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Science and Philosophy in the Context of University Studies


The Idea of the University, 1946

Science as Utilitarian versus Science as an End in Itself

Since Bacon and Descartes people have sought to justify science by pointing to its usefulness. Descartes considered the following as decisive motivations for science: its uses for labor-saving devices, for the better fulfillment of human wants, for the improvement of health, for improved efficiency on the political and communal levels, finally even for the invention of a "scientific morality." On closer inspection we see first that all technical applicability has its limits; technology is only one field in the vast realm of human possibility. Secondly, the great fundamental discoveries are manifestly not due to the considerations of their practical utility. Such discoveries were made without any thought to their applicability. They well up from levels of the inquiring mind which we cannot control or predict. Fruitful application in a host of particular inventions is possible only once the theoretical groundwork has been laid. The spirit of research and the pragmatic spirit of invention differ essentially. It would be absurd, to be sure, to contest either the usefulness of science or its right to serve the practical ends of living. These do give meaning to some branches of science. But practical usefulness cannot be the whole or the only meaning of science. This is because the need for certain inventions did not give rise to science (the great discoverers were on the whole not inventors). Invention alone could not keep scientific research alive permanently.

Some people have countered the subordination of science to technology and the improvement of living conditions by solemnly pronouncing science an end in itself.

Indeed, science is an end in itself to the extent that it expresses man's fundamental and primary thirst for knowledge. This thirst for knowledge intrinsically precedes all considerations of usefulness. For knowledge reduced to pragmatic terms is not the whole of knowledge. Man's fundamental quest does not stand for fall with any one educational ideal of history. Here knowledge is valued exclusively from the standpoint of common standards and forms for its ability to shape the whole person according to the accepted ideal. Plain curiosity, the naïve desire to see the strange and unknown and to learn about them at second hand in the form of experience and results, comes closer to preserving the primary freshness of man's quest for knowledge. But curiosity only touches things without seizing them. Quickly aroused it quickly loses interest. Before it can become an element of knowledge, curiosity must first be transformed.

Thus transformed it no longer requires justification of any sort and is correspondingly less able to account for itself. Man alone among all other beings considers himself human only so long as he involved himself in the process of knowledge. He alone is willing to face the consequences of this knowledge. He takes the risk because, regardless of the consequences to his personal existence, truth is his reward. Indeed, we come to know ourselves only insofar as we come to grips with the world about us, with the various levels and kinds of knowledge and with the intellectual formulation of possible lines of thought and action.

Man's primary will to know struggles against the self-satisfied formalism of empty learning which drugs man into the illusory calm of fulfillment. It fights against empty intellectualism, against nihilism which was ceased wanting anything and thus has ceased wanting to know. It battles against mediocrity which never takes stock of itself and which confuses knowledge with the mere learning of facts and 'results." The only satisfaction which man derives from a radical commitment to knowledge is the hope of advancing the frontier of knowledge to a point beyond which he cannot advance except by transcending knowledge itself.

The slogan "science an end in itself" was coined to express man's primary and unconditional thirst for knowledge. It has been erroneously taken to certify the intrinsic value of any factual discovery whatsoever, of each and every correct application of method, extension of knowledge, and scientific occupation. Chaos ensued. There was the uncounted mass of arbitrary factual finding, the diffusion of the sciences into a vast unrelated aggregate; the complacency of specialists ignorant of and blind to the larger implications; the triumph of the "production line" approach to learning, forever losing itself in the endless waste of mere factual correctness. Mechanized and drained of all meaning, intrinsic or human, science became suspect along with its claim to have intrinsic value.

The motto "science an end in itself" is in ill repute. The much invoked crisis of science resulted in the disavowal of all of its meaning. It was claimed that science will serve any master, that it is a whore; that it leaves the soul empty; that it is a production line indifferent to the human heart; that, essentially, it spends its time carting rubble back and forth.

These charges do apply to a degenerate pseudo-science, but not to man's primary quest for knowledge. If for medieval man knowledge culminated in the vision of God; if Hegel, in all seriousness, spoke of logical thinking as an act of religious worship; if even the logical positivist acknowledges the existence of the unknowable, then we too can experience human fulfillment in truth. More radically than ever before, men are thinking about what truth is. Modern man remains intensively alive to the ancient wisdom that nothing except the discovery of truth gives meaning to our life (even though we lack final certainty as to what that meaning is and what it implies); that nothing is exempt from our desire for knowledge; and that, above all, life seeks to base itself upon thought. These age-old insights, irreducible to psychology and sociology, have attested man's higher origin.

The only access to the conclusions is by way of science. It remains to clarify the nature of true science conceived in this way.

The Basic Assumptions of Science

The slogan "science assumes nothing" was meant as a battle cry against restrictions which would have been imposed upon learning in the form of specific unquestionable dogmas. This "battle cry" was justified to the extent that it signified science's refusal to commit itself to preconceived conclusions, to limit the scope of its inquiry, to consider anything as "taboo" or to sidestep certain inevitable conclusions.

In fact, however, there is no such thing as a science without assumptions. What is characteristic of science is that it recognizes and clarifies these assumptions in a spirit of self-criticism. Strictly speaking, science represents a tentative body of thought aware of itself and ware that whatever validity and consistency it has derives from certain specific assumptions.

Thus, science presupposes the validity of the rules of logic. Where the principle of contradiction is denied thinking and knowing are impossible. Thought intrinsically recognizes this principle. Where concepts are allowed to become vague and equivocal, where self-contradiction is not deemed an objection, speech itself has ceased to be meaningful communication. Any statement denying certain logical assumptions must respect them at least for the duration of this very denial. Whoever is unwilling to acknowledge these assumptions is unamenable to argument and can only be left alone like the "irrational plant" to which in Aristotle's phrase ha has degraded himself.

We are mistaken, therefore, when we attempt to regard knowledge as absolute. Knowledge is possible only where the laws of logic are respected. Consequently, what is known is not Being per se but those aspects of reality which present themselves in terms of the conditions imposed by our own thinking process.

Moreover, science presupposes its own desirability. It is impossible to defend science on grounds themselves scientific. No science can prove its value to one who denies it. Man's primary craving for knowledge is autonomous. We crave knowledge for its own sake, a passion whose self-affirmation remains the permanent premise of all science.

A further important assumption of science pertains to the choice of subject to be investigated. The scientist selects his problem from among an infinite number of possibilities. Obscure instincts, love and hatred may motivate his choice. In every case it is will, not scientific knowledge, which makes him decide to take up a particular subject.

Lastly, science presupposes that we let ourselves be guided by ideas. It is only through such "schemes of ideas," as Kant called them, that our minds are guided by the encompassing whole around us, even though this encompassing whole cannot itself become an object of cognition and all our conceptual schemes have only auxiliary and provisional significance. Ideas and hypotheses are thus auxiliary constructs which must disappear again for they are inevitably finite and thus inevitably false. Yet without such ideas to guide us there is no unity of focus, no direction, no distinction between trivial and important, basic and superficial, significant and meaningless, wholeness and diffusion. They form the context which motivates our special interest, permits flashes of insight and discovery and lends meaning to pure chance. The unending number of conceptual outlines guiding us, futile as they are each alone, are our only way of relating ourselves to the infinite. Yet these guiding ideas have to come alive in the scholar himself before learning can have any meaning.

All sciences make such assumptions. To these may be added the particular assumptions of particular disciplines. The theologian, for instance, believes in miracles and revelation. These topics are inaccessible and therefore nonexistent to empirical science - so far as scientific explanations are concerned. "Since science disclaims assumptions of a theological kind it requires the believer to admit no less, but also no more than this: granted that a given sequence of events is to be explained without reference to supernatural interference, such being inadmissible as empirical cause, then this sequence must be explained in the manner attempted by science" (Max Weber). Any believer can admit this much without becoming untrue to his faith.

Theological science proceeds differently. Assuming the existence of revelation, theology clarifies the implications and consequences of this faith. It develops special categories to express the inexpressible.

Both explanations, the secular and the theological, operate with assumptions. They are not, strictly speaking, mutually exclusive. Both are forms of thought which work with assumptions and see where and how far they will get with them. Both remain scientific so long as they acknowledge one another and remember in a self-critical spirit that knowability is but a mode of Being within Being, never Being per se .

When we point out that all science proceeds from necessary assumptions it is equally important to make clear what, contrary to widespread belief, we need not assume: that the world is entirely knowable, or that knowledge deals with Being itself; or that knowledge is somehow absolute in the sense of containing or providing non-hypothetical knowledge. The converse is apparent the moment we reflect on the limits of knowledge.

Nor does science presuppose a dogmatic Weltanschauung . Quite the contrary. Science exists only to the extent that such a Weltanschauung does not enjoy absolute validity, or, if it does, only if its results can survive the crucial test of unbiased examination, to the extent, in short, that Weltanschauung remains a mere hypothesis.

For decades people have noisily denied (no critical student has ever asserted it) that science can dispense with assumptions. It is useful to point out the dangers attendant upon this one-sided emphasis. All too easily all meaning is drained out of the sciences and concentrated on the premises alone, thus rendering them dogmatic. Well-meaning people, but poor craftsmen, unproductive in the sciences and uninterested in methodical study reject what they do not even know. In place of science they want something entirely different: politics, church, propaganda for various irrational drives. Instead of working hard and devotedly at their subjects and looking at things concretely, they allow themselves to slip into pseudo-philosophical talk, generally about the "whole," the "total picture." The most necessary of all presuppositions for science is a sense of direction. It has often been forgotten that science even so much as needs direction.

Science Needs Direction

Left to itself science loses this sense of direction. For a while it may seem to advance spontaneously, but this is but the lingering momentum of an impulse itself due to a deeper cause. Soon, howsoever, contradictions become apparent which threaten to bring about the collapse of the entire structure. Science as a whole is neither true nor alive without the faith on which it rests.

This can be expressed in another way. Unable to fend for itself science needs direction. Where this direction comes from, and what meaning it imparts to science is decisive for the self-realization of science. Neither utility nor "science as an end in itself" can, so we have seen, constitute the real impulse for scientific activity. Agencies external to science may, to be sure, utilize it as a means to non-scientific ends. But then the full meaning of science remains veiled. If, on the other hand, scientific knowledge becomes its own ultimate aim, then science is meaningless. The direction must come from within, from the very roots of all science - from the unqualified will to know. In submitting to the guidance of this primary thirst for knowledge, we are not ultimately led by some goal we can know or name in advance. We are led by something we find growing ever keener as we master knowledge - that is by responsive reason. How is this possible?

Our primary thirst for knowledge is not just a casual interest. It is a compelling necessity for us which forces us on as if knowledge held the very key to our human self-realization. No one piece of knowledge can satisfy us; tirelessly we keep on going, hoping to embrace the very universe through knowledge.

Propelled as it is by our primary thirst for knowledge, this search is guided by our vision of the oneness of reality. We strive to know particular data, not in and for themselves, but as the only way of getting at that oneness. Without reference to the whole of being science loses its meaning. With it, on the other hand, even the most specialized branches of science are meaningful and alive.

This oneness or wholeness of reality is not to be found in any one place. All I can ever know is a particular instance among an endless variety of things. Thus, what determines the actual direction of any inquiry is our ability to perpetuate, yet continuously to interrelate two elements of thought. One is our will to know the infinite variety and multitude of reality which forever eludes us. The other is our actual experience of the unity underlying this plurality. Still, that experience of unity cannot be had except as we face up to the fragmentary character of all human knowledge.

In one sense, then, science makes us face the facts pure and simple. Evermore sharply we realize "this is the way things are." We begin to understand what the appearances of things seem to be saying. Science compels us to face the factual appearance of things and forego premature simplification and wishful thinking. Science disenchants - destroys my rapture at the beauty and harmony of the world. Instead it fills me with horror at the cacophony, meaninglessness and unaccountable destruction of things.

In a second sense, experiencing my genuine ignorance I grow aware, if indirectly, of the unity transcending and secretly motivating my entire search for knowledge. Only this unity gives life and meaning to my search.

This meaning can no longer be rationally defined because it is beyond knowledge. Since it is unknowable it cannot serve as the presupposition for our choice of scientific objectives and methods. Only after we have committed ourselves to the quest for knowledge can we learn the source and meaning of knowledge.

If I ask myself where all this knowledge is headed for, I can only answer in metaphorical terms. It is as though the world wanted itself to be known; as though it were part of our glorification of God in this world to get to know the world with all our God-given faculties, to rethink as it were the thoughts of God, even if we ourselves can never grasp them except as they are reflected in the universe as we know it.
To the extent that learning is guided by the original impulse of rational inquiry, an impulse at once responsive to yet transcending the world about us, to that extent alone it has meaning and value. Though it is philosophy which provides this guidance, it cannot be expected to produce at will what must be left to mature spontaneously within each thinker by himself.

From all this I can conclude that science is not the firm ground on which I can rest. It is the road along which I travel so that I may grow aware of the transcendence guiding my will to know. I travel this road with all of that restless thirst for knowledge which characterizes our life in the realm of time.

Granting this view of science as a way - not an end - we shall understand that our many frustrations with knowledge are due to a loss of inner guidance. We recognize that loss whenever we allow ourselves to drift, whether from idle curiosity or because science has just become something to keep us busy. These are blind alleys from which we keep returning to heed that inner sense of direction which determines our course of study and research. We have a bad conscience when we give in to the mere "industry" to drown our sense of hopeless. Such "industry" cannot disguise the deadly inertia of meaningless work. Instead we ought to make ourselves receptive to the ideas which guide our work. These ideas stem from the transcendent wholeness motivating our search.

This concept of wholeness which guides our search, however, is not unequivocal. No one is able to grasp it in its fullness or to claim that what he grasps is universally true. No one can claim to be its sole possessor. This guidance becomes effective only in the dialogue between the thinker and the manifold objects of knowledge. It is realized through the continued forward and upward surge of learning at each point in history. It involves trial and risk. This is why science can supply the driving force toward truth and truthfulness in our daily lives.

Science as the Presupposition of Truthfulness

Science unmasks illusions with which I would like to make life more bearable, by which I hope to replace faith or at least to transform faith into certain knowledge. Science disperses half-truths which serve to hide realities I am unable to face. It breaks up the premature constructs which uncritical thinking sets in the place of tireless research. It keeps us from lapsing into deceptive complacency.

Science furnishes a maximal clarity concerning the condition of man in general and of my own person. Science provides the conditions without which I cannot live up to the challenge implicit in my native capacity for knowledge. Fulfilling this task is man's great destiny. It challenges him to show what he can make of himself through knowledge.

Science springs from honesty and produces it. We cannot be truthful unless we have absorbed a scientific attitude and mode of thought. It is characteristic of a scientific attitude always to differentiate between what is known cogently and what is not known cogently (I want to know what I know and I what I don't know). This knowledge includes the way which leads to knowledge and the boundaries within which this knowledge is valid. The scientific attitude is further characterized by readiness to accept any criticism of one's assertions. For the thinking man, for the scientist and philosopher, in particular, criticism is a necessary condition of life. There can never be enough of the kind of questioning which compels him to examine his insights. A genuine scientist can profit even from unjustified criticism. He who avoids being criticized essentially does not want to know.

Once the radical will to know, which forms the basis of the scientific quest for knowledge, has become existential reality in the life of a human being, no conditions of time and place can unmake the fact. For whom does science come to life? - not for those who lose themselves in the never ending diversity of harmless facts (which they accept without ever questioning their possible significance); nor for those who painfully strain to learn material in order to pass examinations or in order to prepare themselves to practice a given occupation. Knowledge comes t life for the real scientist. His extraordinary patience and toil become inflamed with enthusiasm. Science becomes the principle animating his whole life. Today as at all times the magic of science can be experienced by young people for whom the world is challenging. And today too (perhaps even more than ever before) we experience the burden of science; science endangers both the naïve strength of the non-self-conscious as well as the illusions requisite for living; what Ibsen called the "life lies." It takes courage to conceive by questioning, instead of merely learning by rote. The old maxim still applies: sapere audel (Dare to know!)

Science and Philosophy

We are now in a position to make some coherent statements about the relationship of science and philosophy. These two do not coincide. Nor is philosophy just one science among others. It is, in fact, essentially different in origin, method and meaning. Nevertheless science and philosophy are closely connected.

Science defends itself against the confusions attendant upon its being linked up with philosophy. It fights what it takes to be the fruitless interference of speculative effort. In brief, it develops a characteristic hostility toward philosophy.

Yet science is able to acknowledge its own limits. Since it does not grasp the whole of truth it leaves philosophy free to cultivate its own area of inquiry. It neither endorses nor denies the value of philosophical findings. It does not interfere so long as philosophy itself does not pass judgments upon matters accessible to scientific research. Science keeps close watch on philosophy in order to keep it from advancing unfounded statements and imaginary proofs. Science does this to the advantage of both science and philosophy.

Science stands in need of philosophical direction, but not in the sense that philosophy is used by science itself or furnishes sciences with its proper objectives. These are precisely the ways in which science and philosophy are not to be related. Rather, philosophy is effective in motivating a genuine will to know. Philosophy also furnishes those ideas from which the scientist derives his vision and which determine his choices by impressing his whole person with the essential importance of knowing. Philosophy pervades science. It guides it without itself being accessible to scientific methods. Thus science pervaded by philosophy is philosophy becoming concrete. As the sciences grow aware of the implications of their own activity they do in fact consciously philosophize. The kind of benefit the scholar and scientist derive from philosophy is not of a practical sort. In studying philosophy they do, however, grow aware of the total contest of their work. Moreover, they acquire new and stronger motivations for research and a heightened awareness of what their scientific activity means.

Philosophy acknowledges sciences as indispensable to it. Although aware of its difference from science, genuine philosophy acknowledges its bond to science. Philosophy n ever permits itself to ignore realities accessible to knowledge. Philosophy demands to know whatever is real and cogent. It wants what is real and cogent to become fruitful for its growing self-awareness. Whoever philosophizes is impelled toward the sciences and seeks experience in the scientific method.

Because the scientific attitude guarantees truthfulness, philosophy becomes the champion of science against anti-science. Philosophy considers the preservation of a scientific mode of thought indispensable to the preservation of human dignity. Philosophy recognizes the truth of Mephisto's threat: "Disdain reason and science, the greatest of all human powers, and I have you in my grasp."

K. Jaspers, The Idea of the University, English transl. by H.A.T. Reiche and H.F. Vanderschmidt (London: Owen 1965), pp. 30-43.