that Ravetz intends his epithet
‘angry demystification’ to apply to Popper and Lakatos
also. Liberalism can afford to be complacent when liberalism is the status quo and not under serious threat, when
‘anti-dogmatism’ standardly functions as a justification for
inaction or for the ‘moderate’ action that leaves everything
(basically) as it is. But Popper and Lakatos lived in societies where neither condition held, and both, but Lakatos
in particular, were walking embodiments of liberal paradox.

The fact is that liberalism and its epistemological counterparts, scepticism and anti-dogmatism, are positions that
compete for acceptance with other positions conflicting
with them, and they themselves can be held, taught, and
practised either liberally, sceptically, and anti-dogmatically, or the reverse. Popper made a grotesquely unsuccessful attempt on these problems in his paper ‘On Violence’,
and his own educational practice was made the butt of a
cruel joke suggesting that the title of his best-known book
should have been ‘The Open Society By One Of Its
Enemies’. As for Lakatos, the conjecture Ravetz refers to,
recalling Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, should be compared
with the episode in Orwell’s 1984 in which Winston Smith
undergoes an ordeal similartO Koestler’s Rubashov.

Ravetz’s conjecture is that Lakatos’s anti-dogmatism in
mathematics might provide the support for a survival strategy in such an ordeal. Orwell on the other hand depicts
Winston Smith’s resistance as being broken down precisely
by the process by which his confidence in simple mathematical truths is undermined. The implication of Orwell’s idea
is that ultimately and in some circumstances the survival of
liberalism requires unshakeable conviction. Shall we say
dogmatism? Lakatos’s anti-dogmatism, apparently, was sufficiently dogmatic for him to be convinced of a proposition
even less certain than those of mathematics, namely ‘that
his version of Popperian liberal philosophy of science was
central to the defence of civilisation’. He was also convinced that defending liberal civilisation required not only
Popperian philosophy but also what he used to refer to as
‘the American nuclear umbrella’; which reminds us that our
Western liberal democracy, whose essence, according to
Ravetz, is ‘open dialogue’, is dogmatic to the point of arming itself to the teeth against alternatives. Lakatos’s opposition to the Left in the late 1960s and early ’70s was a
kind that in my hearing drew from a prominent non-Marxist
academic a memorable question: had he changed from a
Stalinist witch-hunter to a liberal witch-hunter? Was he an
anti-dogmatist or an officer of the thought-police? Or does
one require the other?

The politics of Ravetz’s proposals perhaps come out in
another way. I’ve already suggested that Ravetz’s argument, like the Viennese tradition itself, to say nothing of
the 20th century English analytical movement, ignores the
19th century. Yet on several crucial issues there is substantial agreement between him and one strand of the 19th
century reaction to the Enlightenment, the strand represented by Hegel and Marx. Ravetz tells us that ‘The old
epistemological problems of science are ••. no longer fruitful for our understanding of that great creation of the
human intellect’. Hegel and Marx saw that long ago, but
were ignored or misunderstood by both the Viennese and
English philosophical movements of the 20th century.

Ravetz suggests that one of the most important things we
have recently been discovering about ‘those old epistemological problems of science’ is that they tended to ignore
both the practical aspects and context of science and its
historical development. Hegel and Marx would have agreed,
and might have asked why it has taken us so long to rediscover these things. Ravetz asserts that ‘ ••• from Science
itself have come new evils, inconceivable once magic was


discredi ted until the advent of the atomic bomb ••• ‘. Marx,
though he firmly rejected the Romantic reaction against
science, didn’t need to wait till the atomic bomb to recognise the evils that came from science, in its form in the
technology of capitalist manufacture. However, though
Marx agrees with Ravetz in rejecting purely philosophical
accounts of science, he insists on the need for, and begins
to provide, a more theoretical approach to the understanding of science’s ‘virtues and vices’, its political relations,
and its potentialities for piecemeal improvement in a spirit
eschewing ‘angry demystification’. As far as I can see,
nothing in Ravetz’s paper rules that out, though his underwhelming proposals take no account of the possibility.


Socialist SOCiety
The Socialist Society AGM was held on 24 March at
County Hall, London.

Although speakers addressed problems of the present
political conjuncture, this was essentially a meeting to discuss the future role of the Society. The wider discussion
generally functioned as a way into this question.

The ‘future role’ debate was, in fact, critical, noted
Ralph Miliband. The meeting signalled a low point in the
fortunes of the Society, a point of ‘renewal’ or ‘withering
away’. Perhaps this was somehow a microcosm of the state
of disarray on the Left. At the same time, the Tories had
mounted a sustained and successful attack on democratic
rights, under a ‘constitutional veneer’. Authoritarianism
was convincingly presented as the defence of public rights
and order. Miliband suggested that the Society could have
a role in forming local committees for the defence of

John Palmer argued that the dominance of the Right
remained ‘fragile’; working class resistance h~d not been
broken fundamentally. He saw a need to reassert the
utopian and visionary dimension of the argument for socialism within the labour movement.

What had happened to feminism within the present conjuncture, suggested Elizabeth Wilson, could best be described as a process of fragmentation accompanied by growing sectarianism. One manifestation of this sectarianism
was the tendency to elevate the sexual division above that
of class. Many feminists were in fact anti-union, despite
the fact that women are well represented (numerically) in
unions and are active in strikes. Women were not outside
class politics, and a recognition of the way class divisions
fracture feminism itself was required.

A number of proposals were made about future activity. The Society could: function as a catalyst in the
struggle to defend democratic rghts, via university-based
discussion groups (John Palmer); provide an alternative programme for the Labour Party (Mike Rustin); operate as a
unit of socialist research and education (Hilary Wainwright); serve as a forum for trade union activists (Robin


Organisationally, three types of proposal seemed to be
coming from members, suggested Sarah Benton; (a) the
research/education function and style of grouping; (b) an
emphasis on local groups; (c) centrally co-ordinated local
discussion groups.

It was decided to establish a working party to look at
the various suggestions on a way forward for the Society.

In the morning session, Ken Livingstone had spoken on
the problem of overcoming bureaucratic inertia, faced by
those attempting to implement socialist policies at the

Perhaps the Socialist Society would find a role in
providing an ‘alternative bureaucracy’ to the mandarins of
County Hall!

Howard Feather

Download the PDFBuy the latest issue