Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Is there a crisis of credibility in the human sciences?

On a previous occasion I elaborated on the growing natural scientific evidence that the world is at “Red Alert” status regarding a looming ecological crisis. The question arises, whether the human sciences (humanities and social sciences) are in agreement with their natural science colleagues on this issue. In light of the incontrovertible evidence in this regard, uncovered by natural science, one might expect the human sciences to take the next step, as it were, and mediate between natural science and society at large, stressing the urgent need for fundamental social and economic change to avert a disaster the magnitude of which probably cannot even be imagined at present. Or so one would think, on the supposition that humans are “rational” creatures, who would squarely face the implications of the evidence referred to in the post linked above.

Unbelievably the family of sciences that should shoulder the burden of enlightening society in the light of the alarming findings of the natural sciences, seems to be struck by a debilitating paralysis, except that the truth is far worse. In The Ecological Rift – Capitalism’s War on the Earth (Monthly Review Press, 2010) John Bellamy Foster and his fellow authors draw one’s attention to the scandalous complicity, on the part of the social sciences, with the very economic system that is driving ecological ruin. One might wonder why this is the case. In fact, one might expect human scientists to be more radical in their approach to the matter than their natural science colleagues, while the opposite is in fact the case. Foster et al (2010: 18-19) offer the following explanation for this strange state of affairs:

“Tragically, the more pressing the environmental problem has become and the more urgent the call for ecological revolution … the more quiescent social scientists seem to have become on the topic, searching for a kind of remediation of the problem, in which real change will not be required. Although thirty years ago it was common to find challenges to the capitalist exploitation of the environment emanating from social scientists who were then on the environmentalist fringe, today the main thrust of environmental social science has shifted to ecological modernization – a managerial approach that sees sustainable technology, sustainable consumption, and market-based solutions (indeed “sustainable capitalism”) as providing the answers …

“Thus as natural scientists have become more concerned about the detrimental effects of the economic system on the environment, and correspondingly radicalized, asking more and more root questions, social scientists have increasingly turned to the existing economic system as the answer.”

The obvious question is why this is the case (Foster et al 2010: 20). Why have even environmental social scientists relapsed into apathy and inertia in the face of the accumulating, undeniable evidence of anthropogenic ecological deterioration – probably the greatest crisis in the history of humankind? Turning to the “persistent weaknesses that permeate social science” (p. 20), these authors proceed to interrogate the effeteness of human scientists in the face of the present crisis.

Social (or more broadly, human) science, they point out, has always been handicapped by the unavoidable fact of the social itself being its object of investigation. Moreover, because the social cannot easily be separated from ethical questions of right and wrong, this investigation inevitably implicates what is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable, and therefore “tends to be filtered through the dominant institutions and structures of the prevailing hierarchical social order” (p. 20). The human sciences are therefore hampered by the tendency to be uncritical and compliant – Foster et al (p. 20) refer to “ … the system’s commitment to stasis in its fundamental social/property relations”.

To be sure, ingenious social scientists sometimes succeed in circumventing the disapproval of the hegemonic culture, putting forward critical ideas, but according to Foster et al (2010: 20) these usually concern “marginal issues”, with hardly any effect on the fundamental forces driving society. When such social scientists “speak truth to power”, confronting the dominant culture head-on, their claims are simply ignored, denying them the credibility they require to affect mainstream society. Small wonder that they fail to effect change in dominant economic and political practices, as shown in the example of Foucault, whose trenchant critique of panoptical, disciplinary social practices has done little to change them.

Foster et al (2010: 20-23) delve deeper into the question of social scientists’ critical lethargy by recounting the reasons advanced by scientist and social critic, J.D. Bernal, in the 1950s for the “backwardness” of the social sciences in the 20th century, compared to the natural sciences. Bernal dismissed the reasons usually provided for this relative weakness, to wit: (1) that experimentation is not possible in social science; (2) that value judgments inhibit the human sciences; (3) that humans being subject and object simultaneously (reflexivity) in the human sciences leads to scientific failure; (4) that the sheer complexity of human society resists scientific understanding; and (5) that society is always subject to becoming or change, which excludes the discovery of “fixed laws” (uncovered in natural science).

Bernal granted that these characteristics made the social sciences “distinctive”, but denied that they prevented scientific advances. Instead, he argued, the “underdevelopment” of these sciences (Foster et al 2010: 21)

“ … could be attributed almost entirely to the fact that they were seriously circumscribed by and often directly subservient to the established order of power, and specifically to the dominant social/property relations … Despite important advances and revolutionary developments, social science in “normal times” has been more about maintaining/managing a given social order than encouraging the historical changes necessary to human society, where social capacities and challenges keep evolving …

“Social science thus often enters a relatively dormant state once a new system of power is established. A new class-social order, once it surpasses its initial revolutionary stage and consolidates itself, demands nothing so much as ‘the bad conscience and evil intent of apologetics’ – since the main goal from then on is to maintain its position of power/hegemony.”

This explanation by Bernal, of the human sciences’ tendency to “capitulate to the status quo”, avoid “alternative perspectives” and degenerate into “harmless platitudes with disconnected empirical additions” (Foster 2010: 22) reminds one vaguely of Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) account of the typical historical development of the natural sciences (from normal science through crisis to revolutionary science, which again stabilises into normal science, etc.), specifically of the tendency of “normal scientists” to ignore increasing phenomenal anomalies and invoke ad hoc explanations for them, rather than to face the obsolescence of their “normal science”.

It also recalls Jacques Lacan’s (2007) theory of the four discourses (of the master, the university, the hysteric and the analyst), where the master’s discourse is the one that is dominant in a given historical era (that of the Church in the Christian middle ages, of the nation state in the modern era, and of neoliberal capitalism in postmodernity), and the university discourse customarily serves the master’s discourse (as in the case of the human sciences today). The questioning discourse of the hysteric is the authentic discourse of science, while the analyst’s discourse mediates between the hysteric’s interrogation of the master and new, but significantly relativized, master’s discourses (roughly corresponding to Kuhn’s paradigmatically “new” science).

The relevance of Lacan’s schema for the present theme of the human sciences’ obsequiousness is this: just as Bernal pinpointed the true obstacle to their historical scientific relevance as consisting in their neurotic subservience to the current dominant order (capitalism), Lacan has identified their tendency, to play the domesticated slave to the master.

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