Dialectics in Science: An interview with Helena Sheehan

The author of “Marxism and the Philosophy of Science” says the tendency of some on the left to counterpose a humanistic Marx to a positivist Engels weakens Marxism, and is not supported by historical evidence.

Reposted with permission from The North Star

Introduction by Ben Campbell

While today’s left has frayed into many strands, there was a time when the left presented, or at least aspired to present, a coherent Weltanschauung. This was Marxism, founded on Karl Marx’s brilliant synthesis of materialism and the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel, which led him and his collaborator Friedrich Engels to an unprecedented coalescence of existing human knowledge.

Today’s crisis of capitalism has, unsurprisingly, led to a renewed interest in Marxism. Yet any “return to Marx” will not be found in an exegesis of ancient texts but in grounding Marx’s materialist dialectic in the present. Just as Marx critiqued 19th-century advances by incorporating them into his thought, so too must the most promising developments of the last century be synthesized into a radical understanding for the present. Unfortunately, today’s left has for too long has been relegated to social and cultural studies, ceding the “hard” discourse in economics and science to a new generation of vulgar scientistic “quants.” The resulting left has far too often neglected a dialectical critique, in favor of dichotomous relations to science.

It was not always so. In an attempt to recover some of the lost spirit of the scientific left, I will be interviewing subjects at the interface of science and the left. I begin today with Helena Sheehan, Professor Emerita at Dublin City University. Her research interests include science studies and the history of Marxism, and she is the author of Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical Overview (available as scanned PDF files on her website).

Helena Sheehan at SYRIZA solidarity rally

Helena Sheehan at SYRIZA solidarity rally

Ben Campbell: The advances of 19th-century science were inseparable from the rise of “materialist” philosophy. While Marx certainly belongs to this tradition, he was also strongly influenced by German idealism, specifically the dialectical system of G.W.F. Hegel. What did a “dialectical” materialism mean for Marx, and how did he see it as an advance over the materialism of his day?

Helena Sheehan: The materialist philosophy of the 19th century was tending in a positivist direction. It was inclined to stress induction and to get stuck in a play of particulars. Marxism pulled this in the direction of a more historicist and more holistic materialism. It was an approach that overcame myopia, one that looked to the whole and didn’t get lost in the parts.

BC: You’ve written, “It is no accident that Marxism made its entry onto the historical stage at the same historical moment as Darwinism.” What do you mean by this, and what do you see as the connection between these two monumental figures?

HS: The idea of evolution was an idea whose time had come. It was in the air. Historical conditions ripen and set the intellectual agenda. Great thinkers are those who are awake to the historical process, those who gather up what is struggling for expression. Marx and Darwin were both great thinkers in this sense, although others were also coming to the same conclusions. Marx and Engels were far bolder than Darwin, carrying forward the realization of a naturalistic and developmental process beyond the origin of biological species into the realm of socio-historical institutions and human thought.

BC: Engels also wrote extensively on science, particularly in his manuscript Dialectics of Nature, unfinished and unpublished during his lifetime. What is it about this document, and Engels more generally, that has been so controversial in the history of Marxism’s relation to science?

HS: There is a tension in Marxist philosophy between its roots in the history of philosophy and its commitment to empirical knowledge. For the best Marxist thinkers, certainly for Marx and Engels themselves, it has been a creative interaction. However, some of those pulling toward German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Kant and Hegel, have brought into Marxism a hostility to the natural sciences, influenced by the Methodenstreit, an antagonistic conceptualization of the humanities versus the sciences, which has played out in various forms over the decades.

The critique of positivism has been bloated to an anti-science stance. The tendency of some to counterpose a humanistic Marx to a positivist Engels is not supported by historical evidence, as I have demonstrated at some length in my book.

BC: It seems to me that this synthesis of dialectical philosophy with materialism has always been contentious. On one hand, as you say, there is the danger of reducing an anti-positivist stance to an anti-scientific stance. On the other hand, there is the threat of “the dialectic” being reduced to as a mere rhetorical flourish for an otherwise bare scientism. Other writers, like John Bellamy Foster, have argued that Marxism after Marx and Engels split along these lines. Do you agree with this assessment? After Marx and Engels, what or who best demonstrated the potential of a “dialectical” science to transcend this divide?

HS: No, I don’t agree with it. There have always been those who synthesized these two streams. Most familiar to me is the 1930s British Marxism of Bernal, Haldane, Caudwell, and others, and post-war Eastern European Marxism. Regarding the latter, it suffered from the orthodoxy of parties in power, but it wasn’t all catechetical dogmatism. In the United States, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin. This would still characterize my own position today.

BC: Yet despite the ability of some to transcend it, there does seem to have historically been much ambiguity concerning what a “materialist dialectic” would really entail. Some, like philosopher David Bakhurst, have traced some of this ambiguity back to the philosophical writings of Lenin. Bakhurst argues that while Lenin appeared at times to advocate a “radical Hegelian realism”, at other times his philosophy failed to transcend a rather vulgar materialism. How did any such ambiguities in Lenin’s own writings contribute to subsequent debates in Soviet science?

