The Flight from Reality: 9. The New Reality
JUNE 01, 1965 by CLARENCE B. CARSON
Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College,
[T]he characteristic mood of our own age [is] that the historical condition determines the human situation. Man’s existence is history; or "life and reality are history, and history alone," as Croce said.
-Hans Meyerhoff, 1959
From the perspective of the post-Second World War era, the work of the generation of the 1890′s can be viewed as a "first attempt" at accommodation to a "new conception of reality."… In this process of concession and adaptation, the "activity of human consciousness" for the first time became of paramount importance. —H. Stuart Hughes, ¹958
We invoked what we believed to be the three constitutive facts in the consciousness of Western man: knowledge of death, knowledge of freedom, knowledge of society…. The third revelation came to us through living in an industrial society…. It is the constitutive element in modern man’s consciousness. -Karl Polanyi, 1944
It has been said that man is incurably religious. It may be said with equal validity that man is incurably metaphysical in his thought processes. The flight from reality of intellectuals commenced with the cutting loose of ideas from their foundations in an underlying order. This was an attempt to slough off metaphysics, for metaphysics is the philosophical study which treats of the underlying order. In the course of time, it became (and still is) commonplace in intellectual circles to denounce conceptions—any that happened not to be considered worthy of consideration—as being "metaphysical." In short, metaphysics was laughed out of court; scorn and abuse were heaped upon this mode of thought.
Pragmatists boldly proclaimed a philosophy that was supposed to be shorn of metaphysical assumptions. They proposed to operate upon a basis of continuous experimentation to find successful methods within an ever shifting context. Rigorous adherence to pragmatism, however, would result in some surprises for pragmatists. They would begin to discover that there are regularities, that actions essentially the same will result in predictable consequences.
In brief, if the pragmatists adhered strictly to their method, they would begin to acquire knowledge. If they probed a bit deeper, they would discover that there are laws which account for these regularities and predictabilities. At the point that they discovered and believed in laws and principles they would return most likely to a truly metaphysical outlook.
In general, this has not happened. It certainly has not happened among ameliorative reformers, and these generally like to think of themselves as pragmatic. The reason is not far to seek. At the time of the setting forth of pragmatism, thinkers were already coming under the sway of a "new reality." This new reality was based upon assumptions which served in lieu of and could be used in somewhat the same manner as metaphysics. This is not to say that the conceptions were indeed metaphysical. There is no need to corrupt the language by so denominating them. Rather, they served in this capacity; they rested upon conceptions of an underlying order. Explanations were made in terms of this "order." Pragmatism became largely a philosophy to justify the expediency of men operating on the basis of the "new reality."
Though the conceptions drawn from this new reality are used metaphysically, the fact is not generally recognized. Moreover, they are not subjected to rational examination. The decline of philosophy and the growth of irrationalism have made this state of affairs possible. Even ideologies in
Three Basic Constituents: Change, Society, and Psyche
There are three basic constituents of the "new reality." They are: change, society, and psyche. These are not separate realities but interrelated parts of a single reality. Historically, each of them, as a metaphysic-like entity, can be traced back to its origins in nineteenth century European thought. Change was "reafied" in the thought of Hegel, Marx, Spencer, and Darwin. Society was "thingified" by a line of thinkers that includes Burke, Comte, Marx, and Mosca. Psyche began to assume its modern proportions for Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Adler, and Jung. These ideas were picked up and extended by such Americans as Frederick Jackson Turner, James Harvey Robinson, William Graham Sumner, Charles A. Beard, Lester Frank Ward, John Dewey, William James, Thor-stein Veblen, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
The story of this transmigration of ideas—of Americans traveling to Europe, of their becoming enamored particularly with German thought, of the visits of European scholars in America, of the founding of schools in America based upon European ideas—is much too extended and complex even to be summarized here. Suffice it to say that such events occurred, and that American thinkers frequently followed paths very similar to their European counterparts. As a result of this interchange, American intellectuals embraced and expounded a "new reality."
Three sorts of explanations can be made from the vantage point of this new reality: historical, sociological, and psychological.
Three specialized intellectual "disciplines" were developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to make these explanations: history, sociology, and psychology.
History a Tool for Change
Of course, history was not new to the nineteenth century. It had been consciously written since the time of Herodotus in ancient
There was no problem of remaking sociology. There had been no such study or discipline for traditional scholarship. It was only developed after some thinkers began to believe in the reality of society. Its founding is usually ascribed to Auguste Comte, but it can be traced through a host of thinkers in its development. At any rate, sociology became the "discipline" to deal with society.
Psychology was a traditional study; it was a branch of philosophy historically. It has already been noted that the house of philosophy fell apart in the wake of the labors of Hume and Kant. Even so, psychology had to be wrested from the hands of philosophers who tried to cling to it before it could be "independent." The assault was upon introspective psychology (which was, in turn, innate psychology), and the effort was to make psychology scientific, or so its proponents claimed. The New Psychology was shaped by Wilhelm Wundt, Sigmund Freud, William James, John B. Watson, and others. Many different schools of psychology emerged, but they all shared a common faith in the New Psychology.
The initial effort, then, was to make history, sociology, and psychology separate intellectual disciplines, to get them recognized as a part of the curriculum of education, and, usually, to get them recognized as sciences in their own right. But in the twentieth century there has been a considerable movement to "integrate" these studies. Those who want this have probably had their greatest success in the public schools, where, in some instances, they have been merged into social studies courses. But where they have retained some separation, as is usual, a great deal of "integration" has taken place. For example, sociological and psychological explanations now pervade much of the writing of history. There is a kind of inherent logic to this movement to merge these studies. If they could be joined, a New Philosophy might emerge to deal with the "new reality." Actually, of course, this New Philosophy has already emerged and is used to make explanations of developments. Such explanations are, of course, historical, sociological, and psychological.
All Social Science Affected
It may be objected at this point that history, sociology, and psychology do not deal with the whole of reality for contemporary intellectuals, even if they are supposed to deal with part of it. There are, after all, a great many other studies and approaches to learning. The above named do not even include all of the "social sciences." What of economics, of political science, of anthropology? It is in order to point out that these have been historicized, sociologized, and psychologized, if one may employ somewhat facetiously a barbarized language. Note that this is precisely what Thorstein Veblen did to economics. My impression is that European economists regularly write in a way that we would call sociological. The critic may observe that the economic tail often wags the sociological dog in practice. This is only a surface observation, however, for economics is first permeated with sociological assumptions. Economic determinism, for example, is a sociological or psychological, not an economic, idea. As for political science, it is usually filled to overflowing with the above ideas. Anthropology is largely the result of the application of historical, sociological, and psychological methods to the study of primitive societies.
That group of studies known as the humanities may be disposed of quickly. Language has come to be thought of increasingly as an "instrument of communication." Literature is not only arranged chronologically but quite often taught historically. Philosophy, deprived of its content (except the history of philosophy and a few esoteric subjects such as ethics and esthetics) has tended to wither on the vine. My main point, however, is that the humanities—or rather, those who teach and speak for them—do not speak authoritatively of any reality other than the historical, sociological, and psychological.
But surely, it may be argued, contemporary thinkers believe that the material realm, that realm with which the sciences are supposed to deal, is real. It is frequently asserted, by those who disagree with them, that reformist intellectuals are materialists. Nothing can be more readily demonstrated than their perpetual concern with material things, with better housing, with better diets, with higher standards of living, and so on. Yet these things are not real, in the sense we have been employing the word, to reformists. The natural world has no enduring form which would make it real. It is something brute, to be made over according to human will. The sciences are instruments to this end.
Actually, the sciences have not been subdued as yet to this new conception of reality. The specialization that has occurred there plus the complex techniques now employed, make them largely terra incognita to nonscientists. The "social sciences" were born out of a desire to make the study of social phenomena scientific. Pragmatism was a more general application of an abstracted scientific method. The respect for the Sciences (personified) has continued, but there has been much talk of bringing them under control. But the sciences, too, have been largely severed from their philosophical roots; and since they are restricted to the world of nature, they pose no real threat to the "new reality." If and when reformist intellectuals achieve social controls, they are, of course, in control of scientists, too.
