Numero Uno—“It will certainly come as no surprise to you when I tell you that one of the most moving, as well as one of the happiest, moments of my life occurred on the evening of Monday, November 5, 1951. A reporter whose initiative I have already commended to the French Broadcasting System, eager to satisfy his professional conscience by extracting a sensational statement from me, came to inform me at a somewhat late hour that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee of the Norwegian Parliament had just bestowed on me one of the most renowned and flattering distinctions that this world can offer.
Perhaps he was disappointed by my reception and by the way in which I immediately identified myself with the working classes and their trade unions when I responded to the award of this prize, which reflects so much honour on its founder, on those whose mission it is to confer it, and on him who receives it. But I can assure you that not for the briefest instant did I believe that it was I alone who was the recipient of this great reward.
I have never ceased to do my utmost to be the faithful interpreter and devoted servant of the ideals of peace and justice upheld by out trade-union organizations, and at such a solemn moment it was natural for me to regard myself simply as their representative. I speak as their representative now as I review for you their constant efforts to hasten the advent of an era of peace for which all men long and in which, to borrow the words of Jean Jaurès1, “mankind, finally at peace with itself” will pursue its own destiny in joy and harmony.
My emotion was, nonetheless, great. Neither my friends nor my family, who should know me better than anyone else does, have ever doubted the strength of my nerves. They would be more likely to reproach me – and sometimes with less than kindly truculence -for a calmness that some of them call placidity. True enough, nature has endowed me with a fair measure of patience and composure, yet I should be lying if I told you that, having seen the reporter off on his way to make his deadline, I fell peacefully asleep. That evening, all that night, I waited in vain for a slumber that wouldn’t come.
And during those long hours I was assailed by many memories. I saw again the house where I was born, which disappeared in 1898 with the abattoir of Grenelle. I was not quite two years old when my parents left it and, after a brief stay in the country, made a home in Aubervilliers. This town so near Paris where I spent my youth was the Aubervilliers of the end of the last century. Being at that time more than half agricultural, it scarcely resembled the industrial city of today. It afforded us children wide-open spaces, covered with grain in the summer, and it gave us the clear waters of the Courneuve River flowing nearby where we spent many pleasant hours of bathing and swimming.
This almost rustic life made me a sturdy and stable man, and, despite the unpretentiousness of our family life and its hazards, I look back on those days with considerable pleasure.
However, it was at Aubervilliers that I felt for the first time the hard consequences of the struggle of the workers for improvement of their living conditions. These had a considerable influence on my future.
My father, a veteran of the Commune2, his convictions and his fighting spirit unbroken by the defeat of the workers in 1871, took an energetic and untiring part in the strikes which set the workmen of the match factory where he worked against the management of the company prior to its becoming nationalized. The courageous efforts of my mother, who resumed her job as a cook, were not enough to compensate us for the loss of my father’s wages, and it was during one of these strikes that I had to leave elementary school before I was twelve to work at the Central Melting House in Aubervilliers.
My parents, and especially my mother, encouraged by the director of the local school which I was attending, wanted in spite of everything to send me to a National School of Arts and Crafts so that I could later become an engineer. I was keen to study and had some natural mechanical ability, and so I entered the Colbert upper primary school. Less than a year later, because of a reversal of the family fortunes, I was forced to leave and go to work in the Michaux Soap Works. From this time on, except for one more attempt at schooling when I spent a year at the Diderot Vocational School, I was, at the age of fourteen, completely caught up in the hard life of the industrial worker.
When I was sixteen, I became a member of the trade union at the match works where I had rejoined my father. I did so without question. My father’s vigorous example and my own experience led me quite naturally to participate in the worker’s movement. I had suffered personally from the social order. My school work, my intellectual gifts, my eagerness to study, had all come to nothing. I had been brutally compelled to leave the upper primary school and even the vocational training school and to become a wage earner of the humblest order.
This day has been set aside for all countries to celebrate the anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights3. And with a passion fired by these memories of an adolescent deprived of the right to realize his full intellectual potential, I wish to express my own conviction that, thanks to the action of true trade unionists and sincere democrats, all the sacred and inalienable rights of man will henceforth be recognized without reservation and that man will be able to exercise these rights without hindrance.
The feeling of having been unjustly treated drove me to spend much time in the library of the Aubervilliers libertarian group, one of the few places where I could escape intellectually from my situation. Reading the books that I found there reinforced my feelings of rebellion against the established order and against social injustice.
I propose now to review the progress of trade-union activity for international peace. To this end I shall disregard all its other aspects, but first, in order to stress by a personal example its positive results with regard to the protection of the workers’ health, let me give you the reasons for the first strike in which I took part. I participated in this strike not simply as a member of the trade union but as its administrative secretary; in other words – to give you an exact idea of my functions and responsibilities in this humble office – I drafted the minutes of meetings of the trade-union council, of the general assemblies, and sometimes of delegations. I do not think that I owed this mark of confidence to my worth as a trade unionist; I owed it, more likely, to my having received a less sketchy education than that of my comrades: the great school reforms of the Third Republic had not yet been in existence ten years.
Instigated by the National Federation of Match Factory Workers4, itself adherent to the C.G.T. which had been established in 18955, this strike involved the whole trade corporation and aimed principally at prohibiting in the manufacturing process the use of white phosphorus, which constituted no small danger, particularly to the dental health of the personnel. The strike lasted over a month, but it led directly to the calling of the Bern Conference which prohibited the use of noxious substances6. This first success naturally could not fail to encourage me to persevere in trade-union action, which at the same time satisfied both my urge to work against iniquity and my youthful need for tangible achievements.
Another consequence of the same strike was the bringing into use of the “continuous” machine, as it was called, which increased production as it eased the drudgery of the workmen. This led me to understand that trade unionism, the instrument of working-class liberation and of social change could, and indeed should, be also an instrument of industrial progress. Nor did it take me long to see therein one of the most effective means for freeing the world of the always menacing specter of war.
Why should I not state openly, Ladies and Gentlemen, the fact that the first manifestation of the trade-union struggle for peace, and particularly the French trade-union struggle into which I threw myself with all the ardour of my youth, was antimilitaristic in thought and sometimes also in deed? Is not one of the greatest sins against the spirit that of knowingly concealing the truth? And would it not be ridiculous to reproach the trade-union movement with having confused cause and effect? Sociologists worthy of the name never make the mistake of reproaching primitive peoples for their belief that the sun moves round the earth. We too, through lack of knowledge and of sufficiently mature reflection, mistook the visible outward appearance of the phenomenon for the phenomenon itself. I would add that my memory of that period, perhaps because of the mirage which the passage of the years evokes, is that of a great enthusiasm, undoubtedly sparked more by irrational hope than by any constructive will; but that fervour makes me feel all the more bitter about the atmosphere of indifference, fatalism, and resignation that has persisted up to the present time on our continent, a continent which two wars seem to have ravaged morally as well as physically. An orator once exclaimed: “When war breaks out, its principal victims are always the people.” He was more right than he knew. Not only does war kill workers by the thousand, nay, by the million, destroy their homes, lay waste the fields which took them centuries of effort to cultivate, raze to the ground the factories they built with their own hands, and reduce for years the standard of living of the working masses, but it also gives man an increasingly acute feeling of his helplessness before the forces of violence, and consequently severely retards his progress toward an age of peace, justice, and well-being.
Oh yes! we were full of enthusiasm back in 1900. Nothing, no matter what it was, seemed impossible to us then, and we had every reason to believe it. We felt already that after Viktor Adler, Wilbur Wright was going to give us wings7.
On completion of my military service, I went back to the factory and to the trade union. From here on, however, I am going to take myself out of the story of the movement – not because our paths diverged, indeed they intermingle after 1909 – but because trade unionism, despite its close initial connections with libertarian individualism, is essentially and by definition a collective work.
A moment ago, I mentioned in passing the creation in 1895 of the Confédération générale du travail (C.G.T.). It replaced the National Federation of Trade Unions [Fédération des Syndicats et Groupes corporatifs ouvriers de France], which had been founded in 1886. Actually, unity of the workers under the C.G.T. was not completely achieved until 1902 when, at the Montpellier Congress, the Federation of Labour Exchanges (Fédération nationale des Bourses du travail) was incorporated in the C.G.T. as the Division of Labour Exchanges. However, during this period in which the unity of the working classes was being consolidated, the C.G.T., in its annual congresses, had already gone beyond questions of organization and corporate claims and as early as 1898 had taken its stand in favour of general disarmament:
“The Congress (the motion stated in a somewhat antiquated style) considering all peoples to be brothers and war to be mankind’s greatest calamity, [and]
Holding that armed peace leads all peoples to ruin through the increase in taxation required to meet the enormous expense of standing armies,
Declares that money spent on the perpetration of acts suitable only to barbarians and on the support of young, strong, and vigorous men for a period of years would be better used for work serving humanity, [and]
Expresses the wish [voeu] that general disarmament take place as soon as possible.”
In 1900 and in 1901, the C.G.T. progressed from theoretical declarations to practical considerations; it decided that “young workers about to undergo conscription should be put in touch with the secretaries of the Labour Exchanges of the towns in which they are to be garrisoned”, and agreed in principle to the setting up of a Serviceman’s Fund.
Today these declarations and decisions seem very mild. We must not forget, however, that they were accompanied by a significant antimilitaristic agitation which had found solid support in the impassioned propaganda for a retrial of the Dreyfus case8. This was opposed with equal vigour by militarists whose affinity with a discredited Council of War laid open the army and particularly its officers to fatal, if unfair, suspicion as far as democratic opinion was concerned.
All the C.G.T. congresses, which took place biennially after 1902, were deeply concerned with action in support of peace. At the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War9, the 1904 Congress, held at Bourges, declared: “At a time when two nations are at each other’s throats, re-enacting on a wider scale the slaughter of the past for the greater good of the ruling classes and exploiters who enslave the proletariat of the whole world, this Congress… censures the ignoble attitude of the governments of the two nations concerned, which, with the object of finding an outlet for the mounting discontent of the proletariat, appeal to chauvinistic passions and unhesitatingly organize the death and assassination of thousands of workers in order to safeguard their own privileged position.”
The international sky was increasingly overcast, and the attitude of the unions stiffened. The 1906 Congress approved “all programs of antimilitaristic propaganda”, and that of 1908 contemplated replying to a “declaration of war with a declaration of a revolutionary general strike”. The Congresses of 1910 and 1912 confirmed these resolutions and strongly protested against repression, but 1912 was the year of the Balkan War10and, in view of the rivalries which began to make themselves felt and which threatened to spread the conflict even farther, a special conference held on the first of October decided to call a congress whose sole objective would be to combat the menace of war. The motion passed was a true indication of the confidence of the trade-union organizations in their growing strength. To stop the governments from being drawn any further down the slope to the yawning chasm of fire and blood, the Congress affirmed its resolution to take revolutionary action in the event of military mobilization.
We would gain a false impression of the importance and effectiveness of labour action if we confined ourselves to the motions passed at its congresses. The trade unions, far from being content with these declarations, established international liaisons and supported every policy based on pacification and understanding. Between 1900 and 1901 the C.G.T. and the English working classes together contributed to bringing about the Entente Cordiale11. To gain an idea of the value of this contribution, it is necessary only to reflect upon the tension which followed the Fashoda incident12 and to thumb through the collections of satirical publications of those days.
