CONSTRUING THE (NATURAL) SCIENTIFIC CHARACTER OF PHILOLOGY
STEPS TOWARD A POSITIVIST PHILOLOGY
Oldenberg further deepened the comparison between Indology and classical philology in later writings. As he expressed it in a 1909 address to a congress of German philologists, it was not just the “existence of material relationships” between the cultures of Greek, Roman, or Christian antiquity on the one hand, and Indian antiquity on the other, that legitimated the comparison between the two.
To be Continued....
Oldenberg in his essay pursued two aims. Te first was to legitimate the claims of his discipline to being a form of knowledge, Wissenschaft, alongside and on par with classical philology. The second was to ground the claim to being scientifc, wissenschaftlich, in an ideal of method.
We shall distinguish between these two as the claim to science (or Wissenschaftsanspruch) and the claim to scientifcity (or Wissenschaftlichkeitsanspruch).The former refers to the social and pragmatic aspects of the acceptance and integration of Indology into the university canon; the latter refers to the epistemic aspects of how the university canon in general was understood such that Indology could claim to belong to it. The former aspect has been studied in great detail elsewhere, among others by McGetchin, Sengupta, and Rabault-Feuerhahn, and we shall therefore not pursue it further here. Rather, we shall focus on the second aspect, attempting what might be called a Wissenschaftlichkeitsgeschichte rather than a Wissenschaftsgeschichte of Indology here. The question we shall pursue is: on what understanding of science can Indology claim to be Wissenschaft?The search for an answer to this question takes us back to the problem of method in what have been called the human sciences
, the so-called Geisteswissenchaften.69 Although Oldenberg did not explicitly clarify wherein the scientifc character of philology lay, it is not hard to trace the roots of his understanding of science. The supposedly scientifc character of his philology was, in essence, undewritten by three implicit claims: (1) its positivism; (2) its historicism; and (3) its empiricism.
The insistence on the positive character of philology was not surprising, given the history of effect of the positivism of Auguste Comte, which largely shaped nineteenth-century attitudes and ideas of science. Positivism was the reigning intellectual current of the nineteenth century.
Emerging originally as a theory of experience, Comtean positivism infuenced the felds of economics, politics, and even engendered the feld of scientifc sociology. Besides J. S. Mill, many leading intellectuals at the time made common cause with positivism. “Alexander Bain, John Morley, George Henry Lewes, George Eliot and Harriet Martineau were partial adherents of Comte’s positivist system; others (e.g. Matthew Arnold, Henry Sidgwick and Leslie Stephan) read Comte— often surprisingly sympathetically—because, given their particular moral concerns, he was a force to be reckoned with. From the mid-1850s there was an ofcial positivist movement, led by Richard Congreve, and including E. S. Beesly, J. H. Bridges and the prolifc Frederic Harrison.”70 Beyond this list of luminaries, positivism was to have wideranging efects in the three major European powers of the nineteenth century: England, France, and Germany. Even though the form of positivism that fnally established itself in these countries was diferent in each case, nineteenth-century Europe can rightly be regarded as the greatest fowering of positivism at any time in human history.71 Owen Chadwick nicely sums up the lasting infuence of Comte, when he writes: “In the mind of every one of us, even the most devout of us, is tucked away some little secret piece of Comte
Oldenberg’s (re)framing of the scientifc character of philology in terms of positivism can thus be understood in terms of a general but paradigmatic intellectual constellation of the time. Let us see what led him to this understanding of philology.
The story of philology more or less follows the vicissitudes of the human sciences in their complex and problematic distinction from the natural sciences. Thus, in order to understand the identifcation of positivism with science tout court at this moment in European history, we should frst look at how the human sciences, headed by philosophy, split of from the natural sciences, and then at how the human sciences attempted to ground their methods in a torturous relationship with natural sciences:
the human sciences were both distinct from the natural sciences and like them. To anticipate, the three ways in which the human sciences attempted to distinguish themselves are: (1) positivism, (2) historical and/or dialectical, and (3) phenomenological-hermeneutic.In antiquity, there existed no separation between philosophy and science
.73 Take, for example, the earliest Greek philosophers, the so-called Presocratics. Teir works, which the later doxographers uniformly titled Peri Phuseōs or “On Nature,” contained both cosmologies and ethical discussions. Plato’s Timaeus likewise contained serious discussions about mathematics, the universe, space, and physiology, alongside a theology that the entire Christian tradition of the Middle Ages found meaningful. Aristotle is even more explicitly an illustration of the unifed intellectual enterprise whereby philosophy works hand in hand with scientifc enquiry. Not only does he lecture on physics, politics, biology, the soul, God, and friendship but he also clarifes the common metaphysical grounding of all these subjects, which he articulates in his study of the frst principles or the archai.In sharp contrast to this approach, modernity defnes itself by rapidly setting apart philosophy (and its branches, anachronistically called the “human sciences”) and the natural sciences.
Indeed, we could even make an argument for seeing the preliminary gesture for this division in the philosophy of St. Tomas Aquinas, who distinguished between lumen naturale and lumen revelans or “the light of natural reason” and “the light of revelation.”
Te four-faculty structure of the medieval university, encompassing, besides law and medicine, the theological faculty and the philosophical faculty (or what we today might call “arts and sciences”) can at least partly be traced back to the infuence of this division. Te philosophical faculty
(which taught subjects such as arithmetic, geometry, logic, grammar, and rhetoric) was explicitly considered a lower
(i.e., preparatory) faculty. One could further speculate, with much convincing evidence, that this distinction itself is theological in its innermost nature: Christian belief begins by separating belief and reason, assigning theology to the former. This precarious relationship between the sciences and philosophy is clear in the case of Descartes in the seventeenth century. Descartes is both a scientist and philosopher; he is quite at home in theorizing about optics, geometry, and the circulatory system of blood. And yet, in his Meditations, God is introduced to guarantee the reality of the perceived world.
This is also the case in Leibniz
; his Monadology does double duty as both a sort of atomic theory and a theology. But this tenuous relationship between philosophy and science, already distinct, does not last. Schürmann notes:
" Then progressively a shift occurs which is more than a distribution of labor: the scientist doing research and the philosopher attempting to ground scientifc discourse in the structure of the knowing subject (Kant takes Newtonian physics for granted and places it on a critical basis).
In the 19th century, the estrangement between science and philosophy is blatant: for the scientist, ‘true’ is what is empirically verifable; and Hegel’s and Schelling’s philosophical systems now appear as frightfully unscientifc. Philosophers build their concepts around such terms as ‘spirit’, ‘absolute’ etc.— before which the scientist can only shrug. Te divorce is complete. It still marks the cultural situation today. It is responsible for the sometimes desperate attempts at ‘bridging the gap’. In fact, there exist two cultures: the scientifc one and the ‘meta’–culture."74
To complicate the picture, there is a further distinction between philosophy and the human sciences. Whereas the rift between philosophy and natural sciences has been a continuous process, beginning already at the end of antiquity, the social sciences have a much more complicated relationship to the natural sciences. It is very important to understand this distinction
, because we now see philologists, with no training in philosophy, who feel quite competent to assess difcult philosophical texts of antiquity. Where from their conviction of competence? In a certain sense, the subjectivity of the social scientist, founded in his method, provides an “all-encompassing method” that becomes the bedrock of human sciences. But matters are not so simple, because in the human sciences “the researcher himself is always implied in what he studies.”75 According to Schürmann, the “divorce between science and philosophy”that occurs in the nineteenth century can be traced back to this fact.76 Te scientist now “turns away” from what is “immediately given” and “constitutes a ‘world’ of research.”77 Tis world, obviously, does not replicate the world the scientist inhabits, even though it comprises the tools (for example, hypotheses and models) he uses to understand and interpret his world. Tis solution, of course, is not available to philosophy or the human sciences, for they cannot claim to constitute a “pure” world of research, as the natural sciences can. Teir models must have a relation to reality; that is, they must themselves contain some element of the real.
We can now understand the naïveté and futility implicit in Oldenberg’s (and other Indologists’) claim that their hypothetical and reconstituted texts are the real ones. Having attempted to construe the scientifc character of their discipline on the model of the natural sciences, they were caught on the horns of a dilemma: they can neither acknowledge the texts of the tradition as the authentic ones (in which case the Indologists’ task is reduced to exegesis, that is, carrying forward the commentarial tradition) nor can they acknowledge the constructed character of their own texts (in which case they are talking about literally nothing). As much as they would like to think of themselves as (natural) scientists, the notion of purely theoretical (i.e., unapplied) research available in the natural sciences was unavailable to them. Hence, they had only one way out: to maintain the model-character of their reconstructions but insist that their models contain more of reality than the originals
.78 Ontologically, the tradition now appears defcient in comparison to its image, while ethically-epistemologically the popular reception appears naïve (“uncritical”) in comparison with the critics’ understanding.
The point is worth underscoring. Whereas the natural sciences speak of a world that is epistemologically and theoretically separated from the world the scientist inhabits, the social scientist is “both embedded in a social context” and has to “reconstitute it [i.e., his society] theoretically.
” “More than the natural sciences, the human sciences aim at practice—at practical ‘application.’ ”79 Tis practical part is essential to their constitution, but it provokes a question: in what sense can the human sciences be considered sciences when this term primarily refers to the disinterested theoretical contemplation characteristic of the natural sciences?
As Schürmann notes, “Tere is no problem with a seminar of ‘methodology in natural sciences’: that would be the inquiry into ways of producing that world of models. But there is a problem with regard to ‘social’ sciences because the ‘ways’ are directed less towards abstract knowledge than back towards social reality, towards intervention . . . ‘critique,’ frst of all. Eventually, a transformation of the society in which we live.”80 Here arises the defnitive aspect of the social scientist’s work. It is now critical not only in the weak sense that compared with the tradition the scientist appears to undertake a refection (mediated via his theoretical model) on his object but also in the stronger sense that it has an ethical-social dimension. The scientist must not only create the models that refect reality but also clarify reality back to the layperson. Practically, this took the form of Indologists trying to teach Indians how to read their own texts “critically.”Hence the twin protestations of the Indologists: “we are scientifc” and “we are useful.” A true scientist need assert neither. One does not read a journal of physics where one reads, “We are scientifc!” Tis obsessive cry of the Indologists we have so far seen is symptomatic of the intense anxiety of the social scientist. Te anxiety stems from the unavailability of the hypothetical-deductive, experimentally verifable method in the human sciences. Tus, having adopted natural scientifc method as the prototype of true knowledge, the human sciences are caught in the bind of having to continuously justify themselves vis-à-vis (natural) science. By claiming that philology is a rigorous science, philology ultimately places itself on a dangerous and doomed ground, for it will be unable to live up to the criterion of scientifcity implicit in the natural sciences.
To trace the history of attempts to legitimate the scientifc character of philology is simultaneously to trace the history of the travails of the idea of “method” in the human sciences. Let us see how the human sciences have attempted to create their own alternative method.What is it that makes the transference of the (natural) scientifc ideal into the domain of human sciences questionable? The natural scientist, when speaking of theoretical objects, makes use of concepts or terms (e.g., mass, energy) derived from the world he inhabits. However, he is able to draw a strict line between the natural scientifc usage of such terms (e.g., in formulae or experiments) from their everyday meanings. In the human sciences, no such division is available.
As Schürmann notes, the admixture of what is scientifc and not scientifc is “essentially constitutive of the domain of any discourse about society.”81 In spite of attempts by social scientists to produce formal systems analogous to those of the scientists
(e.g., the search for metalanguages in analytic philosophy, Russell’s theory of types), these attempts remain illusory. Tese systems cannot be used to predict or evaluate the outcome of experiments as in the natural sciences
(e.g., the formula E = mc2, which, provided one of the two variables is known, will always yield the second). Further, the discovery of the idea of universal history in Kant (more specifcally, the discovery of the historicity of all existence that occurs in Droysen and is raised to a methodological principle in Dilthey) makes it impossible henceforth for the social sciences to construe their objects naïvely on the model of the natural sciences. Schürmann attributes the break between the “two cultures . . . the scientifc and the ‘meta’-culture”82 directly to this discovery. Whereas the “scientifc modern mind” renounces the claim that “theory corresponds to invariable objective structures in the world [and] constitutes . . . a discursive world, [one] made of models,” the “critical mind” cannot renounce “the relatedness to a given world altogether.” “There is no ‘pure’ object of social sciences, but only an ‘historical’ one.
Thus we now turn to “historical grounding” of method. To understand the crisis brought about by the discovery of history for the human sciences, we need to take a closer look at Comte. The tension between the natural and human sciences is already present in Comte’s early work, his famous Cours de philosophie positive (six volumes, 1834–42). Volumes one through three of this work analyze the natural sciences: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology. In his fnal three volumes, Comte then deals with the social sciences, self-consciously laying the grounds for a new science. This work presupposes the “Law of the Three Stages of Humanity,” which can be summarized as follows: humanity develops via three successive stages, namely, the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. In the first, the human mind seeks to understand phenomena in terms of supernatural causes or reasons; in the second, it moves on to seeking abstract causes or reasons. Comte emphasizes that the metaphysical stage is but a transition in the development of science from a theological to a positivist inquiry.
Thus, only in the third, properly scientifc phase does the mind turn away from seeking first causes or origins and toward identifying the law underlying phenomena. Paralleling this theory of the genesis of the natural sciences, Comte also ofers an account of the material development of society: frst militaristic, then legalistic, and fnally culminating in industrialism.This law, as can be plainly seen when stated bluntly, is hardly a law in the scientifc sense. It gains its validity not by being either logically true or through empirical verifcation, but through its application
. The social scientists, especially the philologists, rest their claims regarding the scientifcity of their method on the ambiguity of this law.
A reading of Mahābhārata studies, as the German Indologists have undertaken them, reveals that Comte has been thoroughly absorbed into this discipline, to the point where most Indologists do not even realize that they are Comteans
! Note the correspondence of Comte’s Law and the textual history offered by Indology for the Mahābhārata: the epic’s textual history is divided up into three phases: an initial militaristic phase; followed by a second phase in which scheming, power-hungry Brahmans (Comte’s lawyers and jurists?) interpolated “abstract” ideas into the text, corrupting it; and fnally, a positive phase, marked by a critical approach, which German philology must fulfll
. The critical approach “stops looking for causes of phenomena, and limits itself strictly to laws governing them; likewise, absolute notions are replaced by relative ones.”84 Comte’s hypothetical law has become the absolute law that grants scientifcity to Indology.
It proceeds through an analysis of layers and identifcation of interpolations and a tireless capacity for detheologization and excision of metaphysics.
Let us now return to the third, positive stage. Comte’s sole legacy here appears to be skepticism. If this were scientifc skepticism, Indologists would be open to questioning the validity of their method; they would be able to adopt new approaches and engage in dialogue with other forms of inquiry. But this is not so. Comte’s inheritance is complex.
The law brooks no suspicions; Comte endows the fnal positive stage with its own form of dogmatism. The only diference between an earlier theological dogmatism and the new dogmatism is the law of human development. Indologists are no skeptics, for they believe in the scientifc status of Comte’s hypothesis, which allows them to continue in their positivistic praxis.
Comte clarifes the necessary dogmatism in his second major work. As Bourdeau writes:“The Considerations on Spiritual Power that followed some months later presents dogmatism as the normal state of the human mind. It is not difcult to fnd behind that statement, which may seem outrageous to us, the anti-Cartesianism that Comte shares with Peirce and that brings their philosophies closer to one another. As the mind spontaneously stays with what seems true to it, the irritation of doubt ceases when belief is fxed;85 what is in need of justifcation, one might say, is not the belief but the doubt. Thus the concept of positive faith is brought out, that is to say, the necessity of a social theory of belief and its correlate, the logical theory of authority.86”If Comte’s silencing of the critical impulse in the third, positive stage does not surprise us, it is because we have so thoroughly internalized the narrative of the apotheosis of criticism in the Enlightenment that we no longer consider it necessary to query whence comes the authority of the modern scholar. At the same time as German scholars railed against the machinations of a corrupt elite (the Brahmans), they entrenched themselves as benefciaries of an arcane method. As offcial purveyors of Indian culture to the European public, they managed to insert themselves between the text and the reader. The university ofered them a powerful bully pulpit from which to harangue theologians and philosophers, the previous occupants of the power echelon the philologists in the third and positive stage of human development wished to occupy.
And yet, there is more to the story of positivism. For, as Bourdeau notes, Comte himself underwent a kind of turn after 1846:“After Clotilde’s death in 1846, positivism was transformed into “complete positivism,” which is “continuous dominance of the heart” (la prépondérance continue du coeur). “We tire of thinking and even of acting; we never tire of loving,” as the dedication to the System put it. Positivism transformed science into philosophy; complete positivism now transforms philosophy into religion. . . . Te transformation of philosophy into religion does not yield a religion of science because, having overcome modern prejudices, Comte now unhesitatingly ranks art above science. . .. the break-up with the academic world was complete . . . . !87”
German Indology did not follow Comte down this path. It accepted a popular (and clichéd) view of positivism (even making it the basis of its “scientifc” praxis88 ), but it did not think through positivism to its end, as Comte had. As was remarked earlier in the introduction, the positivism it subscribed to was an incomplete positivism: it took the turn neither to a positivism dominated by social, emancipatory, and aesthetic concerns, as in Comte, nor to a critical positivism dominated by the rejection of a reality independent of the model-character of science, as in Mach, nor to logical positivism dominated by the verifcation principle, as in Carnap. Yet, the attempt at holding out in the third, positive stage was no solution, for Indology thereby rendered itself irrelevant to and out-of-step with wider currents in European philosophy.
Indeed, it led to an irreparable crack in the very foundation of the human sciences in particular and the Enlightenment in general. On the one hand, we have a critical science coeval with “outrageous” dogmatism; a purportedly universal humanism surrendering to the narrow hegemonic claim that European self-understanding represents the fulfllment of planetary human development; and a science that brooks no criticism. On the other hand, we have the universality of the natural sciences and its powerful integration of all humans across the world through technology. It is easy to see which element of this contradiction—German Indology as a human science or natural science as the feature of all humanity—won out in the end. The attempt to construe the scientifc character of philology on analogy with that of the natural sciences thus fails. Positivism is no guarantee of the scientifcity of Indology.
But what of the second of Oldenberg’s three candidates, historicism? Can it ground the scientifc character of Indology?
To be Continued.....