The Crisis of Democracy—Part 1
How We Got Here
Around this time of year people begin posting recommendations about the most significant books they have read over the past year. I thought I’d offer some reflections on a book that has been much on my mind since rereading it in a graduate seminar I taught the past semester. The course was titled “Science, Technology, and Political Philosophy,” and the book: The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value, by Edward A. Purcell Jr.
It’s an unusual book to “recommend,” not least because it was published nearly fifty years ago, in 1973. It’s hardly a title burning up the charts. Then, there’s the further peculiarity that it’s very much an academic book in every sense—a book written for academics about academia by an academic. Moreover, it would seem to be a book of relatively narrow interest, focused on the rise of, and developments within, and personalities populating the social sciences during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.
I first read the book as a graduate student over thirty years ago, at the time as a required text in a course on epistemology and social science. Alongside assigned texts by Dilthey, Gadamer, Habermas, Rorty, Taylor, and others, this book stuck out amid those heavier philosophical tomes: through a straightforward retelling of developments in academic social science—often through brief summaries of the work of prominent individuals working in the twentieth century—and interwoven with accounts of the influence of historical events of those times, it laid bare how the varied disciplines of political science, sociology, economics, psychology and (relatedly) law came to take their current academic form.
Again, seemingly dry stuff. Except that the social sciences today are, for all practical purposes, the “master sciences” of human phenomena, having since displaced the crown disciplines of philosophy and theology during the course of the twentieth century. At most colleges today, these latter two disciplines are shrinking if not outright being eliminated, while social sciences—especially economics, political science, sociology and psychology—continue to draw large numbers of students. What’s more, they have come to predominate because they are believed to convey largely indisputable facts about human reality, in contrast to the value-laden, subjective and therefore largely “soft” disciplines in the humanities. If one wants to hold forth as an expert in politics, law, society or economics today, one must speak in the language of social science, ideally having at one’s fingertips various studies and data that buttress one’s case. Yet, informing not only the data themselves, but forming the underlying assumptions about the superiority of empirical data to the “softer” humanistic studies, are a set of presuppositions that were at one time among the most hotly debated subjects of the academic enterprise.
Thus, the origins, rise, and development of these disciplines—and, more importantly, their submerged philosophical assumptions—are of signal importance if we want to peer within the operating system of the liberal order.
Purcell tells a story in three parts: first, the rise of a confident “scientific naturalism” in the various social sciences, much of which resulted in fundamental doubts about existing egalitarian assumptions that had undergirded democratic theory (or, as it would come to be called, “democratic faith”); second, a challenge to “scientific naturalism” on two fronts, namely, a defense of the humanistic and unchanging values that were advanced by its defenders (e.g., Robert Maynard Hutchins) as nonnegotiable, as well as the simultaneous rise of fascism in Europe that laid bare some of the implications of the abandonment of ideals of equal human dignity; and third, the post–World War II pushback by and renewed ascendancy of the social scientists—led by John Dewey—who linked the “authoritarianism” of the fascists with the Thomistic philosophy of the likes of Hutchins.
The three acts in brief:
Social science in the early twentieth century was confidently going about the business of dismantling “democracy” in the name of efficiency and expertise, particularly by “following the science” that proved (sufficiently in the minds of leading social scientists) the fundamental cognitive and even moral inequality of people;
Figures like Hutchins, wunderkind president of the University of Chicago, along with a significant number of Catholics and Thomist fellow travelers such as Mortimer Adler, rejected the implications of “scientific naturalism.” These figures sought rather to restrain the rising prominence of social science, arguing instead for objective values ground in an unchanging human nature and reflected in the tradition of natural law. In the view of these thinkers, only objectively knowable and unchanging truths could truly undergird democracy against the relativism that was leading social scientists to a cult of expertise and even political fascism;
Following a flirtation with fascism, and in the wake of a volte-face following World War II, prominent social scientists shrewdly switched the narrative, claiming that fascism was essentially indistinguishable from claims of philosophical objectivity. Remarkably, some social scientists who had inclined toward fascism in the early twentieth century now regularly denounced the Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophers who had originally sounded a warning about the inegalitarian implications of social science! One began to regularly encounter the label “authoritarian” applied frequently to a pairing of fascists and Catholics. Fascism and Catholicism, it was claimed, both insisted on objective truths that led inexorably to authoritarian politics. Those who had prominently and first critiqued the relativism of social science were now tagged with the label “authoritarian,” with their accusers now claiming for themselves the label “democratic,” led especially by the philosopher John Dewey.