At the time of the Agadir incident13, on July 22, 1911, a delegation from the C.G.T. left for Berlin, and in the following month a trade-union delegation from Germany arrived in Paris. The French and the German proletariat were uniting their efforts to try to avert war.
These occasional international contacts were not, however, the only ones to be established between the various national trade-union organizations. Several international workers’ congresses were held after the abolition of the workers’ International. One met in Zurich in 1895 and one in London in 1896, bringing together delegates of the trade unions and representatives of socialist-minded political parties. In London, the French delegation included, among other trade unionists: Fernand Pelloutier, the Guérard brothers, and Keufer14. The results of this cooperation – or confusion, as the more critical historians would have it – were not outstanding, and the idea of a purely trade-union international organization first came up at the Congress of Scandinavian Trade Unions in Copenhagen in 1901, thanks to the direct contact among fraternal delegations. The proposal came from Legien15 who represented the General Committee of German Trade Unions. It was decided to request the various national organizations to attend the Congress of German Trade Unions at Stuttgart in 1902. The organizations of Germany, Great Britain, Austria, Belgium, Bohemia, Denmark, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland responded to the appeal and approved the proposal to organize international trade-union congresses which would take place at more or less regular intervals. Their mandate remained limited, at first extending only to the compilation of common statistics, the exchange of information on legislation affecting labour, and eventually to solidarity in the event of important strikes. Nevertheless, the first international link had been forged, and it was later strengthened in Dublin in 1903 by the creation of an International Trade-Union Secretariat.
Without formally withdrawing from the Secretariat, our French C.G.T. suspended the payment of its contributions in 1904 after the Secretariat had refused to include the question of antimilitarism in the agenda for the Conference of Amsterdam. I would not go so far as to say that the French trade unions attached greater importance to the struggle for peace than the others did; but they certainly seemed to take it more to heart.
Relations were renewed following the C.G.T. Congress in Marseilles in 1908 and the Secretariat’s acquiescence to the demand that the calling of truly international congresses be included in the agenda of the next conference.
This, the fifth Conference, took place in Paris and included some spirited debates – quite spirited, in fact. Having become its secretary, I was the spokesman for the C.G.T. I recently referred to this meeting in an article, and I think I can do no better than to quote its opening words, for they pinpoint not only our own position but also that of the representative of the American Federation of Labour.
“I saw Gompers16 again (I wrote) on the evening of September 1, 1909. It was the second day of the International Conference of Trade-Union Secretariats. All day I had been asking for a true international congress, and I had had to ask with a certain amount of vehemence. At the end of the afternoon session, after we had won the majority over to the argument of the French C.G.T., Gompers, who represented the American labour unions belonging to the A.F. of L. [American Federation of Labour], came over to me to express his deep satisfaction !”
There were two more conferences, the first of which was in 1911 at Budapest where this time the A.F. of L. participated officially and the Industrial Workers of the World17 unofficially. The second was in Zurich in 1913. An attempt at an expanded conference, leading to the international congresses which we had in mind, was made on the latter occasion by appealing to the International Vocational Secretariats. The resolution adopted in Zurich recommended that the trade-union organizations of all countries study the possibility of setting up an International Federation of Labour, whose aim “would be to protect and extend the rights and interests of the wage earners of all countries and” – I emphasize this last part of the sentence – “to achieve international fraternity and solidarity”.
The trade-union movement was emerging from its infancy and beginning to be aware of the magnitude of its future. In Zurich it no longer thought of itself as the expression of a single social class; the international solidarity which it was trying to bring about was already something quite different from the solidarity of workers in time of strike – all that had been envisaged up to that time. The dramatic events which its development precipitated were soon to hasten its maturity.
Men of my generation will never forget the last days of July, 1914, least of all those who tried to build a dike against the onrushing sea of blood. After July 27 our C.G.T. never ceased trying to achieve the impossible. To leaders still adhering in spirit to the old motto of “Ultimate Right”, which kings used to engrave on their cannons, it opposed the common sense of the man in the street. “War”, it cried, “is no solution to the problems facing us; it is, and always will be, the most terrible of human-calamities. Let us do everything to avoid it.” On Friday, July 30, the C.G.T. cabled the supreme appeal to the International Secretariat, beseeching it to intervene by “exerting pressure on the governments”.
Alas! As we all know, these desperate efforts were in vain!
This disaster did not force us to abandon our ideal; on the contrary, from the very first months of the conflict, it led us to define precisely the conditions for its realization.
In fact, at the end of 1914, the A.F. of L. took the initiative of proposing to hold “an International Conference of National Trade-Union Organizations on the same day and in the same place that the Peace Congress would be held, in order to help restore good relations between proletariat organizations and to encourage participation with the Peace Congress in laying the foundations of a definitive and lasting peace”. Le Comité confédéral of the C.G.T. accepted this proposal and itself issued a manifesto to all the trade-union organizations. I believe that the major portion of this text has become less dated than all of its predecessors. It concludes by demanding: the suppression of the system of secret treaties; an absolute respect for nationalities; the immediate limitation of armaments on an international scale, a measure which should lead to total disarmament; and finally compulsory arbitration for the settlement of all conflicts between nations.
These ideas were soon well on their way. The milestones were to be the Conference of Leeds in 1916, that of London in September, 1917, and those of Stockholm and Bern in June and October of the same year.
At Leeds the idea of an international labour organization appeared in a trade-union text which also drew attention to the danger to the working classes inherent in the existence of international capitalist competition. In the report made on behalf of the C.G.T. we affirmed that the Peace Treaty should, in accordance with the spirit of workers’ organizations, lay the first foundations of the United States of Europe. In London there was strong support for the idea of the League of Nations itself, along with all its corollaries: general disarmament preceded by limitation of armaments, and compulsory arbitration, both of which the C.G.T. had advocated three years previously.
At Stockholm in June, 1917, the representatives of the trade unions in the Central European and Scandinavian countries declared their complete agreement with the decisions taken at Leeds and even expressed their congratulations to the union organizations of the Allied countries and most particularly to the C.G.T. Another International Conference of Trade Unions was called at Bern for the beginning of October, 1917, by the Association of Swiss Trade Unions. The national organizations of Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland were represented, and they confirmed the resolutions adopted at Leeds and London.
The Inter-Allied Labour and Socialist Conference which took place in London in February of 1918 was perhaps even more important. Our French organization delivered a memorandum there containing, certainly, many ideas that had already been voiced before, but in it we also demanded the creation of a supranational authority, the “formation of an international legislative assembly” and “the gradual development of an international legislation accepted by all and binding all in a clearly defined way”. We were ahead of our time, far ahead in fact, since thirty-three years later these proposals have still not been put into effect. The Conference requested that “at least one representative of socialism and of labour should sit with the official representatives at the official Peace Conference”. This request, which was reiterated by the C.G.T. on December 15, 1918, in more or less identical terms, was granted by two governments; in consequence, Gompers and I were attached to the delegations of the U.S.A. and France in the capacity of technical experts. We collaborated in bringing our efforts in behalf of the trade-union movement to bear on the elaboration of the Treaty, particularly insofar as Part XIII18 was concerned. The working classes were becoming more and more sharply aware of the complex causes of international malaise.
I shall quote two clauses from that part of the Treaty which gave birth to the International Labour Organization and to its permanent instrument the International Labor Office whose activities and tangible results I need not recall here. The two clauses of the Treaty read as follows :
“Whereas, The League of Nations has for its object the establishment of universal peace, and such a peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice;
And whereas, Conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship, and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required…”
From 1918 on, trade unionists were to express from the platforms of their congresses the workers’ desire for peace through a rational organization of the world. The meetings of the International Labour Office and even the general Assemblies of the League of Nations, several of which were to have many sessions, were to excite universal interest in their proposals. The trade-union organizations nevertheless continued their autonomous activity. After the International Conference at Bern in February of 1919 and the Congress of Amsterdam in July of the same year, the International Trade-Union Secretariat was replaced by a true International Federation of Trade Unions19 which immediately acquired over twenty million members. One of its first acts was an appeal to International solidarity to alleviate the terrible misery prevailing within Austria; and the Austrian workers escaped famine, thanks to the many trainloads of supplies sent by various trade unions and cooperative societies. The second intervention of the F.S.I. was on behalf of the Hungarian trade unions, whose liberty was being threatened.
Some have forgotten – for forgetting is as blissful as ignorance – that the F.S.I. intervened with equal vigour on behalf of the Russian workers; its representatives, O’Grady, Wauters, and later Thomson, actually lived in Russia until 1923 in order to supervise the distribution of food and medicines sent by the Federation. Furthermore, it is not distorting history to say that it was largely through the efforts and propaganda of our International Federation that the government of the U.S.S.R. was recognized by the majority of the great powers.
However, the trade unionists did not confine themselves to mitigating the cruel consequences of war. They sought the means to establish a stable peace, emphasizing that it should be founded on a basis of worldwide economic and social stability. In fact, the majority of the proposals ultimately put before the League of Nations originated in the international congresses of the International Federation of Trade Unions and in the World Peace Congress which the latter convened at The Hague in 1922. We asked for the organization of exchanges, the circulation of manpower, the distribution of raw materials, and the prohibition of private manufacture of arms for international circulation.
It was at about this time that the League of Nations set up a Temporary Mixed Commission for the purpose of studying methods for dealing with international traffic in armaments, munitions, and war matériel20. The opinion of the workers now carried such weight that the Commission included three representatives of the workers from the Governing Body of the International Labour Office. A convention was drawn up on June 17, 1925, in which the principle of supervision, as opposed to that of simple propaganda, was recognized, thanks to the efforts of the labour members, of whom I was one. However, not all of our suggestions were followed; we had, for instance, requested internationalised supervision, the auditing of the books of business enterprises, proper measures designed to prevent influencing the press and the setting up of international cartels, together with the standardisation of national inspections.
It is curious to note – somewhat bitterly – that the principle of internationalised supervision always meets with strong opposition. Yesterday it came from the private manufacture of arms, today from armament itself I remain convinced, as do my comrades of the C.I.S.L 21, that we cannot talk seriously of general, or even of partial, disarmament, without accepting the need for effective international surveillance.
At the Economic Conference of 1927 I was again spokesman for the trade unions. The principal arguments in my statement of May 5, were as follows :
“On behalf of my comrades, representing the workers, I would like at this International Economic Conference to pay tribute to the recognition of the high ideals which the trade-union movement has always defended.
It is the opinion of the labour organizations that economic collaboration between peoples is a necessity. Immediately after the war during the armistice period – in February of 1919 – in examining the conditions necessary for peace and exploring the possible bases on which to found the League of Nations which was still on the drawing board, so to speak, the labour and socialist conferences, meeting simultaneously in Bern, emphasized the necessity of giving the League of Nations precisely that economic foundation which our chairman, Monsieur Theunis22, called for yesterday.
…In 1924, we declared that the organization of a definitive peace requires not only the institution of a law of peace but also that of an economy of peace… No true peace can be established… so long as quasi-military strategy is applied in economic relations. What is needed is a committee for economic cooperation.”
On May 23, the last day of the Conference, I voiced the sentiments of my friends when I said: “We have been bold in criticism, too timid in constructive action.”
Three years later, with the idea of concerted economic action in mind, the Conference sent a questionnaire to the member states of the League of Nations. The French government instructed the National Economic Council to work out the essentials of the French answer. I had been representing the C.G.T. on this council since its foundation in 1925, and I investigated the practical means of assuring the most satisfactory conditions for the distribution and optimum utilization of European raw materials among the various nations. Expressing the thoughts of my comrades, I suggested, among other means, the organization of an international information service on inventories, on production, and on the needs of the various countries for raw materials.
We also took an active part in 1931 on the Unemployment Committee of the Commission of Inquiry for European Union23, in 1933 at the Monetary and Economic Conference in London, and on the Comité des grands travaux internationaux, through which the International Labour Office and the League of Nations, taking up the proposals of the trade unions, sought to establish healthy collaboration among nations in the struggle against under-employment and toward the creation of new sources of wealth. But all these conferences, all these meetings, succeeded in doing nothing to rid the world of the prevailing economic crisis. The will to organize the world on a rational basis, or at least to modify its most apparent incongruities, had clearly not been strong enough to counteract the combined effects of inertia, egoism, and incomprehension.
Efforts to wrest weapons away from nations bending under the weight of so many instruments of death were equally futile. All the same, I cannot forget the first sessions of the Conference for the Limitation and Reduction of Armaments. Those early days of February, 1932, were days of hope for humanity. Millions confidently awaited the results of the proceedings of this conference, which was presided over by that veteran militant Laborite Henderson24, and we can claim, with justification, to have had a lot to do with the creation of this enthusiasm. The Socialist Workingmen’s International and the International Federation of Trade Unions, zealously vying with each other, had each collected thousands of petitions which the delegations presented to the conference. On February 6, after Vandervelde25 had spoken on behalf of the members of the Socialist Worker’s International, I conveyed to the conference the unqualified support of millions of trade unionists.
That day remains one of the highlights of my life. I was intensely aware that I was expressing not only the unanimous hope of the workers of an entire world, still bruised by the recent holocaust, but also their clear understanding of the real conditions necessary for disarmament. In their name, I assured the members of the conference of the complete readiness of the trade-union organizations to cooperate in making effective and sincere the procedures of national and international supervision, without which partial disarmament would be either illusory or inoperative.
The attempt to bring about disarmament was as fruitless as the efforts in the economic sphere, and a few years later, with empty stomachs as its excuse, Italian fascism launched itself upon Abyssinia. We trade unionists knew very well that peace was indivisible, and we had no doubt that the weakness of the League of Nations would render it powerless and herald a new period of massacre and destruction. We were insistent and even violent in our demands that the Covenant should be applied and that sanctions be put into effect. We were voices crying in the wilderness. The sanctions were not applied; war broke out in Ethiopia26; and it was followed fatally, logically, and inexorably by the intervention in Spain27, the reoccupation of the left bank of the Rhine28, the Anschluss29, the Munich agreements30, and the Second World War31.
I do not want to enlarge upon our opposition to this policy of weakness whereby the principle of collective security was abandoned. We know only too well what the lack of resolution on the part of the democracies has cost them.
Once more the earth was laid waste by war. Even so, we do not believe that action in the cause of peace is a Sisyphean labour; and that the deadly stone will forever keep on rolling back down to crush mankind. We will yet manage to lodge the stone firmly at the top of the hill.
As soon as the Fascists and Nazis had laid down their arms, the trade unionists began to rethink the problems of peace.
Toward the end of 1947, the C.G.T.-F.O32 revived the traditions and spirit of our old C.G.T., and in speeches, articles, and reports we again took up and specified the solutions which the C.G.T., along with the International Federation of Trade Unions, had offered to the world as a way to salvation.
We approved the Marshall Plan33 because it was a manifestation of international solidarity, because its benefits could be extended to any nation without discrimination, and because we could not see in it any expression of a policy of prestige or force of arms since it invested the beneficiary states with the right to use the credits as they saw fit.
We approved the propaganda in favour of European Unity and emphasized that we would regard such unification as the first step on the road to World Unity. In my capacity as a trade unionist, I was elected president of the European Movement in February of 1949, and in the following spring I opened the Westminster Economic Conference34 by expressing our common sentiment as follows:
“It is normal, it is logical, it is in conformity with the very spirit of history that the organized working class should have an active part in the construction of Europe. It has always proclaimed that it would not, could not, and had no wish to disassociate the struggle for its emancipation from the constant battle to maintain peace, because doing so would have set up barriers which international events would have swept away like piles of chaff.”
It is a matter of Europe’s consolidation, not of its isolation. This human mass, which has such a vast wealth of natural resources at its disposal and whose intellectual potential is the greatest on earth, is not willing to cut itself off from the rest of the world. It is ready to welcome all who wish to be associated with its efforts: “The Europe we are building will have more doors and windows than walls.”
In July, 1950, in an introduction to the reports on the Social Conference of the European Movement, I stressed again the importance of its objective of international peace and of social justice:
“We want to make Europe simply a peninsula of the vast Eurasian Continent, where for thousands of years war has been the only way to resolve conflicts between peoples. We want Europe to be a peaceable community united, despite and within its diversity, in a constant and ardent struggle against human misery and all the suffering and dangers that it engenders. We have no desire to make Europe into a larger, better entrenched, better armed fortress.”
We approved the Schuman Plan for a European Coal and Steel Community35. A few days after the declaration of May 9, 1950 – on May 31to be exact – in commenting on the Ruhr Statute36 in a C.I.S.L. Conference journal, I wrote :
“The promoters of the <Combinat> can take as their objective… only the progressive unification of Europe. However, this unification cannot be an end in itself.
The final and essential goal, the only valid goal, is to extend the well-being of the worker, to give him a more equitable share of the products of collective work, to make Europe a social democracy, and to ensure the peace desired by men of every race and tongue by proving that the democracies can bring about social justice through the rational organization of production without sacrificing the liberty and the dignity of the individual.
… The pool should be only one stage in a process of continuous creation. The C.I.S.L. has decided to follow its development closely in order to be in a position to give it effective collaboration.”
We recommended the organization of a worldwide market for raw materials and in this connection recalled just what it is that we intend to defend in defending democracy :
“What are we all trying to save? What are we trying to safeguard? Civil liberties: specifically, the right of all citizens to hold their own opinions and to express them freely on the great questions of moral, philosophical, political, and economic import, and the right to form associations. But democracy is not, nor can it be, merely a theoretical respect for these rights. It must give every man effective opportunities to enjoy them, and it must do so under the kind of moral and material conditions that will encourage him to exercise such rights.
One who must be constantly preoccupied with his own subsistence cannot be an alert citizen.
I said recently in a short address to the Economic Council that economic justice is one of the factors in the moral health of nations. There is no economic order in inflationist policies and in underemployment.”
The C.I.S.L. commissioned me to put before the U.N. Assembly at Lake Success a draft resolution whose main paragraph read as follows: “The General Assembly… recommends to the participating nations that they seek above all the means of establishing international regulation of the distribution and cost of raw materials and that, to this end, they contribute to the creation of a common stabilization fund.”
We have constantly defended the two inseparable principles of collective security and general disarmament, effected through the reassessment and international supervision of military strength and of all categories of instruments of war.
A synthesis of our doctrine was attempted on the occasion of the C.I.S.L. Congress at Milan in July, 1951, in the report on the role of the trade-union movement in international crisis.
In this report we have fixed our objectives: first and above all, to spare humanity the colossal ordeal of a third world war.
In it we have stated our principles : to act within the framework and under the aegis of the United Nations Organization, to develop a spirit of community and a spirit of cooperation, and to return to collective economic disciplines.
The free trade-union movement is called on to play an essential part in the fight against international crisis and for the advent of true peace. The scope of the task is enormous, matched only by its urgency. Our movement intends to devote its efforts to this task regardless of the cost. I might add that it was enormously encouraged by the recent interventions of the government delegates on the Third Committee of the present General Assembly of the United Nations. The Cuban delegate Mr. Ichaso, among others, showed that certain official circles had adopted the idea which we have been propagating for years and which we have already succeeded in putting into the Treaty of Versailles: the idea that economic disorder and misery are among the determinative causes of wars.
The decision of the Committee of the Norwegian Parliament, which, in awarding me the Nobel Peace Prize for 1951, has recognized and proclaimed the importance and the steadfastness of the pacifist efforts of the trade unionists, cannot but greatly assist the spread of these ideas and considerably extend their sphere of influence. It strengthens the common will of those who have conceived and submitted these ideas to the consideration of men, and of those who have been convinced by them, to work ceaselessly to develop a society free of injustice and violence.
We know well, alas, that men and their civilizations are mortal. We wish to leave to indifferent nature the responsibility of their demise and to free mankind at last from its remorse for having begotten Cain.” Leon Jouhaux, “Fifty Years of Trade-Union Activity in Behalf of Peace;” Nobel Lecture, Peace Prize, 1951
Numero Dos—“The contention that science is uniquely Western has never been presented as a thesis to be demonstrated historically–that is, stated explicitly, formulated rigorously, evaluated critically, and documented comprehensively. Instead, throughout much of the twentieth century, variants on this theme frequently appeared in panegyrics for Western civilization (‘Science . . . is the glory of Western culture’), in the forgings of exalted origins for the West in Greek antiquity (‘science originated only once in history, in Greece’), and in accounts that confidently offered purported explanations for the absence of science in other civilizations–accounts thus unencumbered by any requirement to examine sciences already known to be absent. As presented, these were hardly simple assertions of differential developments of specific sciences in particular geographic areas during particular historical periods. Instead they asserted a Great Divide between the imagined community the West and its Other. One particularly dramatic formulation was Ernest Gellner’s ‘Big Ditch”‘symbolizing the enormous differences separating ‘traditional’ societies from the scientific ‘Single World or Unique Truth’ produced by ‘one kind of man.” Such assertions–although apparently about the West–should have depended for their validity on investigations of other cultures. However, the historical evidence accompanying such claims related only to the uncontroversial half of the assertion–the existence of sciences in the West. The substantive half–the assertion of the absence of science in every other culture–rested on little more than the ignorance of the sciences of other cultures, mistaken for the ignorance of other cultures of science. The most important historical counterexample was China–research beginning in the 1940s increasingly provided considerable evidence that there were in China many forms of knowledges and practices similar to those that have been labelled ‘science’ in the West. This, then, is the reason that ‘Chinese science’ became a problem.Despite this evidence, claims that science is uniquely Western have continued to appear even in the most respected scholarly literature in the history of science; on the other hand, major research projects on Chinese science have often–up to the present–been framed within these disputes. But rather than returning to take sides within these debates, this article will take the framework that has preconditioned these controversies as itself the object of historical analysis. That is, this article will analyze what these accounts share: the assumption that the imagined communities China and the West are to be fundamental starting points in analyses of the history of science; that to the West and China we can then rigorously assign antithetical pairs of attributes (e.g., scientific versus intuitive, theoretical versus practical, causal versus correlative thinking, adversarial versus irenic, or geometric versus algebraic) that remain valid across historical periods, geographic locales, social strata, gender identifications, economic and technological differentials, and domains of scientific research along with their subdomains and competing schools; and that ultimately, studies of science can contribute to the further assignment of normative attributes in praise-and-blame historiographies of civilizations (e.g., the uniqueness of the West in producing universal science, the xenophobia of China, or the equality of all civilizations).
