Foucault and Carnap on the Politics of Science

For unforeseen reasons, I have found myself reading extracts from the intellectual autobiography of Rudolf Carnap, a leading member of the Vienna Circle and of the logical positivists, an early 20th-century philosophical movement that rejected as strictly meaningless all statements that could not be reduced to empirical science or to pure logic.

I came across his brief statement of the ethical and political beliefs that he felt the whole group had shared:

“[A]ll deliberate action presupposes knowledge of the world, that the scientific method is the best method of acquiring knowledge and that therefore science must be regarded as one of the most valuable instruments for the improvement of life.

It was and still is my conviction that the great problems of the organization of economy and the organization of the world at the present time, in the era of industrialization, cannot possibly be solved by “the free interplay of forces”, but require rational planning. For the organization of economy this means socialism in some form; for the organization of the world it means a gradual development toward a world government.

However, neither socialism nor world government are regarded as absolute ends; they are only the organizational means which, according to our present knowledge, seem to give the best promise of leading to…a form of life in which the well-being and the development of the individual is valued most highly, not the power of the state.

…we shall recognize the dangers lying in the constant increase in the power of the state; this increase is necessary because the national states must fuse into larger units and the states must take over many functions of the economy. Therefore it will be of prime importance to take care that the civil liberties and the democratic institutions are not merely preserved but constantly developed and improved.”

There’s a lot to comment on here, but it especially struck me because it reminded me of Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish‘, which I’ve also been reading recently. Foucault describes a process by which, starting around the later 18th century, institutions and habits of ‘discipline’, which were intimately connected to science, have appeared, spread, and become all-pervasive.

‘Discipline’ here means – a form of power in which the person subjected to power is minutely surveilled, in which detailed knowledge of their inner and outer behaviour is collected, and those with power direct themselves to, not destroying them, or outwardly subjugating them, but to changing them internally so as to ‘fix’ them, make them more productive, make them ‘keep themselves in order’, and fit them into an ordered system.Examples of disciplinary institutions include prisons, schools, factories, workhouses, modern armies, modern police forces, hospitals and psychiatric facilities.

A certain building design, never actually constructed but widely discussed, serves as the ideal and summation of this trend: the panopticon. In this design, by contrivance of lighting, the entirety of each individual cell in the outer ring is potentially visible to an observer in the central tower – but the inmates in those cells can never tell whether such an observer really is observing them, and so must always assume that they are, and therefore ‘behave’. What’s so striking here is that an increase in the extent and efficacy of power is acheived not by multiplying the actual means of coercion, but by manipulating information, who has knowledge of whom.

So here’s two views presented of a certain project – the indefinite increase and expansion of scientific knowledge. In both cases it is seen as having political outcomes, but opposite ones. For Foucault, this project of unlimited scientific knowledge is primarily a new form of authoritarian power; for Carnap, it is a means of universal emancipation. And both of these views are, in some sense, held by people on the fairly hard left. What makes the difference?

Scientific knowledge, and knowledge more generally, is an asymmetric relationship: there is a thing known and a thing knowing, and they are not interchangeable. One of these two sides, moreover, is definitionally a person – the other, whether a person or not, appears in the knowledge relationship as an object. And no-one could deny that gaining knowledge allows a person to act more effectively (even if one holds back from saying outright that ‘knowledge IS power’, or even ‘power-knowledge‘) – certainly this intimate connection is not denied or ignored by either Foucault or Carnap.

So it seems to follow that knowledge per se, and scientific knowledge in particular, is latently authoritarian, since it is an asymmetric, objectifying power-relationship. That’s not a criticism of knowledge (I’m a philosopher!knowledge and I are friends!), but I guess what I mean is that any systematic development of knowledge can become politically authoritarian through developing its own nature, and not merely through the addition of some alien add-on.

Obviously the big question is about who occupies the two positions, knower and known. In Carnap’s view, I think, it’s clear that everyone is to participate in the ‘knower’ position: science puts its results at the disposal of ‘humanity’. For Foucault, by contrast, people are (not always sharply) divided: the inmates of the prison, the students in the school, the workers in the factory, are all to be known, while those who have power over them are to be knowers.

I’m not going to comment directly on which view is more appropriate (in the short term or in the long term) but I will say a few things about why Carnap might have been led to the view he took. Consider a remark by Isiah Berlin:

“Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines like arguments between engineers or doctors. [Some believe] that all political and moral problems can…be turned into technological ones. This outlook is called utopian by those for whom speculation about this condition of perfect social harmony is the play of idle fancy. Nevertheless, a visitor from Mars to any British — or American — university today, might perhaps be forgiven if he sustained the impression that its members lived in something very like this innocent and idyllic state.”

Something like this sentiment, I think, can be applied more generally to philosophy itself – doing philosophy forces you to regard other philosophers as allies, people engaged in a shared endeavour. This struck me recently when I wondered if any of the ‘great philosophers’ of Western intellectual history were evil, and realised how inappropriate the question felt.

Of course, it feels quite natural to say that philosophers were stupid, mistaken, or pig-headed, or to express dislike of them. But calling one ‘evil’ feels like ‘throwing them out’ – you wouldn’t have a civil academic discussion with an evil person. You wouldn’t interact in that kind of way with your enemy. But to refuse such interaction with a philosopher is not the right way to do philosophy. Different philosophers are in a sense ‘comrades’ because they pursue the same goal, knowledge.

This contrasts with politics (indeed, one might almost define ‘political philosophy’ in terms of its resembling philosophy in this sense), but I think it’s shared by science: the way science is done has no place for ‘ally’ and ‘enemy’ in a strong sense, for ‘evil’ – only for ‘right’, ‘wrong’, and ‘a total jerk’.

This certainly has advantages, but it seems that perhaps one of the disadvantages might be to train the mind to presume such a ‘shared endeavour’ in situations where it’s less appropriate.

The political orientation that this might give rise to would be centre-left, I think. That is – it’s neither a pessimistic ‘war of all against all, humans are so vicious that the best we can hope for is non-extermination of the species’ right-wing mentality, nor an optimistic but militant ‘those bastards at the top are responsible for our lives being shit, let’s break them!’ far left mentality. Rather, a calm, reasonable, intelligent attempt to preserve ruling class interests, with blood if necessary, but mere pain and confinement if possible, because its the ruling class who can best present their worldview (and the interests it embodies) as a neutral, ‘common’ endeavour.

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