Response to Martin Lenz’s “Naturalism as a Bedfellow of Capitalism?”

First and foremost, I would like to extend my gratitude to Prof. Martin Lenz for raising the issue on Facebook about the possible influence, direct or indirect, of early 20th-Century Soviet philosopher, Boris Hessen, upon contemporary philosopher, Akeel Bilgrami, in light of their similar understandings of the relationship between natural philosophy and capitalism in the emergence of ‘naturalism’/’scientism’.  Here, I will offer a response to Prof. Lenz’s blog post entitled “Naturalism as a Bedfellow of Capitalism?” by fleshing out, what I take to be, subtle differences between Hessen’s and Bilgrami’s positions.  In teasing out these differences, I hope to further the discussion that Prof. Lenz has initiated, help facilitate determine a possible connection between the two thinkers and hopefully offer something that may allow us to better assess their contemporary significance.

Specifically, I will address, what I take to be, two important differences that I see between Hessen’s and Bilgrami’s positions.  Firstly, I maintain that while both thinkers attribute the emergence of naturalism/scientism to some relationship between natural philosophy and capitalism, Bilgrami appears to trace the origin of naturalism/scientism to natural philosophers themselves, i.e. Newton and Boyle, while Hessen traces this conception to a ‘class standpoint’, namely, that of the 17th-Century English bourgeoisie towards the means and social relations of production.  Note Bilgrami’s remark that

Newton and Boyle’s metaphysical view of the new science won out over the freethinkers’ and became official only because it was sold to the Anglican establishment and, in alliance with that establishment, to the powerful mercantile and incipient industrial interests of the period.

I take Bilgrami to mean here that natural philosophers were responsible for developing the concept of naturalism/scientism, which they then persuaded the powers that be to adopt.  Here, Bilgrami departs from Hessen in a slight, but nonetheless, significant way.  In the opening paragraphs of his famous 1931 paper, “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia”, Hessen rejects two notions: (1) that history is driven by ideas and (2) that history is driven by individuals of genius.  Instead, he argues that material practice forms the basis of ideas in history and that the masses, not individual geniuses, are at the wheel.  Thus, when Hessen writes that “the rising bourgeoisie brought natural science into its service, into the service of developing productive forces,” he means that naturalism/scientism was not so much ‘sold to’, but ‘commissioned by’ the Anglican establishment and the mercantilists/industrialists.  For Hessen, the foundations of naturalism/scientism were always-already present within the emerging, dominant class’s assumptions about the natural world, which were then explicated by thinkers like Newton and Boyle.  Consequently, while Hessen and Bilgrami establish a causal relation between natural philosophy and capitalism, they seem to offer opposing narratives as to how naturalism/scientism originates.

Secondly, and this is a corollary of the previous point, because Hessen and Bilgrami differ in their understanding of the causal trajectory between natural philosophy and capitalism, they differ in their understanding of how that trajectory played out as well.  For Hessen, the relationship between natural philosophy/science and capitalism has a more (though Hessen wouldn’t use this term) ‘unconscious’ feel to it than what Bilgrami seems to describe.  If I’m reading Bilgrami correctly, he maintains that natural philosophers developed naturalism/scientism, which they then proposed to the Anglican establishment and mercantilists/industrialists as if the latter had the option of adopting or rejecting this worldview.  This is somewhat different from Hessen’s position.  It should be noted, however, that Bilgrami’s position bears some resemblance to a common distortion of Hessen’s that, as Gideon Freudenthal and Peter McLaughlin have identified in their research, characterized much of the reception of Hessen’s work in North America and Western Europe for some years.  And while this reading does misrepresent Hessen’s position, it is neither an uninteresting position in and of itself nor is it insignificant to the history of the philosophy of science.

To elaborate upon the distinction with Bilgrami, I will run through Hessen’s position from the 1931 essay in greater detail here.  Elaborating upon claims already proposed by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology and Marx in Capital, vol. 1, Hessen argues that in a class society, natural philosophy/science plays a dual function: (1) a practical, material function as well as an (2) ideological function to normalize and universalize the ruling class’s standpoint as a worldview.  He writes that during the 16th and 17th centuries, the form of capitalist production that began to predominate was known as ‘manufacture’; a regime in which machines began to play a more preeminent role in production, to the point of already beginning to threaten the significance of the role of human labor.  Because of their class interests, the bourgeoisie, thus, bore a certain perspective on the means and social relations of production that involved profit maximization and an equivalence of living bodies with machines.  This alone, however, was insufficient for explaining how these practical problems came to be understood as abstract, theoretical problems.  Hessen explains that this takes place partly through the cross-pollination of practical problems across different industries (which often took place in the context of scientific societies and in the publication of scientific literature) as well as the ideological function of treating the bourgeoisie’s worldview as pre-given.  This combination establishes a certain horizon of possibilities for understanding abstract, theoretical problems according to the class standpoint, within which, of course, there is the possibility for considerably variety.  When it comes to figures like Newton and Boyle, they were taking up, what they understood to be, a disinterested pursuit of truth.  For Hessen, however, this apparently disinterested attitude is part of a broader movement within ruling class ideology to naturalize and universalize a standpoint, to treat the status quo as permanent.  Because of this duality, Newton’s natural philosophy simultaneously yields important insights about the natural world, while also being limited by the bourgeois perspective, particularly via its preoccupation with profit and the mechanization of production.  Hessen proceeds to explain how his account can be used to understand the correlation between the incorporation of the steam engine into production during the industrial phase of capitalism and the rise of thermodynamics.  Moreover, in his other works, he would provide ever more rigorous accounts of how to identify practical and ideological elements within scientific discourse.

            Prof. Lenz has pointed out a fascinating correlation here, namely, between the renewed interest in Hessen and the adoption of similar positions by contemporary thinkers like Bilgrami.  As I am entirely new to Bilgrami’s work, I cannot speak to his sources or to his impact.  I will, however, offer some speculation as to why it might be that scholarship on Hessen is becoming more popular today.  As Hessen specialist, Sergey N. Korsakov writes, with some notable exceptions (i.e. the writings of Freudenthal and McLaughlin, Gorelik, Graham, Joravsky, Josephson, Skordoulis, etc.), throughout the 20th Century, studies of Hessen were largely restricted to examinations of his 1931 essay.  This was not only true of Hessen scholarship in North America and Western Europe, but in Russia as well (where the study of Hessen was virtually non-existent in the Soviet Union, even after his rehabilitation in 1955 and it has only within the past few years garnered broader attention).  Now, however, the conditions that made Hessen too much of a Marxist in North America and Western Europe and too bourgeois for other Marxists, have apparently begun to dissipate.  Far from rehashing previous studies, there is now an increasing effort to see Hessen as a more significant figure in the history of the philosophy of science and to translate, disseminate and study his numerous other works.  I would assert that this may be attributable to Hessen’s being a figure who while he stood for an alternative to capitalism, was not associated with the brute dogmatism that came to characterize Soviet ideology in its Stalinist form (Hessen’s thought is extraordinarily rigorous and complex) nor with Stalinism’s catastrophic violence (Hessen not one of its propagators, but tragically, one of its victims).  Thanks to the work of scholars like Josephson, Korsakov, Ienna and Rispoli, etc. (please forgive any I’ve forgotten above), we’re rapidly finding out new things about this man’s biography and reception, while also unearthing many new aspects of his fascinating philosophy.  This renewed study does indeed suggest something extremely compelling and exciting about the present, but what that is precisely, perhaps, remains to be seen.

6 thoughts on “Response to Martin Lenz’s “Naturalism as a Bedfellow of Capitalism?”

  1. I would think Hessen’s popularity (strange choice of word?) has less to do with Bilgrami, who operates in a different world, and more to do with (a) the gradual rise in popularity (…) of Zilsel, widely credited with having a less economico-centric model than Hessen’s, and (b) the diluted versions of the Zilsel thesis that are now predominant in history of science (vernacular knowledge, focus on craft, artisanal practice, etc. : see eg Pamela Long’s lectures published by Oregon UP). Related to this and somehow parallel, I think, is the process by which Shapin’s social history of science became the doxa in the past 30 years, with little or no credit to Hessen despite part of the core claims of Shapin being that figures like Boyle had to be inscribed in a social context …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Charles! Sorry for not replying to your comment sooner, I just completed my move from Moscow. I’ll reply here point by point.

      Regarding my use of the term ‘popular’, you’re right that this does sound a bit off. Perhaps something more to the effect that there is a ‘renewed interest’ in Hessen’s work over the past few years.