Science and Civilization
Perhaps it was the ambiguities in concepts as broad as civilization and science that encouraged such easy answers to questions about their relationship. With the existence of suprahistorical entities called civilizations established by assumption, the central question became to determine what exactly characterized them. What were the essential features that distinguished one civilization from another? Given an assumed Great Divide that existed between the West and its Other, this question was often posed in a very specific form: What made the West unique? Yet the very requirements that these essential defining features were supposed to fulfill presented something of a paradox: these features were to be transhistorical, existing across spans of hundreds or thousands of years; they were also to be unique–confined within the boundaries of a single civilization (for example the West)–and thus their antithesis was to characterize other civilizations, again over hundreds of years. Moreover, although these distinguishing features were to define a single civilization, there was to be a sense in which it remained possible to compare them: all civilizations were by definition in some sense unique, yet the ultimate conclusions reached were often comparisons of civilizations along normative teleologies of moral, political, scientific, or economic progress. Some civilizations were more unique than others.
To answer to this conundrum, almost any research purporting to discover essential features of the West could be called into service. For some writers fundamental differences were linguistic: alphabetic versus allegedly ideographic scripts, the existence versus nonexistence of the copula, scientific versus poetic, theoretical versus practical, or abstract versus concrete; these traits were then linked to the development of rigorous scientific language or efficient bureaucracies. In some accounts, the fundamental difference was capitalism, which itself ushered in modernity. In yet other accounts, the key was religion: Max Weber improbably connected the differences he alleged to have discovered between Protestantism and Chinese religions to the development of capitalism. For others, the fundamental differences were philosophic: conceptions of natural law, causal versus correlative thinking, the ordering of time and space, demonstrative logic versus consensus; China, one translator of Chinese philosophy proclaimed, lacked philosophy altogether. For others, the fundamental difference was political–democracy versus Oriental despotism. This list represents but a fraction of claims for the key features distinguishing the West from the Rest; the search continues to this day.
In the context of this broader literature, “science” was then but one possible solution among many that have been offered to explain the purported differences. Comparative studies, however, rarely even attempted to offer any precise criteria for defining what they might mean by the term science. Often, science was simply left undefined (this was sometimes rationalized by scientistic claims that science was to be a primitive undefined concept); elsewhere science was defined by invoking equally amorphous terms such as reason or rationality. In other accounts, the mere appearance of lexical terms was apparently sufficient to guarantee the existence of science (most often the word science itself, under proper translation, in Latin, Italian, or English); and then–again under suitable translation–the lack of the lexical term science in Chinese seemed to demonstrate that China lacked science. In other accounts still, it was a scientific methodology that defined science. At their least sophisticated, these asserted methodologies were little more than the familiar ideologies of scientists culled from selective readings of the early Greeks, Galileo, Bacon, or Newton. Elsewhere it was axiomatization that was held to differentiate scientific traditions; sometimes it was deduction or logic, originating with the Greeks, or Descartes, or Galileo; sometimes it was preferred analogies–natural law, the book of nature, or the mechanical universe.
There are, however, good reasons to believe that the required definition of science cannot in fact be made, for it would require a rigorous philosophical criteria capable of demarcating science from non-science–criteria that remained both transhistorically and transculturally valid. First, it has proven impossible to offer criteria to demarcate “science” from “non-science”: the term science is not a “natural kind,” nor can it be defined by a simple description or disjunction of descriptions; it has been impossible to offer a definition of science which could claim to both encompass all of the sciences and exclude what is not science. The difficulty with defining science by some unified methodology is suggested by Feyerabend’s criticism that “the events, procedures and results that constitute the sciences have no common structure; there are no elements that occur in every scientific investigation but are missing elsewhere.” Second, such a definition or criteria for science would have to be transhistorical–the definition would have to apply equally well to the present and to ancient Greece (in accounts which place the origin of science there) or seventeenth-century Europe (in the case of modern science). Third, such a definition for science would have to be transcultural if it were to avoid the charge of simply circularly invoking the particular sciences in one or several localities (e.g., ancient Greece, early modern Europe) as its essential defining forms.
These writers of the twentieth century, then, sought to provide answers to questions about the relationship between science and civilizations without any particularly clear formulation of either of the concepts that would serve as the framework for their inquiry. But rather than attempting to provide for these authors definitions that they themselves never used–definitions that arguably do not exist–this article will instead chart the history of debates in which it was the very ambiguities of these terms that became the site ideological contest. How did differing visions of civilizations and their relationships inflect conceptions of science and the writing of the history of science? What role did changing accounts of the fundamental defining features of science play in narrating the histories of civilizations?
The Scientific West and the Intuitive East
Accounts written in the early twentieth century often portrayed China and an undifferentiated “East” as lacking science entirely. Bertrand Russell, after lecturing in China, wrote in 1922 in a chapter entitled “Chinese and Western Civilization Contrasted,” that “comparing the civilization of China with that of Europe, one finds in China most of what was to be found in Greece, but nothing of the other two elements of our civilization, namely Judaism and science. . . . Except quite recently, through European influence, there has been no science and no industrialism.” In the 1940s, Filmer Northrop, a professor of philosophy at Yale University, posited suprahistorical differences between “Eastern intuitive” and “Western scientific” philosophical systems representative of entire civilizations, arguing that “a culture which admits only concepts by intuition is automatically prevented from developing science of the Western type.” Similarly, Wilmon Sheldon, also a professor of philosophy at Yale, contrasted Eastern and Western philosophy, asserting bluntly that “the West generated the natural sciences, as the East did not.” Albert Einstein, in a casual letter which was frequently quoted by later historians, stated in 1953 that the “development of Western science is based on two great achievements: the invention of the formal logical system (in Euclidean geometry) by the Greek philosophers, and the discovery of the possibility to find out causal relationship by systematic experiment (Renaissance). In my opinion one has not to be astonished that the Chinese sages have not made these steps. The astonishing thing is that these discoveries were made at all.” These accounts then offer no analysis of Oriental sciences, presumably because there were not supposed to be any to analyze.
It was to disprove such claims that Needham began his Science and Civilisation in China, which soon developed into a multivolume series documenting the developments in China in chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, physics, and other sciences. Needham too shared the assumption that civilizations were to be a fundamental starting point in studies of the history of science: in place of science versus non-science, he offered his own set of four major contrasts between China and the West (organic versus mechanical philosophies, algebra versus Euclidean geometry, wave versus particle theories, and practical versus theoretical orientations); his “grand titration” was to redistribute credit for scientific discoveries among civilizations; he proposed to restore for China its pride, correcting its slighting by making it an equal contributor among the tributaries that flowed into the river of modern science; ultimately, he sought to discover the social and economic reasons that Chinese civilization was more advanced than the West before the sixteenth century and later fell behind. Needham’s project was from its inception formulated not as one component of, but rather in opposition to mainstream history of science which asserted that science was unique to Western civilization. Yet Needham’s project adopted many of the features of these histories of [Western] science of the period: against catalogues of scientific achievements claimed for the glory of the West, he offered achievements now claimed for the Chinese; against exaggerated claims of Western contributions to other civilizations, Needham asserted Chinese influence where the evidence was incomplete.
Historians of [Western] science, for their part, also often perceived Needham’s research not as one part of a larger project of the study of the history of science, but in opposition to their own work. In the late fifties and early sixties they continued to insist that science was exclusively Western: in response to studies of the sciences of other civilizations (and Needham’s in particular), the criteria defining science changed; however, the defining boundaries of science as exclusively Western did not. For example, in A. C. Crombie’s account, the Orient became differentiated into distinct civilizations, but the “achievements” of these distinct civilizations were undifferentiatedly dismissed as technologies. Western science was no longer defined solely in stark opposition to Oriental intuition. In its place, Western science was defined by an incongruous amalgam of “essential elements” culled from the tradition claimed for the West, including noncontradiction, empirical testing, Euclid, and logic:
Impressive as are the technological achievements of ancient Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt, of ancient China and India, as scholars have presented them to us they lack the essential elements of science, the generalized conceptions of scientific explanation and of mathematical proof. It seems to me that it was the Greeks who invented natural science as we know it, by their assumption of a permanent, uniform, abstract order and laws by means of which the regular changes observed in the world could be explained by deduction, and by their brilliant idea of the generalized use of scientific theory tailored according to the principles of noncontradiction and the empirical test. It is this essential Greek idea of scientific explanation, “Euclidean” in logical form, that has introduced the main problems of scientific method and philosophy of science with which the Western scientific tradition has been concerned.
In another account–even though the defining features of the “mainstream” of science were different–the defining boundaries of science as Western remained stubbornly constant. For de Solla Price, this “mainstream” was the emblem of scientific modernity–mathematical astronomy; instead of attributing the development of science to a scientific method, he appealed to “inspiration” as historically causal. Thus mathematical astronomy differentiated “our own high civilization” from its Other:
What is the origin of the peculiarly scientific basis of our own high civilization? . . . Of all limited areas, by far the most highly developed, most recognizably modern, yet most continuous province of scientific learning, was mathematical astronomy. This is the mainstream that leads through the work of Galileo and Kepler, through the gravitation theory of Newton, directly to the labours of Einstein and all mathematical physicists past and present. In comparison, all other parts of modern science appear derivative or subsequent; either they drew their inspiration directly from the successful sufficiency of mathematical and logical explanation for astronomy, or they developed later, probably as a result of such inspiration in adjacent subjects.
Primitive versus Modern Science
The two views presented above–Crombie and de Solla Price–were in response to the discoveries of the sciences of other civilizations, and Needham’s work in particular; these views themselves elicited a response from Needham. Needham noted that the increasing discoveries of the sciences of other cultures resulted not in the rejection of claims of European uniqueness but rather in the deprecation of the sciences of other cultures: “As the contributions of the Asian civilizations are progressively uncovered by research, an opposing tendency seeks to preserve European uniqueness by exalting unduly the role of the Greeks and claiming that not only modern science, but science as such, was characteristic of Europe, and of Europe only, from the very beginning. . . . The counterpart of this is a determined effort to show that all scientific developments in non-European civilizations were really nothing but technology” (41).
However, as attention to Needham’s phrase “not only modern science, but science as such” suggests, this criticism was not Needham’s central thesis. Needham presented two problems that became the central “Needham questions” defining the field of the history of Chinese science:
Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo? This is the most obvious question which many have asked but few have answered. Yet there is another which is of quite equal importance. Why was it that between the second century B.C. and the sixteenth century A.D. East Asian culture was much more efficient than the European West in applying human knowledge of nature to useful purposes? (16, emphasis in original)
Critics who saw in Needham an exaggerated attempt to rehabilitate Chinese science ignored his ultimate reaffirmation of modern science as uniquely Western–Needham did not dispute the radical break between the scientific and nonscientific, but only the manner in which the boundary was drawn. For Needham, this break derived directly from accounts which asserted a radical divide in the West between the ancient and modern by appending to “science” the even more amorphous term “modern” (14-16): “When we say that modern science developed only in Western Europe at the time of Galileo in the late Renaissance, we mean surely that there and then alone there developed the fundamental bases of the structure of the natural sciences as we have them today, namely the application of mathematical hypotheses to Nature, the full understanding and use of the experimental method, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, the geometrisation of space, and the acceptance of the mechanical model of reality” (14-15). And indeed Needham’s central concern is this supplemental term “modern”: “Hypotheses of primitive or medieval type distinguish themselves quite clearly from those of modern type. Their intrinsic and essential vagueness always made them incapable of proof or disproof, and they were prone to combine in fanciful systems of gnostic correlation. In so far as numerical figures entered into them, numbers were manipulated in forms of `numerology’ or number-mysticism constructed a priori, not employed as the stuff of quantitative measurements compared a posteriori” (15). Thus against schemes that posited a radical difference between civilizations East and West, Needham insisted on preserving the uniqueness of modern Western science by claiming the premodern world–including China and Greece–“must be thought of as a whole” (16); the radical break for Needham was the boundary between the modern and the primitive.