The sciences have played a duel role within the framework of the "new reality." In the first place, they are instruments for reshaping the physical environment to the needs and purposes of man. Second, they provided the method which was to be used for reshaping society and man. Lester Frank Ward, the American catalyst for so many of these ideas, stated the matter bluntly:
… We saw in the last chapter that most individual achievement had been due to invention and scientific discovery in the domain of the physical forces. The parallel consists in the fact that social achievement consists in invention and discovery in the domain of the social forces….
If we carefully analyze an invention we shall find that it consists first in recognizing a property or force and secondly in making material adjustments calculated to cause that property or force to act in the manner desired by the inventor…. Now the desires and wants of men constitute the forces of society, complicated, as they are in the higher stages, by the directive agent in all its manifold aspects. Social invention consists in making such adjustments as will induce men to act in the manner most advantageous to society.’
The story of the deactivation and instrumentation of the sciences deserves a separate chapter, or book. It was one of the most momentous developments of the modern era. Unfortunately, it must be reduced here to a few sentences. The sciences were once conceived as a method for getting truth about the universe, truth which provided a key to the purpose of God for man.² So conceived and employed, they provided much information about an underlying order in the universe. Techniques were instruments, within this framework, for the discovery of truth.
But in the course of the nineteenth century, intellectuals (and everybody else, I suspect) began to confuse science with technology. When science came to be identified with technology, it had been "instrumented"; its truths became important as they were renderable into techniques. By the middle of the twentieth century, there was much voiced concern about the need for a revival of "pure" research. The justification was that this would lead to the discovery of laws which would, in turn, be renderable into techniques for technological purposes. In short, the sciences had become the handmaidens of technology.
The point of this discussion needs to be spelled out so that misunderstanding will be avoided, if that is possible. Nothing said is intended to disparage technology or to deny the connection between the sciences and technology. (Benjamin Franklin felicitously demonstrated the connection between science and technology around 200 years ago. He reasoned that lightning is electricity. He performed his famous kite experiment to prove his hypothesis. Since lightning is electricity, since electricity is a natural phenomenon, it behaves in predictable ways. In consequence of these conclusions, he made the technological application—e., invented the lightning rod.) My point is that when the scientist became identified with technology, he ceased largely to speak authoritatively about the nature of the universe and, instead, provided means for manipulating things within it. He ceased to provide information about an enduring reality, or rather, he no longer made available information which was understood in this way. The treatment of reality was left to the proponents of the "new reality."
Instruments of Reform
Not only were the sciences "instrumented," then, but also they provided the method by which social reform was to be undertaken. Lester Frank Ward was enamored of the analogy between the social and the physical, and he treated the analogy as if it were a one-to-one relationship. "The sociologist," he said, "who really believes there is such a science has a right to claim that all the social forces may be utilized as the physical ones have been. He classes those who maintain the contrary along with those who once believed that the thunders were only engines of destruction, the winds powers of evil, and the gases demoniacal spirits."³
Ward’s is the underlying preconception of contemporary ameliorative reform. It should be noted that several strange equations were made: science with technology, the physical with the social, things with people. Ward saw nothing untoward, at that point, in recommending that people be manipulated according to the prescriptions of sociologists, in the same manner as physical scientists prescribe the manipulation of things. Neither has many another reformer.
The Personification of History
Before examining further the import of the "new reality," however, it is in order to give some demonstrations to substantiate the assertion that these conceptions of change, society, and psyche are used in a metaphysic-like manner. What does it mean to treat change as if it were real? It means to treat it as if it were an entity, a being with properties, attributes, and characteristics. Actually, this has frequently been done with change by personifying (thingifying, reafying, anthropomorphicizing) it as History.
Let us take a simple and not very significant example first. One often hears some such statement as this: History will decide whether so and so was a great President or not. This is palpable nonsense. There is no such being as History to render any such decision. It may be objected that I am taking a figure of speech literally, that those who make such statements really mean that historians will decide whether or not someone was a great man. If this latter were indeed the meaning to be attached to the initial statement, it would make sense, but it would be in error. historians do not assemble in a great parliament to render the final verdict upon the characters of the past (for which oversight we should all be grateful). If they were to do so, they would only be playing at being gods. Those who have insufficient knowledge about such matters may suppose that historians come to a consensus about important figures of the past. This is not really the case. Vigorous controversies still go on about figures in the most distant past. In short, there is no reality which conforms to the view that History reaches final decisions.
But there is much reason to suspect that this usage is derived from a much more serious personifying of history. The usage to which I refer is the treatment of history as force or as a vehicle for a number of forces. The conception involved is that the past shapes the future, that the past contains trends, movements, developmental directions which act as forces upon the present and the future. These forces are thought of as acting ineluctably and inevitably to bring about certain developments.
The most famous of such theses was that of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but the idea informs all reformist thought in the contemporary era. Progressivism is deeply embued with the idea of history as a progressive force. It becomes apparent in such notions as the following: you can’t turn back the clock; the latest is the best; it is necessary to adjust to changing times. Such words and phrases as the following, when they are used to refer to ideas, draw their sustenance from this view of history: reactionary, backlash, neanderthal, anachronistic, and so on.
Is Society Real?
The second ingredient of the "new reality" is society. The belief in the reality of society was a precondition to the development of sociology, no doubt, and a continuing assumption of those who pursue the study. At any rate, that is the way it was and generally has been. But before going further with this analysis some distinctions should be made. There are social phenomena. Such phenomena include institutions, customs, traditions, folkways, habits, behavior patterns, and so on. Moreover, it may be descriptively useful to refer to those who share a preponderance of these as living in a society.
The development with which I wish to deal hinges, philosophically, upon whether society is a phenomenon or a noumenon. Or, somewhat more familiar language may be used in describing the basis upon which a distinction might be made: Is society an appearance or is it real? Is the word "society" a convenient designation for certain phenomena or does it refer to a real being in its own right? Do social phenomena stem from society or do they stem from people? Are individuals real or are they products (extensions) of society?
An Organic Whole
The above questions may make the development to be described clearer than it would otherwise be. My point is that thinkers began to treat society as if it were real. This does not mean that they explicitly treated it as a being distinct from those who were supposed to compose it. Lester Frank Ward said, "Society is simply a compound organism whose acts exhibit the resultant of all the individual forces which its members exert." Yet he went on to say, "These acts, whether individual or collective, obey fixed laws. Objectively viewed, society is a natural object, presenting a variety of complicated movements produced by a particular class of natural forces."5 But, one may ask, whence come these laws? Do they come from individuals? Strictly speaking, this would have to mean that individuals create laws. This could not be, for such would not be laws.
Actually, Ward’s confusion arose from the contradictory premises upon which he was operating. On the one hand he treated society as if it were real, spoke of social laws and forces, and worked to develop a sociology that would describe these laws of society.6 On the other, he wanted men to take over the direction of society and control the forces to desirable ends. For example, "The social forces only need to be investigated as the rest have been, in order to discover ways in which their utility can be demonstrated. Here is a vast field of true scientific exploitation as yet untracked…. To just what extent the present evil tendencies of society may be turned to good, under the management of truly enlightened legislation, it is impossible to predict."7 What does social force refer to, if not to men? And if they are forces acting upon men, how can men act upon and direct them?
Ward’s thought lies athwart the path of two different modes of thought—the deterministic and melioristic—at the point of divergence. It was filled with the conclusions of nineteenth century deterministic thought—the talk of forces, progressive laws, social evolution—which were the intellectual currency of the time. He suggested the idea that mentality had evolved to the point that men could consciously guide further evolution. But his position was philosophically vague and internally contradictory.8 These contradictions have gone into reformist thought, for explanations have continued to be made in terms of social forces; whereas, reformers have exhorted their followers to conscious reformist efforts. Ward was the fount of this confusion.
Society was real to Ward, as it was to John Dewey, and as it has been to a host of other reformers. They speak of society as if it had a distinct being and use the word "social" as derived from it in this sense. The following usages by Ward, taken from the second volume of Dynamic Sociology, will illustrate the point. He refers to "social forces" (p. 161), "social progress" (p. 161), "social advancement" (p. 163), "the life of a society" (p. 163), "state of society" (p. 165), "protection of society" (p. 214), "social growth" (p. 224), "will of society" (p. 230), "servant of society" (p. 242), "Society, possessed for the first time of a completely integrated consciousness" (p. 249), "agencies of society" (p. 250), "duty of society" (p. 251), "duties of society toward itself" (p. 467), "how to bring society to consciousness" (p. 467), "members of society" (p. 544), "superficiality of soclety" (p. 552), "the exclusive work of society" (p. 571), "the welfare of society" (p. 583), "responsible solely to society" (p. 589), "better for society" (p. 591) "society" as having "burden on its shoulders" (p. 595), and a "sphere prescribed by society" (p. 617). If phraseology be accepted as a good indication of underlying assumptions, and it should be, there should be no doubt that Lester Frank Ward believed in the reality of society. John Dewey followed a similar pattern in his language. The following instances are taken from his Problems of Men.9 He refers to "socially necessary" (p. 32), "social control" (p. 35), "members of our society" (p. 37), "socially helpful" (p. 49), "social forces" (p. 52), "society" as "deprived of what they might contribute" (p. 61), "the interests and activities of a society" (p. 62), "social enterprise" (p. 76), "social pressure" (p. 85), "social breakdown" (p. 90), "social authority" (p. 94), "socially justified" (p. 101), "benefit to society" (p. 102), "social vacuum" (p. 104), "society… itself" (p. 131), "social power" (p. 132), "social knowledge" (p. 179), "social materials" (p. 180) "society" as "suffering" (p. 182), and "socially authorized" (p. 185). These are, of course, metaphysic-like usages. Such usage derives most of its meaning from the conception of society as an organism, which became common after the presentation of Darwinian evolution.
The Emphasis on Feelings
The third ingredient in the "new reality" was the psyche. More specifically, it was psychic phenomena thingified, made into positive active forces. Lester Frank Ward referred constantly to social forces. One may well wonder where these forces come from. They are operative in society, according to him, but they do not come from society. Instead, they arise from within men. Ward put it this way: "The motive of all action is feeling. All great movements in history are preceded and accompanied by strong feelings."¹º Again, "Feeling alone can drive on the social train, whether for weal or woe."¹¹ Moreover, "Egoism is the feeling which demands for self an increase of enjoyment and diminution of discomfort. Altruism is… a kind of feeling which results from the contemplation of suffering in others…."¹²
Ward indicates in the following that feeling is his fundamental conception:
The root-idea to which I will here confine myself is the true supremacy which must be accorded in any just system of philosophy to the feelings as the real end toward which all efforts designed to secure the advancement of society must be directed. Although it is upon the intellect that we can alone rely to secure such a control of the social forces as shall successfully harmonize them with human advantage, it is feeling that must be alone consulted in determining what constitutes such advantage. Every true system must regard intellect as the means and feeling as the end of all its operations….
The practical work which sociology demands is, when reduced to its lowest terms, the organization of feeling. The human body is a reservoir of feeling which, when wholly unobstructed, is all pleasurable.¹³
The concentration upon the psychological has led in many directions in the twentieth century. Some have followed Ward’s lead in emphasizing the primacy of feeling. Need and desire have been virtually deified as realities by some writers. Others have focused upon motive as the most important area for knowledge and in terms of which to make explanations. Professional psychoanalysts have focused attention upon removing the obstructions to free expression and action. The arts and education fell under the spell of "self-expression." Many people came to believe that intention was more important than action.
Taken together, change, society, and the psyche provided a new conception of reality. The psyche provided the impetus, or force, society the framework within which and upon which the force was exerted, and history the plane upon which movement took place. This attributes greater clarity to these ideas than they have, however. By the early twentieth century, American thinkers were sloughing off the framework of natural (or social) law within which Ward cast his thought. They continued to use concepts, such as environmentalism, drawn from this framework but quite often without avowing it. The theoretical framework became much vaguer than it had been, even though this might not appear possible.
Most American reformist intellectuals have adopted a pragmatic stance, disavowed conscious theory, and ostensibly acted in terms of each situation as it arose. They have not really done this, and it is doubtful whether anyone could. They have, instead, acted on the basis of assumptions and ideologies. Both of these are founded, insofar as they are founded, in the "new reality." Men who have no theory, metaphysics, or principles generally act upon the basis of the fag ends of those they picked up unawares.
The most important feature of this new reality is that it is constantly changing. Change is embedded in it as one of its constituents. The other constituents change, too. Few things can be more readily demonstrated than that social structures are greatly altered during the passage of time. As for the psyche, it is the root or origin of important changes, according to the above formulation. It is a force for change. There was an article of faith that reformers brought to the new conception of reality, namely, that it is changeable. The point of Ward’s work was to establish the proposition that social change can be consciously directed, that it can be planned.
He asserted it over and over again, from a great variety of angles. He called the conscious planning of social action meliorism. "Now, meliorism," Ward said, "is a dynamic principle. It implies the improvement of the social condition through cold calculation…. It is not content merely to alleviate present suffering, it aims to create conditions under which no suffering can exist. It is ready even to sacrifice temporary enjoyment for greater future enjoyment—the pleasure of a few for that of the mass."¹4 He proposed that this should be accomplished by legislation. "Legislation (I use the term in its most general sense) is nothing else but social invention. It is an effort so to control the forces of a state as to secure the greatest benefits to its people."¹5 He admits that governments have usually made a mess in most of their interventions in society. But this has been occasioned, he declares, by the ignorance of those who made the laws heretofore. The science of sociology will change all this.
Before progressive legislation can become a success, every legislature must become, as it were, a polytechnic school, a laboratory of philosophical research into the laws of society and of human nature. No legislator is qualified to propose or vote on measures designed to affect the destinies of millions of social units until he masters all that is known of the science of society. Every true legislator must be a sociologist….¹6
The means by which the changes in society should be brought about, according to Ward, were social invention and collectivization. Social invention will be devoted to discovering ways of exercising social pressure by legislation for the good of society. "Social invention consists in making such adjustments as will induce men to act in the manner most advantageous to society."¹7 He did not hold with prohibitions and punishments as a rule. These things restrict the liberty of some of the people. "But the contention is that only the most obdurate offenders require to have their liberty restricted, since they, too, have wants, and the social inventor should devise means by which such wants shall be spontaneously satisfied through wholly innocuous or even socially beneficial action."¹8
These actions were to be taken by the collective action of the populace (whatever such ideas may mean). The great collective problem, Ward thought, was of the proper distribution of goods. "This is an exclusively social problem and can only be solved by social action. It is to-day the most important of all social problems, because its complete solution would accomplish nothing less than the abolition of poverty and want from society.""
The "new reality," then, was the metaphysic-like foundation for social reform. It was, to speak metaphorically, the space station built by intellectuals on their flight from reality from which to launch their reformist experiments upon the earth.
The next article in this series will treat of "The New Creativity."
¹ Lester F. Ward, Pure Sociology (New York: Macmillan, 1909, 2nd edition), pp. 568-69. Italics mine.
2 See Edwin A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (Garden City: Doubleday, an Anchor Book, 1954), passim.
3 Lester F. Ward, Dynamic Sociology, I (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1920, 2 volumes), 43.
5 Ward, Dynamic Sociology, I, 35.
6 See ibid., pp. 1-2.
7 Ibid., p. 43.
8 Note his embroilment in the contradictions. "Although every act must in strict science be recognized as the resultant of all the forces, internal and external, acting upon the agent, still it remains true that achievement is the work of individuals thus acting… " (Ward, Pure Sociology, p. 41.) With about as much sense, one may say: The spokes only turn when the wheel turns; still it is the spokes turning.
¹º Ward, Dynamic Sociology, I, 11.
¹¹ Ibid., p. 12.
¹2 Ibid., p. 14.
¹3 Ibid., pp. 67-68.
¹4 Ibid., II, 468.
15 Ibid., I, 36.
16 Ibid., p. 37.
17 Ward, Pure Sociology, p. 569.
18 Ibid., p. 570.
19 Ibid., p. 571.