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.