Volatile ignorance

I’ve been trying to better familiarize myself with Marxist history/philosophy of science. Explicitly for part of a long-term project; honestly, because I’m curious about it and dislike feeling ignorant. To that end, today I skimmed some of Nikolai Bukharin’s introduction to Science at the Cross Roads (a collection of papers submitted to a 1931 conference) and read most of Boris Hessen’s (apparently) famous paper, “The Socio-Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia.” I want to write a little about my reaction to the paper, a response to the paper, and a response to the response.

Sparing you the details, which are heavily accented in the argot of 1930’s era Soviet dialectical materialism, Hessen’s point is this: Foolish capitalist histories of Newton that can only conceive of the individual rely on the “great man” theory of history and are stuck reciting facile facts—e.g. Newton, as we well know, was born the year that Galileo died. [I was surprised to learn this is not even true; Galileo died 8 January 1642 while Newton was born 4 January 1643. The confusion seems to have been borne out of the switch between Julian and Georgian calendars during Newton’s lifetime, and a copious degree of wish-fulfillment.] Compare with a proper Marxist view of scientific history: “the development of theories and the individual work of a scientist are affected by various superstructures such as political forms of class war and the results, the reflection of these wars on the minds of the participants, political, juridical, philosophic theories, religious beliefs and their subsequent development into dogmatic systems.”

Vulgar myth (persistent to this day!) still places Newton as a thinker apart from the world, inspired only by Nature in the form of a falling apple. Hessen alleges that “[d]espite the abstract mathematical character of exposition adopted in the ‘Principia’ Newton was not only not a learned scholastic divorced from life, but in the full sense of the word was in the centre of the physical and technical problems and interests of his time.” Hessen demonstrates this by contextualizing Newton among the ‘shoulders of giants’ Newton credited, specifically how these other researchers responded to technical problems of the day—questions of ballistics and geography and hydrostatics. The Principia, Hessen claims, was also influenced by Newton’s background and his relationship to the politics and economics of 17th century England. It is shocking now, as it must have been then, to read the withering assessment that “Newton was the typical member of the rising bourgeoisie and in his philosophy he embodies the characteristic features of his class.” No matter their backgrounds, ‘great men’ of science are rarely so ruthlessly reduced to an average constituent of an economic class. Richard Westfall, perhaps the foremost 20th century Newton biographer, and a later critic of Hessen, wrote this in the preface of Never At Rest (which I have not read):

The more I have studied him, the more Newton has receded from me. It has been my privilege at various times to know a number of brilliant men, men whom I acknowledge without hesitation to be my intellectual superiors. I have never, however, met one against whom I was unwilling to measure myself, so that it seemed reasonable to say that I was half as able as the person in question, or a third or a fourth, but in every case a finite fraction. The end result of my study of Newton has served to convince me that with him there is no measure. He has become for me wholly other, one of the tiny handful of supreme geniuses who have shaped the categories of the human intellect, a man not finally reducible to the criteria by which we comprehend our fellow beings.

There is a grandeur in Westfall’s view of Newton, and as with so much, I really should read his work. But Hessen’s paper excited me. The idea that science is, to some extent, socially contingent (on funding, on ideology, on the material of textbooks, etc.) is far from surprising, but reading Hessen’s argument—which brings in not one or two, but a host of social factors, all explicitly coded with an ideological lens—was new to me.

