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New International, August 1938


Rubin Gotesky

Halting Progress

From New International, Vol.4 No.8, August 1938, pp.253-255.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Intelligent Individual and Society
by P.W. Bridgman
305 pp. New York. Macmillan Co. $2.50.

The decline of a society is particularly marked by intellectual and moral crises, themselves expressions of the deeper, more terrible social crisis. The physicist becomes painfully aware of the shortcomings of traditional physical ideas and methodology; the moralist hews under traditional morality to reveal its rotten core of superstition, its anti-moral, corrupting effects. Moral ills and the shortcomings of particular disciplines are often perceived with great clarity and deep, fine emotion; it may even happen that new ideas and a more adequate methodology will be found to solve the problems of a special discipline like physics; but as a whole, the underlying causes will not be sought and exposed to the sunlight. Few will think to search further than is required by the puzzles of their special domains. In science, it is its abstruseness, the difficulty of mastering its subject-matter, the frequent remoteness of its problems from the social scene, and equally important, the social class or group in which the scientist moves, the comfortable if not excessive amount of his reward, which prevent, even forbid a wider, more ramified investigation of the roots of the crisis. Thus it is rare for a scientist to observe that the crisis in his field is part – a reflection – of a more comprehensive social crisis; that the new ideas, the new approach and methodology which he so clearly visualizes as desperately necessary for the survival of his own science are equally necessary for the survival of society. The broader aspects of the technical crisis, of course, are usually more easily discerned when the scientist is unemployed.

Like most important physical investigators who have spent the greater part of their youth and maturity in the laboratory, Prof. Bridgman had no concern with the “crisis in society” – his own phrase, until after he had struggled manfully and sweatily to solve the “crisis in physics” – again his own words. His solution for the “crisis in physics”, which was published in the now famous book, The Logic of Modern Physics, seemed to him the answer to every physical riddle – at least, in principle. It cut out, root and branch, all the major paradoxes which had hamstrung physicists since 1900; it appeared to him to open up an era of easy absorption of the new physical discoveries and of untroubled scientific investigation.

The sweaty labor of rethinking old ideas and revamping the whole machinery of physical theory, however, had additional, if unanticipated fruit. He came to the clear realization that socially he had not been living intelligently. The intelligence he exercized in the laboratory was negated by the irrationality of his life outside it. Undoubtedly the class struggle, disguised as befits a Harvard atmosphere, had rumbled into his study. The coming world war, the spread of political dictatorships, tyrannies, the prevailing moral hypocrisy, the general abuse or non-use of intelligence, his own included – awakened an appalled sense of imminent social disaster. The realization dawned that the intellectual revolution which began with physics could not end there, but had to be carried into society. Rethinking his traditional social ideas became an inevitable necessity.

What criteria, however, should be the touchstone of right and wrong ideas? Prof. Bridgman experienced no difficulty here. The criteria which it seemed to him he had used so successfully in physics were particularly apt for this purpose. Not that he felt the physical world was the same as the social, but certainly the same procedure was applicable to the latter and ought to bring the same astonishingly successful results. At the least, it ought to go a long way towards clearing the rubbish of centuries from the path. That certainly would be significant!

What, then, is this method? Many Marxists have heard of it under other names: the unity of theory and practise; practise as the touchstone and judge of theory. Prof. Bridgman had previously arrived at the conclusion that an idea had no other meaning than that gained through physical manipulation. Thus an idea meant no more than what it involved in practise; and practise was the only way of defining its meaning. The idea of “length”, for example, was no absolute abstraction, but the way in which a stick or any other measuring rod, employed as standard, was used actually. The truth of one’s idea of “length” was determined by the results which were obtained by the use of some actual measuring rod. Did the results correspond to the idea, then the idea was true. If not, then it was false.

At first, Prof. Bridgman was unwilling to admit that there was any other kind of operation having meaning than that of the manipulation of things. In this new book, he admits the existence of “verbal” operations, i.e., operations which end only in some word or chain of words, and not in some non-verbal operation, the manipulation of things. These verbal operations, he thinks, play an important role in society, but they are also the root of most of the pseudo-problems or footless questions perpetually ensnaring the minds and emotions of men. The proper use of verbal operations so that they will lead into non-verbal operations therefore, is particularly important.

