The Limits of Science 1907

Has science overstepped its bounds in America? If it has it hasn’t happened overnight. It’s been a long time coming. Rudolf Eucken wrote about it at the turn of the 20th century. What he said then is still relevent today.

Eucken-im-Alter.png
Rudolf Eucken 1846-1926

The Limits of Science, by Rudolf Eucken


A deep-rooted opinion, which appears today as if it were quite self-evident, is that Science has to supply man with knowledge, and that he cannot expect knowledge from any other province of life.

There can, indeed, be no doubt that, when Knowledge is taken in the widest sense of the term as meaning a description and explanation of Reality, Science stands pre-eminent; but the matter appears in quite another light when I the conception of Reality is taken in the definite sense which occupies our attention in this volume. For it is easy to see that it is only an inexact conception of Science, is especially of Modern Science, that can view the task of Knowledge as Science’s entire monopoly.

Modern Science has attained its greatness and its value indeed, has only become a Science in a definite and exact sense because it has succeeded in viewing the customary projection of human ideas, feelings, and aims into the universe as an intolerable confusion; it has opposed such a view with the greatest persistency, and has learned to see things in their own nature, apart from their supposed human qualities.

This has happened most specifically with regard to the physical universe; but even in regard to History and the life of the soul man has attempted to conceive of things as real facts without any admixture of subjective interpretation and valuation. The subjective factor has generally been conceived and condemned as an illegitimate ingredient indeed, as a falsification of the facts and a purely objective consideration of things has been striven for.

It is in this way alone that Science can develop its own methods as well as connect its material into a kingdom of its own. The fact that man is able to place his own subjectivity in the background, and is able to present before himself something outside himself constitutes something of the greatest significance, something that testifies, even in the denial of the activity of the mind as really making anything known, to a distinctive greatness that has to be taken into account in any accurate and complete view of man. But such a fact marks also an insuperable limit to Science.

The results and value of Science depend upon the fact that any disparity between Object and Subject any opposition of external things to the mind that knows them is obliterated. The factual, striven after by Science, dare not suffer any intrusion through attempts at dovetailing it into something mental or interpreting it by means of some human analogy.

Thus Science, the more it progresses, divests itself more and more of all anthropomorphic trimmings and removes the facts further and further from being conceived as having their existence in the human mind. The experience of the present day indicates this with special clearness. Natural Science especially eliminates more and more clearly from its products all its relation to human reflection, and seeks all its conclusions and simplifications entirely within its own external domain.

Thus Physics at the present day is not conceived as at an earlier period in that the differences of our senses do not any longer suffice as a principle of division (Optics, Acoustics). When the effort is most diligently made to resolve the multiplicity of phenomena into the fewest possible elements, and, indeed, finally to one element, it is evident that the whole is not thus brought inwardly nearer to us. Such a tendency must on the contrary remove this final simplification further and further from our sensations and perceptions. In so far as such attempts of Science succeed, the results are bound to leave us inwardly alien to them; and consequently the meaning of the whole remains in darkness. We clarify the relations of things, but we do not know what lies beyond them.

Further, with regard to the view of History, modern investigation eliminates from all events the nearness of the soul and also the seeming transparency which events seemed to possess in earlier times. In the thought of antiquity, Past and Present flowed inseparably together, so that the Here and Now became a key to what had gone before, and so that anything of value which had arisen anywhere seemed to remain valid for all times, and capable of being furthered by all men.

But afterwards came exact investigation with its criticism, and broke ruthlessly down the connections of epochs. While the nature of epochs were more clearly depicted, this specific isolation of each epoch was shown at the same time; the interval between ourselves and each and every epoch has been indicated, and an easy transition from epoch to epoch has been made impossible. The subversive effect of this point of view has been experienced especially in religion. For it was essential for religion to interpret unique events as Standards, and to show their necessity for all times.

This could only happen on condition that religion did not insist entirely on the particular colouring of any special epoch, and on condition that it was equally intimate with all times and equally trusted and saw the meaning of them all. Scientific investigation, however, is unable to envisage such a view in any exact manner without discovering in it a coercion of the Past; so that such an investigation, notwithstanding all it gains in insight, removes us from the Past in a manner which cannot be tolerated. We are on this view unable any longer to unite our lives with the Past in an intimate manner; we are unable, as it seemed possible at an earlier period, to understand our own nature as connected with the whole of things. Thus Science separates us and the objects far from each other, while it teaches us to view the objects in their own connections.

Different periods thus seem, on fuller investigation, to conflict with each other more than to bind themselves together in a friendly relation. And, further, the domain of historical development has extended beyond our range of comprehension, so that a total view of things, an insight into the meaning of the whole, and the connection of the individual with the whole have become impossible. The scientific research concerning History and the History of Philosophy differentiates the two provinces more and more sharply. All attempts at finding the final grounds of things are shattered upon the immeasurable fulness of the bare factual which surrounds us.

It is clear, as the particular sciences in their advancement remove ever further from Knowledge as related to man and his life, that the union of the sciences and the connection of their relations are unable to grant us Knowledge in the definite sense already referred to. Doubtless there originate valuable tasks and combinations of the particular sciences from the proofs of their resemblances and differences, because there is room by the side of the particular sciences for a Theory of Science.

But such a Theory of Science is by no means a Philosophy: mere notifications with regard to the provinces of the sciences can never bring to us anything essentially new, or enable us to attain any higher level for viewing things connectedly. The claim so often made to-day of the possibility of developing a theory of the universe from Science can only arise if a Theory of Science signifies in any manner an insight into reality from a false mode of thinking which becomes possible only by mixing Philosophy with Science and especially with Natural Science.

To-day it is Monism especially which believes itself able to construct a theory of the universe from Natural Science, The transformation of Natural Science into a theory of the universe is only possible through overlooking the Subject (man and his mind) as well as the mental process which carries on the work of Science, and also by overlooking what this mental and spiritual process has brought forth and ever brings forth in the form of contents and aims in the universal life of mankind outside the realm of Science as well as side by side with it. The theory of the universe obtained by leaving these values out of account is much too narrow in its thought- content; and the picture of the universe here presented is much too poor and shallow.

Thus the confusing of Philosophy and Science produces a shallowness and an alienation within our world of ideas. When the representative of a ” scientific theory of the universe ” does not allow of a contradictio in adjecto, and presents his impossible solution as the only possible one, this can mean nothing other than that the certitude which is reachable within Science, and especially within Natural Science, is unconsciously applied to the meaning of the whole universe. Evidently in this case one is not aware that in the recognition of the facts we have mentioned a transition has taken place which sets forth new demands.

Thus it is incorrect to think that the problem cannot be solved in another way or that the scientific method is the only valid method a method that leads us into difficulties of an inner kind. Hence we conclude that Science is unable to discover Knowledge in the sense in which we conceive of Knowledge, and that it is unable to unite from within man and the world. A view of the limits which Science in this respect certainly has shows that the nature of Science, and especially of Modern Science, is not perceived with sufficient clearness. To perceive the specific greatness of Science means at the same time to perceive its limitations.

%d bloggers like this: