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Reenchanted Science

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By the 1920s in Central Europe, it had become a truism among intellectuals that natural science had "disenchanted" the world, and in particular had reduced humans to mere mechanisms, devoid of higher purpose. But could a new science of "wholeness" heal what the old science of the "machine" had wrought? Some contemporary scientists thought it could. These years saw the spread of a new, "holistic" science designed to nourish the heart as well as the head, to "reenchant" even as it explained. Critics since have linked this holism to a German irrationalism that is supposed to have paved the way to Nazism. In a penetrating analysis of this science, Anne Harrington shows that in fact the story of holism in Germany is a politically heterogeneous story with multiple endings. Its alliances with Nazism were not inevitable, but resulted from reorganizational processes that ultimately brought commitments to wholeness and race, healing and death into a common framework.

Before 1933, holistic science was a uniquely authoritative voice in cultural debates on the costs of modernization. It attracted not only scientists with Nazi sympathies but also moderates and leftists, some of whom left enduring humanistic legacies. Neither a "reduction" of science to its politics, nor a vision in which the sociocultural environment is a backdrop to the "internal" work of science, this story instead emphasizes how metaphor and imagery allow science to engage "real" phenomena of the laboratory in ways that are richly generative of human meanings and porous to the social and political imperatives of the hour.

336 pages, Paperback

First published July 22, 1996

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Anne Harrington

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Profile Image for Joshua Buhs.
647 reviews105 followers
November 13, 2015
I wanted to like this book more than I did.

There are a couple of reasons, not all of which are fair.

The first reason is it is relatively dated. The book looks at the response of some German scientists to the perceived disenchantment of the world from about the 1890s until just after World War II. It starts, of course, with Max Weber’s famous talk,, “Science as a Vocation,” which Harrington interprets as Weber telling Germans that they would just have to suck it up and accept that the world was disenchanted: that science had rid the world of gods and souls and anything that wasn’t material—this at a time when science (and technology) had just been given the task of decomposing millions of human bodies into their constituent parts in the Great War.

Harrington’s interpretation was somewhere between standard and innovative at the time this book came out, two decades ago. Standard in that most historians accepted that interpretation of Weber’s thought, and believed that he had diagnosed the situation correctly. Groundbreaking because she went on to say that there was a significant movement among German scientists to reverse this disenchantment, to make room for something more than atoms and simple forces—and that this was real science, not just mysticism. It created real knowledge.

Now, though, re-evaluations of Weber have shown that he left open the possibility for the continued enchantment of the universe: that science may have been a vocation, and that there was a definite materialistic and mechanistic bent, but that the world could be bigger than that. In addition, we know now—resoundingly so—that the world never stopped being enchanted, whatever scientists might have said. That the most prosaic science could be thick with meaning; that secularism did not dissolve religion; that the should remained, as did belief in other levels of reality. The insistence that the universe was atheistic, naught but material, completely amenable to human interpretation and manipulation was never more than a movement among a small—if influential—group.

Of course, part of the reason we know that is because works like Harrington’s opened the door to further research, which came to show that her own thesis was too narrow. This si a common pattern in the writing of history, and should go to her credit—though it does limit the utility of the book now. It is a criticism of the book, but not a fair one.

The second reason is that the book is plagued by an academic writing style that makes it much more difficult to read than is necessary. The book’s introduction is thick with names; Harrington prefers the polysyllabic to the simple. Early on, she is much too concerned with positioning her boo within certain traditions and piling caveat upon caveat.

Which is a shame, because she has some very interesting things to say about cultural history, and how science fits into it. Her underlying assumption is that scientists are in dialogue with the natural world—that the universe does talk back, offering us real insights into its structure—but that we only ever interpret these talkings-back through our own language and metaphors, and only make sense of the world with the cultural tools at hand at any given time. (And because of certain cultural patterns might even renounce some available tools.)

The third, and main reason, is because the book’s structure is not fully thought through, among the argument more confusing than it need be. The groundwork for the argument is laid in the first chapter. Some German scientists were upset at reductionist science, especially it had been handed down to them from English sources and from a cadre of German physiologists in the mid-19th century. These dissidents thought reductionists turned everything into a machine—a soulless one—and wanted, instead, to show a more holistic, more dynamic and interactive science. These opposing camps—the machine and the organism—tailed with them a whole set of cultural assumptions—community versus society, order versus Chaos, organization versus atomism and, notoriously, Gentile versus Jew. Many of these scientists reached back to the Romantic period, especially the work of Kant and Goethe.

This movement would also fade into occultism, but Harrington draws the line—implicitly—at some point, She never discusses Rudolf Steiner, for example, though his turn towards Goethe and his emphasis on intuition fits nicely into her narrative. Anthroposophy, though, stands well outside the accepted parameters of science. And Harrington wants to make clear that her this applies to actual science. It would have been interesting to see her do a broader survey—she mentions physicists in one paragraph in the introduction, chemists nowhere, and has a few stray remarks on geneticists—but she was mostly concerned with the mind sciences and their allies in biology—animal behavior, or ethology and physiology only to the extent that it touched on these matters. So even her claims that she was mostly looking at the life sciences seems constricted, raising, again, the question of how widespread this holistic turn was.

Harrington knows an awful lot about this time in German history and has read widely, through key cultural texts as well as the writing of a lot of scientists, even relatively minor ones. Indeed, her knowledge is daunting at times and could have been shaped into a very interesting narrative, I think. Instead, she chose to follow her introduction with four chapters that were largely biographically organized—one chapter per scientist, in general. The decision helped to show how each person connected to the larger political and cultural scene—how science was both a discovery of facts and interpreted using cultural resources—and did so in very intimate, small scale ways.