As a whole, however, he admits of no royal road to knowledge or infallible rule by which the operational method will be used properly except through continual watchfulness and care in the definition of procedures and ideas ultimately tested through manipulation, action.

Excellent! There is no better method of studying present society. Keen results ought to be expected; and where the method is properly applied, usually upon the less important questions, Professor Bridgman arrives at truths which have been accepted but stated more profoundly by Marxists since 1848. Thus duty is discovered to have no spiritual sanction, but to apply, in a puzzling and totally erroneous way to those types of actions which are considered to have beneficial results for oneself or others. Morality is discovered to be in essence social and subject to continual change. There is nothing sanctified about the State or Justice. The state is not a person, nor a superorganism, and its authority rises from the superior force possessed by a group of men strategically situated with reference to other men. There is no life after death, either socially or spiritually; and no man, therefore, has obligations which last beyond the limits of his own life. Force is the only means capable of resolving conflicts between incompatible interests.

The conclusions, which seem to him most significant, are deeply disappointing. The life of intelligence is superior to any other kind of life. Freedom for thought is absolutely necessary. No privileges ought to be granted to anyone which result in an “undesirable” society. Society must serve the individual, not the individual society. Militarism and nationalism must be done away with. Society is essentially based on force. Finally, the need for critical thinking and perpetual observation is all-important.

These conclusions are not disappointing because they are all false; some of them are attested to by experience. No one ought to deny the destructive effects of nationalism and militarism. They are disappointing because nothing is done to show why society, as a whole, does not live differently; why privilege, militarism, nationalism, and irrationalism dominate the social organism. It is not shown why these ideals are preferable to those actually dominating society; and finally it is not shown by what manner of means they can be made actual in the lives of men.

These questions are of supreme importance, but they are not answered by Prof. Bridgman because he does not take “operationalism” seriously enough. How can he think that satisfactory results concerning society and the individual can be obtained by looking into his own attitudes only? If he had taken his own methodology seriously, his first question would have been: shall I begin my investigations with myself or society: which will give me the greatest insight and understanding? Operationally the answer to this question required, first, critical observation of himself and society, observation which necessarily involves reading economics, psychology, history, politics, and sociology. Unquestionably he would have found society the meatier subject. But his labors could not end there. Operationalism further demands the formation of some hypothesis based upon this observation and reading which could be subjected to testing by actual or ideal manipulation, i.e., by bringing verbal operations back to their non-verbal base: in this case, the dynamic process or movement of society itself.

This procedure was followed by that most “backward” of scientific thinkers, Marx. Engels, in the preface to the third edition of the 18th Brumaire points out that Marx formulated his hypothesis that historical struggles are “more or less clear expression of struggles between social classes”, way back in 1845, and only first successfully tested its correctness by analyses of the social struggles in France from 1848 to 1870. Marx also suppressed the publication of his entire hypothesis concerning social development, written about 1857, simply because important formulations had not yet been verified by his accumulating data. But even before developing their own explanation of social change, Marx and Engels first examined and tested the theories of their predecessors. Prof. Bridgman, had he been a true operationalist, would have done likewise. But did he? He never even thought of it!

Disregarding essentially the rigid requirements of his own methodology, he proceeds in general to develop his ideas by purely verbal analysis, a method which he warns against again and again as leading to error and confusion; he tests only some of his minor ideas operationally. He does not answer major questions: how to prevent war and political dictatorships; how to end starvation and poverty; how to make intelligence, i.e., science, the guiding spirit of social organization.

His concern mostly with his own feelings and attitudes – important though they are when properly correlated and integrated with the large problems – prevents him from being “operational” about the important questions which he does manage to discuss. His discussion of the state is lacking in important concreteness. To say that the state is based upon force is unquestionably true, but that is just the beginning. Who exercises the force? In whose interests? Why should force he necessary at all? Why has the state this rather than any other form of organization? What relation have the different sections or classes of the population to it? Is the state homologous with society, or has it a history, a historical beginning and a historical end? Should it (the state) be maintained?

