Note 3: Raymond Williams: Social Science. 2/8/99

The rise of science from its early days at the beginning of the seventeenth century, specifically in the astronomical observations of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, has presented a number of serious challenges to human thought in the last 350 years. One problem that may not have received adequate discussion, being overshadowed perhaps by the obvious dialectic between scientific methodology and many forms of religious faith, especially in terms of the conflict between creationism and divine revelations of truth versus evolution and fact-based observations of natural reality, concerns the attempt by nineteenth century rationalists to apply scientific processes of analysis to social and cultural relationships. Freud and Marx, of course, are two theorists who spring immediately to mind in this context, since both appropriated scientific methodology in the pursuit of their respective fields of study, both of which are predominantly focused on human relationships within the confines of society and culture.

In this particular note I will focus on Marx and put Freud off for another day. In Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx and Engels claimed that "industry" was a "form of the realization of the essential human faculties," and that the perception of this fact enables one "to grasp . . . the human essence of Nature or the natural essence of man." They then argued from this observation that, once science appropriates this circumstance and takes it genuinely to heart "[t]he natural sciences will . . . abandon their abstract materialist, or rather, idealist, orientation, and will become the basis of a human science" (122). As with most other elements of Marxian theory, this assurance that one thing will follow historically from another is not a matter of guess-work, or speculation, but is perceived as inevitable by virtue of necessity because history is materially determined.

Raymond Williams, in Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), approaches this problem by taking note of the fact that the English have developed a limited, if not restricted and restricting, view of science that specifically prevents its application to strictly social phenomena. In referring to the comment outlined above from Marx and Engels, Williams says that

"This is an argument precisely against the categories of the English specialization of 'science'. But then . . . the actual progress of scientific rationality, especially in its rejection of metaphysics and in its triumphant escape from a limitation to observation, experiment, and inquiry within received religious and philosophical systems, was immensely attractive as a model for understanding society. Though the object of inquiry had been radically changed--from 'man' and 'the world' to an active, interactive, and in a key sense self-creating material social process--it was supposed, or rather hoped, that the methods, or at least the mood, could be carried over." (63)

A disclaimer is appropriate before I go on to a discussion of scientific methodology and social reality. While it is true that I do not accept the notion that science can successfully uncover the mysteries of society, cannot make those mysteries transparent, does not have the capacity to predict what will happen in any social context, the use and application of scientific methodology in the study of social reality is still a better method for doing that than divination, sooth-saying, idle speculation, divine revelation, and religious prophecy have proven to be. Using an analysis of collected facts, where both the analysis itself and the accumulation of facts are regulated by some system of control meant to maintain standards of validity and logical methods of reasoning, in and of itself, will inevitably produce more reliable perceptions about the nature and state of society in all its various aspects than any other method which does not depend on these principles can ever hope to do. Science is simply a more reliable method of evaluating complex issues and problems than other less rigid forms of inquiry have proven to be.

Put the way Williams has it: the "mood" of scientific inquiry probably does carry over into the analysis of social processes. The problem, however, with most people who have turned to a scientific analysis of social reality is that they often fail to recognize the inherent limitations that accompany the use of a scientific "mood," as opposed to a scientific method, when they begin to collect and analyze facts and draw conclusions from them. There are at least two insurmountable problems confronting social science in its attempt to use scientific methods to analyze social processes. On the one hand, society, unlike nature, is not governed by immutable laws that cannot be adjusted, altered, or mitigated by human agency. Secondly, finding meaningful ways to apply mathematical calculation to social processes has proven to be virtually impossible.

Taking our second problem first, there are very few instances where pure number and mathematical calculation can be said to play any role whatsoever in social processes. Two that come to mind are economic and demographic analysis. In the field of economics, of course, number is quite significant. As I write this, the unemployment rate in the US stands at a twenty-eight-year low--4.3% of the work force is currently unemployed. If you ask me to predict where that rate is likely to rest one year from now, I would be unable to do so, not because I am unskilled in evaluating rates of unemployment, which I certainly am, but because there is no meaningful, irrevocable, immutable formula available for calculating every contingency that affects rates of unemployment. If the Asian economy does not recover from its current downturn, if Brazil continues its downward economic spiral, if Mexico were to fall on even worse economic fortunes than it is now experiencing, if the Eurodollar is significantly devalued, and so on, then US exports will continue to slide and factories here might be forced to cut production and the unemployment rate will go up. On the other hand, if only some of these things occur, and in more moderate ways than seem likely, the rate could stay the same. Or yet again, if none of these things happen, or if everything here improves substantially, the rate could come down even more. Can I say with any measure of scientific certainty what will happen? No. Can I offer a best guess based on a scientific analysis of the relevant facts? Of course. Will I be right? Who knows?

In contrast to this use of number in the social "science" of economics, one can point to the calculations involved in determining the future location of Mercury relative to the sun. While I am not familiar with the mathematical process which determines that location, I do know that with Einstein's solution to the discrepancy that was discovered in Newton's theory of gravitational force, which amounted to 43 seconds of error in the elliptical arc in every revolution of the planet, it is now possible to predict exactly where Mercury will be in every future turn it makes around the sun. The difference between one thing and the other is that Mercury's motion is controlled or determined by what seem to be immutable laws which cannot be changed or altered by any action of human agency; whereas, economic conditions are determined as much by chance as they are by design and every law that can be cited as having anything to do with real conditions in the economic forces of society were by definition devised and manufactured by human beings.

Social law, in other words, differs quite radically from natural law. One result of the impulse to transform social evaluation into a scientific enterprise, a very negative result as it turns out, was the adoption by Marx and Engels of the notion of historical determinism. If the history of man in social relationships, if history itself, is essentially non-determined and subject to radical contingency and, therefore, to a radical unpredictability, ungoverned by immutable law, then there would be no way to approach the subject of history from a scientific point of view. Marx and Engels, therefore, took the position that history was wholly determined by rational and immutable law so that it could be analyzed by scientific methodology. Unfortunately for Marxian theory, history is no more determined by formulas of mathematical calculation and other forms of immutable law than are any of the other aspects of human interaction that characterize social processes. The problem this has created for Marxists is that most of them have been forced to defend the idea of historical determinism, a perception of history that cannot be justified, in order to claim that Marxian analysis is based on scientific principles, which they believe lends credibility to their perceptions of social reality. To abandon historical determinism puts them in the position of denying a defining characteristic of what it means to be a Marxist. A hunter on the great plains of the north American continent could not have devised a better trap.

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