The Problem of Scientism and its Solution in Historical Materialism

Science is not a monolithic thing. There is no one way science works, is the best science or even the only science, that just happens to be the way a particular person wants it to work, because it fits their politics (which are often falsely conscious politics in light of explicit choice of comrades), hypostatizing in theory and concept, dictating methods, and so forth. The cognitive and behavioral sciences prevailing in today’s academy, the context in which so many young Americans and Europeans are being socialized (or, perhaps, more critically, indoctrinated), are the epitome of scientism, i.e. ideology masquerading as science.

To be sure, there is a critical sounding jargon emanating from the universities. But I do not see in the arguments of many young graduate students today a critical understanding of the diversity of scientific thinking and activity or especially the way scientific jargon (positivism) is used to convey a false authority, to advance an ideology to justify and perpetuate and extend and entrench concrete social arrangements beneficial to one group over another. There is no critique. Where is a critique of behavioral and cognitive sciences like the critique of the science that drives corporate exploitation of the environment and the manmade chemical blanket over nature?

I’m not talking about postmodernism or the current iteration of critical theory, which function either to deny truth or manufacture it (e.g., critical race theory, the error of which is more fundamental than scientific error by committing the logical fallacy of misplaced concreteness). I’m talking about a critical understanding of science as a human product that works through paradigms (in a Kuhnian sense) that can be and are commandeered by those in power and cynically used to justify particular relations that exist or that are desired to exist that reproduce social arrangements that do or will benefit the ruling class, which is presently a corporate oligarchy.

What did Marx tell us? Those who control the means of material production at the same time control the means of ideological production. This is a truism. Who controls the university? The administrative state in the service of the power elite. This is a university that exists as part of the social logic of state monopoly capitalism. Where is a theory of power in the argument that advances the scientism promulgated by the (post)modern university?

Science is not one thing at once or through time. There exist paradigms at one point or another. If we were doing science in the 19th century, the aspiring psychologist in graduate school pushing out objective notions of race (which does not in the way it is usually constructed exist apart from racial thinking), to be in alignment with the literature, to graduate with a degree, to uphold the reputation of the discipline, to land an academic position, to be taken seriously at conferences, would have to sound like what we know today as a vulgar racist. He would be working from a set of assumptions, operating inside a paradigm, that would provide for him methods affirming the validity of theoretical concepts that (a) identify races as really existing things and existing in a particular way that can be (b) arranged in hierarchies that vary along lines of moral character, cognitive ability, behavioral proclivity, and so on.

If we take a critical historical view, we can see 19th century race science (racism or racialism) for what it was. To be sure, most of us see it now. But we would have seen it then using the appropriate method. There were people then who could see it how we see it now. Marx, who developed the method, didn’t think Darwin’s theories of speciation applied to human beings in its diversity or especially to their societies (neither did the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Wallace). Marx’s method builds on the same method used to show that religion is also a product of human creativity (Feuerbach). This is anthropology. You cannot reduce the study of society and history to positivist methodology. Why? Because that paradigm is historically situated and tied to concrete relations of power.

The conflation of racism as a thing existing with the thinking and behavior of people the progressive doesn’t like, or whom he thinks need deprogramming, depends on defining racism in a way that avoids confronting the reality that thoughts and behaviors approximating racism exists in the people he does like. That involves a vast body of literature, which he fancies as science, which he brings before us puzzling why we do not accept it, that has replaced what we all recognize as racism. The difference is that I see a vast ideological superstructure that recodes racism as antiracism that replaces the previous system of ideological control that lost its gas in the face of popular movements in the 20th century and then erects a vast edifice of “science” to make it all look objective and true.

The tragedy of the current moment is that popular movements are aligned with the racial thinking that keep the proletariat from class consciousness. These movements are bound up in ideological and practice, what is called progressivism, that rewards those who accept positivism as the way to truth and punishes those who deviate from it, even calling them “racists” and “white supremacists.” And that is not scientific thinking. That is the function of racism always. What is it the French say? “Plus les choses changent, plus elles restent les mêmes.” What is needed is a method that allows man to think outside the moment. In historical view, man has to take the longue durée. The materialist conception of history is the required meta-theory of the relationship between social relations and knowledge production.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

2 thoughts on “The Problem of Scientism and its Solution in Historical Materialism”

  1. I think the relationship between positivism and Marxism is a bit more complex than you make out here. For one thing, within the Marxist tradition one can find both positivists and antipositivists. For example, Nikolai Bukharin in his book Historical Materialism presented a positivist interpretation of historical materialism. Both Antonio Gramsci and György Lukács responded with rather harshly critical reviews that panned that book precisely because of its positivist outlook. I go into this in a bit more detail here.

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