He deplores the existence of nationalism and militarism. But why did he not use the operational method to determine the causes for their existence, to answer such questions as: What connections have nationalism and militarism with the state? with the various classes in the state? or, more generally, with the economic and political structure of our present social order? Finally, as an operationalist, what means would he suggest capable of ending both? What about “pacifist societies”? the League of Nations? the Second International? the Third International? or the Fourth International? We have a right to demand an answer in operational terms, but Prof. Bridgman is strangely silent. We assume the reason is: he is ignorant that these questions exist and must be answered.

Even concerning questions where he attempts feebly to be operational, he arrives at conclusions which possess no meaning operationally. One example will suffice. Society, he says, should exist to satisfy the needs of the individual, not the individual society. What can such an assertion mean operationally? Does it mean that all individuals shall sacrifice their own interests for a particular individual – myself? But is not the same demand made by other individuals of others for themselves? And does this not mean that I must sacrifice my interests in the interests of society, i.e., other individuals? The assertion, therefore, that society should serve the individual is operationally meaningless: I can not sacrifice my own interests to everyone and yet at the same time demand that everyone sacrifice his interests to me. Operationally, it must be either one or the other. The opposing idea “that the individual must serve society, i.e., the individual must sacrifice his own interests to those of society”, is operationally equally meaningless, for it is impossible for each individual to sacrifice his interests to others, while others sacrifice their interests to him. Operationally, no one could sacrifice anything, because there would be nobody to sacrifice to.

Thus another conception, the Marxist, must be substituted, which is an operational explanation of the relationship between society and the individual. It assumes a reciprocity as well as a differentiation of interests and functions. These relationships of interests and function have historical roots, undergo change, involve themselves in destructive antagonisms which lead ultimately to revolutions, economic, political, cultural, social. In other words, the individual serves society or a section or group of men who represent themselves as society and, at the same time, serves himself. Under specific social conditions, the service he receives himself is considerably less than the service he renders others. Whether or not he will allow such a situation to continue depends upon a whole series of factors: his ideals, his character, the general social set-up. But with large groups of individuals, i.e., classes, who find themselves in such a situation, it is shown historically that they seek some way of remedying their situation, more or less consciously, through the class struggle.

The Marxist conception, therefore, makes sense operationally. Prof. Bridgman’s does not.

Prof. Bridgman has been sufficiently impressed by the irrationality of the present order to begin seriously questioning his own beliefs. We hope, however, that he will concern himself hereafter with really important questions. We hope, therefore, that he will begin reading seriously in the literature of the social sciences, of which he professes himself ignorant [1], in order to furnish himself with the necessary data for arriving at significant conclusions.



1. Most American social “scientists” are abysmally ignorant of the actual text of Marxism as well as grossly mininformed about it. They acquire their misinformation by the academic grapevine. They read someone who has read someone who has read someone who, it is rumored, has read Marx. A little knowledge of Marxism is a dangerous thing; and few professors desire to live dangerously. Therefore, it is not news to learn that Prof. Bridgman who admits his ignorance of bourgeois social “science” should also be not only abysmally ignorant of Marxism but also grossly misinformed. In one place, he states – to use Marxian terminology – that a society organized on the principle that each shall be paid according to the contributions he makes or service he renders to society – the principle of the first stage of communism – that such a situation he could “contemplate with equanimity”. He then goes on to inform socialists that a system in which everybody enjoys the same “privileges” may be all right with them, since they like that sort of thing, but not right with him, since he does not like it. “Superior physical force” – Prof. Bridgman thinks socialists believe in superior physical force vs. superior intellectual force – ought not to have the same rewards as “superior intellectual force”. And this, in its entirety, is the whole of his critique of socialism.

Behold a modern David who thinks a tiny puff of esthetic arrogance can slay the colossus of scientific socialism, which has withstood nearly a century of intellectual hacking, “scientific” dissection, ante-mortem autopsy, innumerable burials, literary frame-ups, political censorships, governmental prohibitions and burnings at the stake!

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