MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms
Scepticism & Dogmatism
Scepticism is the philosophical current which over-emphasises doubt and the relativity of human knowledge, while Dogmatism underestimates the relativity of knowledge and lays claim to knowledge of absolute truths.
Ancient Scepticism emerged during the crisis of antique society (4th century BCE) as a reaction to the preceding philosophical systems which had tried to explain the sensual world by means of speculative reasoning and in so doing had often contradicted one another. The first sceptics drew attention to the relativity of human knowledge and its dependence on various circumstances.
In the modern era, Scepticism is usually associated with the name of David Hume. Hume's scepticism arose out of the tradition of British Empiricism as a result of the realistion that experience only gives knowledge of sensations, not of anything beyond sensation. After Hume, empiricism is always associated with the conviction that we can gain only knowledge“sufficient for practical purposes”, not actual knowledge of necesity.
Kant was himself working towards scepticism in opposition to what he saw as the dogmatism of materialists such as Diderot when he was shocked by reading Hume’s scepticism, which seemed to show that science was impossible. Kant shows that scepticism is in fact the most dogmatic of all philosophies, since it asserts, dogmatically, that certainty cannot be attained. Thus Kant sought a critical philosophy to overcome the conflict between dogmatism and scepticism and define exactly what are the boundaries of knowledge.
Scepticism is commonly dominant during periods of social crisis when the old systems of thinking break down; dogmatism on the other hand is frequently associated with the immature stages of development of a movement.
Science is the socially legitimated accumulation of knowledge, and the institutions and practices for observation, classification, experiment, verification, criticism, legitimation and dissemination of those practices and associated theory in a systematic whole.
Science is one of a number of means (artistic, religious, sensori-motor, etc.) of organising social activity, integral to which is the development of theoretical knowledge towards a unified and legitimate whole, possessing its own characteristic forms of evidence.
Science had its beginnings in the ancient world. After the fall of the ancient world in Europe, science continued in Asia and the Islamic world but there was no scientific production in Europe till the end of the sixteenth century. During the Middle Ages new scientific knowledge entered Europe through trade with the Islamic world and the existing body of scientific observation and speculation from the ancient world was preserved in the form of dogma. Knowledge of nature and the development of technique continued, but there was no systematic institutional practices for the development of science as such or criteria for legitimation of knowledge other than the authority of the Church Fathers.
Following the Renaissance, the beginning of the sixteenth century marked the beginning of the Enlightenment movement, with figures such as Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau and Goethe. The Enlightenment were confident that the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge would lead to the triumph of Reason as the dominant social force and overcome the social ills of the world. This mood led to a rapid expansion of scientific activity, both natural and social, theoretical and observational, and underpinned the development of bourgeois society. The spirit of Enlightenment was a major contributor to the French Revolution, but the Revolution failed to bring about the triumph of Reason and consciousness of the problematic nature of reason and science gave the nineteenth century a different attitude to science.
The nineteenth century was characterised by a growing together of the different branches of sciences – each of which had investigated different phenomena – with the emergence of theory which went below the surface of natural process and began to establish the essence of natural processes and their interconnection, particularly through the application of science in industry. The success of natural science and particularly mechanics and its ancient relative, geometry, in completing its development, tended towards mechanics becoming a model of scientific method. From this, particularly in the middle and latter half of the nineteenth century, arose the positivist philosophy which made natural scientific practice the archetype for all knowledge and practice. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, science mounted its assault on the last refuge of its enemies: the nature of life, perception and consciousness, with the rapid development of physiology and psychological research and the growing together of the human sciences with the physical sciences. At the same time, irresolvable contradictions were building up within the mechanics and the physical sciences themselves.
The beginning of the twentieth century was marked by a discontinuity in the development of science with Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity and Quantum Theory on one hand and Freud’s psychoanalysis and Pavlov’s physiological behaviourism on the other. With these developments, science definitively parted from sensuous-intuitive perception of the world. Simultaneously, the opening of the epoch of imperialism, the Great War, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression and Fascism marked a period of irresolvable crisis. Science continued to progress by leaps and bounds, but could no longer aspire to a single and integrated representation of the world, with rival scientific theories and practices continuing to exist side-by-side.
The convulsions and revolutions which have always marked the progress of science now came to be accepted as normal. During the twentieth century science became more and more commercialised ultimately, rather than being a resource upon which capital could freely draw, science became a branch of production itself, and scientific knowledge a commodity like any other. While science maintained its high social status throughout the epoch of modernity, the opening postmodernity was marked by a fall from grace of science and general scepticism of its social value reflected the view of science as a form of knowledge which organised social practices which., far from guaranteeing the triumph of reason and material abundance, contributed to the destruction of the environment and social conflict and domination.
For more on the development of science and related philosophy see The Value of Knowledge.
The development of science is characterised by a separation out of scientific practice and scientific consciousness from other legitimate forms of social practice and consciousness, and consequently the establishment of institutions dedicated to scientific practice which in turn have come to be dominated by capital.
“It stems from the very nature of estrangement that each sphere applies to me a different and opposite yardstick - ethics one and political economy another; for each is a specific estrangement of man and focuses attention on a particular field of estranged essential activity, and each stands in an estranged relation to the other.” Human Needs and the Division of Labour.
Thus, what is necessary is not to reinstate science back on its pedestal nor to abandon it for its betrayal, but rather to recognise that science reflects and organises certain kinds of activity which are not simply scientific, but also ethical and economic, and consequently the mutual estrangement between science, ethics and the labour process must be overcome, and scientific practice subject not only to the requirements of production (i.e., capital) but to the requirements of ethics – proletarian, socialist ethics, and consequently, on the basis of ethical, scientific production practices, restore the scientific way of thinking to a place where it contributes to the development of human life. The same applies with respect to the relation of science to other modes of activity such as the artistic, spiritual, and so on.
See Paul Laafargue’s article The Socialist Ideal, for an interesting critique of the idea of socialism as a science.