      On your point about Bilgrami, I didn’t mean to suggest that Bilgrami was responsible for a new wave of Hessen studies, only that Bilgrami’s paper and the new work on Hessen suggests a growing interest in the ‘socioeconomic’ narratives in the history of philosophy today. And like Martin, I’m wondering if Hessen directly or indirectly may have influenced Bilgrami.

      The Zilsel connection is, indeed, an interesting one. I have to spend some more time with Zilsel. By chance, are you aware of any texts where he cites Hessen (as I’ve heard, he doesn’t really mention him)?

      Lastly, could Shapin’s not or rare mention of Hessen in his work be a conscious gesture to avoid the connection with Marxism?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great essay! Clear, fascinating, and useful. I am perplexed, though, by Hessen’s claim about 17th-century science serving the interests of industrialization. How much industrialization was there in England in the 17th century? My sense is “not much”, and most of the tech starts to be developed in the 18th century.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comment! You’re right that my use of the term ‘industry’ to describe production in 17th-century England is imprecise. I find that Hessen uses the word ‘industry’ in two ways. Primarily, he uses it to describe ‘industrial capitalism’, which doesn’t set in until the mid-18th and early-19th centuries, where production is characterized by a greater division of labor, use of heavy machinery and, specifically, widespread incorporation of the steam engine. In this respect, 17th-century production is not at all characterized by industry, but by ‘manufacture’. However, Hessen does also use the term ‘industry’ in a more general sense, which seems to describe simply a sector of the economy through which a certain of goods are produced (he refers to, for instance, the ‘mining industry’ or ‘weapons industry’, etc.). Also, I very much enjoyed your blog post on Hessen and will be sure to write a comment soon!


  3. I much appreciate this response, as it is close to my own initial response on Twitter to professor Lenz’s previous blog post. I, too, believe that Hessen and Bilgrami depart significantly from each other on the point of the (causal/dialectical?) relationship between capitalism as a societal form, on the one hand, and natural philosophy as a body of beliefs, on the other hand. However, since I am not familiar with either Hessen’s or Bilgrami’s work, I had to piece together this insight on the basis of professor Lenz’s blog post and the quotes supplied in it. So, it is good to see the same point substantiated here by someone who has more of a scholarly knowledge and understanding of Hessen at least.

    I am slightly intrigued about one point concerning Hessen, though. I understand that, on his view, the bourgeoisie essentially employed figures like Newton, Boyle, et al., *in order to develop* natural philosophy. (This was emphasized both by yourself in this blog post and by myself on Twitter.) However, does Hessen also believe, as you seem to suggest, that natural philosophy is a more or less deliberate intellectual expression of the concepts and values that were pertinent to the bourgeois world view (a vulgar Marxist view, more idealistic than it appears at first)? Or does he believe that natural philosophy is a more or less unconscious reproduction and explication in the theoretical realm of practical concepts and values that were necessarily already operative in the capitalist mode of production (more or less Marx’s own)? The former view seems to me a sort of conspiracy theory, or at least to ascribe undue influence to the ruling class in terms of how free its members are to impose their own worldview, but the latter view seems like a good and tenable materialist view to me.

    In part I also ask this because I am interested to know how idealistic Hessen really is, since, despite his overt anti-idealist declarations, some of his phrases seem to suggest a view that is less focused on how material and social practices give rise to concepts and values and more on how a ruling class imposes its own ideas. But this is neither an attractive view in itself, I would say, nor is it very Marxist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment, Mark and nice to meet you here! I think that the first position you describe bears a greater resemblance to that of Bilgrami, based upon his quote. Bilgrami argues something to the effect that naturalism/scientism was developed to consciously and deliberately articulate a worldview laden with bourgeois values. Hessen would maintain that the bourgeoisie, or any ruling class, uses physical and psychological coercion over workers, but naturalism/scientism does not emerge in this conscious and deliberate manner. Instead, he would adopt the second position you describe, which is, as you say, more or less that of Marx. He would account for the emergence of naturalism/scientism according to a more ‘unconscious’ process. Naturalism/scientism is the product of natural philosophers’ taking up a disinterested pursuit of truth, but from the perspective of the social order, this disinterested pursuit of truth cannot help but be the articulation of the ruling class’s ideology; it is the ‘naturalization’ of concepts about human nature, the natural world, etc., that are informed by their standpoint. Interested to hear your thoughts!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s