But the overall story was hard to piece together. It was difficult to understand how representative these people were. Harrington consciously eschewed institutional history, further making each of these stories seem small and idiosyncratic. Although certain themes and even people recurred across the chapters, she did not endeavor to tie them together. Worse still, she did not every real offer summaries of the various chapters, nor the thoughts of he scientists, leaving it to the reader to piece everything together. She is very good at small-scale analysis, and teasing apart the metaphors and ideas that went into the various works, but the larger scale was always unclear, at least to me, beyond what she had already said in her introduction. Indeed, I found a lot of the biographical details unnecessary to the argument completely—space that could have better been used uniting the book.

The first biographical chapter was probably the best of the pure biographies. It dealt with the German behavioral biologist Jacob von Uexküll and his development of “The Umwelt”: the idea that any organism—including humans—created an understanding (an interpretation) of the world from the data of its senses. The organism was a whole, interpreting being—not an atomistic collection of tropisms. (at the same time, science was limited in what it could say about the universe because humans were limited.) This idea formed the basis for Uexküll’s idea that the state was an organism and gave him reason to oppose reductionism: part of humanity’s umwelt was intuition and feeling—but these had been denied, leading to the rise of the idea that humans were just machines. (Also threatening to his idea of the organic community of life were Jews, who were chaotic and disruptive.)

The second biographical chapter examines the thought of Constantin von Monakow, who, among those she examines, was closest to a mystic, invoking a ‘dynamic vitalism’ situated in the protoplasm of cells that could pass memories on through the generations—which went around both Darwinism and Lamarckism in that the passing on of traits went beyond necessity. The work started in response to the idea that the brain could be divided simply into regions, each region in control of some particular function, which fell out of disfavor in the wake of WWI, when so many brain-damaged soldiers were able to retrain themselves in daily living. It went on from there to the more mystical ideas.

The third chapter biographical chapter is the most confusing, and the least biographical. Nominally, it is about Max Wertheimer, but it has to spend a lot of time setting the stage for him. Wertheimer was a proponent of Gestalt Psychology: the idea, as I understand it, that the brain understands and responds to complete structures: that the world was made up of many different kinds of structures—this was not monism. The Gestalt stood in opposition to Chaos and entropy—it undid the tragedy of the Laws of Thermodynamics, in its way. Most often, Harrington notes, Gestalt was understood conservatively and anti-semiotically: Jews sowed chaos, disrupted community. They were mechanists. Wertheimer was born a Jew, though, and he interested Gestalt theory in more liberal ways, though I do not quite follow Harrington’s argument here.

The last biographical chapter consider Kurt Goldstein, another relatively liberal scientists of Jewish heritage, who also emphasized the wholeness of the brain and the possibility of recovery from trauma.

These all lead, inexorably, to the concluding chapter—the effects of Nazism on German holism (and German holism;;s effect on Naziism), which Harrington divides into two parts, but also dissects in terms of each biography. Early on, the Nazis were motivated by holistic ideals—but Harrington is at pains to make clear that these were scientific ideas, not the mysticism that was sometimes attached to Naziism. The work of Wertheimer and Goldstein was ruled out, given their heritage and inclinations: but not entirely, which is where biography comes in. Various scientists made different accommodations with the Nazi party, playing up different aspects of their science to win favor—or coming out against entirely. (The vitalist Hans Driesch was horrified to see his ideas used to prop Naziism: he was a pacifist.) In this case, the machine stood outside of Nazi Germany.

But as the Nazis became increasingly focused on war, and on the systematic killing of Jews as well as others that did not meet their test of purity, they also came to favor the pragmatic over the systematic. It became possible, especially in later years, to accuse the Nazi government of embodying the machine ideals—it was the fulfillment of Enlightenment rationality, in some sense. Harrington doesn’t actually come down on either side, and this chapter has the potential to be her best—it’s her most nuanced and broadly argued—except that she gets bogged down in a later historiographic debate from the 1980s. Her point is still clear, though: that the metaphors used to discuss science—and their long comet-tails of associations—could be used in various ways. And she notes what is so fraught about this period is that we still grapple with some of the same issues: science as machine, humans as organisms, and our current debates disturbingly reflect some of the same concerns that are bound up in one of the most evil times in human history.

Profile Image for Aljoša.
93 reviews14 followers
March 25, 2021
A nice discussion of how Newton’s materialistic world came to be associated with everything bad in modernity, so that the descendants of Kant’s and Goethe’s holistic views of the world came to promise both a potent new science and a political ideology that would re-enchant life with meaning. In some sense, German thought (defended by the nazi state) has a final stand against the dead mechanistic universe of “jewish science”. Therefore the war is also a clash of worldviews.

The book shows how science has both a "natural" and "cultural" side and how the natural can be reformulated in order to give us cultural significance. Many of the holistic views that are presented in this book live on, but many died in the fires of 1945.

This story gets told through four biographies: the first one is about the anti-darwinian biologist Uexküll, who sought to reconcile science with the Goethean holistic ideal. The other three are about the holistic sciences of Gestalt psychology and neurology. Particularily interesting to me was the chapter on Kurt Goldstein, who tried to understand pathologies (such as the famous case of Schneider) through a holistic theory of the organism. This case of his becomes of central importance to Merlea-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, perhaps the most stimulating text of contemporary philosophy.
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