But I am not a Marxist. I also try to be suspicious of my own uninformed, initial reactions, especially when they’re positive, so I sought out some responses. I stumbled across Loren Graham’s rather meta paper “The socio-political roots of Boris Hessen: Soviet Marxism and the history of science.” It’s always reassuring when you have an idle critical thought (e.g. ‘What if someone subjected Hessen’s paper to the same critique he made of Newton?’) only to find out that it was a reasonable line of inquiry which had been pursued. I have actually previously read something from Graham (Lysenko’s Ghost), and knew him as a reputable scholar of Soviet science. By subjecting Hessen to the same epistemic procedures he used on Newton, Graham unveiled an oddity: far from being the consummate Marxist, Hessen was actually at odds with many back at home in the USSR who deplored Einstein and quantum mechanics. At the time, both relativity and QM were viewed as threats by many radical Soviet physicists and academics who objected both to the substance (QM’s probabilism was distressing to committed determinists) and origins (capitalist, anti-materialist thinkers) of the ideas. For his defenses of Einstein’s bourgeois theory and other ideological crimes, Hessen was apparently in hot water with Soviet authorities. He had also seemingly, in 1927, written an “internalist” historiography of science which science as an “abstract intellectual enterprise insulated from social, political, and economic circumstances”. But his 1931 paper took an “externalist” view, in which “social, political, and economic circumstances affect the pursuit of knowledge of Nature” to explain Newton. Why would his views have changed so radically in four years?

Graham argues Hessen was carefully trying to thread the needle by both putting him in good standing as a true Marxist and simultaneously defending Einstein. If, Graham speculated, Hessen could demonstrate, with externalist analysis, that the ideological commitments of a thinker like Newton were separate from the substance of the (unquestionably valuable) theory, he could extend that same analysis to Einstein. There’s more to say here, but the bottom line is that I was fascinated by the subversion of my understanding of Hessen’s paper. No longer was he simply an ideologue with a novel (to me) perspective; he was, in fact, in danger because of those more extreme figures! Just a few years after the conference, like several of his fellow Soviet attendees including Bukharin, Hessen was executed by firing squad after a quiet sham trial.

Relatively confident in my bettered understanding, I looked for more modern scholarship and found Sean Winkler’s 2020 article “The Materialist Dialectic in Boris Hessen’s Newton Papers (1927 and 1931).” Winkler puts a finer point on one of Graham’s contentions: Why did Hessen seemingly contradict himself, writing against externalism in 1927, but for it in 1931? Winkler summarizes Graham’ argument thusly:

Graham maintains that in both texts, ‘Hessen wished to differentiate between the social origins of science and its cognitive value.’ That is, Hessen espouses an internalist approach in both works – in an explicit manner in 1927 and in an implicit manner in 1931 –, remaining committed through and through to the defence of the natural sciences from ‘ideological perversion’.

Winkler goes on to say that Graham is essentially wrong to say that Hessen advances two different ideological claims. Both papers, Winkler claims, are facets of a unified “dialetical materialist approach that accounts for the ‘unity in opposition’ of the external and internal dimensions of natural-scientific theory.” To bolster his claim, Winkler points to a recently discovered talk from 1930 in which Hessen explicitly makes externalist claims about science. Additionally, he points out that the differing audiences of the 1927 and 1931 papers, respectively, other Marxists and wide-eyed capitalists, explain not just stylistic but ideological differences. In the former Hessen was nitpicking and challenging more extreme colleagues; in the latter he was proselytizing.

Because we are being honest here about ignorance, I will fully admit I don’t really grasp the purported unification here, have not read the 1927 paper, and skimmed much of Winkler’s. But! I’ve been forced to update my perhaps too-rosy view of Graham’s assessment, and, am at this point, suspicious that a shoe will drop on Winkler’s own paper. I believe that’s how the dialectic materializes, да?

Anyhow, I wrote this because I wanted to capture what I felt today, which I’ve felt at other times but failed to commit to words and thus memory. My opinion swung back and forth because I lacked a solid base of knowledge and I was unduly persuaded—despite my better efforts to keep some sort of intellectual equanimity! Moreover, I think this volatility is probably an inevitable part of any learning experience where one dives deep enough to encounter serious scholarly debate. I’m sure others have talked about this difficulty, but I haven’t seen it, and I wanted to share my own experience being led a bit by the nose. Like so many aspects of intellectual work that are embarrassing and therefore not discussed (e.g. writing emails), I wanted to air my own reasonably soiled laundry.