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.