it's the Science vs. Ideology show

Jim heartfield jim at
Tue Nov 2 18:18:46 PST 1999

In message <Pine.NEB.4.10.9911021421080.22566-100000 at>, Michael Pollak <mpollak at> writes

>I think Marx was wrong on this point, Jim. There are a couple of crucial
>differences between the objects of social inquiry and the objects of
>physics that prevent us from making valid universal statements about
>social phenomena. And this keeps historical or social science from ever
>being science in quite the same way that natural science is.

This seems a bit harsh. Surely Marx is the author of the understanding that social science is historically specific, and therefore of the difference between social and natural science. But then who wants social science to be identical to natural science? If it were it would not tell us about society, but about nature.

>To start with, identity. If you make observations on an isotope of
>hydrogen, you are safe in assuming it is true for all isotopes of
>hydrogen. But there is nothing interesting you can say about all men, or
>all women, or all lesbians or all intellectuals where you can't find some
>that are dead the opposite.

No, this doesn't follow at all. For a start, all laws can be modified in their operation. I hope you are not in charge of hydrogen isotopes, if you really think that what you say about one of them is identical for all.

So too, one can indeed make compelling generalisations about men, women, lesbians and so on - sexologists like John D'Emilio, Michel Foucault and others have demonstrated as much. But the following is a red herring:

> And from this flows the fact that the "laws" of society change
>over time. We can assume the laws of gravity were the same for caveman.
>But the nature of the family was very different in Ancient Greece from
>what it is in modern day America.

What Marxist would deny it? But historical laws are laws none the less. The limits of the application of the laws are historical, but within a given historical frame, they do, none the less, express a regularity that derives from their objective character (with the proviso that all laws are modified in their expression by other conditions, even natural laws).

>A small amount of hydrogen, properly observed, counts for all the hydrogen
>that has even been or ever will be. A small number of woman does not.

I think most scientists would understand this to be a redundant concept of natural laws. These are not timeless, as we now know. Even physical laws (let alone biological) have a history. In special conditions, physical laws are altered or even wholly transformed, such as conditions of extreme gravity.

>In view of such human diversity, our social observations are always very
>small. And since the rules of the social game are always changing, our
>knowledge doesn't accumulate the way scientific knowledge does.

Not in exactly the same way, no (for if it did it would be knowledge of nature and not society). But surely it does accumulate and advance.

>that perfectly understood the Renaissance Venetian state can't pass that
>knowledge on to be built on the way Harvey passed on the knowledge of the
>circulation of the blood.

This is very surprising indeed. Does not Machiavelli's insights into the Venetian and other city states constitute a vital step in the growing understanding of human sovereignty? I for one teach a philosophy class that starts with Machiavelli, before moving on to Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, whose subject is the development of the concept of sovereignty.

>And there's the rub: we can't avoid the universal form because without it
>we can't communicate, even with ourselves. Thus in social inquiry, all
>universals are false universals.

I don't think so. Universal does not mean true for all time, nor even wholly uniform. The belief in absolute universals belongs to medieval philosophy, the concept has been developed since then. -- Jim heartfield

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