Despite Needham’s brief list of the characteristics of modern science–experimentalism, mathematization, geometrization, and mechanism–these were hardly the central features that animated his discussion of modern science. Instead, for Needham the central distinction between primitive and modern science was its universality: “Until it had been universalized by its fusion with mathematics, natural science could not be the common property of all mankind. The sciences of the medieval world were tied closely to the ethnic environments in which they had arisen, and it was very difficult, if not impossible, for the people of those different cultures to find any common basis of discourse” (15). Needham then incorporated science into this universal teleology: “the river of Chinese science flowed, like all other such rivers, into this sea of modern science” (16). And by the concluding paragraph, Needham’s “science” has become nothing more than an impoverished signifier in a teleology purely utopian: “Let us take pride enough in the undeniable historical fact that modern science was born in Europe and only in Europe, but let us not claim thereby a perpetual patent thereon. For what was born in the time of Galileo was a universal palladium, the salutary enlightenment of all men without distinction of race, colour, faith or homeland, wherein all can qualify and all participate. Modern universal science, yes; Western science, no!” (54, emphasis in original).
Scientific Revolutions and The Scientific Revolution
The most important response to the two Needham questions–why China was more proficient at technology before the sixteenth century and why modern science arose only in the West–was a series of criticisms presented by Nathan Sivin. Against the former, Sivin argued that in the period from the first century b.c. to the fifteenth century a.d., science and technology were separate and thus Chinese superiority in technology was not indicative of more advanced science; he also criticized attempts to compare the science and technology of civilizations in their entirety. In response to the latter–Needham’s “Scientific Revolution problem”–Sivin critiqued several assumptions underlying the question of why China lacked a scientific revolution and pointed out fallacies of historical reasoning that discovered conditions that were asserted to have inhibited the growth of Chinese science. Sivin’s ultimate response, however, was to assert that “by conventional intellectual criteria, China had its own scientific revolution in the seventeenth century.” This revolution was not, Sivin argued, as sweeping as the Scientific Revolution in Europe.
Sivin’s claim was part of his criticism of the received accounts of the rejection by a xenophobic, conservative, traditional China of modern Western science introduced by the Jesuits. Against portrayals of the Jesuits as having introduced modern science, Sivin argued that the Jesuits withheld the Copernican system, instead presenting the Tychonic system as the most recent and misrepresenting the history of Western astronomy to disguise this. Against claims that the lack of Chinese acceptance of early modern science was due to intellectual, linguistic, or philosophical impediments, Sivin argued that it was contradictions in the Jesuit presentation of Western astronomy–including these misleading characterizations of Copernican astronomy which the Jesuits were by decree forbidden to teach–that made it incomprehensible. And against caricatures of the Chinese as xenophobic and conservative, Sivin argued that the Chinese did accept Western astronomical techniques, resulting in a “conceptual revolution in astronomy.”
Sivin’s response, however, incorporated many of the assumptions within which the claims he critiqued had been framed. Seventeenth-century European astronomy remained “modern science” posed against “traditional” Chinese science, for example in Sivin’s assertion that Wang and his contemporaries did not succeed “in a mature synthesis of traditional and modern science.” The West remained the source of modern science for the Chinese: “The character of early modern science was concealed from Chinese scientists, who depended on the Jesuit writings. Many were brilliant by any standard. As is easily seen from their responses to the European science they knew, they would have been quite capable of comprehending modern science if their introduction to it had not been both contradictory and trivial.” The limited extent of the transformation of the scientific revolution in China remained the result of distorting nonscientific influences, blamed now not on the Chinese but on the Jesuits: “In short, the scientific revolution in seventeenth-century China was in the main a response to outmoded knowledge [transmitted by the Jesuits] that gave little attention to, and consistently misrepresented, the significance of developments in the direction of modern science.” And ultimately, in Sivin’s critiques this episode remained framed as an “encounter in China between its cognitive traditions and those of Europe.”
The key to Sivin’s argument was thus his redistribution of “scientific revolutions” among civilizations: by asserting that there was not one but two scientific revolutions–one Chinese and one European–Sivin implied that differences between China and Europe were of degree rather than kind.However, by the criteria he used for scientific revolutions–shifts in a disciplinary matrix–there certainly have been many others. Sivin’s account adopted from the histories of Western science the conflation of scientific revolutions in this technical sense with the mythologies of the Scientific Revolution–a difference that Sivin implicitly notes in his use of a capitalized “Scientific Revolution” for Europe. This conflation was itself rooted in attempts by these histories to offer scientific revolutions as the historical cause of the radical break between the ancient and modern that the Scientific Revolution emblematized. This radical break had then been translated to a radical difference between the modern scientific West (unique among civilizations in having had the Scientific Revolution) and traditional China. Sivin documented a scientific revolution in China–a change in the disciplinary matrix in Chinese astronomy which was itself a limited copy of the Scientific Revolution of Europe. But he denied to this scientific revolution the miraculous transformative powers claimed in the mythologies of the Scientific Revolution of the West.
Praise-and-Blame Histories of Civilizations
Much of the scholarly literature on the question of Chinese science written during the period when Sivin and Needham were publishing their work offered no study of any aspect of it. Instead, these works (sometimes presented against Needham by borrowing from earlier claims that science was uniquely Western, and sometimes following Needham’s call to find the social causes that modern science was uniquely Western) purported to offer explanations for the absence of science in China–philosophical, social, linguistic, logical, and political. For example, Mark Elvin offered the metaphysical thought developed from Wang Yangming as “the reason why China failed to create a modern science of her own accord.” Joseph Levenson explained the purported absence of a Chinese scientific tradition as the result of an “amateur ideal.” Alfred Bloom asserted that the Chinese language had inhibited the ability of the Chinese to think theoretically. Robert Hartwell argued that the major impediment was the absence of the formal logical system embodied in Euclidean geometry. And Wenyuan Qian provided a “politico-ideological” explanation.
Yet this literature was not about science. Levenson failed to cite a single primary source on Chinese science in his bibliography; instead he drew his conclusions on the nondevelopment of science and modernity by universalizing the ethics of Ming painting as exemplary of all of Ming culture, and comparing this with stereotypes of Western science and modern values. Bloom made no pretense of citing historical materials, much less scientific materials from China or the West, in justifying his leap from measuring the testing skills of students in present-day China–presented in the language of the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses–to the development of Chinese science in the past. Elvin cited one scientist. Hartwell’s explanation of the nondevelopment of Chinese science was appended to a study of trends in Chinese historiography. And Qian’s dialogic narrative contained its own admissions of the historical falsity of central theses of the book.These accounts–because the absence of [modern] science in China was known–could ignore the technical details specific to the sciences themselves and instead derive lessons on topics deemed more vital–whether political despotism, philosophical orthodoxy, linguistic inadequacies, or cultural stagnation.
Reiterating the Differences
The focus on comparisons of science in China and the West has resulted in enough research that several recent works have been written that attempt to synthesize or reevaluate the theses presented in this literature. The most important recent comparative study is G. E. R. Lloyd’s Adversaries and Authorities. Lloyd seeks to relate differences in the philosophy and science of China and Greece to fundamental differences in their respective cultures. He begins his analysis by reexamining differences in their social and political context, following one variant of the conventional view: “my starting point is . . . a common view of a fundamental contrast”–the view of Burckhardt and others–that “the Greeks exhibited highly developed agonistic traits in every part of their culture . . . philosophy and science included”; in contrast, “it has often been claimed that the Chinese were irenic rather than polemical and rejected aggressive adversariality of any kind” (20). His approach is to present evidence for this conventional view, subject it to a “severe critique,” refine it, and finally seek explanations for the differences (21). Lloyd then analyzes the differences in the science of early Greece and China by reexamining several contrasts: techniques of demonstration (especially Greek axiomatization and deduction); “cause-oriented Greek culture and a correlation-oriented Chinese one” (93); the use of dichotomies in Greek and Chinese thought; Chinese and Greek views of the infinite; the Greeks’ emphasis on geometrical models and strict proof in astronomy contrasted with the Chinese political demand for accuracy in the prediction of portents (184); and views of the body and the state. These too are for the most part conventional theses, and in each case Lloyd essentially follows an approach similar to that outlined above–offering an outline of the thesis, a critique, a refinement, and finally relating the contrasts to differences in cultural context. Although Lloyd emphasizes “in the strongest possible terms, the difficulties and dangers of generalisation,” his ultimate conclusion on whether there is a fundamental difference between the science of early Greece and China is “clearly yes” (209); and his ultimate explanation for these differences–encapsulated in the title of the book–is the fundamental difference between the adversarial Greeks and the authority-bound Chinese which resulted from differing social and political institutions.
The most important of the contrasts between Chinese and Greek science that Lloyd analyzes is the “three interrelated concepts of axiomatisation, certainty and foundations” exemplified by the Euclidean tradition of mathematics with “its insistence not just on deduction, but on axiomatic-deductive demonstration” (211-12): of the conventional views, this is both the most commonplace and the most plausibly significant; it is also this contrast that Lloyd emphasizes in his concluding chapter (211-12, 214-15). Even here Lloyd’s argument remains filled with numerous qualifications and caveats: he notes that axiomatics in Greek mathematics is a style that is a “recurrent, but not a universal, one” (212); often, what in Greek geometry was claimed to be incontrovertible “turns out to be a proposition that is anything but” (63); and on the other hand, Chinese mathematics also offered proofs (212). Yet there is much more wrong with the conventional view than Lloyd’s critique suggests. Rigorously defined, axiomatization was not possible outside of geometry; it makes little sense to identify axiomatization with the science of an entire civilization–whether the West or ancient Greece. Lloyd’s remaining contrasts fare no better. He notes that the Greeks “were no strangers to correlative thinking” (94), and “Chinese interest in the explanation of events is certainly highly developed in such contexts as history and medicine” (109). What all of Lloyd’s careful analysis, caveats, and reservations suggest is reevaluating the assumption that Lloyd does not question–that “Greece” and “China” are appropriate categories from which to generalize about science. For as long as it is assumed that it is “the divergent early histories of philosophy and science in those two ancient civilisations that are our chief explanandum” (223), the solutions can only lie in debates over which of the antithetical attributes asserted to characterize entire civilizations are the most significant.
Science and the Postmoderns’ West
Research in critical studies, particularly in the past twenty years, has questioned these grand narratives of both science and civilizations. However, in many poststructuralist works, it was often a cross-disciplinary credulity toward the West–equated with reason, science, logic, and rationality–that provided these critiques with their inflated urgency. For example, without this intensified essentialization of the West, the Derridean deconstruction of Western logocentrism becomes little more than a critique of the application of structuralist readings to literary and philosophical texts. In a deflationary view, Foucault’s archaeology of madness silenced by the language of Western reason becomes no more than a genealogy of psychiatric practices traced to eighteenth-century moral therapies.
If two central lacunae of poststructuralist analyses (as exemplified by the works of Derrida, Foucault, and Bourdieu) were science and non-Western cultures, more recent work in the cultural, gender, and social studies of science has turned toward the critique of science contextualized in culture. Against the view of science as coherent, teleological, and universal, recent microhistorical analyses in science studies have characterized the sciences as disunified, local practices inseparable from cultural context; the tautological equation of good science with good culture was little more than the ideologies of the historical actors themselves in their advocacy of their own particular political programs, incorporated into earlier Whig accounts as historical conclusions. However, one result of these studies of the relationship of science to culture and of culture to science has been the further identification of science with Western culture–studies of non-Western cultures have often focused not on non-Western science but rather on Western science in colonial settings. Indeed, perhaps the most important critique of the assumptions about cultures in recent work in science studies is Bruno Latour’s provocative We Have Never Been Modern. Although Latour criticizes assertions of the Great Divide between the West and its Other, he ultimately accepts the divide itself and questions only what constitutes it; he asserts that the differences are only of size (of networks), yet to explain these differences Latour returns to claims of a fundamental difference in worldviews. Thus Latour’s work, still framed within the assumption of a fundamental division between the West and its Other, can offer no alternative other than to posit yet another antithesis as an explanation.
Similarly, recent work in cultural criticism has questioned conceptualizations of nations and civilizations as “imagined communities” constructed through complex historical and political processes. Yet cultural criticism has too often been tempted to critique the West in its entirety by equating it with science portrayed now not as universal and liberating but instead as hegemonic, normalizing and disciplinary. Thus, perhaps because the critiques of science and civilization have too often proceeded separately, two key lacunae in contemporary critical studies are the problem of culture in science studies and the problem of science in cultural criticism.
The history of science is ostensibly a discipline united by the investigation of the single subject of science irrespective of geopolitical boundaries that construct cultures and civilizations. Yet much of the research literature on Chinese science has taken as its starting point a credulity toward the imagined communities China and the West, and the Great Divide that constitutes them. No satisfactory answer has ever been posed.
This article has analyzed debates about Chinese science which were framed within this broader context. In the first half of the twentieth century, authors asserted an absolute divide between the scientific West and an exoticized, intuitive East. In opposition, Needham proposed to redistribute credit for scientific discoveries among civilizations by a “grand titration”; against the assertions of a radical civilizational divide between China and the West, he revived claims of a radical temporal break between primitive science (which included that of China and equally ancient Greece) and modern science, which for Needham remained culturally universal yet uniquely Western in origin. Sivin criticized many of the excesses in Needham’s rehabilitation, and further questioned the uniqueness of the West by proposing that China had had its own, albeit limited, scientific revolution. Yet the scientific revolution Sivin discovered for China was the conversion to modern science from the West, incomplete because of Jesuit distortions; the Scientific Revolution Sivin compared it to in the West was itself only an emblem of the purported radical break between the ancient and modern. Other studies of this period, framed within the legacy of assertions of the Great Divide between China and the West, offered explanations–social, political, philosophical, or linguistic–for the assumed absence of science in a China which then became the anthropomorphized subject of a praise-and-blame historiography of civilizations. Most recently, the cultural turn in the history of science has further identified the culture of the West with science; the cross-disciplinary credulity toward the concept of the West–equated with science, reason, and rationality but now critiqued as hegemonic–which provided many poststructuralist and postcolonial critiques with their inflated urgency only further reinforced this identification of science and the West.
Moving beyond “science and civilizations” as a framework for analysis raises the important question of possible directions for future research. How is the study of sciences and cultures to proceed without civilizations as the central actors animating world history, and without a universal, teleological science to gauge the progress of those civilizations toward modernity? If nations and civilizations are imagined communities, if the sciences are disunified practices, how does one analyze their relationship? There is of course no formulaic solution. But it may be helpful to suggest ways that emerging research–by calling into question particular assumptions associated with the science and civilizations framework–is opening up new areas of study.
First, the rejection of China and the West as analytic categories itself entails several important implications. If essentialized, suprahistorical civilizations are not assumed at the outset, the first question becomes how to determine the appropriate units of analysis. The problem of cultures becomes a general one, requiring the historical analysis of changing cultures, sub-cultures, and sub-sub-cultures that often do not conform neatly to political or linguistic boundaries; political and linguistic identifications become but elements among others in the fashioning of these groupings. And if the performative act of attributing scientific discoveries to civilizations is not naturalized as a given fact, one must then analyze the ideological contests through which artifacts become identified with particular cultures, claimed for civilizations, and the consequences of those claims–including the role those claims themselves play in the formations of cultures. In other words, what role do products of the sciences–knowledges, technologies, and ideologies–play in the constitution of cultures, and how do cultures contribute to the constitution of sciences and their dissemination?
A second important direction for research proceeds from the rejection of the notion of a Great Divide that separates cultures. The traditional historiography often assumed an insuperable barrier between civilizations (whether imagined through claims of linguistic or conceptual incommensurability or accounts of xenophobic traditionalism) and–through mythologies of its unique origins in the West–placed science on one side of that divide. Translation was then conceptualized as the unidirectional flow of scientific truth from the West across that barrier and its imperfect reception or outright rejection by the non-West; the alternative was the wholesale adoption of this scheme now romanticized as local resistance to the global hegemony of the normalizing West. Studies of translation began with the assumption of the self-same identity of scientific facts (an assumption reinforced by stories of origins) supposed to remain constant in displacements across space and time; the question posed of translation was then one of fidelity–had truth been distorted by mistranslation, incomprehension, or cultural barriers? The alternative was the radical dissolution of truth and the impossibility of translation posited by some recent works in science studies that assert a radical locality of scientific practice. One possible approach that avoids the false dilemmas posed by these sets of alternatives is to analyze the circulations of cultural artifacts through material, discursive, scientific, technological, and ideological fields and cultural ensembles, tracing the proliferation and dissemination of copies and their further copies, transfigurations, and appropriations.
A third direction for research begins by recognizing the enormous historical efficacy of imagined communities and the claims made about science and civilizations, studying them as the ideologies of the historical protagonists and thus the object of analysis rather than as explanatory categories in which history itself is to be framed. That is, if cross-cultural study is no longer a project of forging the radical differences and transhistorical continuities of science used to represent the non-West as the antithesis of the West, the historical question remains of how claims of difference and continuity made by the actors themselves contribute to contests over the formation and legitimation of sciences and communities. A fourth direction is the historical contextualization and self-reflexive critique of this historiography itself–subjecting the project of comparison to analysis. For example, what was the role of narratives about science and civilization in the construction of the academic disciplines, ideologies of nations, and the rhetorics through which world history was narrated?
These directions are but a small sampling of the possible directions of future research, directions made possible by rejecting frameworks with trajectories for science and civilizations in which historical details too often contributed little more than producing a reality effect. Instead, this new research seeks to find within historical documents answers to the questions of constitutes science, culture, and their relationship. The prospect is then for histories that contribute not to grand narratives of the rise and fall of civilizations but rather to a historical understanding of the processes of the mutual constitution of knowledge and community.” Roger Hart, “Beyond Science and Civilization: a Post-Needham Critique;” 1999
Numero Tres—“In my essay “The New Humanists” (April 22, 2002), I wrote:
‘There are encouraging signs that the third culture now includes scholars in the humanities who think the way scientists do. Like their colleagues in the sciences, they believe there is a real world and their job is to understand it and explain it. They test their ideas in terms of logical coherence, explanatory power, conformity with empirical facts. They do not defer to intellectual authorities: Anyone’s ideas can be challenged, and understanding and knowledge accumulate through such challenges. They are not reducing the humanities to biological and physical principles, but they do believe that art, literature, history, politics—a whole panoply of humanist concerns—need to take the sciences into account.’
EDGE: You seem to have a strange collection of interests: mathematics and physics and philosophy, on the one hand, and fiction, on the other. Why would a novelist teach philosophy of science and have enough of an interest in mathematics to write a book on Gödel’s incompleteness theorems?REBECCA GOLDSTEIN: To me the affinities are natural. It’s a matter of different forms of beauty. Mathematicians and physicists are just as guided by principles of elegance and beauty as novelists and musicians are. Einstein told the philosopher of science Hans Reichenbach that he’d known even before the solar eclipse of 1918 supported his general theory of relativity that the theory must be true because it was so beautiful. And Hermann Weyl, who worked on both relativity theory and quantum mechanics, said “My work always tried to unite the true with the beautiful, but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful.” I would say the same thing about writing novels. The question comes up, when you’re using ideas in math or physics or philosophy in a work of fiction, just how far can you distort the idea to make it work in the novel, work as a metaphor. I try to keep as close to the truth as possible, but when I have to choose, then I choose Weyl-ly.
Mathematics seems to be the one place where you don’t have to choose, where truth and beauty are always united. One of my all-time favorite books is A Mathematicians’ Apology. G.H. Hardy tries to demonstrate to a general audience that mathematics is intimately about beauty. He gives as examples two proofs, one showing that the square root of 2 is irrational, the other showing that there’s no largest prime number. Simple, easily graspable proofs, that stir the soul with wonder. I read G.H. Hardy’s book the summer after graduating college, right before going on to graduate school. It was the same summer that I read Newman and Nagel’s lovely little book, Gödel’s Proof. It was great to read them at the same time. Nothing could have convinced me more of Hardy’s point about mathematics and beauty than reading at the same time about Gödel’s proof.
Hardy’s book is not only intellectually engaging but also moving, even elegiac, because he was mourning his loss of mathematical creativity. He was in his fifties, and, as he wrote, mathematics is a young man’s game. He wrote the book after his first suicide attempt and before his second—and successful—suicide attempt. C.P. Snow talked him into writing a book that would describe the special joys of mathematical creativity to those who had never experienced it. The book had a big impact on me, impressing me with the hollowness of bifurcating the intellect and the passions. The intellect is passionate.
And of course it was Snow, too, who coined the phrase that you’ve one-upped, the two cultures, warning that practitioners of the mathematical sciences, on the one hand, and the arts and humanities, on the other, are losing the ability to understand each other, to the impoverishment of all. Your idea of bridging the two cultures, creating a third culture, approaches the bridge primarily from the scientific side. A lot of your Edge scientists engage themselves with the kinds of questions that have traditionally been addressed by humanists, questions that have to do with what it means to be human. But there’s movement from the other direction as well. There are other other narrative artists —I’m thinking of the novelists Richard Powers, Alan Lightman, and Dan Lloyd, and the playwrights Michael Frayn and Paul Parnell (who wrote QED about Richard Feynmann) —who are integrating mathematical and scientific ideas into their work. It’s a hopeful spot in the culture.
I like to think that the shallower aspects of the intellectual scene of the last century have played themselves out. I mean in particular the assaults on objectivity and rationality, which often take the form of attacks on science. There’s nothing less exhilarating than reducing everything to social constructs and to our piddly human points of view. The pleasure of thinking is in trying to get outside of ourselves—this is as true in the arts and the humanities as in math and the sciences. There’s something heroic in the idea of objective knowledge; the farther away knowledge takes you from your own individual point of view, the more heroic it is. Maybe the new ideas that are going to revitalize the arts and humanities are going to be allied with the sciences. It’s not, of course, that novels will all address scientific themes—that would be ridiculously restrictive. But I hope that the spirit of expansiveness that’s associated with the pursuit of scientific truth can get infused into the arts and humanities.
EDGE: How do these connections between the sciences and humanities relate to Gödel, if they do?
GOLDSTEIN: One of the strange things that happened in the twentieth century was that results from mathematics and physics got co-opted into the assault on objectivity and rationality. I’m thinking primarily of relativity theory and Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.
The summer before entering college I had to read a book that was popular back then, by an NYU philosopher, William Barrett, called Irrational Man. It was, vaguely existentialist and it argued pretty strenuously that man constructs all truths. It spoke a lot about Nietzsche and Heidegger, but there were a few pages on relativity theory and the incompleteness theorems, arguing that the upshot of these results was that even in physics and mathematics there’s no objective truth and rationality: everything is relative to man’s point of view, and that the proofs of mathematics are incomplete because there’s no foundation for mathematical knowledge. Everything is infected with man’s subjectivity, leaving us no grounds for distinguishing between rational and irrational. I read this right before entering college and it took the wind out of my sails. I had been excited about learning the important things but now I was reading that the one important thing to learn is that there aren’t any important things, at least none that we haven’t made up, which seemed to undermine their importance. I liked making up things as well as anyone; after all, I was a future novelist. Still, the thought that this making-up business penetrated even to mathematics deflated me.
And the irony is that both Einstein and Gödel—who had a legendary friendship when they were at the Institute for Advanced Study—could not have been more committed to the idea of objective truth. Both were super-realists when it came to their fields, Einstein in physics, Gödel in mathematics. The irony is sharpened in Gödel’s case since not only was he a mathematical realist, believing that mathematical truth is grounded in reality, but, even more ironically, it was this meta-mathematical conviction that actually motivated his famous proofs.
Gödel was a mathematical realist, a Platonist. He believed that what makes mathematics true is that it’s descriptive—not of empirical reality, of course, but of an abstract reality. Mathematical intuition is something analogous to a kind of sense perception. In his essay “What Is Cantor’s Continuum Hypothesis?”, Gödel wrote that we’re not seeing things that just happen to be true, we’re seeing things that must be true. The world of abstract entities is a necessary world—that’s why we can deduce our descriptions of it through pure reason.
One of the interesting things about Gödel is that he became enraptured with Platonism when he was a student, an undergraduate at the University of Vienna. He took a course in philosophy with Heinrich Gomperz. When I read Gödel’s papers in the basement of the Firestone Library at Princeton, I discovered that later in life he was sent a questionnaire asking about his philosophical influences. The sociologists had listed a bunch of weighty philosophers, and Gödel disregarded almost all of them—(though he said that Kant was a little bit influential). According to Gödel, the greatest influence on his life was Professor Gomperz, who introduced him to philosophical position, Platonism. Gödel’s response was strong. He switched his major from physics to mathematics, specializing first in number theory, since he thought that it was there that he would find results closest to his Platonist heart. That shows you the philosophical orientation motivated his work. It seemed that Gödel hatched an audacious ambition while still a young student: to produce a mathematical result that would have meta-mathematical implications implications, or at least suggestions, about the nature of mathematics itself. It’s as if a painter produces a picture that has something to say about the nature of beauty, perhaps even something to say about why beauty moves us. Mathematics forcefully raises meta- questions, since it is a priori, immune from empirical revision, necessary. How can we have knowledge of this sort? What’s it about? The truths we learn about the spatio-temporal realm are all ultimately empirical; and they’re contingent. They’re not immune to empirical revision, which is why physics requires expensive equipment for testing its predictions against the world. Mathematicians are cheap; they are thus cost-effective for universities —which is another way of saying that mathematics is a priori. But this aprioricity and necessity present problems. What can necessary, a priori truths be about? Maybe they’re about nothing at all, other than the formal systems we construct mere consequences of manipulating symbols according to rules, as in chess. Platonism rejects this answer. It claims that mathematics is descriptive of abstract entities, of numbers and sets, that exist separately from our attempt to understand them through our mathematical systems
Platonism has always had a great appeal for mathematicians, because it grounds their sense that they’re discovering rather than inventing truths. When Gödel fell in love with Platonism, it became, I think, the core of his life. He happened to have been married, but the real love of his life was Platonism, and he fell in love, like so many of us, when he was an undergraduate.
Platonism was an unpopular position in his day. Most mathematicians, such as David Hilbert, the towering figure of the previous generation of mathematicians, and still alive when Gödel was a young man, were formalists. To say that something is mathematically true is to say that it’s provable in a formal system. Hilbert’s Program was to formalize all branches of mathematics. Hilbert himself had already formalized geometry, contingent on arithmetic’s being formalized. And what Gödel’s famous proof shows is that arithmetic can’t be formalized. Any formal system of arithmetic is either going to be inconsistent or incomplete.
On October 7, 1931, when he was 24 years old, he announced his result, a proof that showed that any formal system that is rich enough to express arithmetic will have a proposition which is true and unprovable. He actually showed how to construct, in each consistent formal system, a true arithmetical proposition that can’t be proved. It sounds paradoxical, because if he’s showing that it’s true, hasn’t he proved that it’s true? But it’s not paradoxical. The proof skirts the edge of paradox.
Part of the immediate background of Gödel’s Proof is not only Hilbert’s Program, but the Vienna of the late ’20s and early ’30s. When he was a student, Gödel had been invited by Hans Hahn, one of his professors, to attend the legendary meetings of the logical positivists, what came to be know as the Vienna Circle. Sometimes Gödel is categorized as a logical positivist because of this early association. And it’s true that Gödel didn’t argue with them while he attended their meetings, held in a dismal room in the basement of the University of Vienna. But just because he chose not to argue doesn’t mean he didn’t vehemently disagree with them. A passionate Platonist must be profoundly at odds with logical positivists.
Gödel mistrusted our ability to communicate. Natural language, he thought, was imprecise, and we usually don’t understand each other. Gödel wanted to prove a mathematical theorem that would have all the precision of mathematics—the only language with any claims to precision—but with the sweep of philosophy. He wanted a mathematical theorem that would speak to the issues of meta-mathematics. And two extraordinary things happened. One is that he actually did produce such a theorem. The other is that it was interpreted by the jazzier parts of the intellectual culture as saying, philosophically exactly the opposite of what he had been intending to say with it. Gödel had intended to show that our knowledge of mathematics exceeds our formal proofs. He hadn’t meant to subvert the notion that we have objective mathematical knowledge or claim that there is no mathematical proof—quite the contrary. He believed that we do have access to an independent mathematical reality. Our formal systems are incomplete because there’s more to mathematical reality than can be contained in any of our formal systems. More precisely, what he showed is that all of our formal systems strong enough for arithmetic are either inconsistent or incomplete. Now an inconsistent system is completely worthless since inconsistent systems allow you to derive contradictions. And once you have a contradiction then you can prove anything at all.
EDGE: Do you think that Godel’s proof reveals something about the relationship between language and reality?
GOLDSTEIN: Gödel’s did not see language as constructive of reality. Language rather is subordinate to reality. But that doesn’t mean that language isn’t important in the proof, that there isn’t something fascinating going on in the languages spoken, so to speak, within the proof. In fact, the proof is a layering of different kinds of language, and the way in which the proof links these layers is the essence of the proof’s strategy.
There’s the purely mathematical language, and then there is the meta-language that’s describing the formal systems themselves, the rules of the formal systems. The cunning is that he gets sentences which say something straightforwardly arithmetical to also say something about themselves. These sentences manage to speak on two levels, and this double-speak is accomplished through what we now call Gödel numbering. Each of the elements in the system has a number, and you can also assign numbers to the well-formed formulas composed of those element, and to the sequences of well-formed formulas, which are what proofs are—by combinatorial rules. Given any string of symbols you can derive the unique number that goes with that string, and vice-versa. Because of the Gödel numbering those propositions are saying something straightforwardly arithmetical but they’re also saying something about themselves, something about their own formal properties. This is the way in which self-referentiality—gets utilized in the proof.
Self-referentiality, which produces many devilish logical problems—the logician Raymond Smullyan has written particularly well about them in his entertaining books—goes back to the time of ancient Greece, when Epimenides, the Cretan, said that all Cretans were liars. This is a paradox. There’s nothing, strictly speaking, paradoxical in Epimenides’ statement, but it does lead to the following sentence, which is, famously, paradoxical: “This sentence is false”. What Epimenides was saying was: “I’m a Cretan, everything that Cretans say is false; this very thing that I’m saying is false”. And this last statement is indeed paradoxical. Because if it’s true then it’s false and if it’s false then it’s true. And the mind crashes.
Gödel appropriated this ancient form of paradox in order to produce a proposition which we can see is true precisely because we can see it’s unprovable. This proposition has a purely straightforward mathematical meaning but it’s also a proposition that speaks about itself. : The proposition is, in effect: “This very proposition is unprovable”. Is it true, or is it false? If it’s false, then its negation is true. Its negation says that the proposition is provable. So, assuming the system to be consistent, if this problematic double-speaking proposition is false, its negation is true, which would mean the problematic proposition itself is thus provable. So if it’s false it can’t be false. If it’s false it’s true. Therefore it has to be true. But unprovable!
That’s how he does it. That’s the proposition that’s both true and unprovable. And remember that it has a strictly arithmetical meaning as well. That’s accomplished through the Gödel numbering. So he’s shown that in any consistent formal system of arithmetic there will be true but unprovable arithmetical propositions. A formal system of arithmetic is either going to be inconsistent or incomplete.
The second incompleteness theorem, which follows pretty straightforwardly from the first, proves that one of the things that you can’t prove in a formal system of arithmetic is the consistency of that very system. So while you’re working in a system you can’t prove within that system that it’s consistent. And of course an inconsistent system is worthless because you can prove anything in an inconsistent system.
EDGE: Could you say something about the milieu in which Gödel lived at the time when he produced these theorems?
GOLDSTEIN: Between the two world wars, Vienna was a place of intellectual ferment. There was disappointment and disillusionment with the old ways of doing things. The horrors of World War I were still a current memory and there was an attempt to throw off the old ways, to rethink things, in many areas. So we see psychoanalysis starting there, and the modernist architecture of Adolf Loos, and Arnold Schoenberg with his atonal music. There was a lot of intercultural, interdisciplinary dialogue. The logical positivists were very much part of this. They tried to rethink the foundations of knowledge, to rethink the foundations of language. They claimed that if we purify language we’ll be able to purify knowledge.
As the logical positivist would have it, so much of the horror that had resulted in the Great War had come from confused thinking. People claimed to know things they couldn’t possibly know. The political concerns gave a fervor to the movement. If we were more modest in our claims to knowledge, perhaps we’d avoid some of the tragedy that our species is prone to. A lot of them—Neurath and Carnap certainly—had left-leaning politics as well. They toned this down when they got to America. But in Vienna, when Gödel was there, there was a fervor in trying to rethink language and the limits of what we can say.
Wittgenstein had an enormous influence on the Vienna Circle of logical positivists. He had written the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in the trenches of World War I. In that book, published in 1922, he tried to delineate the outer reaches of language and show that language has a border around it. There are rules that allow us to say what’s sayable, and there’s a great deal that lies on the other side. Most of the important things, he notes, can’t be said.
But there he disagreed with the positivists. The positivists fought about the other side of the divide; outside of the sayable there was nothing at all. Beyond that which we can say there’s nothing. But Wittgenstein in fact believed that the most important thing, what he referred to as “the mystical,” is merely unsayable, not that it doesn’t exist at all. If we try to say it we will utter nonsense. But it’s important nonsense. Thus, Wittgenstein was not really a positivist. But the Vienna Circle understood him to be a positivist and they admired him tremendously. They undertook to study the Tractatus and they studied it for an entire year. And it’s a slim book! They met on Thursday evenings and studied the Tractatus sentence by sentence by sentence. It has the appearance of great clarity, but in fact it’s rather obscure. It’s quite beautiful, quite poetic, more artistic than scientific, as in fact the logician Frege wrote to Wittgenstein, in one of those seemingly flattering letters that an author probably would rather not get. Though the logical positives were inspired by Wittgenstein, he had an ambivalent attitude towards them. There were a few that he spoke to: Schlick and Friedrich Waissman, an acolyte, who worshiped Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was a powerful personality, a man of great charisma.
Wittgenstein was in his early 40s around that time. He had gone to Cambridge before the war as an undergraduate, and had galvanized Bertrand Russell. Russell, together with Alfred North Whitehead, had written Principia Mathematica, trying to reduce arithmetic to logic and set theory. An overwhelming problem was how to defend your system of logic and set theory from paradoxical sets. Russell himself had discovered one of these atrocities of a priori reason: the set of all sets that aren’t members of themselves. This leads to a paradox—you see this when you ask whether this set is a member of itself: if it is then it isn’t and if it isn’t then it is. In other words, there can’t be such a set since it leads to paradox. Therefore, your formal system has got to block the formation of this sort of set, and of others that lead to paradoxes. Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica had a set of special rules—they called it the theory of types—that would keep certain problematic sets—the kind that yield paradoxes—out of set theory. But it was completely ad hoc. They didn’t have a theory as to what was going on there, and they issued an invitation for mathematicians and logicians to come up with a better explanation— a theory of when language is clean and pure, and when is it tainted by paradox. How can we purify our mathematical logical language so that it can’t form paradoxes? That lured Wittgenstein to Cambridge.
Wittgenstein had an enormous effect on Russell. First Russell thought Wittgenstein had a new kind of sensibility. He gave Russell the sense that he really knew something incommunicable, that there was something he was trying to get at that Russell was not seeing it. As a result of these interactions, Russell actually gave up mathematical logic. Wittgenstein convinced him that his old ways of doing things were wrong. Russell said that he couldn’t quite understand what Wittgenstein was saying, but he felt in his bones that he must be right. That’s the kind of effect that Wittgenstein had on people.
Then he went off into the trenches wrote the Tractatus. It had an enormous effect on those thinkers in Vienna who were trying to rethink the foundations of all knowledge and all language. And as I mentioned, he always disavowed them. He said they never understood him. One of the ways of really understanding this is that last proposition of the Tractatus: ” Of what we cannot speak thereof we must be silent.” It’s ambiguous. It could mean that all facts can be said and they can be said clearly, or it could mean that there are facts that are out there, but our language is not adequate for expressing them: that our language is leaving out chunks of reality. If we try to express the unsayable in language, we’ll violate the rules of language and commit nonsense.
Wittgenstein seemed to be saying the latter; that there are aspects of reality that exceed our ability to express them. Positivists understood it in the other way, the former way, that the criterion for meaningfulness exhausts all facts. Everything that can be said can be said clearly, and there’s nothing else out there.
Interesting, isn’t it, that here are philosophers obsessed with trying to say things precisely, with giving the rules for precision, and what they’re saying about precision isn’t precise enough for them to understand one another. You can understand Gödel’s saying, as he’s quoted saying to the mathematician Menger one night when they were walking home together from one of the meetings of the positivists, something like: “The more I think about language the less possible it seems to me that we ever understand one another.”
I believe that Gödel was taking the measure of his elders. His views about mathematics, about meaningfulness, about what we can know, about how important language is to shaping reality, were out of sync with those of the positivists.
When I was a graduate student in philosophy, there were still some professors, Cambridge philosophers, who had been in the inner Wittgensteinian circle, and sometimes they’d come to Princeton and I’d get tolisten to them. They still retained some of Wittgenstein’s mannerisms. He had had various tics; he would make certain faces and guttural sounds when he was thinking, and they made these faces and sounds, too. He had a mesmerizing effect on people. But not on Gödel.
Here’s what I think. Gödel was irked by Wittgenstein. He not only held meta-mathematical views that were deeply at odds with Wittgenstein’s—and though Wittgenstein wasn’t a positivist, his views on the foundations of mathematics, especially in the Tractatus, were in the positivist vein—but he was irked, too, I think, by the fuss that those around him, the positivists of the Vienna Circle, made about Wittgenstein. Maybe he was even irked by the fuss that Wittgenstein made about Wittgenstein. We only let people get away with that sort of stuff if we think they’re worthy. And by Gödel’s lights, Wittgenstein wasn’t.
In any case, these Wittgenstein-dominated conversations were the discussions he was frequenting when he was incubating his own ideas on the foundations of mathematics, not only incubating but, for all we know, actually working out the intuitions that would lead to his incompleteness theorems.
Gödel was a reticent man, an opaque man. He doesn’t give one a lot with which to try to imagine the inner man. A novelist is trained in the art of inhabiting characters, both real and imagined. A lot of the novelist’s skill resides in trying to insinuate oneself into others’ inner lives. Gödel is a hard one to penetrate. I’m fairly confident that there was some strong emotion connected with Wittgenstein; I can construct a fairly convincing story to this effect. But in the end it might be a made-up story. It’s compelling to me, for what that’s worth, and it makes sense, psychological sense. And there’s even some written evidence.
Gödel had harsh things to say about Wittgenstein later in his life. Never, of course, face to face, usually not even to other people, but in letters. Most of them he never sent, and I came upon them in Firestone among the literary remains, the Nachlass, of Gödel. Wittgenstein never accepted Gödel’s result; he said in The Foundations of Mathematics, posthumously published, that his task is not to discuss Gödel, but rather to bypass Gödel. He also called Gödel’s results the tricks of a logical conjurer, logical artifices. Kunststücken. Someone told Gödel about this and it was then that he let vent some of his annoyance about Wittgenstein, annoyance that was, if my psychological speculations are right, decades old, hatched long ago while Gödel listened to the positivists extolling Wittgenstein’s views, understanding him to vindicate their condemnation of all metaphysical views, including Platonism.
Of course it wasn’t only Wittgenstein who dismissed Gödel’s theorems. There are mathematicians who still argue with the incompleteness results, sometimes on constructivist grounds, namely strict scruples about what can and, more importantly, can’t be appealed to in proofs. Then there are those who accept that Gödel mathematically proved his results about incompleteness, but reject the meta-mathematical view, mathematical realism, that Gödel thought was strongly suggested by his results. There are certainly mathematical logicians who are formalists, even in the light of the incompleteness theorems. Gödel’s Platonism may have psychologically motivated his search for incompleteness, for helping him to drive what he saw as a wedge between the concepts of mathematical truth and provability; but that doesn’t mean that his theorems logically disprove formalism. Gödel’s Platonist heart may have rejoiced in his results, as they seemed to have vindicated his belief that mathematical reality exists independent of formal systems. But Platonism isn’t implied by the incompleteness results. Platonism isn’t a mathematical theorem at all.
Of course, Gödel made it harder not to be a Platonist. He proved that there are true but unprovable propositions of arithmetic. That sounds at least close to Platonism. That sounds close to the claim that arithmetical truths are independent of any human activity. Philosophers of mathematics can certainly avoid the Platonist conclusion but, so long as they don’t just “bypass Gödel,” they have to do fancy footwork. Even Wittgenstein, who said his task wasn’t to address Gödel’s theorems, couldn’t help returning to them again and again. He argued about them in his class with Alan Turing. And of course Turing’s own work, his demonstration that we can’t solve the halting problem (roughly, knowing whether a given computer program will produce a result given an input or will grind away forever), itself entails Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem.
There are mathematicians who say that what Gödel did is just irrelevant to their working lives as mathematicians, that they never have to think about incompleteness, or even know what exactly it is, in doing mathematical work. So you can do your mathematics and stay out of the meta-discussion. This is probably a pretty common attitude among mathematicians. And in some sense it’s a natural attitude. When you’re working within the discipline you’re doing what can be done within that discipline. The fish doesn’t have to be an expert on the nature of water.
That’s true in other field, too, say in physics. Physicists who disagree radically on the interpretation of physical theories—some thinking they’re descriptive of an objective physical reality, others thinking theories are just instruments for predictions—can collaborate qua physicists, can employ the same physical theories to get out scientific results, whether theoretical or applied. Your day-to-day work as a physicist isn’t necessarily going to be changed one way or the other because of your meta-view of what physics is; and your day-to-day life as a mathematician isn’t necessarily going to be changed by your meta-view of what mathematics is. You don’t even have to have a meta-view. Gödel’s theorems only matter if you’re interested in those meta- questions and to be a mathematician you don’t necessarily have to be interested in those questions.
EDGE: You connect this interest in the philosophical foundations of mathematics and physics with Gödel’s and Einstein’s famous friendship, don’t you?
GOLDSTEIN: Many of those who watched the two of them walking back home together every day from the Institute for Advanced Study deep in conversation—acquaintances of theirs told me they only wanted to speak to one another—wondered how two such different people could be so bonded. But what bonded them was that, first of all, they were so keenly interested in the meta-questions of their respective fields, those interpretive questions regarding what is it that these fields are really doing and how is it that they manage to do it.
Both of them saw their work in a certain philosophical context. They were both strong realists—Einstein in physics, and obviously Gödel in mathematics. That philosophical perspective put them at odds with many of their scientific peers. So it’s interesting that these two figures were very celebrated yet felt themselves to be marginalized, and marginalized in similar ways. This may explain something of the bond which was otherwise baffling to their acquaintances. And again the two of them are joined in that same ironic twist which which I began our conversation , that their work was swept up into the general assault on objectivity and rationality. Again I think back to that summer before I entered college and read that both relativity incompleteness had shown, with the full authority of physics and mathematics, that there are no objective criteria for truth and rationality. They were both exiled from Nazified Europe, but they were also—strange to say—intellectual exiles, and that’s astounding, given how central their work is usually taken to be.
Both of them had effected revolutions in their particular fields, but the way they saw their own work, the philosophical light they thought that their work was shedding, could not have been more at odds with most of their contemporaries.
Einstein and Gödel were true allies, and after Einstein died, Gödel’s natural solitariness deepened, along with his paranoid tendencies. He came to a sad end. His mistrust of language was, in a sense, vindicated. Mistrusting language he had tried to make his mathematics speak his meta-mathematical convictions, but others often interpreted his theorems to be saying precisely the opposite of what he’d meant them to say. Who wouldn’t become even more distrustful of human communication? Who wouldn’t retreat even more into isolation? I’m not justifying his paranoia of course. But there’s some shadow of a rational response in the irrationality, too.
I’m saddened by the sense of his isolation, by how profound it must have been. It’s chilling to consider that he felt the world to be so hostile that he believed his food was being poisoned and so stopped eating and so starved to death. I’ve spent a long time imagining what that must have felt like for such a man. And I contrast that dark and cold place in which he lived many long years and in which he ended his life with the sense of bright wonderment that I experienced that summer before graduate school, when I first understood Gödel’s masterpiece of reason. He gave that experience to countless people, and we’re grateful.” Rebecca Goldstein, “Godel and the Nature of Mathematical Truth: a Conversation;” Edge, 2017