In his 1917 lecture “Science as a Vocation,” Max Weber sets out to write a sociological account of science. In contrast to the emerging logical positivist view of science as the steady march of experimental evidence organized by reason, Weber attends to the institutional circuits, the stumbling bodies, and the hazy passions that make science what it is.
He starts with a hard wall between facts and values. Science, Weber snickers, is a “greengrocer,” hawking “the technology of controlling life by calculating external objects as well as man’s activities.” The production of science is like manufacturing, the routine cranking-out of goods that sit on store shelves. Weber rejects—fiercely—the claim that science could ever tell us something about the meaning of life. And he sneers at the overture made by generations of natural theologians: that science could tell us anything about the divine, the travesty of offering “the proof of God’s providence in the anatomy of a louse.”
But this picture of science is incomplete. Weber also calls science a vocation—a calling. It is the same language he uses to characterize Martin Luther’s innovation in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Against the medieval Catholic outlook that saw worldly work as inferior to monastic living, Luther insisted that all labor was holy and selfless if it corresponded to an individual’s inner orientation instilled by God. Weber lists his techniques for persuading students to avoid the academic path. Can you handle the poverty, the uncertainty, the brutal arbitrariness (and racism) of the academic life? Those who remain, he proposes, have the calling.
Emily Ogden’s Credulity is a vivid account of the jagged intersections of science, modernity, and enchantment in the history of mesmerism, from its first flowering in eighteenth century France to its ambiguous fizzling half a century later in the United States. Ogden argues that mesmerism, rather than a clear-cut illustration of something like enchantment or disenchantment, lands in a contorted S-shape across those categories. She shows that modernity orients mesmerism to credulity, and in particular to the control of the credulity of others. We learn that mesmerism was repackaged, fifty years after its humiliation at the hands of a scathing report by the Franklin-Lavoisier commission in 1784, as a science that could orchestrate gullibility. It became an anatamo-politics, in Michel Foucault’s sense, to streamline the labor of slaves and factory workers. In this way, Ogden notes, following Talal Asad, credulity only imperfectly manages to “aim at ‘modernity.’”
But the debunkers of mesmerism also fail to aim at modernity. They, too, need the credulity of others in order to create a permanent vertical hierarchy of seers and dupes. “This would indeed be a puzzling question if the point of debunking were to suppress credulity forever,” Ogden muses about the publication of the Franklin-Lavoisier report at a time when mesmerism was unknown in America. “But that is not the point of debunking. The point is instead to master credulity—to make it one’s marionette—and thus to line oneself up on the side of the puppeteers rather than on the side of the stooges.” Rather than aiming at modernity by elevating autonomous reasoning subjects in every stratum of society, debunkers desire the credulous—the others of the Enlightenment who cement the man of reason’s sense of self.
Ogden intends to “accentuate the negative,” so the train of questions I have—questions that view science in a more optimistic light—runs perpendicular to the thrust of her project. Nonetheless, I want to use her picture of the nonmodern obsessions of the scientists to explore how science is understood by the early architects of the secularization thesis. In her account of the debunking maneuvers of Franklin and Lavoisier’s 1784 commission, Ogden proposes that the debunkers are addicted to their debunking. She layers Bruno Latour’s factish—the peculiar feature of moderns to fixate on that which is made versus that which is “factical”—and Sigmund Freud’s fetish—the pathological obsession with a thing that resolves one’s own anxiety about lack. For Latour, the factish—the modern obsession with “facts” as if they were unmade, purely exterior realities—is a delusion. But is it pathological, in the way that it is for Freud? Could we talk about the modern desire for debunking as something other than a dalliance with contempt?
Weber himself offers us a more nuanced account of the relationship between science and secularism. The disenchantment-rationalization-secularization complex is, for Weber, a figure of unmistakable ambivalence. Weber’s story of the sequelae of Protestantism—the production of disciplined subjects who hoard wealth, the establishment of investment funds that launch global capital, the tectonic shift towards rationalization and bureaucratization—ends in disaster. Our disaster:
The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.
This is not a nostalgia, exactly, but it is by no means a celebration of disenchantment. So, too, with “Science as a Vocation.” Leo Tolstoy diagnosed the realm of science as a desert of meaning. Now, Weber says, that desert encompasses all of us:
civilized man, placed in the midst of the continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, knowledge, and problems, may become ‘tired of life’ but not ‘satiated with life.’ He catches only the most minute part of what the life of the spirit brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence.
Weber’s disenchantment story is not a comedy. It is a tormenting unresolved epic.
But Weber’s version of science is complex. While mocking the claim that science could offer values that would guide life as the fantasy of “big children,” he nonetheless insists that science evokes a “strange intoxication”—“the ‘personal experience’ of science.” Psychologically, he writes, science and art are no different: “Both are frenzy (in the sense of Plato’s ‘mania’) and ‘inspiration.’” Science, no less than art, demands a passionate “inner devotion to the task.” The fruits of science may be assembled in a factory. But science is not a job like any other. It is a vocation—what contemporary secularism scholar George Levine would identify as science “inflected with deep feeling.”
Can we talk about the modern desire for debunking as something that is not born purely out of a will to power or a drive to humiliate the credulous so much as it is a bolder—even childlike—fascination with figuring out what makes things tick? Ogden paints a brilliantly campy picture of Franklin’s Paris residence turned into a funhouse of experiments,
a different sight gag in every room. Here, Deslon magnetizing the aged Franklin, with little effect. There, a woman biting her own hand because she believed Deslon was magnetizing her from behind a door (he was not). In another corner, a commissioner ‘personat[ing] M. Deslon’ in front of a blindfolded woman, while carrying on a dialogue with his companions designed to make the woman think he was performing the magnetic passes.
The ad hoc laboratories spilling into the corridors filled with crafty experiments remind me of Jonathan Swift’s colorful parody of the workshops of empirical scientists at the “academy of Lagato,” described in Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion. Or Janet Browne’s account of Charles Darwin setting up Saturday afternoon experiments in the garden with his kids. Or geneticist Barbara McClintock telling Evelyn Fox Keller, “I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them.” The pure weirdness of scientists earnestly endeavoring to go about “the weighing of air” is easy to lampoon. But for exactly this reason, it betrays the contours of a passional structure—a vocation—animating the whole enterprise. When is science a zeal for debunking, and when is it a field for encountering the world with exhilarating curiosity?
One last question: If psychology as a science (even in its incipient forms) always pushes back on the agential frame—questioning our sense of sovereignty over ourselves, whether the theme is imagination or credulity—does it have a unique status in the history of modern disenchantment? Does psychology (perhaps in collusion with critiques of subjectivity rooted in the humanities) always fail to aim at modernity, twisting the secular order by challenging the integrity of the liberal subject?