These sets of concepts—particularly the linking of “democracy” with value relativism, on the one hand, and “authoritarianism” with belief in metaphysical objectivity—remain widely operative today. Thus, we witness the peculiar situation in which those who extol “expertise” and insist that backward people “follow the science” (whatever it might be today) are simultaneously on the barricades defending democracy; while those who defend the ideals of classical liberty and virtue—often Catholics—are not only authoritarian, but virtually indistinguishable from fascists.
Act 1: The Affinity of Scientific Naturalism to Fascism
Social science arose to institutional prominence in the early decades of the twentieth century. Concluding that proven successes in the natural sciences had clearly displaced any other approach to objective knowledge, the methods of natural sciences were imported into the human sciences. It was believed and hoped that value-free empirical study of human phenomena could offer comparable knowledge into such fields as politics, sociology, psychology, economics and law, and—what’s more—lead to comparable predictive capacity and even power to manipulate and control the phenomena under study, i.e., human beings.
The social sciences were deeply informed by the beliefs of progressivism, ones that included (as the name suggests) a natural order that was defined by flux and change, the dominance of blind chance rather than rational order, yet the prospect of human agency and control giving definitive direction to change that would take the form of “progress.” Because most people tended to be set in their ways—less inclined to embrace change and flux—they were often obstacles to the realization of progress. A strong preference for elite and expert governance and administration was a key feature of progressive politics.
Social science research (unsurprisingly) tended to confirm these “priors.” Purcell tells of a rising concurrence of findings that led to a challenge of existing “democratic faith”—that is, what had been a longstanding belief in a relatively equal capacity of individuals to ably judge their circumstances and arrive at reasonably decent and socially beneficial conclusions. By the twenties, Purcell writes, “ideas of efficiency, administrative expertise, and scientific objectivity . . . rapidly grew.” More often than not, existing political forms forestalled genuinely rational and benevolent social order from emerging, leading to a widespread disillusionment with existing political forms.“A belief in the new objectivity opened the way for a practical role in society and possible ultimate realization of methods of control, while at the same time suppressing any moral and social doubts about the actual consequences of their actions.”1
Among the research findings that confirmed a loss of faith in democratic politics included IQ data that revealed widespread intellectual deficiencies in a broad swath of the American population (data that had been gathered through intelligence testing of U.S. troops, who had already been prescreened to exclude the mentally disabled, and thus had been believed to be above-average). Studies in psychology led researchers to conclude that individual decisions were more often than not the result of unpredictable and irrational motivations, and not arrived at by objective and reasoned assessment of knowable information. These findings and others in the various social science disciplines led prominent figures such as Walter Lippmann to renounce his “democratic faith,” arguing instead in A Preface to Politics that “the best society would be one in which a few intelligent leaders directed the majority into wise and satisfying channels of action.”
