Science and Marxism

Continuing somewhat with the subject of my earlier post about Kuhn and social science, I want to highlight this interview with Helena Sheehan on dialectics in science. Sheehan is Professor Emerita at Dublin City University and the author of Marxism and the Philosophy of Science – which is on my reading list, although I haven’t gotten to it yet.

Although the Stalinist legacy has resulted in Marxism now being seen as a political ideology incompatible with the logic of discovery and the process of free inquiry held as the ideals of science, I think Sheehan is correct in arguing that dialectical reasoning can provide for a more nuanced and contextualized understanding of the relationship between us and the world that we study.

On the tension between humanism and determinism:

There is a tension in Marxist philosophy between its roots in the history of philosophy and its commitment to empirical knowledge. For the best Marxist thinkers, certainly for Marx and Engels themselves, it has been a creative interaction. However, some of those pulling toward German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Kant and Hegel, have brought into Marxism a hostility to the natural sciences, influenced by the Methodenstreit, an antagonistic conceptualization of the humanities versus the sciences, which has played out in various forms over the decades. The critique of positivism has been bloated to an anti-science stance. The tendency of some to counterpose a humanistic Marx to a positivist Engels is not supported by historical evidence, as I have demonstrated at some length in my book.

Regarding Marxism and epistemology:

Marxism also addressed questions of scientific method. There is an elaborate literature dealing with epistemological questions from a Marxist point of view. There have been many debates, but the mainstream position would be critical realism. What is distinctive about Marxism in this sphere is how it cuts through the dualism of realism versus social constructivism. Marxism has made the strongest claims of any intellectual tradition before or since about the socio-historical character of science, yet always affirmed its cognitive achievements.

Regarding Popper’s falsification criterion as a demarcation between real science and non-science:

There is a need for criteria to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims to knowledge. The positivist and neo-positivist traditions contributed much to the formulation of such criteria. They did so, however, from a base that was too narrow, employing criteria that were too restricted, leaving out of the picture too much that was all too real, excluding historical, psychological, sociological, metaphysical dimensions as irrelevant. Marxism agrees with the emphasis on empirical evidence and logical coherence, but brings the broader context to bear. It synthesizes the best of other epistemological positions: logical empiricism, rationalism, social constructivism.


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