HS: Yes, I would agree with that. Lenin could be very philosophically and politically sophisticated, but I never thought his philosophical position quite gelled. Some of his texts on reflection theory were epistemologically crude. As to the effect on Soviet debates, these were beset by the tendency to deal with writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin as sacred texts. This rigidified further after the Bolshevization of all academic discipline, when there had to be one and only one legitimate Marxist position on every question. A quote from Lenin stopped any further debate.

BC: Such talk about the rigidity of Soviet science inevitably leads to the specter of T.D. Lysenko. For readers who may not be familiar, could you briefly describe Lysenko’s work? How would you respond to those who use Lysenko as a cautionary tale about the danger posed by Marxism or dialectical thinking to biology?

HS: T.D. Lysenko (1898–1976) was a Ukrainian agronomist who came to prominence in the U.S.S.R. in 1927 when his experiments in winter planting of peas were sensationalized by Pravda. He became lionized as a scientist close to his peasant roots who could serve the needs of Soviet agriculture in the spirit of the first Five-Year Plan. He then advanced the technique of vernalization to a theory of the phasic development of plants and then to a whole alternative approach to biology. This was in the context of wider debates in international science about genetics and evolution, about heredity and environment, about inheritance of acquired characteristics. It was also in the context of the Bolshevization of academic disciplines and the search for a proletarian biology and the purges of academic institutions.

The issues were many and complex. There has been a tendency to flatten them all out into Lysenkoism as a cautionary tale against philosophical or political “interference” in science. However, I believe that philosophy and politics are relevant to the theory and practice of science. Lysenkoism is a cautionary tale in the perils and pitfalls of certain approaches to that.

BC: If we turn from the Soviet philosophy of science to that of the non-Marxist West, you see a greater reluctance to mix philosophy with the content of science. Instead, a lot of canonical “philosophy of science” (e.g., Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend) has more to do with scientific method. What does Marxism, with its emphasis on contradiction, have to say about the scientific method? I wonder specifically about Lakatos’ background in Hegelian Marxism and whether there are affinities there.

HS: One big difference between these two traditions in philosophy of science is that Marxism pursued questions of worldview, exploring the philosophical implications of the empirical sciences, setting it apart from the narrow methodologism of the other tradition.

However, Marxism also addressed questions of scientific method. There is an elaborate literature dealing with epistemological questions from a Marxist point of view. There have been many debates, but the mainstream position would be critical realism. What is distinctive about Marxism in this sphere is how it cuts through the dualism of realism versus social constructivism. Marxism has made the strongest claims of any intellectual tradition before or since about the socio-historical character of science, yet always affirmed its cognitive achievements.

The fact that Lakatos had a background in Marxism made him inclined to take a wider view than his later colleagues, but I find that he left a lot to be desired in that respect. Nevertheless, contra Feyerabend, I think that the project of specifying demarcation criteria, so central to the neo-positivist project, is a crucially important task.

BC: Karl Popper famously invoked a “falsifiability” criterion as a means of solving the demarcation problem, which refers to the question of how to distinguish science from non-science (or if that is even possible). Popper’s solution has influenced many scientists but has been strongly critiqued in philosophical circles. How does a Marxist approach inform this demarcation problem?

HS: There is a need for criteria to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims to knowledge. The positivist and neo-positivist traditions contributed much to the formulation of such criteria. They did so, however, from a base that was too narrow, employing criteria that were too restricted, leaving out of the picture too much that was all too real, excluding historical, psychological, sociological, metaphysical dimensions as irrelevant. Marxism agrees with the emphasis on empirical evidence and logical coherence, but brings the broader context to bear. It synthesizes the best of other epistemological positions: logical empiricism, rationalism, social constructivism.

BC: Today, Marxism stands at its weakest historically, right as the global economic crash seems to have most vindicated it. Similarly, Marxism has almost no direct influence on 21st-century science, yet discoveries and perspectives seem increasingly “dialectical” (e.g., biological emphases on complex systems, emergence, and circular causality). What do you make of the situation at present? Would it be possible to develop a “dialectical” or even “Marxist” science without Marxism as a political force? Or will science always be fragmented and one-sided so long as there remains no significant political challenge to capital?

HS: Yes, Marxism is at a low ebb as far as overt influence is concerned, precisely at a time when its analysis is most relevant and even most vindicated.

I think that people can come to many of the same realizations and conclusions as Marxists without calling themselves Marxists. However, I don’t think there can be any fully meaningful analysis of science that does not analyse it in relation to the dominant mode of production. Such an analysis shows how the capitalist mode of production brings about intellectual fragmentation as well as economic exploitation and social disintegration.

I don’t think that left parties having any chance of taking power in the future will be Marxist parties in the old sense, although Marxism will likely be a force within them. I am thinking particularly of SYRIZA, with whom I’ve been intensively engaged lately. One of the leading thinkers in SYRIZA is Aristides Baltas, a Marxist and a philosopher of science.

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