Skip to main content

The Sickness of a Speculative Culture

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

One of the great differences between the Orient and the Occident can be pointed out by the opposition of two very similar terms, contemplation and speculation. In the heyday of our industrial successes we drew up learned case histories and filled in elaborate diagnostic charts showing the evils of contemplation and the sicknesses to which contemplative societies were subject. Now that the century of progress is over and we are feeling a little sick about it, it may be well to dig up the old case histories and diagnoses and see if there are any clues they will provide for the understanding of our own speculative distresses. R. H. Tawney wrote a book at the end of the war and called it “The Sickness of an Acquisitive Society”; his conclusion was that the disease consisted in defunctionalization of parts or organs and his prognosis was general atrophy. If he were writing the book now, and still considered himself a social economist, he might call his book “The Sickness of a Speculative Society.” He would probably not intend a pun in the adjective, but I do, and I propose to labor it a bit in order to suggest that the cure for the disease is more speculation.

The speculation in finance that went with industrial expansion, or inflation, was but a weak reflection of a romantic speculation that soared into the empyrean from the scientific laboratories of Christendom. The industrial revolution appeared miraculous and its consequences providential because it was but the moving shadow of a Promethean flight of thought. To our practical minded fathers and grandfathers the flight and its shadow appeared to be pillars of fire and of cloud, but they knew little more about them than that they were visible signs of progress. The war and the popularizers of science have forced us to look and see that they are ambiguous symbols of speculation, the mythical signs of our times.

The war and the popularizers have helped us to see this, but they have been indirect and a bit sinister in their pointing. We shall have to do some cutting and pasting in order to see the complicated pattern in its new dimensions and perspectives, and this rearrangement will involve some additional speculation of the same imaginative and intellectual kind that has gone before.

I should like to propose two new points of view, already established in our academic modes of thought but not fully realized even in their educational contexts. One of these is the anthropological view of science and the other is the medical view of science. Both of them are eminently human, perhaps anthropomorphic; I do not think there will be as many dissenters on this ground as there were twenty years ago, however. There are very respectable historical precedents for taking such points of view, and their traditional intellectual backgrounds appear to have some of the balance and peace that we are looking for.

One of the advantages of taking the science of anthropology as a guide is that it is in itself quite intelligible to human beings. By contrast, for instance, physical theory is very nearly unintelligible to anybody except a well-trained physicist, who represents a very small minority of the race and may well be described as a romantically indoctrinated specialist. The practical effects of his work to which we have pointed with so much pride are not really his work at all. Physical theory has to be translated into engineering formu-lae before it can be applied, and the engineer is a kind of craftsman, more magician than scientist. His works are obviously the subject-matter for the anthropologist; they are the products and tools of a technique that belongs, even economically, to a specific society and culture. In so far as the physicist contributes to the engineering art, he is himself a craftsman contributing to the human arts, and even as experimenter in the laboratory he exercises an engineering skill and plays the role of inventor. Thus the laboratory becomes an institution and its work becomes intelligible to us as a contribution to community industry and culture. Physical theory itself is a luminous configuration of myths with a high sacramental value, perhaps even more powerful because they are not understood. We use their words and pictures in coming to terms with our environment, and we should not be hurt or surprised when we see ourselves in the anthropological picture as ignorant and credulous savages. Locke and Rousseau told us, when they invented modern democracy, how it would preserve in us all the virtues of the noble savage, and we have been told ever since then how thin our veneer really is.

The man of science who does not immediately recognize the high place of authority that the anthropologist has given him will naturally object to this apparent demotion from the professional ranks of the learned to the level of the artisan or craftsman, and his philosophical apologist will accuse us of committing a fallacy in the reduction, the fallacy of “nothing-butting” that has been so common in the history of thought. He will point out that it was by a similar sleight-of-hand that the behaviorist and the technocrat reduced a thoughtful man to a machine, that the psycho-analyst reduced a man of ideals to an incestuous animal, or the violin solo to friction between catgut and horse-hair.

I think it will appear as we proceed, however, that no such reduction is involved in showing that the scientist is just a man. Anthropology from its start has argued in the other direction. When other social sciences have exploded the boasted rationalisms of human affairs, it has persistently collected and restored the fragments to their working contexts. In fact, it has been a most important agency in professionalizing the sciences and in assigning them their stations and duties. Each special science, left to itself, seems to carry within it the germs of its own decay, and by becoming more exact and critical destroys its own foundations. Eddington, for example, finds that pointer-readings on dials are the only data of physical observation, and the rest is nothing but bookkeeping. Then he looks up from his instruments and wonders why it is that the rich, varied qualities of nature slip away into a chaos that only God can save. Physics has recently become as poor factually as astronomy, and much less illuminating in principle. When anthropology restores its context, its experimental operations become beautifully refined and precise extensions of ordinary human activities, its data are held in common with its sister sciences, its hypotheses are saved and supported by traditional cosmology, and it makes graceful contributions to mathematics instead of submitting to its stern demands. Anthropology not only allows a physical meaning for physical formulae, it adds an inexhaustible number of other interpretations. The detail of the anthropological transformation will show how this science of sciences helps science in general to save the appearances.

The vital principle that has given anthropology its great theoretical power is taken from the Greek definition of “art.” This definition says that art is activity directed to an end. All processes subject to human observation consist of series of means for the eventual realization of an end or value. It follows that every art contains a science and operates on the basis of a principle. The science distinguishes the parts or elements of the series and represents their regular sequences in symbols which are organized in formulas capable of re-application to similar processes. The power of re-application of formulas is the essential feature of an art; it amounts to the power of prediction. It is not absolute, but the degree to which it is fulfilled determines the degree to which human beings gain control over nature. These various controls over nature are of course the various kinds of arts. Their classification and the relations between them are the subject-matter of anthropology. Art, technique, manipulation—in lowest terms, operations—are the keys to the translation and elevation of the sciences to anthropology. There are many tricks of the trade.

The empirical scientist tells us, in the manner of Francis Bacon, that the origin of any science is experience, and that the essential activity of the scientist is observation. But experience with observation shows that it is not the passive reception of data that it is often supposed to be. Very active modes of attention must be brought into play, ingenious peeping devices must be trained on the raw material, and very often inert things must be prodded and paraded for the instruction of the observer. Uncontrolled observation does not produce science; in fact, it is not observation at all. Controlled observation on the other hand amounts to the selection of some aspects of experience and the elimination of others. Trial and error play whimsical roles in the early stages of an investigation, but it is not long before they give place to standard procedures that alone will bring standard results. The material and the operations applied to it must fulfill certain conditions, general and specific. The general requirement is that the data must be measurable, that is, they must be capable of arrangement in an order dictated by some theoretical consideration. Failing this, they must be suppressed as either illusory or irrelevant intruders. The specific requirements are, however, more gentle and tolerant; they bridge the gap between theory and raw material by a kind of casuistical construction of rituals by which wayward material may purify and justify its appearances. Of all the possible constructions of this sort in the past, arithmetic and geometry are by far the fairest and best; they deliberate long and revise much before they condemn, and in their houses are many mansions for the purgatorial rites. Explicit clarity is their criterion and many an honest fact has received justice at their hands. Furthermore their judgments are not final; they are hoping for better accommodations in the future.

It appears now that abstract theory has taken the upper hand and that experience has taken second place, but the balance is restored when instruments are brought into the observational arts. These put a certain distance between the observer and the observed, and they combine theory and data in concrete tools and machines that can be manipulated, adjusted, and shifted from one point of vantage to another. They are languages of translation interposed between the material and the theory. Through them the measurable aspects of things are emphasized, magnified, and presented to the observer in the clear readings of scales and dials. The anthropological history of science should be told in terms of the interplay of mathematical and instrumental inventions. Together with the account of the operations and skills of the laboratory this would be the study of an “industry,” whose method would be the integration of the elementary human arts into one systematic art, whose end would be the production of facts. It would also be the story of an institution with an ever-growing body of conventions organizing themselves within a tradition, operating in an artificially created atmosphere, and controlling an ever-widening circle of human activities. It would not be the familiar eulogy of the free thought, the pure reason, and the intellectual honesty of the scientist; it would be a comment on science similar to the Marxian comment on capitalism, and would in fact be its counterpart.

It is remarkable that this operational interpretation of scientific method has been so long coming to light. Even now there has been only one life-size study of a science from this point of view, and in that a great deal of effort and time is wasted in a rather futile attempt to annihilate the very facts and principles which it supplements and interprets. I refer to Mr. Bridgman’s “Logic of Modern Physics.” It seems that this kind of anthropology must disguise itself as a revolution and make its proposals with all the sound and fury of academic controversy. The main burden of Marx’s “Capital” was the anthropological interpretation of economics, the insistence that production was the exercise of the human arts and that the product therefore embodied human labor; hence the labor theory of value. Likewise Mr. Bridg-man says that the facts and laws of science are the product of experimental operations and their validity depends upon the operations which have gone into their production. But Marx also talked of a class warfare and Mr. Bridgman thinks it is necessary not only to point out the preceding innocent practice of the arts which he describes, but also to question the intellectual honesty of the operators. But the battle cry of the classes and the rat-smelling of the opera-tionalist need not blind us to the plain anthropological facts of the matter, namely that human art has accumulated tools of production which have economic value and that experimental operations have accumulated a body of fact and instrumental equipment which likewise have their measure of validity. Carnap, a Viennese operationalist, makes the modern Marxian integral picture of science when he says that its working capital is at present divided into three parts, the body of fact, the instrumental equipment, and the system of funded ideas that act as leading principles. All these must be working freely in relation to each other if the sciences are to proceed with happy results. The only comparable comprehensive view of the present stage of the scientific arts is to be divined in the social anthropology of the American pragmatists, in whose writings technology and ideology still suffer from their subservience to social programs.

So much for the dialectical materialism of orthodox physics. Recent developments are richer material for the anthropological transformation because they emphasize the imaginative and speculative products of the laboratory. The elaborate and finely adjusted instrument is taken for granted, so that a simple observation becomes the basis for far-reaching and sometimes paradoxical inferences. The famous Michelson-Morley experiment with the interferometer has become a sort of icon before which both layman and scientist worship, but it is only the best known example of a large number of observations that have led to speculations about the size, shape, growth, and decay of the universe, the speed, weight, and relative positions of electrons, and the subtle complicated balances and metabolisms of the constituents of the cells, tissues, and organs that govern our personalities. The previous pictures and models in the scientist’s mind to which these observations and inferences were referred have proven inadequate, and the mathematical scientist has been called in to apply mass production methods devised by his symbolic techniques to the new mythological material. One is reminded of speculative panics in the past when the theological imagination was overtaxed by the moral problems of the industrial revolution. It was then that winged angels gave their places to planetary orbits and the eternal verities were translated into differential equations. Now the shape and size of the universe is expressed in the extremely esoteric tensor calculus, and the habitation of the lowly electron can be described only by an ingenious reviser of the rules of algebra.

The orthodox scientist and the modernist theologian who have tried to keep up with the materialism and rationalism of the laboratory may be panicky about this free associational speculation, but the anthropologist sees in it only the healthy attempt of human beings to keep their mythology in harmony with their fundamental technology. These mathematical physical allegories are great nets of symbols, anchored in the visual field of a telescope or a microscope by means of cross-wires that represent numbers, and they sweep through the heavens, in the depths of the earth, and into the inmost parts of things, catching planets, distant suns, nebulae, dark clouds of gas, then, by a suitable adjustment, molecules, atoms, electrons, bacteria, enzymes, and stray bits of energy called rays that look and act like the strands of the net itself. The mere physicist, biologist, or mathematician may be fearful of the fictions and phantasms that have arisen from his Faustian test-tubes and magic wands, and may try to frighten us by telling us about ourselves being puny bits of matter inhabiting one of the minor planets which swings free in infinite space or spirals sickeningly between reefs of stars. The anthropologist on the other hand is not worried about man’s mythopceic productions; he has classified the myths of creation and doom of previous ages and his pigeon-holes are not yet full. He has already labeled the cosmologies of Ed-dington and Jeans and is waiting for the next suggestion of DeSitter or LeMaitre to pass through the whimsical imagination of a Britisher and end up in an Anglo-American best-seller. This is the stuff that cultures are made of and the twentieth century may yet prove its claim to ingenuity and sophistication. In the meantime the anthropologist will have time to classify and organize his display of tools and gadgets.

The philosophers are pained to see the rationalities of science so lightly handled. They see them break apart and rearrange themselves in a kaleidoscopic fashion without a sign of awareness of their metaphysical obligations to maintain unity, being, and truth. Their loyalty even to the historical schools of thought is only sham. The teachers of philosophy go about sadly picking up the cast-off pieces, patting them fondly, and storing them away for next year’s lectures; some of them have thought of keeping scrap-books where at least paper and glue can give ideas a semblance of systematic stability and render them safe for an hour’s pious exercises before the young. The anthropologist notes in this the familiar retardation of ideas with respect to the mores from which they arise.

Anthropology adds one feature to science that the professional scientist does not like to recognize publicly because he is bashful about his affairs of the heart. Natural processes that are observed and formulated become arts not only in the practical and applied sense but also in the immediate and enjoyed sense which we call fine arts. Tools not only work, they become works of art, objets d’art. The anthropologist and his colleague, the archaeologist, spend a great part of their time hunting down such works of art in past civilizations, and furnishing museums with the treasures they find. The scientific laboratory is also a museum of fine art for one who has the eye to see and the capacity to be moved. The cool beauty of the machine thrills, calms, and relieves the respectful spectator. A mathematical equation has the same quality. I suspect it is some dim feeling for this sort of thing that worries the vitalist and the social scientist when they realize how little of their raw material has found its clarity in the academic studio. Their crafts have not yet become fine arts. We weep the loss of the mediaeval synthesis, its reverences, its intellectual beauties. The place to find them reborn is in the laboratory. That is the gospel of the anthropologist.

But I have not written to praise the anthropologist, rather to remind him of his responsibilities. He has done his duty in reminding us of the industrial arts, the intellectual arts, and the fine arts, but I fear he has not given credit for his insights and powers where the credit is due. I think he would want to say that he is doing only what any good modern scientist would do, observe facts, classify them, and correlate them in a theory. Thanks to the Greek conception of art, he has done this and shed a great light on all the other sciences. These have really become his facts, however, and he should not be modeling his science on his material merely. If he leaves it at that, the physicist can come along and show him how flimsy his concepts are, how lacking in precision his classifications are, how rough his observations are. Actually his claim to the rights and privileges of a scientist of the sciences is mere charlatanism and sophistry if he does not attempt to produce some intellectual credentials more substantial than he can borrow from his scientific colleagues. I believe we can give him these credentials if he will consent to take them from the history of the medical tradition. The suggestion comes from the name the anthropologist has given his apparently young science. Anthropology is the science of man, and medical books from the time of the Greeks to the Renaissance were entitled Peri Andros, De Homine, On Man. We shall see in what follows why it is that anthropomorphism in science is alternately praised and condemned, and why humanism is a recurrent theme in the history of thought. It is because sickness and depression are man’s ever present ills, and the doctor has to be called in to help in every human crisis.

Fortunately the history of medicine furnishes us with a traditional myth that will present immediately and comprehensively the background and documentation that we are looking for. The myth usually goes by the name, “the doctrine of signatures.” It says that when God created man and saw that he was a needy, helpless creature, subject to all sorts of ills, He also created minerals, plants, animals, and other human beings which would be the remedies for these ills. Further, He marked these things with characteristic marks so that man could with the normal use of his powers recognize them and assign them to their proper uses. This myth, like most myths, says a number of different and curiously related things. For instance, it says that the nature of man has a certain correspondence to the universe of which he is a part. Out of this interpretation has grown another doctrine which says that the microcosm, the little universe in man, mirrors the macrocosm, the larger universe outside man: the parts of man correspond with the parts of the universe. It also says that man has a mind whose primary function is to recognize the marks on things and make use of them for his well-being. Therefore the arts and sciences are built into the nature of things, and their scope is the whole of the universe of nature as it is connected with man. Finally, it says that for everything found inside man there will be some specifically corresponding thing in nature; he can therefore trust his powers—among others, his speculations, though he may not always immediately arrive at the term of their searchings. I think that the myth also says that the universe changes, at least in its parts, and that means that although life is short, the arts will be long. Man’s needs are somehow connected with his mortality. On consideration, the myth does not turn out to be as optimistic for the individual as it at first appears. Its medical significance is clear, and I think it shows the place of anthropology. I do not know just what anthropology will do with the myth itself. Like a few other myths I am acquainted with, it has an oracular atmosphere, and I suspect that it would play havoc with any unconsidered attempt to classify it.

