Book Review: The Ends of Science

Harry Redner, The Ends of Science: An Essay in Scientific Authority  (Westview Press, 1987)

Reviewed by Gernot Böhme (translated by Joachim Redner)


This review first appeared in Das Argument, No.181, 1990, pp. 442-443.

The fiftieth anniversary of J.B. Bernal’s The Social Functions of Science was celebrated in various parts of the world in 1989. The German translation that finally appeared in 1986 was indeed welcome, for many still consider this work the most comprehensive exposition of the “state of science” in the twentieth century. Although Bernal’s book has not lost its appeal, one wonders whether a possible replacement has not appeared in the meantime. For even if science has not fundamentally changed since 1939, we have certainly learnt more about it since then. Research on science was initiated by Bernal’s book, among others, but since then we have gained considerable understanding of the cognitive development of science, of its social structuration, of its social and economic ties to the rest of society and of its usual routines.  Searching for a book that is comparable to Bernal’s in scope and can offer a comprehensive  account of contemporary research on science, one comes across Harry Redner’s book.

Redner is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Economics and Politics at Monash University in Australia. This political philosopher’s work is barely known in the German-speaking world, though he is concerned with problems which ought to be of the greatest interest here. He asks, for example, what will become of European culture if it is transformed into a world civilisation. The titles of his last three books are indicative: In the Beginning was the Deed: Reflections on the Passage of Faust; The Ends of Philosophy: An Essay in the Sociology of Philosophy and Rationality; and finally the one to be considered, The Ends of Science.

Redner’s book gains from the fact that it is written by an “outsider” to research on science: from this distance he is able to present the kind of overview of the “science of science”, that “insiders” writing for “insiders” have so far not managed to provide. Speaking as an “insider” myself, I can say that the picture he offers of the intellectual and social situation of science at present is based on comprehensive knowledge of the current state of research in this field. It is somewhat surprising – and this will not be uncontroversial – that he strongly emphasises the concept of authority. Redner believes that science has abandoned its nineteenth-century liberal, and therefore also its democratic phase. Science at present, as an organised quest for knowledge, is dependent on authoritative leadership. An important part of the book is its detailed elucidation of the nature and function of authority in science. It is strange however, that Redner does not consider the authority of science in society or of scientists over society. Another part of the book is devoted to the pathologies and critiques of science. Here we encounter such well-known topoi as the decline of scientific ethics, the scientific tower of Babel, the failings of the social sciences and humanities, and the loss of the cultural function of science. Following on from this, Redner commits himself to a whole series of endeavours, necessary for the reform of science. However, his main focus is on the measures proposed by the conservatives, and he underplays the many practical formulations for the reform of science and technology offered by the so-called “revolutionist” proponents of an “alternative” science. After examining these critiques and reforms, Redner gives us his own version of the future of science. Despite the fact that the major portion of the book is devoted to the social structure of science, and that the shortcomings of contemporary science are ascribed to this social structure, Redner argues that the future prospects of science lie ultimately in the cognitive domain. Under the slogan “integrative science” he depicts an ingathering of the family of sciences in a grand reunion. The title of the book, The Ends of Science is suitably ambiguous, encompassing the “ends” – or goals – of the sciences and their loose ends. However, one might ask how sciences that have lost their goal might be saved by gathering their loose ends together.          

                                                   

Gernot Böhme and Harry Redner together at the ‘Ethics in Practice’ conference convened by Harry and Gernot in Darmstadt July 1998.

Gernot Böhme (1937-2022) was a German philosopher, noted for works in the sociology of science and phenomenological philosophy. As a research scientist at the Max- Planck-Institute, he worked with Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. From 1977-2002 he was Professor of Philosophy at Darmstadt Technical University and from 2005 till his death early this year was Director of the Institute for Practical Philosophy in Darmstadt. He wrote on ethics, aesthetics and literature and pioneered the German field of eco-criticism. He published nine books in German, of which the most well-known is Atmosphäre: Essays zur neuen Aesthetics (Atmospheres: Essays on the new Aesthetic). Four of his books are available in English: Ethics in Context: The Art of Dealing with Serious Questions (Polity, 2001); Invasive Technification: Critical Essays in the Philosophy of Technology (Continuum, 2012); Atmospheric Architectures: The Aesthetics of Felt Spaces (Bloomsbury, 2017) and Critique of Aesthetic Capitalism (Mimesis, 2017).                                        

One thought on “Book Review: The Ends of Science

  1. It’s great that you’re devoting time and space to Harry Redner’s work in Thesis 11 after his recent passing. I for one had completely lost track of him since the 80s when I was a graduate student at Monash. I had no idea then of the depth and breadth of his thinking …

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