Science, Philosophy, and University: Fragments of A Historical Approach That Doesn’t Actually Go Back That Far, Nor Range Widely
“In 1888, Josiah P. Cooke, the Harvard chemist, asserted that a large majority of American scientists remained ‘wholly wedded’ to a particular ‘system’ of ideas in a dogmatic sense. Far fewer saw themselves as standing outside all structures of established theory. For many researchers the inductive method still led quickly to the notion of fixed universal law. Amos E. Dolbear, a positivistic physicist, insisted that although the ‘fundamental principles of philosophy’ had been broken up ‘pretty vigorously’ during the preceding century, ‘it is to be noted…that on the scientific side things have from the beginning all been going one way, that is to say every new, broad generalization so far has simply covered the previous ones and has not superseded them.’Indeed, few academic researchers of this period expected that the knowledge they discovered would ever be overturned. Veblen once admitted that he carried in his head a general outline of human knowledge and that he placed each new fact, as it arrived, into this comfortable scheme. ‘Knowledge is increasing with every generation, and the youth of mankind is passing into maturity,’ declared John M. Coulter confidently in 1894. The metaphors used to describe scientific knowledge significantly reveal its assumed permanence. Knowledge was an island whose territory was continually being advanced into the ocean of the unknown; knowledge was a temple, built of monographic bricks (not easily corroded by time or weather). Or, said Coulter, a bit more flexibly, knowledge was a great river. To be sure, it sometimes changed its course and left villages high and dry. But the metaphor presumed a basically stable source. A river obeyed the law of gravity, and it never turned into a mirage. Such images of knowledge sanctified the researcher as one of the lasting contributors to civilization. The quest on every side was for definitive studies — studies that would never have to be done over again….For the intense seeker after new knowledge, research soon came to possess many of the emotional characteristics of a religion…A physicist spoke of the ‘exaltation of feeling which comes from the possession of a fact, which, now, for the first time, he makes known to men.’ Like educational missionaries, a few professors began urging that research begin with the kindergarten and permeate the primary school. But the most revealing experiences of the young researcher were those of private initiation; sometimes these bordered on conversion. A student of psychology, inspired by one of [Stanley G.] Hall’s lectures in the mid-nineties, immediately afterward covered a large carde with the written motto ‘INVESTIGATION,’ and hung it over his desk. According to an anecdote of the early Johns Hopkins — possibly apocryphal — one student arrived in such a state of anticipatory ecstasy that he maintained a night-long vigil in the laboratory where he expected to do his work.”…”The lives of such investigators might seem colorless to outsiders, but they reflected an utter dedication. Many of these men wrote little or nothing about the purpose of higher education or even about the ‘larger’ significance of their own disciplines. And so they tended to be forgotten by all but a few later specialists. For this reason, such men — the representatives of the ideal of pure science — have sometimes been unduly minimized in assessing American academic life of the late nineteenth century.”
— Laurence R. Veysey – The Emergence of the American University (1965)
“While the old line between the sciences and the humanities may be invisible as the equator, it has an existence as real. On the one side are cognitions which may be submitted to demonstrative proof: which do not depend on opinion, preference, or authority; which are true everywhere and all the time; while on the other side are cognitions which depend on our spiritual natures, our aesthetic preferences, our intellectual traditions, our religious faith. Earth and man, nature and the supernatural, letters and science, the humanities and the realities, are the current terms of contrast between the two groups and there are no signs that these distinctions will ever vanish.”
— Daniel Coit Gilman, The Launching of a University (1903)
“The academic philosophers of the period, who became allies of the men of letters, were distinctive enough to require separate comment. The educational opinions of the philosophical idealists coincided with those of the literary advocates of culture so often as to suggest an intrinsic connection. ‘Literature and philosophy cover the same ground,’ said a Yale philosopher, ‘the former in its more immediate relation to ourselves, the latter in its more fundamental aspects…Both imply the assumptions which are taken without analysis in literature but which it is the business of the philosopher to analyze and justify.’ The philosopher and the man of letters shared many of the same intellectual traditions; it was after all no great distance from Goethe to Hegel, and Emerson and Carlyle helped bridge the gap.
The philosopher focused upon one theme in the more general thinking about culture: the unity of the universe. He found in his own discipline the proper crown for the entire academic curriculum. By no means neglecting morality (indeed, in one sense he made it loftily systematic), the philosophical idealist tended, more than other advocates of culture, to respect intellect. He did this not because intellect enabled one to investigate particulars, but because it was a tool by which the basic configuration of the universe might be mapped out. Put another way, he took his rationalism from the ‘constructive’ thinkers, not the Baconians.
There were many varieties of the movement in philosophy known as idealism, both in Europe and in the United States; their complexity cannot be shown here. Most broadly, idealism was (as one of its academic adherents described it) a ‘thought-view of the universe.’ The root of reality was mental, but it was abstract and universal, not confined to the varying subjective mental states of individual human beings. Men’s minds were capable of discerning and making contact with a universal mind — ‘the Absolute’ — which presumably would continue to function unaffected if the earth, and all the philosophers on it, were to disappear in a solar catastrophe. It was the mentalistic universalism of the idealistic view which made it and its derivatives (among them American Transcendentalism) clash with the whole conception of laboratory science. While idealism was not religious in an orthodox theological sense, its adherents thought of themselves as spiritualistic rather than materialistic in their outlook, and as ‘critically affirmative’ in their acceptance of spirituality. (The ‘critically affirmative’ view was believed to be a synthesis, in Hegelian terms, of dogmatism and skepticism.) In such a context the empirical presumption that the nature of reality was to be ascertained slowly and painfully by comparing particular phenomena could only be opposed. The scientist, it was confidently believed, would end up perceiving the same universals that the idealist immediately glimpsed. ‘Mental Life does not begin with ideas of Individual Things, but with General Ideas,’ Josiah Royce was heard to say in 1893. ‘These Primitive General Ideas are unconsciously, or unintentionally, Abstract.’ By the aid of reason, unconscious abstractions would be made conscious, and ‘Genuine Insight into the Nature of Individual Things’ would be attained.
Kant and Hegel provided most of the inspiration for the American idealists. Before the Civil War idealism had gained more advocates outside the academic community than within it, and the specifically Hegelian idealism that developed in the United States after 1865 was first promoted by a group of non-academic thinkers, especially in the St. Louis area. From these men, and from the continuing direct contacts of younger Americans with this side of German thought, Hegelian idealism spread rapidly as departments of philosophy emerged in leading universities during the 1880s. Idealism had its greatest influence, both in academic circles and in America generally, during the nineties. These years marked the vigor of what John Herman Randall has termed ‘that great generation of near-great professors of philosophy.’ After the turn of the century, idealism began rather rapidly to decline as an intellectual force, and literary advocates of culture soon were able to count on fewer dependable allies within philosophy departments. In perspective, idealism can be seen as a diversion rather than a main channel in American thought. Its power was inhibited not only by the rise of natural science but also by the fact that it remained suspect as far as most Christians were concerned. Lacking either of these powerful sanctions, professors who expounded idealism were listened to and admired again and again by young men who quickly drifted away from its particular faith.”
— Veysey, ibid.
“A ‘system of elements’ — a definition of the segments by which the resemblances and differences can be shown, the types of variation by which those segments can be affected, and, lastly, the threshold above which there is a difference and below which there is a similitude — is indispensable for the establishment of even the simplest form of order. Order is, at one and the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront one another, and also that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language; and it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression.
The fundamental codes of a culture — those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices — establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home. At the other extremity of thought, there are the scientific theories or the philosophical interpretations which explain why order exists in general, what universal law it obeys, what principle can account for it, and why this particular order has been established and not some other. But between these two regions, so distant from one another, lies a domain which, even though its role is mainly an intermediary one, is nonetheless fundamental: it is more confused, more obscure, and probably less easy to analyze. It is here that a culture, imperceptibly deviating from the empirical orders prescribed for it by its primary codes, instituting an initial separation from them, causes them to lose their original transparency, relinquishes its immediate and invisible powers, frees itself sufficiently to discover that these orders are perhaps not the only possible ones or the best ones; this culture then finds itself faced with the stark fact that there exists, below the level of its spontaneous orders, things that are in themselves capable of being ordered, that belong to a certain unspoken order; the fact, in short, that order exists. As though emancipating itself to some extent from its linguistic, perceptual, and practical grids, the culture superimposed on them another kind of grid which neutralized them, which by this superimposition both revealed and excluded them at the same time, so that the culture, by this very process, came face to face with order in its primary state. It is on the basis of this newly perceived order that the codes of language, perception, and practice are criticized and rendered partially invalid. It is on the basis of this order, taken as a firm foundation, that general theories as to the ordering of things, and the interpretation that such an ordering involves, will be constructed. Thus, between the already ‘encoded’ eye and reflexive knowledge there is a middle region which liberates order itself: it is here that it appears, according to the culture and the age in question, continuous and graduated or discontinuous and piecemeal, linked to space or constituted anew at each instant by the driving force of time, related to a series of variables or defined by separate systems of coherences, composed of resemblances which are either successive or corresponding, organized around increasing differences, etc. This middle region, then, in so far as it makes manifest the modes of being of order, can be posited as the most fundamental of all: anterior to words, perceptions, and gestures, which are then taken to be more or less exact, more or less happy, expressions of it (which is why this experience of order in its pure primary state always plays a critical role); more solid, more archaic, less dubious, always more ‘true’ than the theories that attempt to give those expressions explicit form, exhaustive application, or philosophical foundation. Thus, in every culture, between the use of what one might call the ordering codes and reflections upon order itself, there is the pure experience of order and of its modes of being.”
— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1966)