It is interesting to look at anthropology from this new angle. It appears to be a part of medicine, and it appears to hold a rather superior position among the medical arts and sciences, presiding over them, even to the point of dictating their proper ends and values in so far as they serve man. This in turn suggests that medicine at one time had a much wider scope than it has at present, a scope that is also indicated by the authority and powers usually granted to the medicine-man in primitive societies. The medicine-man was not the only authority, but it was his duty to direct and command all the activities of the tribe in so far as they were aimed at external goods; it was he who read the signatures and dictated the manner of their uses. The medicine-man therefore presided over the industrial arts, and the history of medical institutions shows that this supervision continued till quite modern times. We may even see it again manifested in the contemporary democratic acceptance of health and sanitation as the end and proper means of the good life.

But the industrial arts, as we have seen, give rise to the natural sciences and the natural sciences in turn contribute techniques and knowledges to the practical affairs of the world. So we find that, when medicine is taken into the mediaeval universities, its faculty has charge of all the research and teaching in the natural sciences. It is from this faculty of the higher mediaeval studies that our modern natural sciences have broken away to set up their independent laboratories and doctrines. In other words it is within medicine that the reading of signatures and the organization of natural means to human ends have been fostered.

It was to be expected then that, as the natural sciences became more specialized and as the modern, strictly medical sciences also contracted their scopes and intensified their studies, a science of man in all his activities should arise and take the place that medicine left vacant. This is the science of anthropology, the ghost of a dismembered ancestor, medicine. In its uncertain and Protean forms it stands as a wavering reminder of the place where the primitive medical insight was lost. If we should dig back into its history and reread, for instance, the philosophical essay that Kant wrote about it, we might be able to recover the insight. If we do not recover the insight in some such way, I think we shall see anthropology continue to disintegrate with increasing speed and finally disappear in its special applications, and in doing so it will imitate the dismemberment of medieine.

It was inevitable that specialization should take place in medicine, as it has in all the other speculative ventures of modern Europe and America. Such differentiation seems to be a law of cultural growth. The law also seems to work within the individual organism and in the origination and survival of species. On the other hand, it is the same law that eliminates species and develops cancer within the organism. At some point specialization of function breaks the natural and organic bonds, and independent growth becomes peculiarly destructive because it is so avidly vital. Independent and free speculation is the vital law in both science and economics at present, or has been in the recent past. I do not need to labor the point that they are both facing a crisis.

The modern medicine-man, the anthropologist, has tried to diagnose and cure our speculative ills by the application of the Greek notion of art, and the result has been the demonstration to us of the artificiality of our culture. With the Greeks the same result was achieved after about a century of sophistry. With Socrates they became dissatisfied with artificialism, and with Plato the dissatisfaction became articulate. But it was Aristotle, the son of a physician, who sharpened the distinction between the artificial and the natural and laid the foundation for the science of nature that the Greeks called Physic. The arts consist merely of the special kind of natural operations proper to man, and the secret of them is to be found in a study of the nature of man. Aristotle’s diagnosis of the sickness of Greek culture was a part of this study, and in the course of its realization he discovered the soul and its need of truly speculative sciences to order and control the myths and sophistries of empirical and rational science. Under the influence of Aristotle the universities of the Middle Ages, again facing the riddles of speculation, built their faculties around three mutually supporting speculative sciences, medicine, law, and theology, and achieved a remarkable intellectual stability and speculative health. We are now witnessing and suffering the decay of medicine and the natural sciences, of law and the social sciences, of theology and the philosophical sciences. The New Deal may be able to patch up the sick economic organism for another cycle of what seems to be a chronic disease, but the real sickness of our speculative society calls for the deeper diagnosis that I have suggested. The therapeutic prescription will have to be made by, and given to, the technical expert: if he has ears, let him hear; if he has eyes, let him see. If he does not hear or see, we may have to accept the alternative pointed out by Santayana in his latest book: “Then perhaps that luminous modern thing which until recently was called science, in contrast to all personal philosophies, may cease to exist altogether, being petrified into routine in the practitioners, and fading in the professors into abstruse speculations.” . . . if perhaps we have not already accepted this alternative.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading