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What We Mean By "Science"

Due to the fact that I've often thrown the term science around on this blog in reference to the historical and dialectical materialism initiated by Marx and Engels, I have decided that it might be worthwhile to discuss what I mean.  Considering that we live in a time where this concept is prevalent, and where it is applied to a variety of disciplines, I realize that when those of us who are committed to communism speak of a revolutionary science, or a science of history, we are often misunderstood.

To be clear, when I apply the word "science" to the methodology of historical marxism, I am not attempting to conflate it with those scientific disciplines that are now, thanks to a long post-enlightenment history of experiment and technology, considered to be the sciences.  That is, I do not think that historical and dialectic materialism are completely identical to biology, chemistry, physics, or the queen of the sciences, mathematics.  These sciences, obviously, have become the primary articulations of the term and, in their articulation, have produced a very specific definition of science that is not what was meant by Marx, Engels, their contemporaries, or the enlightenment thinkers who initiated the modern concept as well as initiating those disciplines now thought to be the only proper scientific terrain.

Now science is primarily defined as something that is connected to mathematical justification and/or laboratory experiment.  Something that is sometimes instrumental because it produces technological developments, organic insights, serums, etc.  That which produces material results: not entirely a bad definition by itself, though maybe entirely bad based on the kind of results and conclusions that have been historically produced when this sort of concept of science is left to its own instrumental rationality.  Racial sciences, heteronormative and patriarchal sciences, anti-life technologies––these are the results of a science defined according to instrumental and laboratory logic, stripped of historical and philosophical intervention, developing according to the ruling ideas of the ruling class.

Thus, it is also interesting to note that, ever since this instrumental and positivist definition of science (much critiqued by the Frankfurt School) became dominant, other disciplines that were outside of the sphere of natural and mathematical sciences have attempted to define themselves as science according to this dominant redefinition.  After all, if the natural and mathematical sciences possess a logic that, by its very nature, can produce material results, then maybe if another discipline was to import that same logic it could produce similar results.  Hence the messy importation of positivism into sociology, psychology, economics.

The thing is, the social sciences actually became unscientific the moment someone attempted to hammer them into the logical mould of the natural and mathematical sciences.  Laboratories are alien to psychology, for example, and have produced no real scientific data, regardless of what positivist psychologists think: all this practice has done is attempt to masquerade as biology and chemistry, when psychology is not biology or chemistry, and as much as I have problems with Freudian psychoanalysis I would have to say that this was more properly scientific, according to the rationality of psychology, than this attempt to make psychology pass as biology/chemistry––which it is not.  Similarly, attempts to turn sociology and economics into something identical to mathematics, as if populations and markets can be quantified by algorithms, is utterly unscientific because this method does not begin, as every science must, by what the object of investigation is… and humans and human-made markets are not pure math.

Unfortunately, this type of "scientification" only makes the social sciences appear laughable to those who study the natural and mathematical sciences.  Just because you put on a white coat and study people in a laboratory does not mean you're doing the same thing a biologist or chemist does.  And just because you learn some elementary math to further mystify a reified market abstraction does not mean you're a physicist or a proper mathematician.  No: it means you're an impostor, you're not approaching your own discipline in a scientific manner, and are clinging to the hegemonic notion of science that was popularized through the instrumental successes of the natural and mathematical sciences––the material importance of which, for either progression or reaction, there can be no doubt.

So what, then, do those of us who use science in the way Marx and Engels (as well as their contemporaries and enlightenment precursors) mean?  The enlightenment definition of science was synonymous with the enlightenment definition of modernity and, according to Samir Amin, this definition was that humans and only, rather than some divine destiny, make history.  From this basic understanding arose the birth of the "new" sciences.  Before the enlightenment, attempts to explain reality were generally (though there were always brilliant exceptions that were non-normative) mystified: if there was a drought it was because God or the gods were angry, if there was plague it was miasma, etc.  The scientific world order was founded on an attempt to explain things according to material logic.  Natural phenomena, then, should be explained according to natural, rather than supernatural, causes––this was the job of the natural sciences.  Similarly, social phenomena (history, economics, psychology) should be explained according to social causes––this was considered no less scientific than the natural and mathematical scientists and it is important to note that every enlightenment thinker did not consider the social sciences any less scientific than the natural/mathematical scientists, just different.

Francis "measure-of-all-things" Bacon also believed that the socio-historical could be "scientific"

(Here it is worth pointing out, as an aside, that although the enlightenment rise of the "new" sciences happened in Western Europe, most of its pre-cursors were outside of Europe.  Colonialism, the period of mercantile capitalism, helped produce this period of modernity.  Many of the concepts that were instrumental in providing the groundwork for the European Enlightenment, as third world marxists and anti-colonialists remind us, were appropriated from societies the colonial European states conquered, colonized, and/or genocided.  This is why the Enlightenment, though emerging in a quickly capitalizing Europe, is also the product of world history, but a world history claimed by the rising and vicious hegemonic states.  As theorists like Walter Rodney claim, this enlightenment could not have happened, regardless of its geographical emergence, without the wholesale theft of ideas, based on the wholesale theft of land and people, of the colonized.)

Therefore, when we speak of a science of history, in the words of Marx and Engels, we are speaking of an explanation of history according to historical causes.  We are looking for an internal, material explanation of historical motion rather than seeking recourse to external phenomena that transcends the socio-historical plane.  Furthermore, as with the natural sciences, that which is the most scientific possesses the most explanatory depth.  On the social/historical plane this means, if we are to explain social/historical phenomena according to social/historical causes, our explanation has to provide the best account of this phenomena, satisfying it according to the boundaries of the science.  If the explanation cannot account for what actually happened, then it is not properly scientific.  So this is also why critical historical materialists speak of marxism as a living science, as something that constantly needs to be reinvestigated, though not revised, according to the concrete phenomena of the concrete world.

Finally, according to this root definition of science, universal applicability is a key concept––which is why I waste so much time on this blog, probably to the confusion of some, speaking about this notion.  Science is scientific because of its universally applicable concepts: when it comes to mathematics, after all, the concept of <1+1=2> is generally applicable everywhere, even if it is mediated by particularities of language and articulation.  Thus, in the social/historical sphere, Marx and Engels sought to initiate the same universal applicability.  And this is what they meant by science––an older and originary definition of the term––as opposed to how the concept has been loaded, annexed, and fully appropriated by positivism.


  1. I don't have lots of time to back this up at this point, but one other way to look at Marxism (or historical materialism) as a science is to see it as a science of emancipation. That is, try, fail, try again but differently, fail again but differently, ... etc.

    1. Hi Jeremiah: thanks for the elaboration. Yes, I think this is a correct way to look at science, though I agree it requires another small essay to explain. I recall that Simone De Beauvoir said something similar about science and how it was historically "ambiguous" in that it developed based on the try/fail/try-again principle––always open to the future. Once it closes itself off and becomes dogmatic, that is, it is no longer properly "scientific". This is also what people like Amin were getting at when they spoke of marxism as a "living science." Plus, on the level of emancipation, it is useful to regard that giant section in *Anti-Duhring* where Engels links freedom to a scientific understanding of necessity.

  2. 'Laboratories are alien to psychology, for example, and have produced no real scientific data, regardless of what positivist psychologists think' -- i was confused by this. could you explain what you mean?

    1. I mean precisely what the sentence says: the results gained from positivist psychology (where people are studied in laboratory settings) have the veneer of scientific veracity because they resemble biology but have not produced the same kind of truth process that is produced by biology and physics. In fact, if you ask a physicist or biologist what they think about psychology as a science and the laboratory format of psychologist, most of them will call it pseudo-science. (I was actually searching for a link where a physicist argues back and forth with psychologists about this but I can't find it.) All you have to do is glance through the pages of Psychology Today to see what is considered "scientific", when it is really idealist in the worst sense, amongst the psychology community: evolutionary psychology (which is considered a joke by evolutionary biologists and is also reactionary), and a lot of racist and sexist claims that are being passed off as scientific.

      The problem is that, like a lot of disciplines, psychology tried to make itself seem more scientific by importing positivist methodology. I think that the work of Freud and Lacan, though deeply flawed (in my opinion), is actually more scientific in the larger sense of the word––it is actually looking for psychological explanations according to psychological categories––then the psychology that passes as "scientific" simply because it looks like biology. Really, neuro-scientists can do a better job of doing what positivist psychologists claim to be doing––and just because some psychologists are using CAT scans doesn't make them neuro-scientists.

  3. Hi JMP.

    I have a question if it is not too late for me to ask and get an answer from you (almost two years since you posted this):

    You said in the article that, "The enlightenment definition of science was synonymous with the enlightenment definition of modernity and, according to Samir Amin, this definition was that humans and only, rather than some divine destiny, make history." I am wondering who exactly Amin says came up with this definition. You talk vaguely about the Enlightenment thinkers who came up with the definition of science that Marx and Engels were using, but I am wondering who specifically came up with this definition that you quote from Amin. I assume it was more than one person.


  4. I can't think of anyone off hand because I'm not a historian. This is generally the accepted definition of the enlightenment, and the ways in which enlightenment philosophers saw the world, that you find in a standard course about the enlightenment period and thought. Bacon of course make a number of "enlightenment" claims, as do Marx and Engels retrospectively in the Holy Family. It was less an actual definition than the just the way thinkers in the enlightenment thought about science as opposed to religion. (I'm pretty sure it was Bacon who drew the famous line, and recall how the "enlightenment" was a term invented later.) Amin, as most people thinking about the period, take this description as axiomatic.


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