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Ninth Street Center Journal

The Lost Science of Man
by Ernest Becker

George Braziller/New York
1971, 157 pages

reviewed by Dean Hannotte

Earnest Becker's book is an excellent history of the last three hundred years of our struggle to found a science of human nature. While not an original psychological theorist, he is an outstanding historian of science who is well-qualified to chronicle the many ambitious attempts which have failed to lay such a foundation. Becker's work brings to light an amazing story of sincerity and dedication on the part of scores of unsung thinkers who continued to believe in the quest for a unified human science even when a lifetime of effort failed to shed light on where progress might next be made. It is a story of faith and love holding ground against the cynicism of professionals who betrayed their independent judgement for the rewards of academic success or an idolatry of the psychological status quo.

This short book consists of two essays which can be read separately and which chronicle the failures of sociology and anthropology respectively: "The Tragic Paradox of Albion Small and American Social Science," and "Sketch for a Critical History of Anthropology." Becker is also the author of Revolution in Psychiatry (1964), and The Structure of Evil: An Essay on the Unification of the Science of Man (1968).

Although the study of man's social life begins with Herodotus, social science proper begins in the eighteenth century with the protest of an entire age against the jurisdiction of the Church over man. The Enlightenment wanted man to find happiness on earth, not in heaven. Diderot's Encyclopedia attempts to account for the entire known world without reference to the supernatural. With the overthrow of the medieval world, man gained great freedom, but a unifying world view was lost. The quest for a science of human nature -- a rational, naturalistic theory of happiness on earth -- to replace that view begins with Montesquieu, according to Becker, and continues through Rousseau, Helvétius, Holbach, the idéologues, and in the nineteenth century Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx, Ward and Albion Small.

The earliest attempt to find a governmental haven for human science was at the Institut National created after the French Revolution, in its section of "social sciences," the Classe des Sciences Morales et Politiques. The idéologues were the new scientific liberals who filled many legislative posts. Napoleon suppressed this section in 1803 for fear of its censure when it became clear that it was too antiauthoritarian to tolerate his increasingly capricious abuses of power. By 1822 the revolution was over, and Comte's appeal for a science of society fell on deaf ears.

Jefferson was influenced by the idéologues, but failed to establish his dream of a National Academy and a National University because of the pull of decentralization, the same force that finally tore apart the American Social Science Association. In America, says Becker, "scientific intelligence became . . . a function of the national ideology, exactly as Napoleon had wanted and succeeded in doing in France." (1) "Social science is an integral part of national life, but instead of guiding it according to a vision that would liberate the human spirit and assure the progressive development of persons, most of it is, instead, uncritically in the service of the highest cash bidder." (2)

Albion Woodbury Small (1854-1926) is Becker's paradigm of an early pioneer who finally gave way to despair, though never to cynicism. He was the son of a clergyman and had himself spent three years studying in a theological seminary. He founded the first department of sociology at the University of Chicago in 1892, and the first journal of sociology in 1895.

In his time "the social problem" was uppermost in everybody's mind, namely the problem of social reconstruction posed by the Industrial Revolution. Society's first attack on this problem was a morass of sentiment and confused humanitarianism lead by legions of "do-gooders." Sociology was born in the attempt to use the methods of science to overcome the inefficacy of charity, on the one hand, and the shocking inadequacy of the older disciplines of politics and economics on the other. "Economics," says Becker, "narrowly conceived as the pursuit of wealth, had won out over the problem of community, broadly conceived as the problem of human well-being in society. . . . The concrete, living human being, who should have been the center of concern of both society and social science, had been lost in the mad scramble for wealth and in the subtle scientization of this scramble." (3)

The American Social Science Association was founded after the Civil War to get on with the social problem, and grew out of the older and more utopian American Social Science Movement. In 1886, John Eaton had declared at a meeting "Let the warning cry fill the air of scientific associations, from meeting to meeting, that science is our means, not our ends." But by 1909, the association officially disbanded. "Ever since the break-up of the association," says Becker, "there has been no really successful attempt to give the disciplines a significant unity. The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences of the early 1930's was a brave try, but it lacked a synthetic unifying principle." (4)

Politically, Small was nearly a socialist. Actually, a number of economists who were opposed to laissez-faire economics had founded an American Economic Association in 1885 along lines suggested by the German Sozialpolitik tradition. That tradition had shown, says Becker, "that man was a social-historical product, that customs were states of mind, projections of the individual subjectivity, that social life was unified and interdependent, and that the best knowledge about man was in the final analysis for the promotion of human well-being." (5) But the A.E.A. soon lost its radical focus, however, and bogged down in the collection and dissemination of statistics.

