Marxism and Science Studies: A Sweep through the Decades

Helena Sheehan
2007 International Studies in the Philosophy of Science  
This paper outlines the distinctive contribution of marxism to science studies. It traces the trajectory of marxist ideas through the decades from the origins of marxism to the present conjuncture. It looks at certain key episodes, such as the arrival of a Soviet delegation at the International History of Science Congress in London in 1931 as well as subsequent interactions between marxists and exponents of other positions at later international congresses. It focuses on the impact of several
more » ... impact of several generations of marxists who have engaged with science in different ways. It examines the influence of marxism on contemporary trends in science studies. It concludes that marxism survives in circuitous and complex ways. It argues not only for a positive interpretation of its contribution in the past but for its explanatory and ethical power in the present and future. The history of marxism in relation to science is extraordinarily dense and dramatic. From the beginning, marxism took science extremely seriously, not only for its economic promise in building a socialist society, but for its revelatory power in understanding the world. Marxism has made the strongest claims of any intellectual tradition before or since about the sociohistorical character of science, yet always affirmed its cognitive achievements. Science was seen as inextricably enmeshed with economic systems, technological developments, political movements, philosophical theories, cultural trends, ethical norms, ideological positions, indeed with all that was human. It was also a path of access to the natural world. There were studies, texts, theories, tensions, debates exploring the complexities of how this was so. The objectivist / constructivist dichotomy could never capture its epistemological dynamic. Nor could the internalist /externalist dualism ever do justice to the interacting field of forces harnessed in its historiographical process. After the October revolution, there was an intensification of this activity. Science was a necessity in building a new social order. Scientific theory was thought to be, not only a matter of truth and error, but of life and death. There were many debates, some between those more grounded in the empirical sciences and those who stressed the continuity of marxism with the history of philosophy. Intertwined with all the intellectual debates of the day was an intense struggle for power. There was tension between a more cosmopolitan marxist intelligentsia, who had found their way to marxism in difficult and dangerous conditions, exposed to an array of intellectual influences, accustomed to mixing with intellectuals of many points of view and arguing the case for marxism in such milieux. Increasingly they were coming under pressure from those who had come up under the revolution, never been abroad, knew no foreign languages, had little detailed knowledge of either the natural sciences or the history of philosophy, never mixed with exponents of other intellectual traditions. Some were more inclined to cite the authority of classic texts or party decrees than to engage in theoretical debate. They were being fast-tracked in their careers and taking over as professors, directors of institutes and members of editorial boards, occupying positions of authority over intellectuals of international reputation. There was high drama and there was soon to be blood on the floor. (Sheehan 1993)
doi:10.1080/02698590701498126 fatcat:u4yvsyzebza7fah2ggdlkgcxee