Zuckerman on Toulmin on Bernal May 4, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
Tags: Francis Bacon, Hilary Rose, J. D. Bernal, J. G. Crowther, Solly Zuckerman, Stephen Toulmin, Steven Rose, William McGucken
While preparing my last post, I ran into an interesting passage in Solly Zuckerman’s (1904-1993) memoir, From Apes to Warlords (1978), where he discusses the influence of his former friend J. D. Bernal’s (1901-1971) touchstone work in science criticism, The Social Function of Science (1939). Zuckerman spends a full paragraph talking about the importance ascribed to Bernal’s book by philosopher and historian Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009). Since it is not every day that a former chief scientific adviser to a government comments on the writing of a philosopher/historian of science, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the confluence of ideas that would allow such an event to occur.
Here’s the passage in full:
Stephen Toulmin, a scholar well-known for his writings on the philosophy and history of science, published a discerning article in the Observer Magazine of 28 November 1971,* which dealt with the dilemmas that scientists have to face when they ponder their social responsibilities, and he refers to Bernal’s book as a critical event in the evolution of our ideas about the place of science and scientists in society. I believe that Toulmin is right when he says that Bernal’s conception of the social function of science resurrected the basic ideas that Francis Bacon advanced in Elizabethan times. Toulmin saw Bernal as advocating, in the spirit of Bacon, the end of science as ‘a withdrawn and gentlemanly occupation whose sole aim was to create a fund of pure knowledge that privateer industrialists might then raid, and exploit, at their own pleasure and convenience. Instead, scientific research should be financed out of the national budget: in return, the priorities of different research projects should be decided with at least half an eye on their social utility.’ And Toulmin is also right in saying that ‘Though superficially “socialist”, the resulting scheme was not uniquely so: in the event, it prefigured the administrative structure of the scientific agencies of the United States of the 1960s, at least as closely as it did those of Russia and the other socialist States.’ But as one who lived through those times, I fear that Toulmin exaggerates when he writes that Bernal’s book ‘precipitated a storm’. It may have stimulated a few people to set up a ‘Society for Freedom in Science’ [McGucken 1978], but in general the book hardly caused a ripple, and I doubt if at the time more than a handful of scientists, and even fewer of the general public, bothered to read it. I for one deeply regretted this. The literature of the period that must have led Toulmin to his view does not correctly reflect the passive attitude which then characterised the vast majority of the scientific world.
Ignore, if you can, the question of whether or not this Bacon-to-Bernal narrative is defensible. What I am interested in is the structure of the narrative. If the contents are different, the structure, I would argue, is quite similar to the one that Toulmin first extensively developed in the early 1980s concerning the disappearance—and the need for the reappearance—of “cosmology” in science.
Toulmin, recall, argued that, traditionally, up through the Enlightenment, natural philosophers occupied themselves with totalistic inquiries into the cosmos, which generally proceeded from the presumption that the universe was divinely ordered. Since a divine order was a moral order, questions of the physical functioning of the universe and questions of ethics and morality were necessarily tightly bound up with each other. While Toulmin admitted that a return to the concept of the divinely ordered cosmos was infeasible, he did assert that science now had to be reunited with ethical inquiry, and, if not religion per se, then with a “theology of nature”.
Toulmin’s two narratives are not necessarily incompatible: the Bernalist argument is, effectively, a secular policy counterpart to the ethical cosmology argument. But both arguments function by positing a history of ideas, wherein some intellectual sea-change is called for in order to create or restore a balance of knowledge and social order. Authors employing these narratives imagine their work to clarify the nature of the change that needs to occur, thereby helping to bring it about.
Sometimes these narratives argue for a restoration of a lost idea, and sometimes they argue there is a need for a brand new idea—periodization in these narratives can be highly variable. What we need to pay closer attention to is what is happening at the end of the narrative. I would argue that for the narrative to create the desired effect, it must create 1) the sense that change is needed, by pointing to various persistent problems, 2) the sense that the time is ripe for change, but also 3) the sense that whatever change may be in process is necessarily incomplete, lest the whole point of constructing the narrative be lost.
Toulmin’s cosmology narrative operated through the well-worn modernity/postmodernity distinction: “Science and natural religion parted company … for reasons that operated powerfully in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but that no longer have the same power today…. Within our own ‘postmodern’ world, the pure scientist’s traditional posture as theoros, or spectator, can no longer be maintained…” (Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology, 255) By contrast, the Bernalist argument posits a gathering “storm” following Bernal’s crucial intellectual effort, which had yet to have its full effect on broader society.
Zuckerman viewed this narrative with suspicion, supposing that Toulmin was caught up in an intellectual enthusiasm that prevailed in the “literature of the period” circa 1970—and which presumably included the work of J. G. Crowther and Hilary and Steven Rose—but which he felt had run its course by the time he was writing in the late 1970s. At any rate, that enthusiasm, like Bernal’s original book, failed to capture the attention of the scientific community, let alone the general public. If Toulmin felt himself to be engaging in an enterprise of great pith and moment, Zuckerman could see that that feeling arose from the narrowness of Toulmin’s understanding of the place of his ideas in the broader worlds of science and society.
For his part, Zuckerman expressed his own “regret” over Bernal’s lack of influence and the passivity of the scientific community. But, as we have seen, he also understood his own dining club from the 1930s and ’40s, Tots and Quots, to have already had a major influence on government and, more broadly, in helping “give substance to the concept of social responsibility in the application of science.”
In Zuckerman’s narrative (which he expands upon slightly elsewhere in his memoirs), there had been a major change that needed to be made. But, as his book was intended to be a look back on a life well lived, he could dispense with point (3) above. The needed change had, in fact, already come with a fleshing out of scientific advisory apparatuses within the British government (which so happened to coincide with his own rise as a scientific adviser). Based on his own experience, to wish for anything radically beyond what had already been accomplished was, perhaps, to ask too much.
*I have not tracked this down, so I am relying on Zuckerman. But I would be interested to see the article if anyone can easily scrounge up a copy.