Small insisted that the perverse bifurcation between fact and value, by which narrow scholars eluded moral responsibility for their work, be abolished, defining sociology as none other than a new name for moral philosophy. According to Small (and Becker), the pretended objectification of science based on the false ideal of disinterest reduces science to a scavenger of facts that cannot be ordered, a headless corpse spouting meaningless data. His 1907 book, Adam Smith and Modern Sociology: A Study in the Methodology of the Social Sciences, had shown that Smith was well aware of the over-arching importance of human morality, and that economics had to be seen as a handmaiden of moral science rather than its corner-stone.

In The Origins of Sociology (1924), he showed "how Savigny discovered that all human things were historical creations; how Eichorn accented the interrelatedness of all social phenomena; how Roscher used a comparative method to show the relativity of social practices; how Menger and Boehm-Bawerk showed that economic phenomena are mental, subjective phenomena and not material, objective ones; how Knies showed that political economy is a moral science, just as Adam Smith had known earlier, but which Ricardo and his followers down to [John Stuart] Mill had forgotten; how Wagner and Schmoller insisted on the primacy of the ethical aim of civilization; how Schaeffle had stressed that goods were means to a better life for man and not the end of life itself. Finally, he used Von Mohl and Ahrens to bring out the idea that sociology was a science of society in the largest sense." (6)

Early in life Small admired the "American Aristotle" Lester Frank Ward (1841-1913), author of Dynamic Sociology (1883), whose sociological teachings were a reaction against the Englishman Herbert Spencer who had defined man in terms of physics and biology but who was discomfited by anything psychological. Spencer's mechanistic sociology was the perfect complement to laissez-faire economics. Ward held that American sociology should follow French and German traditions rather than Spencer, that man was essentially a psychological being, and that sociology must contribute to the actual control and prediction of social events. In 1883 he warned that sociology had to be primarily in the service of man, else it would become a polite amusement or a dead science. He developed a theory of planned progress called telesis, whereby through education and development of intellect man could direct social evolution. Since man was essentially a social animal, and since nineteenth century psychology considered man in isolation only, Ward placed sociology at the summit of the human sciences.

Small placed the individual at the center of the proper concerns of sociology, unlike either Spencer or Marx. Late in life he confided that he would be pleased to be remembered as someone who'd "had something to do with laying the individualistic superstition." (7)

In his 1910 study, The Meaning of Social Science, Small revived the idea of the Institut that men of action should be informed by the facts of social science: "There is nothing utopian whatsoever in anticipating the development of institutes of social science, composed not alone of academic men, by any means, but reinforced more and more by scientific men of action functioning as councils of elder statesmen, and focusing all the wisdom within human reach upon the conduct of men's affairs." (8) He even alludes to the polarity between thinkers and men of action when he declares: "Although social science is abortive unless social evaluation passes into corresponding social action, the work of individuals which stops in one of the preparatory phases of social science need not be abortive. Division of labor may provide for its continuation by other men. No infallible means are known for transforming social valuations into corresponding social constructions." (9) Only if we color fact with value, said Small, will knowledge "begin to pass over into power." (10)

How would it pass into power? "Because," says Becker, "once we knew the motives of people -- in their full richness and scope in any given society -- we would at the same time have a clue to the best means of promoting the development of human personality. This is how the union of sociology and ethics would come about. (Of course, if we do not want to promote the human personality, or do not believe that it is possible, then we would not be terribly concerned to understand the social system as a whole. This is the distinguishing mark of modern social research.)" (11)

According to Becker, the arrant optimism of Ward concerning a discipline which did not yet really exist made it impossible for him to be accepted in academic circles. Thereafter, sociology would develop a humility with regard to the older sciences, gradually focusing more and more on less and less, until it eventually attained the same soulless fact-collecting identity as had all the rest. It willingly abdicated its responsibility to create a science of human nature.

In a late review, Small said that sociology had been thoroughly corrupted by academic acceptance: "In the universities, the decisive question has usually been, not what aspects of reality most urgently demand investigation, but with what sort of material one could most certainly establish oneself as a teacher. . . . Not a division of social science in the United States has fully defended itself against the lure of profits from textbooks. . . . the more obvious [authors] deferring of the question, What most needs to be investigated? to the question, What sorts of mental pabulum will the market digest?" (12) He called the social sciences a "pack of mongrels," each fighting for his scrap.

Contrasting the two men, Becker says that "Ward's was the defiance of genius and the willingness to live alone with the passion of a vision. Small, on the contrary, had to live a life that was largely made up of administrative duties. Between these two life styles lies an insuperable gulf. . . . Small had created a Frankenstein's monster, a 'neutral social science,' and his own pleadings were now beside the point; the discipline was in new and younger hands. . . . The crucial question [of a science of human nature] was no longer asked, since sociology now had its public and scientific prestige. . . . The moral of the whole tragedy is that by leaving behind a superordinate, value sociology on Wardian lines, the discipline left itself open to disinterested scientific faddism, to the whims of each successive generation." (13)

Only three years after Small's death, William F. Ogburn, in his presidential speech to the American Sociological Society, laid the wreath on whatever use the discipline of sociology could ever have been to mankind by announcing with great satisfaction that "Sociology as a science is not interested in making the world a better place in which to live, in encouraging beliefs, in spreading information, in dispensing news, in setting forth impressions of life, in leading the multitudes, or in guiding the ship of state." The tragic paradox of social science, according to Becker, is the inability of the scientist to stand apart objectively from his own social world.

In a 1947 post mortem, Louis Wirth would conclude that sociology had been marked by "accumulations of mountains of authentic but meaningless facts and the invention of complicated scientific gadgets for processing these crude data in a more or less mechanical fashion. . . . [This had lent to sociology] a certain aura of pseudoscientific glamour . . . [but] it obviously lacked the sense of values and hence of direction of the older philosophically more sophisticated, speculative sociology, while at the same time it yielded a minimum of either practically useful or scientifically generalizable conclusions." (14) In R. B. Braithwaite's terms, science had reverted to natural history. (15)

The second essay in this volume, "Sketch for a Critical History of Anthropology", covers parallel material for sociology's sister discipline. Like sociology, anthropology has gathered a great abundance of fact from cultures flung across the face of the earth, yet has not bothered to sort this data using any value system predicated on a comprehension of human purpose. For Becker this is paradoxical considering its origin in the Enlightenment with men such as Buffon, who "dared to formulate a science that included the totality of nature, that would link the organic and the inorganic and place man at the terminal point in a continuous series of natural beings." (16) Rousseau himself had kneeled down to kiss the threshold of Buffon's house. "For men like Buffon, Lamarck, Saint-Hilaire, Kant -- even the cautious and self-effacing Darwin who came later -- anthropology was a very big thing indeed. It was nothing less than the sum total of knowledge about man. It was the science of human nature." (17)

Was the purpose of the science of human nature merely to satisfy the curiosity of idle minds? Hardly. "The eighteenth century wanted the biggest and clearest picture of human nature in itself and in history in order to obtain nothing less than a new moral code for the nations. The idea sounds biblical and Emersonian to us, but to the eighteenth century it was strictly within the bounds of science. . . . The science of man in the service of human power and freedom!" (18) Yet the amazing thing was how quickly anthropology abandoned its lofty ideals and settled for lesser objects.

By 1850, anthropology had reached its pinnacle and was already beginning to feel the weight of useless data it had no way to explain and mindless questions it felt compelled to answer. The grand vision of anthropology dissipated in two ways; Becker calls them the "megalomanic" and the "fetishist" reactions. Of the former, the simplistic picture of unilinear evolution was easiest to demolish, not only by field research, but by the tragedy of the Industrial Revolution and the catastrophe of World War I, leaving anthropology with virtually no conclusions to offer concerning the paths of cultural evolution. Becker blames this disillusionment on the Freudianism that was the rage between the wars. "Freud, with his false sexual and instinct theory and his wild and shabby historical speculations, was someone who had to be lived through, digested, and overcome." (19)

The unilinear evolutionists had posited an enormous number of uniformities in history: "that there were stages in the evolution of the family, that the bilateral family is a late cultural development, that there is a fixed succession of maternal and paternal descent, that historically matriarchy preceded patriarchy, that each culture had to pass through stages in the development of tools and weapons from stone to copper to iron, that each had to pass through the domestication of animals, the manufacture of pottery, or else it was doomed to be classified on a 'lower' place of evolutionary development, that kinship bonds precede territorial bonds historically, that preanimism or 'animatism' is the earliest stage of religion, preceding animism, that totemism is combined with the idea of mana, etc., etc., etc." (20)

Not only were these generalizations not supported by field research, they assumed the superiority of the Western status quo, in particular laissez-faire economics. An entire generation of young anthropologists under the mantle of Franz Boas had a grand time demolishing one after another of these supposedly scientific shibboleths. Robert H. Lowie even argued, in Are We Civilized?, that we had no right to assume we were. Boas didn't go that far, but established that the evolution of each culture had to be understood in its own terms, thus justifying research programs of dizzying expense and duration. He recommended reorganizing museum exhibits by tribe and area rather than by the presumed evolutionary stage of the artifact. As did Albion Small with sociology, Boas won for American anthropology a much coveted academic respectability. Similar achievements could be claimed by Bronislaw Malinowski in England and, later, Claude Lévi-Strauss in France. But "with the slighting of the perspective of history and the focus on the workings of things in the present, anthropology gradually lost sight of its own historical mandate, of its grounding in values, and of its high ambition as a synthetic science of man." (21)

The "fetishist" reaction to the collapse of the earlier megalomania, which has lasted until the present day, is "an attempt to cope with an overwhelming problem of conceptualization by biting off very tiny pieces of it and concentrating on them alone, even, to push the analogy, deriving all one's sense of self, all one's delight in life and work, from the feverish contemplation of a ludicrously limited area of reality." (22) The extreme diversification is symbolized by the fact that the great journal founded at Comte's death to carry on his synthetic ambitions, La Philosophie Positive, folded in 1883 after a mere fifteen years of publication. Whereas the unilinear evolutionists were overambitious, the recent French writer Georges Gusdorf has aptly called the disciplinary specialists underambitious.

Robert Redfield, among others, bemoaned the inability of Boas' anthropology to tackle the central question: "The conception of anthropology as a purely theoretical part of natural history is now qualified by the recognition of applied anthropology, of 'action anthropology' . . . . In advising men of action . . . anthropologists come to entertain the question: What, then, is the good life?" (23) It was the very question that Boas had deferred. Becker: "What happened, to be blunt, to the science of man? What do all these 'human scientists' in our universities represent?" (24) Gusdorf: "Anthropology is becoming more and more of an exact science, but we know less and less exactly about what. . . . The multiplicity of anthropologists is the best proof . . . of the existence of anthropology." (25)

Was it possible that the science of man was conjured up to no human purpose? "It was not only possible," says Becker, "in the first half of the twentieth century it was actual. These new men lived with an impossible fantasy; they were working for and gradually building and passing on to other new men who would gradually build and pass on a scientific picture of the human world. Of course, it was never complete. It could never be finished; therefore, they had to keep working on it, just because it was never complete and could never be finished. What use was an incomplete scientific picture? Not much use, they said. That's why we have to keep completing it. But, we retort, it will never be complete; you admit this yourself. Hence, it will never be of use. Well, they might finally answer, if we make it less incomplete, it might be less useless." (26)

About the only useful discoveries of anthropology are that the early nineteenth century scientists were wrong to read racial differences for moral principles, and that the later nineteenth century scientists were wrong to read historical evolution for moral principles.