Leading social scientists pushed this argument in various directions. Harry Elmer Barnes, a professor of sociology at Smith College, proposed forms of psychological testing that would distinguish good from bad citizens. Some social scientists concluded that this differentiation had a basis in racial differences. Robert M. Yerkes—a past president of the American Psychological Association—argued that empirical testing demonstrated that racial inequality needed to be a consideration in any future changes to the political order. Leading social scientists concluded that “an administrative and scientific elite would be able to ‘direct’ popular government along rational and objective lines.”2
Perhaps the most sweeping call to reassess America’s existing order came from Walter J. Shepard, president of the American Political Science Association in 1934. In his presidential address—published in 1935 in the major journal of the discipline (then and now), the American Political Science Review—Shepard proposed a “substantial reorganization of American government.”3 According to to Shepard, “The dogma of universal suffrage must give way to a system of educational and other tests which will exclude the ignorant, the uninformed, and the anti-social elements which hitherto have so frequently controlled elections.” Looking to Europe for inspiration—a practice as popular among progressives then as now—Shepard concluded, “if this survey of a possible reorganization of government suggests fascism, we have already recognized that there is a large element of fascist practice that we must appropriate.”4
Social science across the board was tending in an ultimate direction that would likely have led to overturning “democracy” in favor of an alternative system of government that rejected the idea of human equality, prized efficiency and expertise, and called for the eclipse of “democratic faith” in favor of following the science.
Yet, today, walking through the halls of my own department of political science, one encounters this sign adorning the door of one of my social scientific colleagues:
So, what happened? How did a discipline whose president recommended fascism in its premier journal come to “❤️ Democracy”?
First, a philosophical countermovement arose that appealed to metaphysical and objective truths in which morals, justice, and the common good might be grounded. Second, the viciousness of fascism became apparent, leading social science to a reckoning—and a surprising if largely forgotten about-face.
Act 2: The Counterattack by Aristotelian-Thomists
Substantial voices of opposition challenged what was becoming the reigning orthodoxy of scientific naturalism. Purcell’s story focuses especially on the efforts of Robert Maynard Hutchins, the young president of the University of Chicago, and—remarkably—a college administrator who challenged what he viewed as the dangerous beliefs of his faculty and even effected changes on behalf of an alternative vision.
Hutchins had come to Chicago from the deanship of Yale Law School as a true believer in “scientific naturalism.” As a law professor, he had advanced the view that law could and should be adjudicated based on its effects, ones that could be measured and even anticipated. But early in his term as president, he began to doubt his scientific faith, and began to rethink his commitments to the relativist, elitist, and progressivist pragmatism that marked not only his earlier commitments, but was the defining approach of the regnant disciplines at Chicago—the social sciences.
In the period between World War I and the outset of World War II, Hutchins thought his way into an Aristotelian-Thomist position. He became increasingly vocal in denouncing the value relativism of the social sciences, seeing in its deepest commitments a threat to equal human dignity. He called for a widespread intellectual grounding in, and academic promotion of metaphysics, in particular, to truths that are “the same for all.” “Metaphysics deals with the highest principles and causes,” he argued. “Therefore, metaphysics is the highest wisdom.” Rejecting his youthful embrace of legal pragmatism, he now argued in good Thomistic terms that “law is a body of principles and rules developed in the light of the rational sciences of ethics and politics.” Only law based upon unchanging human and natural truths could conceivably achieve an objective condition of justice, order, and the common good, as opposed to mere—and self-serving—expediency. He insisted that the curriculum of the University of Chicago reflect this commitment to enduring and eternal truth, instituting the famous “core” of Great Books and hiring Mortimer Adler to lead the new program.5
John Dewey—once a leading social scientist at the University of Chicago, and by that time in his advanced years ensconced at Columbia University—launched what would become the main challenge by the social scientists against the likes of Hutchins, charging that “President Hutchins has completely evaded the problem of who is to determine the definite truths that constitute the hierarchy [of truth].” For Dewey, the danger of any knowledge of truth was that it necessarily constituted a claim of final and unassailable authority. Better that all “truth-claims” be provisional, meaning in practice that those who accepted the provisionality of “truth” would be best justified to wield power in an ongoing, but not “authoritarian” manner.
By contrast, Hutchins perceived in Dewey’s position an inexorable trajectory to the will-to-power. Unconstrained by objective and knowable truths, ones based in the metaphysical nature of reality and governed by natural law, politics was merely at base the rule of the strong over the weak. The trajectory of the social sciences, and their attraction to fascism and the rule of the overman, was already evident in Europe. Rather than seeing in European politics at the time the promise of “efficiency and expertise,” Hutchins saw beneath its apparent modern and progressive surface the politics of cruelty and domination. Speaking in 1938, Hutchins responded to Dewey, “And here the journey from the man of good will to Hitler is complete.” Hutchins would later state, “there is little to choose between what I learned in an American law school and that which Hitler proclaims.” For those who eschewed a belief in objective good and evil, there remained only power. Hutchins summary conclusion was clear: “Scientific naturalism led to totalitarianism.”6
Hutchins is portrayed by Purcell as the general commanding a forceful counterattack to the rising dominance of social science, but a similar story could be told of the response by Catholic institutions. Hutchins was part of a widespread revival of Thomism at Catholic institutions, a time of confident belief in metaphysical belief that were held to undergird prospects for justice and common good. Unafraid of charges of “authoritarianism,” Catholics agreed with Hutchins in his insistence upon a recommitment to the classical tradition, particularly the Aristotelian-Thomistic lineage. As one Jesuit publication enthused, “One cannot but feel that we have won an ally [in Hutchins].”7 Institutions like Notre Dame would soon set up “great books” programs as well as publications that advanced a distinctly Catholic metaphysical and political vision, in particular, the Review of Politics, where Catholic and Catholic-friendly figures regularly published essays and articles advancing an Aristotelian-Thomistic vision of the common good. The Notre Dame Law School established the Natural Law Institute, which hosted a series of prominent conferences on the subject of natural law and its antipathy toward Deweyanism and pragmatism. Figures like Hutchins were the outlier in the dominant academic culture; yet, it was his prominence in advancing essentially Catholic claims that, for a brief time, seemed to anticipate the ascendancy of a genuinely “Catholic moment” in America, a time when the currents of mainstream (largely post-Protestant) American intellectual tradition recognized its affinity to fascism, and when the primary source of resistance came from the Catholic intellectual tradition.
And yet—the social scientists beat back the Aristotelian-Thomist counterattack, and resumed their ascent that has made them a dominant source of authoritative governing claims today.
Previewing Act 3:
Dewey’s charge was taken up, as we will see, by the social scientists in the post–World War II years against all perceived “authoritarians”—ones who came to include not only fascists, but Thomists of various sorts, and especially Catholics. His countercharge—denouncing objective metaphysical truth as authoritarian—was now taken up against those who had previously denounced the fascistic tendencies of “scientific naturalism.” Dewey’s shrewd revision proved to be a powerful weapon once it was linked to a defense of democracy. Only those who denied “objective truth” could now be considered good democrats. Anyone who insisted on an objective truth was now tantamount to, or even indistinguishable from, a fascist.
Nor does the story end here. Quite strikingly, Dewey’s charge (“who decides”?) is exactly the same challenge made today by right liberals, including right-liberal Catholics, against postliberals and defenders of the common good. Thus, a major part of the story that continues after the period covered by Purcell is how “conservatives” (i.e., right-liberals) and even (right-liberal) Catholics ultimately internalized the Deweyan critique as a central tenet of “conservativism.” What happened next, and its influence on our own situation, will be the subject of the second part of this essay.
Coming in the first week of January 2023:
The Crisis of Democracy—Part 2: Scientific Naturalism Strikes Back—And Its Ongoing Political Legacy Today.
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Edward A. Purcell Jr., The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1973): 25, 26.
Purcell, 100, 101, 103.
Walter J. Shepard, “Democracy in Transition,” American Political Science Review 29 (February, 1935): 18, 19.
Purcell, 148, 149, 147, 145.
Purcell, 151–52, 157–58.