Dispelling the Grand Illusion

by M. D. Aeschliman
Pierre Duhem’s unwelcome witness

On December 2, 1913, the eminent French physicist and savant Pierre Duhem was elected one of the first non-resident members of the French Academy of Sciences — non-resident, that is, in Paris, because he was professor of physics at the University of Bordeaux. Though a native Parisian, graduating first in his class at the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure, with early note of his expertise in chemistry and mathematics as well as physics, Duhem was never to teach in Paris, and his writings were to suffer an ideological embargo there despite the intermittent, grudging welcome they received elsewhere in France and their more enthusiastic welcome in the English-speaking world. And thereby hangs an instructive tale of intellectual treachery.

The year of Duhem’s election was also the last full year of the Belle Epoque and of its grand illusion, the secular idea of cumulative, collective, inevitable, irreversible human progress, driven by unfettered science and technology, that would issue in a Eurocentric era of peace, plenty, and prosperity, to which the European colonies and other backward regions of the world would all be steadily assimilated. Despite the catastrophic events that were to commence in 1914 in the heartlands of this confident European civilization and make the subsequent century the bloodiest and most satanic of all recorded historical eras, the grand illusion has been hard to dispel. The prominent academic Steven Pinker has had the witless temerity to promote it anew in an influential recent book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, of which a quantitative statistical refutation has been provided by the mathematician David Berlinski in The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. Berlinski simply details the massive atrocities that commenced in 1914 and have continued into the 21st century; for example: World War I, 15 million deaths; World War II, 55 million; Mao Zedong’s Communist Chinese regime (1949–1975), 40 million; the Congo since 1998, 3.8 million; and so forth.

As an orthodox Catholic, Duhem certainly never held this illusion of inevitable progress, but he might have been forgiven in 1913, at age 52, for being confident about the next steps in a scientific career that had already produced a body of outstanding publications (including 50 books) and national and international intellectual honors, and that promised more. Also in 1913 he had recently signed a remunerative contract with the most prominent Parisian academic publisher, Hermann and Co., which guaranteed that Hermann would publish one volume a year for the next ten years of Duhem’s The System of the World: A History of Cosmological Doctrines from Plato to Copernicus, which was to be one of the great, mind-changing scholarly monuments of the 20th century.

Duhem had already known disappointment, in the discrimination against his career by the left-wing, anti-clerical French educational establishment, which had hindered his early academic efforts and kept him from teaching in Paris, despite his eminence. Worse yet, he had known tragedy: His wife and infant son had both died during childbirth in 1893, leaving him a lonely widower with a small daughter living far from Paris, where his friends and family were. He was to know more tragedy, with the unleashing of the unprecedented carnage of World War I in 1914 and his own premature death from a heart attack in 1916. Though five volumes of his System of the World were to appear by 1917, there was then a sinister hiatus and a betrayal of the contract by the publisher, so that the remaining volumes were not published until the 1950s. The battle to get those volumes published was undertaken by Duhem’s daughter, a single woman of limited resources and education, supporting herself on a small farm in a very remote southern French town, but a woman who believed in the importance of her father and his works and single-mindedly devoted herself to them for the rest of her life. (She died in 1974.)

The story of Duhem, his work, and his daughter’s noble struggle has been told in a series of extraordinary books, in French and English, by the distinguished modern historian, physicist, and philosopher of science Stanley L. Jaki (1924–2009), Duhem’s greatest disciple: Uneasy Genius: The Life and Work of Pierre Duhem (1984), Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem (1991), and Reluctant Heroine: The Life and Work of Hélène Duhem (1992). For in addition to the great distinction of Duhem’s own first-order scientific work in several fields, his ten-volume System of the World argued a historical thesis which dispelled a great illusion and weakened a powerful ideological weapon. By showing in great detail and with lucid argument that medieval science had gradually and purposefully given birth to modern science, and that Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo had 13th- and 14th-century Parisian precursors, Duhem’s work helped destroy the illusion of a sudden, unique birth of science in the 17th century and its expansion by secular-zealot French “philosophes” in the 18th, a key foundation of the simplistic modern ideology of scientific-technological progress.

This polemical view of the “Enlightenment,” always drawing attention to its alleged resurrection of pre-Christian Greek science, has been endlessly and successfully propagated in schools and colleges, while medieval Christian civilization has been ignored or ridiculed as dark, brutal, obscurantist, retrograde, and superstitious. Since Duhem’s death, his scholarly work on the history of science has inspired a much deeper and more accurate understanding of the slow growth of civilization, of the collaboration in the Middle Ages between religion, philosophy, and science, and of the importance of certain specifically Christian ideas in the destruction of science-limiting ancient Greek pagan ideas.

Admittedly, Alfred North Whitehead’s influential lectures at Harvard, a decade after Duhem’s death, on Science and the Modern World (1926) also helped to point out the debt of the 17th-century “scientific revolution” and subsequent scientific developments to the long, dogged preparation and tutelage in rationalism of medieval, especially Scholastic, Christianity. “Faith in the possibility of science generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory,” Whitehead wrote, “is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.” Whitehead’s wife was a convent-educated Frenchwoman, and Stanley Jaki has speculated that through her he may have been familiar with Duhem’s work, which was so much opposed by left-wing, anti-clerical Francophone historians of science such as George Sarton (1884–1956) at Harvard and Alexandre Koyré (1892–1964) in France. After World War II, the great cultural historian Ernst Robert Curtius published his classic work European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages (1948), in which he pointed out that “every reader of medieval Latin texts knows that few Bible verses are so often quoted and alluded to as the phrase from the Wisdom of Solomon 11:21: ‘omnia in mensura et numero et pondere disposuisti’ — ‘by measure and order and number and weight thou [God] didst order all things.’” Thus the universe is conceived as a rational, orderly creation, because it is the creation of the rational mind of God himself. It is therefore penetrable by the reason of human beings. Stanley Jaki’s distinguished body of work on the history of science has shown how over the centuries this belief prepared the way for Leibniz, Descartes, and Newton (all devout Christians) and their “century of genius,” and C. S. Lewis and a host of other modern historians of science have made the point.

But Duhem was the first, and the very shocking revisionism of his thesis — the thesis of a great practicing scientist — could not help enraging the radical, anti-clerical, positivistic, left-wing intellectual-educational establishment of Third Republic France (1871–1940). The fundamental philosophical-ideological error and weapon of this establishment — representing what the great American historian of Europe Carlton J. H. Hayes called “a generation of materialism” — was identified by the French intellectual Jacques Maritain in 1911 as “scientism,” an improper, reductive, and self-contradictory view that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge. By contrast, the classic, rationalist view first articulated by Socrates, and subsequently shared by most thoughtful Western persons, is that scientific knowledge is a subset of rational knowledge, on which it depends for its basic terms and procedures (validity, non-contradiction, the syllogism, inference, meaning, truth, purpose, language itself). Positivistic, ideological scientism was articulated with steadily growing force all over Europe after 1870, but especially in France and Germany. The historian of philosophy John Passmore argues that the eminent anti-clerical French intellectual Ernest Renan (1823–1892) gave “birth to the first religion of science,” and the literary historian Edward Said adds that Renan “seemed to imagine the role of science in human life” — and Said translates literally — “as telling (speaking, articulating) definitively to man the word (logos?) of things.” G. K. Chesterton mockingly called this denial of mind, spirit, free will, and human dignity “the kingdom of thingdom.” Only measurable quantities are real. The American historians of Europe Hayes, Jacques Barzun, and Fritz Stern have all documented and deplored this reductionism and its malignant consequences in the 20th century.

Duhem suffered from the left-wing, anti-Christian French establishment’s bitter, dogged opposition to his work, both during his life and posthumously. Final success in publishing his great work was due to the long battle (over four decades) fought by his daughter, Hélène, with the aid of distinguished and admiring friends and colleagues of Duhem, especially the threat of a lawsuit against the publisher, Hermann and Co., in March 1954 by Louis de Broglie (Nobel laureate in physics, 1929; member of the Académie Française), in his role as secretary of the French Academy of Sciences. This was nearly 40 years after Duhem’s death. His wide recognition came first in the English-speaking world, and it is safe to say that the revolutionary, marxisant, or relativistic radicalism of most Parisian intellectuals has continued to be hostile or ignorantly indifferent to him.

But Duhem’s historical thesis also had a prophetic character. Before and after the outbreak of World War I, he worried in print about the simplifications and human applications of Darwinism and about a certain obsessive Germanic scientific reductionism and instrumentalism that he saw pregnant with great evil. In 1915 he wrote German Science (English translation, 1991), a brilliant short treatise about the dangers of fanatical devotion to scientific (or political) leaders and to the iron-clad application of the deductive, mathematical method, often based on the flimsiest and most reductive, speculative, or arbitrary initial premises. A disciple of the great polymathic French savant Pascal, Duhem was appalled by the industrial and military organization of technology that was already wreaking such catastrophic death and destruction throughout Europe, and by all sides, in World War I. Pascal had insisted on the primary importance of the rational-philosophical mind (l’esprit de finesse) to regulate and direct the mathematical mind (l’esprit de géométrie), and Duhem drove home the point in German Science. He would have been appalled but not surprised by subsequent Communist and Nazi science, or even by amoral “big science” today.

In 1927, eleven years after Duhem’s death, the French-Jewish philosopher Julien Benda published The Treason of the Intellectuals (La trahison des clercs). He concluded it by envisioning a nightmarish future of “science without conscience”: Humanity, he wrote, might be “unified in one immense army, one immense factory,” might “denounce all free and disinterested activity,” might “have no God but itself and its desires . . . and attain a really grandiose control over the matter surrounding it” and a “consciousness of its power and its grandeur.” But “History will smile to think that this is the species for which Socrates and Jesus Christ died.”

“Nothing is beautiful but the true,” Boileau had written in the 17th century. In dispelling the grand illusion, Pierre Duhem became one of the great champions of this insight in the modern world.

— M. D. Aeschliman is professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland and the author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism (second edition, 1998). He has also contributed to the Encyclopédie du protestantisme (second edition, Paris and Geneva, 2006).