Ernest Gellner on science and society

Text #18: Gellner, E. (1984). The scientific status of the social sciences. International Social Science Journal, 36, 567-586.

This is a well-written and sharp article which touches upon several connected themes. For example: reasons for the current prestige of science; relations between social and natural sciences; role of science in modern society; economic impact of scientific activities; descriptive and normative uses of epistemology; whether the social sciences are scientific, and in what sense; what should happen for the social sciences to achieve an undisputable scientific status. And many others that I will not discuss.

I will only refer to one of the topics Gellner discusses: the social nature of science. Gellner distinguishes between different degrees of “sociologization” of science:

  • Philosophical epistemologies assume that science can be a one-person enterprise. Inductivism and logical positivism fall in this category. “The practitioner of this approach works in terms of some kind of model of discovery or of the acquisition of knowledge, where the elements in that model are items drawn from individual activities, such as having ideas, experiences, setting up experiments, relating the lessons of experience or the results of experiments to generalizations based on the initial ideas, and so forth. An extreme individualistic theory of science would be one that offered a theory and a demarcation of science without ever going beyond the bounds of a model constructed in this way. Such a theory might concede or even stress that, in fact, scientists are very numerous and that they habitually co-operate and communicate with each other. But it would treat this as somehow contingent and inessential. A Robinson Crusoe could, for such a theory, practise science. Given resources, longevity, ingenuity and ability, no achievement of science as we know it would, “in principle”, be beyond his powers. Those who hold theories of this kind are not debarred from admitting that, in fact, criticism, testing and corroboration are, generally speaking, social activities, and that they depend for their effectiveness on a mathematical, technological and institutional infrastructure, which is far beyond the power of any individual to establish; but they are, I suppose, committed to holding that whether or not a social environment makes these preconditions available is, as it were, an external condition of science, but not in any essential way part of it.”
    I think many current cognitivist and developmental psychologists who view knowledge acquisition as an individual skill or activity also fall in Gellner’s description (think Gopnik).
  • First-degree sociologization of science: society constitutes an essential precondition for the existence of science, but only society as such, and not necessarily this or that kind of society. Think Émile Durkheim here.
  • A second degree of the sociologizing of the theory of science involves insisting not merely on the presence of a society, but of a special kind of society. Popper’s theory of science seems to be of this kind: society is not enough, science requires the “critical spirit”. Closed societies cannot engender science but an “open society” can do so. An open society is one in which men subject each other’s views to criticism, and which either possesses institutional underpinning for such a practice, or at least lacks the institutional means for inhibiting it. Science is the kind of institution that is not at the mercy of the virtues or vices of persons. Public testing by a diversified and uncontrollable community of scientists ensures the ultimate elimination of faulty ideas, however dogmatic and irrational their individual adherents may be. In this version, science and its advancement clearly does depend on the institutional underpinning of this public and plural testing.
    Thomas Kuhn also sociologizes science to the second degree. For him, the crucial difference between science-capable and science-incapable societies is the absence or presence of a paradigm. Kuhn, however, does not seem to distinguish between scientific and unscientific paradigms. For Popper, the only science capable society is one endowed with institutional guarantees of the possibility or even the encouragement of criticism; for Kuhn, science is made possible only by the presence of social conceptual control sufficiently tight to impose a paradigm on its member’s at most times. Paradigms are binding only by social pressure, which thus makes science possible. Unless the deep questions are arbitrarily prejudged, science cannot proceed.
  • Gellner’s position is that, to define science, one needs to sociologize the philosophy of science to the third degree. This means considering the features and activities of society that do not pertain to their cognitive activities alone. (There is something strange in Gellner’s argument here, because Popper’s and Kuhn’s theories, as described by Gellner, seem to include non-cognitive, i.e. institutional aspects of social life). In order to clarify his point, Gellner describes three crucial stages of human history:
    1. Societies that practice hunting and food gathering. He doesn’t talk about knowledge in these societies, but we know these are societies that organize their wisdom in myths (folk tales, oral traditions, etc.)
    2. Societies oriented towards food production, mainly agriculture and pastoralism. These societies are literate and are governed by a centralized political class. Recorded knowledge in such societies is used for administrative records, notably those connected with taxation; for communication along a political and religious hierarchy; and as parts of ritual and for the codification of religious doctrine. Conservation of the written truth is the central concern here, rather than its expansion.
    3. Societies based on production, which is linked to growing scientific knowledge. Here he includes all modern and post-modern societies: the continuously growing technology they engender is immeasurably superior to, and qualitatively distinct from, the practical skills of the craftsmen of agrarian society. In this society, the question is no longer “what is truth, wisdom or genuine knowledge?” Rather, science is seen as the key to expand and optimize the productive processes of society. A society endowed with a powerful and continuously growing technology lives by innovation, and its occupational role structure is perpetually in flux. Science in such societies is trans-social, trans-cultural, explicit, formalized and abstract knowledge.

If you have read my other posts in this blog, you already know what my position about this topic is. While I endorse a third-degree sociologization of science, I follow in this respect authors like Hegel, J-P Vernant and J. Samaja, who emphasize the relation between the social structure of society and the production of knowledge. Gellner, by way of contrast, thinks that theories of historical stages in terms of social organization do not work. The way he makes science depend on productive processes (on the economic features of society) seems more traditionally Marxist (which is ironic, given that he’s usually recognized as an anti-Marxist).


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