The impact of Boris Hessen

Reading: Gerardo Ienna and Giulia Rispoli, “Boris Hessen at the Crossroads of Science and Ideology from International Circulation to the Soviet Context”, Society and Politics, 2019, 13:37-63.

[These are just some preliminary notes on a very complex story I am only beginning to understand. I was introduced to the topic through discussion of a Facebook post by Martin Lenz.]

If Boris Hessen is known among historians today, it is primarily for playing a foundational role in launching “externalist” views in the history of science, or paying close attention to the social, political, and economic forces at work in the development of scientific theories. In a 1931 lecture presented at a conference in London, Hessen argued that Newton’s physics was inextricably bound up with a burgeoning early modern capitalism (“The Socio-Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia”). It was a Marxist exposition of Newtonianism, and it forcefully challenged the received opinion that Newton and his cohort were simply a bunch of politically neutral boys interested in the truth for truth’s sake. Hessen’s work led directly to Robert K. Merton’s dissertation and subsequent work which expounded “the Merton thesis”, which specifically claimed that early modern science in England had a lot to do with Protestantism, and generally claimed that, even in intellectual history, it’s not only ideas that matter.

But there is much more to Hessen than this. A short history: Hessen was born in modern-day Ukraine in 1893. He studied physics at St. Petersburg and Edinburgh, where he developed an interest in the history of science.  In 1914 he returned to Russia, and a few years later joined the Red Army to fight in the revolution. He continued his studies in physics and history in Moscow and in 1928 moved to Berlin to collaborate with Richard von Mises. Von Mises directed Hessen’s attention to Ernst Mach and the Vienna Circle, which was to prove fateful. He returned to Moscow in 1930 and became engaged in philosophical controversies over whether a good Communist could also support Einstein and be a Machian idealist. He lost these arguments – in the sense that he was accused by the Communist Party of conspiracy in 1934, and was secretly tried, convicted, and executed in 1936. He was officially rehabilitated in 1956, which probably would have pleased him had he not been dead already for 20 years.

It may seem surprising that anyone could be convicted and executed for being an idealist, but the dialectical space of the Soviet Union was a treacherous place. Earlier in the century, Lenin had argued that attempts to ground scientific knowledge in an individual’s fluctuating experience leads to the conclusion that scientific theories are necessarily open to revision as experience demands, which meant that Marxism in particular was open to revision. Hessen and his colleagues were arguing that Machian idealism (which is basically a ramped-up version of Berkeley’s idealism) was in fact a kind of lawbound materialism, inasmuch as “matter” could be  reduced to measurements and experience, and bound by lawful regularities. But in the estimation of Stalin’s courts, these arguments were insufficient – or, one speculates, the simple fact that Lenin’s word was not sufficient for these uppity philosophers was reason enough to convict them of something.

The effect of Hessen’s 1931 lecture on anglophone historians and philosophers of science was complex. On the one hand, there emerged several varieties of externalist approaches to the history of science, emphasizing economics, religion, culture, psychology, and politics in varying degrees. Some (e.g., John Desmond Bernal) held to a strictly Marxist line, putting economic considerations in front of everything else, while others (e.g., George Norman Clark and Robert K. Merton) assembled multi-causal explanations of scientific development. On the other hand, in opposition to Hessen, other historians and philosophers (e.g., Alexandre Koyré) leaned toward internalist explanations, maintaining that it was clear-eyed empiricism and logic that pushed science forward, and social factors could be safely ignored. Inasmuch as such internalist accounts were rooted in conceiving individuals as behaviorally free from social determination, they served to promote the ideology of liberal capitalism. It is not surprising that, for the most part, internalist approaches to the history and philosophy of science dominated anglophone academics for the better part of the 20th century. The principal exception was the sociology of scientific knowledge program (SSK), founded in Edinburgh by David Edge, advanced in following years by Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Steven Shapin, and Simon Schaffer.

I *think* it’s safe to say that the principal holdout nowadays for thoroughly internalist historical approaches is a sect of historians of philosophy, trained in philosophy departments with very little exposure to history. But even here, there is a steadily advancing wave of more externalist or “contextual” approaches, though these approaches still typically steer clear of economics, politics, and culture. They are contextualist only in the sense that they pay attention to lesser-read texts published in the period they study. So their subjects are still free, disembodied minds, though these minds have read more broadly than imagined previously.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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8 Responses to The impact of Boris Hessen

  1. Mark Rensema says:

    Dear professor Huenemann,

    I was sent here via Martin Lenz’s Twitter account (I am one of his students), and I would like to draw your attention to what I perceive as a misrepresentation of Lenin in your narrative. While the Stalinist appeal to Lenin in order to denounce Hessen is dubious to say the least, and cannot be taken seriously on intellectual grounds, your description of Lenin’s own position definitely does not do justice to the care and sensitivity with which Lenin argued against Machian idealism.

    The man dedicated an entire book to the critique of Machian idealism in which he raised many theoretical points, and he also touched upon the matter in various articles and other publications. And so, to suggest that Lenin was politically motivated and thought that his opponents just represented some sort of individualist deviancy and unwelcome revisionism is, frankly, to misrepresent Lenin’s critique. It suggests either ignorance of Lenin’s philosophical writings or ill-will. Lenin engaged at length with the idealists and made reasoned points. He did not merely condemn the idealists, but refuted them theoretically (and maybe he did not do so entirely or successfully, but that is quite a different critique from falsely presenting him as an ideologue).

    So, while I appreciate the attempts of professor Lenz and you to shine a light on Boris Hessen and give him the reception he may well deserve, I urge you to correct your misleading presentation of Lenin as a dogmatic ideologue. It only serves to discredit your own utterances in the eyes of those who know what Lenin argued for in his his philosophical writings, which amounts to much more than mere declarations against the idealists.

    Kind regards,
    Mark Rensema


  2. Huenemann says:

    Thank you for your comment. I will readily admit I have not read Lenin’s work in any degree of seriousness (so ignorance, not ill will). The parts I have read have not been very encouraging, and have indeed been more dogmatic than fair to his opponents, but this is only an initial impression, and I hope someday to study his writing more systematically.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Rensema says:

      I understand. And I will leave the final judgement about Lenin to you and your readers individually, of course. But I also thought it was important to point out that Lenin was a serious scholar and theoretician, too. Whatever else one might say about him or his philosophical style, then, he should prima facie be taken just as seriously as any other writer with the same output and intellectual influence.

      Thank you for posting my response and replying to me, at any rate.


    • Artamia says:

      Dear Mr. Huenemann,
      I was raised on a ‘territory’ ruled by Lenin (inspired by ideas of Marx and Engels about The Ruling Class and the Ruling Ideas)… and I dare to ask You to spend your valuable time reading other/real Philosophers who cared indeed about humanity and who never killed their opponents…


  3. Sean Winkler says:

    This is extremely interesting, such a great blog post! I wanted to offer a response to one of your claims in the post, namely, that Hessen was a ‘Machian idealist’ and that his adherence to this position sealed his fate in 1936. The idea that Hessen was a Machian idealist is very interesting and also supported by Ienna and Rispoli’s excellent and thought-provoking paper on this topic that you mention. I would argue for a slightly different position, however, which is that Hessen was through and through a dialectical materialist and that rather than adopt Machian idealism, he saw it as marking a necessary moment in the dialectical and historical process of the development of the natural sciences. Herein, Hessen wholeheartedly adopts Lenin’s arguments from Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and the Philosophical Notebooks, in which Lenin claims that while materialism is the superior philosophical persuasion over idealism, the emergence of idealist theories mark important moments in the development of knowledge, signaling breakdowns in an outmoded paradigm of materialism (triggered by the accumulation of new scientific data) and the need for a new one. Also like Lenin, Hessen maintained that the so-called ‘mechanisitic materialism’ of the 18th and 19th centuries was unable to account for various discoveries in the sciences that Machism could. Machism should ultimately be rejected due to its being idealist, but because of it, it was impossible to return to the old materialism and was necessary to incorporate discoveries made under the auspices of Machism into a new materialism, i.e. dialectical materialism. Where Hessen goes a bit further than Lenin is to say that quantum mechanics and/or relativity theory (though not in their current forms) may be able to be interpreted in a dialectical materialist way. Hessen argues for this position most explicitly in an article entitled “On Comrade Timiryazev’s Attitude towards Contemporary Science” (1927). I would argue, then, that the accusations made towards Hessen of being a Machist have more to do with him taking a nuanced approach towards it and engaging with it at all than with his having adopted it.

    Moreover, while there is ample evidence to support the idea that his philosophical and scientific theories sealed his fate, I recently came across an interesting article by C.A.J. Chilvers entitled “The Tragedy of Comrade Hessen”, which suggests that Hessen’s imprisonment and execution may have had less to do with his theories and more to do with matters such as the following: his father being a banker, his being a Menshevik internationalist during an early phase of the October Revolution (and only later becoming a Bolshevik) and even a complicated strategy by Stalin via Hessen’s wife to instigate Bukharin’s downfall. Of course, it’s possible that his theories and these other factors contributed to his fate as well.

    Thank you again for this fascinating post!


  4. Howard says:

    Was Newton’s theory inspired by the protestant idea that we connect God freely and from a distance without mediation?


  5. Howard says:

    to god, (typo)


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