Becker claims that anthropology should have concentrated not on adaptive differences in human populations, but in the differences in human freedom which those populations tolerate. There are two approaches to the subject of human freedom for him. The first is contained in Rousseau's advice to study the origins of inequality, to read history as the development of the exploitation of man by man. One can then either judge the nation state to be an evil based largely on economic exploitation and hope that it will someday just wither away, as did Rousseau and Marx, or conclude that inequality doesn't matter since Western Civilization is worth all the evil that had lead up to it. Lewis Henry Morgan's firsthand field work had shown that Iroquois kinship groups functioned in an equalitarian manner and provided a model of communal society well before the rise of exploitation. Engels claimed that Morgan's Iroquois provided nothing less than the main lines of the "prehistoric basis of our written history." (27) He further speculated that the Greek and Roman gentes must have resembled the Iroquois blood groups.

A whole tradition of "conflict sociology" now developed. Franz Oppenheimer's The State: Its Origins and Development Viewed Sociologically (1912) argued that the state developed through the exercise of power by animal herders over the sedentary agriculturists with whom they came into contact. At first the relationship was one of robbery, then of protectionism, and eventually permanent centers of administrative control were established, sanctified by myth and a cooperative priesthood.

However, this attempt to use the origin of inequality as a critical scientific model failed, says Becker. Supporters of Rousseau's program were simply in love with a dogmatic picture of a supposed paradise, a picture that could never be authenticated historically and which wasn't particularly mirrored in contemporary cultures. Fustel de Coulanges in the nineteenth century, and W. C. MacLeod in 1924, argued that inequality often arises simply as a matter of individual differences, and that even some origins of feudalism can be explained this way. Finally, the Rousseau tradition had failed to heed Hume's caution that you cannot read nature for moral precepts because nature says only how things are, not how they should be. It simply begs the question, for "if we do not accept a certain moral and critical stance toward present conditions, then no amount of theory or fact on the origin of things can sway us." (28)

The second of Becker's two approaches to the subject of human freedom, after Rousseau's failed search for the origins of inequality, is the search for a primitive ideal human personality which would counterbalance the stark realism of scientific research. "It would have to be an image based solidly on what we know about human nature, on empirical fact; yet it would have to be a constructed model, going beyond man as he is to man as we wish him to be. . . . We would hold up to man an image of the most developed person, the highest individuality, and at the same time the other image that keeps the tension of the paradox: an image of the most communal, equalitarian society." (29) This too would harken back to Rousseau, for Rousseau meant just this when he spoke of the "ideal of the primitive." According to Becker, "ideal-real" science was quite at home in the Enlightenment, its meaning clear to men like Bastian in anthropology, Brett in psychology, Lotze in philosophy and J. L. Myres in political science. "Without the 'ideal' or critical aspect of social science, the 'real' aspect is dissipated into an endless search for data." (30) Becker finds the work of C. Wright Mills to be a perfect ideal/real blend of political science and sociology, which in turn explains why social scientists turned their backs on him en masse. In order to shift modern social science back towards the "ideal" pole, Becker is not averse to temporarily ignoring difficult data, like Einstein, who said that he would never abandon a beautiful theory because of one unfavorable experiment.

Becker concludes that "we must have an ideal-real science, then, and a full-field theory of alienation that rests on both aspects of the problem of freedom, as designed by Rousseau." (31) Such a theory of alienation would "largely be a 'historical-social psychology,' a picture of why man has failed to make the freest possible adaptations to new conditions in each historical period." (32) In contrast to Marxism, which, especially in its Soviet incarnation, has focused too heavily on economic determinism, this science would encompass "the causes of mental illness, of crime and delinquency, of authoritarianism in religion and politics, of life styles and world views, of fanaticism and revivals, and so on." (33)

Finally, Becker asks us to assume that man is free, and to seek the ontological consequences of his freedom. He means by this a deeper viewpoint than that offered by historical and social meanings, the same viewpoint offered in Lord Monboddo's Antient Metaphysics as a protest against the physical determinism of Newton and what we would today call the new fetishists of science, the "foreground manipulators, who lost the depth and background of nature." (34) In order to liberate us, this science "would be partly grounded in a creative new myth of the meaning of life. . . . scientists working with artists. . . . Scientists who would do this would not be narrow and manipulative rationalists, but, rather, like the 'primitive' scientists that Wilhelm Reich longed for: festal, full and warmly expansive, perhaps at last a type of anthropologist who would himself be a model for the primitives he studies. . . . Perhaps one day we will have the ultimate courage, the courage to affirm a dream that mankind has collectively been spinning and mellowing for over 2,500 years. We would look in vain for more than a few men who have this kind of courage in the corridors of scientific power and prestige in our universities today. Yet, under the pressure of our world social crisis, the numbers are growing." (35)

Becker wanders into some unsuccessful speculations, for me, as when he claims that the major positive result of twentieth century sociology was "when it uncovered for man the social-fictional nature of his own life-meanings," (36) i.e. that creative purposes, or in his words "the symbolically contrived meanings that keep his action moving forward and give him an imagined sense of his own worth" (37), are driven by socially-supported myths. In this he fails to recognize the great lengths that men go to in order to distinguish truth from fantasy, and right from play. He lapses into a variant of the "white man's burden" ethos by implying that we assumed academics must take more responsibility for liberating the unwashed masses. His rhetoric is peppered with existentialist clichés like "alienation," nor can he resist the Marxian sanctimony of tidy forecast: "We will have a model for the fullest liberation of man by making a complete accusation of social restraints on his freedom." (38) He identifies the unifying principle of human science as the elaboration of human freedom, yet ignores human security. He wants someone to start a new political party consisting solely of accredited social scientists, shows a penchant for capitalism-bashing that I find self-important at best, and has a fatal fascination with the idea that we have no objective standards by which to contrast the development of cultures, a fantasy which always makes me remember Margaret Mead's retort: "Just go ask them if they want your damned pots and pans!"

Still, Becker's book is rich in historical insight and raises stimulating questions concerning a science that may not be lost after all. Through Becker's vigorous prose speak the encouraging voices of civilization's true pioneers, beckoning us to continue that paramount voyage of scientific discovery begun so many generations ago.

(1)Ernest Becker, The Lost Science of Man, p. 39.
(2)Ibid., p. 41.
(3)Ibid., p. 8.
(4)Ibid., p. 35.
(5)Ibid., p. 32.
(6)Ibid., pp. 13 - 14.
(7)Ibid., p. 14.
(8)Albion W. Small, The Meaning of Social Science, 1910, p.243.
(9)Ibid., p. 254.
(10)Small, "The Subject-Matter of Sociology," American Journal of Sociology, X (1904), 295.
(11)Becker, p. 65.
(12)Small, "Fifty Years of Sociology in the U.S. (1865-1915)", reprinted in the American Journal of Sociology Index, 1895-1947 (1915), 254.
(13)Becker, pp. 24 - 26.
(14)Louis Wirth, "Fifty Years of Sociology", American Journal of Sociology Index, 1895-1947 (1947), p. 274.
(15)"If a science is in a highly developed stage, as in physics, the laws which have been established will form a hierarchy in which many special laws appear as logical consequences of a small number of highly general laws expressed in a very sophisticated manner; if the science is in an early stage of development -- what is sometimes called its 'natural-history' stage -- the laws may be merely the generalizations involved in classifying things into various classes." R. B. Braithwaite, Scientific Explanation (London, 1953).
(16)Becker, p. 75.
(17)Ibid., p. 76.
(18)Ibid., p. 77.
(19)Ibid., p. 88.
(20)Ibid., p. 84.
(21)Ibid., p. 87.
(22)Ibid., p. 81.
(23)Robert Redfield, Human Nature and the Study of Society: The Papers of Robert Redfield, Vol. I, ed. Margaret Park Redfield (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1962), p. 121.
(24)Becker, p. 93.
(25)George Gusdorf, Introduction aux sciences humaines: essai critique sur leurs et leur development (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1960), p. 384.
(26)Becker, p. 119.
(27)Frederic Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State in the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan (1942 ed.; New York: International Publishers), p. 6.
(28)Becker, p. 137.
(29)Ibid., p. 144 - 145.
(30)Ibid., p. 146.
(31)Ibid., p. 151.
(32)Ibid., p. 151.
(33)Ibid., p. 151.
(34)Ibid., p. 154 - 155.
(35)Ibid., p. 156 - 157.
(36)Ibid., p. 62.
(37)Ibid., p. 62.
(38)Ibid., p. 156.

-- reprinted from The Ninth Street Center Journal 7, Winter 1987


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