A fight to the finish

May 26, 1995

Steve Fuller asks whether science puts an end to history or history to science? After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, one intrepid ex-Sovietologist decided to project his plight upon the screen of world history. His sudden loss of employment was made into a symbol of human destiny. The man, Francis Fukuyama, and the book, The End of History and the Last Man, engaged the chattering classes for much of 1992 and 1993.

Most chattered about whether history has revealed all the shapes that the "good society" can take, and whether 1989 constituted some "crucial experiment" in which liberal democratic capitalism proved that it was much better than even the strongest socialist society. Fukuyama wanted us to believe that if any of these speculations are well founded, then it will not be long before liberalism triumphs across the globe, bringing with it an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity.

Of course, such irreversible paths have been charted before, most notably by the now fallen socialists. As a child in the late 1960s, I remember television pundits proclaiming that no society that has embraced socialism has ever turned back, and that by the end of this century only the United States would be left as the last capitalist bulwark. People who seriously entertain such arguments from historical destiny typically limit their disagreements to the exact vision of the good society that awaits us at the end of history.

However, they generally agree on the means by which we will have got there. Both capitalists and socialists, liberals and authoritarians, agree that what Fukuyama calls the "logic of natural science" plots an inevitable course that both transcends and transforms even the most historically entrenched of cultural differences. But does it really?

There is no mystery about the sorts of things people mean when they make these grandiose historical claims about science. They can usually be summed up in one word: "progress", or "modernisation". Socialists point to science's role in the creation of labour-saving technologies that eventually undermine the basis for any sharp distinction between the workers and their bosses. Capitalists emphasise the role of science in enhancing people's innovative capacities and hence their ability to compete more effectively in the marketplace. The roles assigned to science are somewhat different, but in both cases they are meant to have global application.

But what exactly is so "universal" about science that enables it to figure as the chief "mechanism of desire" (Fukuyama's phrase) for both ends of the ideological spectrum? Once we try to give a specific answer to this question, history begins to wreak its revenge on science. Yes, there is at least a 400-year-long track record of philosophers promoting the idea that natural science is a unique form of knowledge whose power transcends the particularities of time and place. But these thinkers have profoundly disagreed over what counts as such knowledge and wherein lies its uniqueness. For example, is science special because of how much it can explain or because of how much it can control? Depending on which answer you pick, you will get a different rank-ordering of scientific achievements.

As the historian delves more deeply into the nature of science, the more "science" as a way of knowing of world-historic proportions starts to look like a verbal mirage. Historians themselves have been aware of this fact for at least a quarter-century. In 1974, Stephen Brush published an article in Science with the provocative title, "Should the history of science be rated X?" Though himself a practising historian, Brush concluded that the cognitively diffuse and morally ambivalent character of science in the modern era could easily cause fledgling scientists to lose their focus, were the history of science made part of their curriculum.

Thomas Kuhn had made the same point still earlier and more vividly in his famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn asserted that the sense of history that scientists are taught in their textbooks is necessarily "Orwellian". Alluding to George Orwell's 1984, Kuhn meant that history is rewritten by each generation of scientists to show that even the narrowest of theoretical or experimental pursuits has a place along a trajectory that points toward an ever clearer and more comprehensive grasp of reality. Once again, the suggestion is that to provide a richer sense of the actual history of science would be to undermine one's motivation for doing science.

The idea that history may function as inspirational literature is certainly not unique to the natural science curriculum. But it is by no means clear that such inspirational narratives can carry the weight of resolving the world's great ideological differences. Insight on how to proceed may be gained by examining the set of circumstances that first led historians and scientists to think that natural science had the culturally transcendent qualities that are claimed for it today. For that we need to go back roughly 100 years.

By the 19th century, few people disputed the power of natural scientific knowledge to transform the world. However, the superiority of the natural sciences was more often attributed to the superiority of European culture than vice versa. Thus, Galileo was seen as a product of Renaissance genius, Newton of Enlightenment genius, and Darwin of Victorian genius. To truly understand science, it was thought, one must understand the distinctive features of the Western mind that have given rise to it. Thus, for most of the 19th century, it was inconceivable that one would study the natural sciences in university without having first mastered the humanistic disciplines that provided the necessary moral and intellectual background.

However, this "Eurocentric" view of science was dealt a severe blow by the global ascendancy of Japan in the last quarter of the 19th century. Despite the best efforts of Western diplomats, the Japanese were unwilling to take on board the entire European curriculum in the name of "modernisation". Indeed, Japanese educational reformers generally ignored the disciplines that the Westerners had taken to be fundamental to their own scientific success: philosophy, history, literature, and fine arts. Instead, the Japanese limited their Western imports to the natural sciences and engineering, to which they then attached their own cultural meanings. Symbolic of this move was the rewriting of scientific terms in ideographic script, which enabled Japanese students to grasp concepts without having to penetrate the Greek and Latin roots of the Western words.

Japan's success at circumventing 500 years of European history became evident with its victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. It was understood at the time to have been the first time a western nation suffered defeat at the hands of a non-western one on the basis of superior technical skill. Suddenly, westerners began to think that perhaps science was not a necessary feature of their culture, but merely a contingent one. The natural sciences may thrive outside of European spheres of influence, and one need not be committed to Renaissance, Enlightenment or Victorian values to use or to contribute to the storehouse of scientific knowledge. This is the view most historians hold today, and it has led to increasingly interesting work on the distinctive settings in which science has flourished in China, Egypt, India, and the Islamic world.

Yet, the lesson of Japan's appropriation of science seems to have been only half-learned by those who theorise about "the end of history". Yes, there is an important sense in which the natural sciences can empower culturally quite disparate peoples, though it is probably less in the philosophically interesting theories we associate with science than in the brute technical skills and technologies that can be justified by any number of such theories. More to the point, global scientific empowerment cannot be equated with the diffusion of certain cultural values that are historically tied to the growth of science in the West.

It is still widely assumed, not only by political theorists, but also by science educators and philosophers of science, that one cannot learn science without also learning a value orientation that favours democracy, systematic thought, critical inquiry, and open- mindedness. This 19th-century way of seeing the matter is wishful thinking given contemporary pedagogical practice. As science appears potentially available to all cultures, no matter the value orientation, the science curriculum gradually loses the humanistic dimension that would require students to reflect on the ends that science has served in its history. Instead, we witness the spectre of science taught as a value-neutral, user-friendly sequence of courses that can be imported into any country' s curriculum.

Admittedly, reintroducing historical considerations into the science curriculum would make for a morally and intellectually messier classroom. Specifically, it would prevent students from mobilising science as a means for whatever ends they or their governments desire. Consequently, we may no longer be able to make a beeline to the end of history, but then again, we should always suspect those who believe that the crooked timber of humanity can yield to a straight path.

Steve Fuller is professor of sociology, Durham University.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments