Philosophy of science

A Story of Everything

By guest contributor Nuala F. Caomhánach


Nasser Zakariya, A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

In his A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings (2017), Nasser Zakariya pries open a Latourian black box to reveal how natural philosophers and later scientists constructed “scientific epics” using four possible  “genres of synthesis”—historic, fabular, scalar, foundational—to frame all branches of scientific knowledge. Their totalizing aspirations displaced outliers, contradictions, and obstructions to elevate a universal, global history of the universe. Zakariya highlights the paradox of the process of science from the 1830s to the present.  He shows how the parallel forces of narration and scientific explanatory methods merely continued to confirm discursive, epistemological and ontological pluralism. The desire to tame this pluralism legitimized the boundaries of science through pedagogy, priority and authority. A panel of historians recently met to discuss the book at New York University, including the author (UC, Berkeley), Myles Jackson (NYU), Hent de Vries (NYU), and Marwa Elshakry (Columbia University), moderated by Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU) (an audio recording of the event is available above).


Prof. Myles Jackson (NYU)

Jackson agreed that the invention of a myth or tradition “usually deals with origin stories and tend to be universal.” Tradition “result[s] from some sort of conflict, or debate, shaken identity, boundary dispute and…[has] a moral dimension.” Jackson emphasized how critical the 1820s and 1830s proved as science began to specialize alongside the invention of the term ‘scientist’ (1834) by William Whewell. He wholeheartedly agreed with Zakariya’s interpretation that for such natural philosophers as John Herschel, the “scientific context is irrelevant, precisely because science is universal.” Jackson elaborated on the conflictual divisions between artisans and natural philosophers whereby makers of scientific instrumentation—crucial for advances in science—were denied the status of philosophers themselves.  This division proved social, cultural and political at the turn of the nineteenth century, as knowledge became commodified, and natural philosophers legitimized their role as creators and curators of science. Jackson mapped out the “contextual moral” for this transition, and pointed to the Industrial Revolution and its effects on Handwerk and Kopfwerk. Natural philosophers insisted that artisans “should reveal their secrets so that their knowledge could be managed and applied universally, a great Enlightenment trope.” Their interest in economic efficiency focussed on replacing artisan skills and human calculators with controllable machines. For these natural philosophers “the key was the unity of science serving as models for other forms of knowledge.” Yet, as Jackson concluded, “there is an ethics for scientific imperative….the usefulness of useless knowledge….a moral argument that we must do it because it is about knowledge itself.”


Prof. Nasser Zakariya (UC Berkeley)

Zakariya agreed that there are “still richer contexts” in the analysis of “matters of material practices.” He acknowledged that his actors “were deeply engaged in reconstruction of both technical craft they were working through, and the theorization of that technical craft.” Discourse drew Zakariya away from material practice, toward his actors’ resistance to a historical synthesis. Their anxieties rested with who they imagined had the expertise to undertake this synthesis. Therefore, the synthesis “starts to construct… despite their democratizing impulses… a particular kind of elite that will carry out that democratization.” For Herschel, an author like Alexander von Humboldt in his Kosmos suggested that “if [synthesis] were possible… people like Humboldt [were the philosophers] to do it and yet we find Humboldt is insufficient to be able to do this.” For Zakariya, the discursive maneuvers in trying to articulate “what is and what is not possible” within these genres is at stake. His actors are not stating that synthesis is not possible, only that a historical narrative of the universe was not possible.


Prof. Hent de Vries (NYU)

For de Vries what is at stake is contemporary scholarship that has returned to the “age-old appeal to myth.” He met Zakariya‘s use of the term “myth” with suspicion, albeit agreeing with its premise. Zakariya echoed Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s concerns in Dialectic of Enlightenment by arguing that “[J]ust as myths already entail enlightenment, with every step enlightenment entangles itself more deeply in mythology. Receiving all its subject matter from myths, in order to destroy them, it falls as judge under the spell of myth” (10). Myth and enlightenment co-evolve into a constricting knot, despite the notion that the foundation of the inductive sciences was based on “the rejection of tradition, mythic authority” (10). With additional knowledge of the physical and natural world, de Vries pointed out the possibility “that there is “a final story” to be told about the emergence of the frames or “genres for synthesizing” knowledge in question.” He emphasized this as “a meta- or mega-narrative, a myth of myth” but problematized that final theories of stories “offer just that” because they are built on  “empirical finalities that are… particular, not general and decidedly partial, but also on account of a fundamental, call it transcendentally grounded, incompleteness, of sorts.” “Or is it?” he asked.


Prof. Marwa Elshakry (Columbia)

Elshakry also probed at Zakariya’s categories of “myth”, “epic” and “universal histories,” out of “genuine curiosities.” She found the main tension was conceptual, not semantic, and was “connected ultimately to [the] alpha and omega of universal history, with myth concerning ultimately and uncomfortably the notion of final ends [and] epic… primarily a concern with origins.”  The quest of the scientists as they vacillated  “between the known and unknown” is to begin to recognize that “this very heroic quest” may also reveal the “story of self-destruction rather than point the way to cures and wonders or the idea that being human… engages us in an extended historical  process of self-destruction.” She wondered about the logic behind the pursuit of “scientific realism as a Hegelian process of negation and  death.” Surely this pursuit suggested that humans can “induce and deduce our own ultimate species death and extinction… and yet we cannot.” Therefore, there was an inherent tension between “the secular humanist order and a sacred one.” She concluded with a tantalizing question “what is the final story—if in our own minds own science narratives or cosmic epics, come up with a good origin, but [we seem in our] collective species being imaginaries incapable of dealing with the problem of death itself.”

Zakariya tackled these questions eloquently. He explained how these scientists did not endorse myth uncritically, acknowledging their awareness of the paradoxes they had adopted. This paradox was a “tendency to have this eruption of a kind of mythic status to the project of knowledge, despite the project of knowledge seeing itself often as undercutting the grounds upon myth stands.” These natural philosophers’ and scientists’ totalizing ambitions forced them to question the very axioms with which the framework was constructed. Zakariya noted the constant reinscription “of the work of doing the totalizing” as these men argued that science was the most effective and natural discipline to tell this scientific epic. Their frameworks were limitless, but as they enlarged these structures, the edges became frayed, and they were forced to brood over questions that “[brought] us back to critiques of reason.”

In response to Elshakry, Zakariya revealed that she had uncovered “a number of elements [he] hadn’t quite thought about.” In answer, he discussed Hermann von Helmholtz ‘s views on the idea of universal history. In a period where thermodynamics was emerging around the contradictory concepts of entropy, enthalpy, and conservation, it began to reflect the impossibility of an infinitely old universe. By integrating thermodynamics into a scientific epic, Helmholtz realised that one must “bear up to this idea that it spells a conclusion of ourselves.” Similarly, these epics, for Zakariya, “forc[e] us to dwell on our mortality as a species.”

This book is a must for scholars in both the sciences and the humanities. Zakariya’s intervention, fusing the physical, natural and human histories, shows how the historical narrative in epic form was not self-evident, and a “strict chronology was not the ultimate arbiter” (126). Political contexts and contests influenced competing worldviews of humanity, the Earth, and the universe, in the professional and the public sphere. He demonstrates how a scientific worldview grows from the kind of questions asked, how these physical and metaphysical spaces are symbiotic, complementing and contradicting at the same moment, and how many universes can emerge. At the core of this narrative is a selection of personalities, from Mary Somerville to Steven Weinberg, who oversaw the totalizing visions circulating between professional and popular epics. As they shoe-horned these visions into a single narrative, some made the synthesis, many others sank, and some were transformed, leaving behind the forces, traces, and circumstances they had come up against. Slowly, the “suburban position of humanity and the earth” revealed the real limits of science (313). In this anxiety, the voice of the scientists metamorphosed into the only voice for the planet itself, thus claiming hegemony over the history of the universe.  The reader travels through Zakariya’s mindfully researched and vividly written tales of the attempt to stage the construction of a whole of knowledge, of everything. Thus, “whatever the future condition of species being and knowing, the universal human story must be maintained in the generic form of an epic” (339).

Nuala F. Caomhanach is a Ph.D. student in the History Department at New York University, and research associate in the Invertebrate Zoology Department at the American Museum of Natural History.

The Promise of a Technological Enlightenment: On Transhumanism and History

by guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

In the first decades of the new century, transhumanism aims at delivering the old Enlightenment promise. There can be little doubt that the aspiration to enhance (and even transcend) the capacities of the human being is an endeavor continuous with the Enlightenment ideal of human perfectibility. At least, this is the narrative that transhumanist themselves like to deploy in arguing for the feasibility and socio-cultural desirability of their views.


Nick Bostrom

Although leading transhumanist thinkers hardly invoke the doctrine of the perfectibility of man as per Condorcet and others in explicit terms, they certainly tend to legitimize their views by outlining the respectable historical inheritance of the Enlightenment they wish to carry forward. This is how Nick Bostrom – the probably most celebrated transhumanist philosopher today – binds postwar and twenty-first century transhumanist ambitions (while being more ambivalent toward interwar ones) to certain eighteenth century visions of the progress of humankind when he claims in a historical sketch that transhumanism is rooted in Enlightenment rational humanism. Identifying such roots, however, does not compel anybody to accept the entire Enlightenment paradigm. The appeal of transhumanism based on the historical reasoning of its advocates is precisely that it comes as a better version of the Enlightenment, stripped off of the conceptual shortcomings of the latter. Accordingly, in the argument of Max More – another prominent transhumanist – the insistence upon progress in transhumanist thought prevails without the support of determinism and inevitability which the Enlightenment gave to all forms of progress.

All this adds up to what I would like to call the promise of a technological Enlightenment, that is, the promise of achieving by means of technology what the Enlightenment failed to deliver otherwise: the betterment of the human condition. But does this seem persuasive enough? Is the autobiography of transhumanism the most reliable tool and source of trying to understand transhumanism as a socio-cultural phenomena of rapidly growing significance? Probably not. Accordingly, it seems to me that the promise of transhumanism is something other than what transhumanists themselves claim. There certainly is a transhumanist promise, and that promise is definitely technological, but it has not much to do with the Enlightenment and not much to do with history.

In order to see why it is better to understand transhumanism as a technological promise of its own right and not as the promise of a technological Enlightenment what it aspires to be, the first thing to consider is the Enlightenment promise itself which transhumanism appropriates as its legitimizing narrative. That promise is advancement in the human condition that presupposes a belief in the perfectibility of human beings, which, in my understanding, is expected in turn to play out not on the individual but the collective level of humanity. Hence the idea of the perfectibility of human beings (whether consciously held or tacitly presupposed) necessitated a corresponding belief in the perfectibility of human societies. Reading Kant on universal history or Condorcet on the progress of the human mind equally makes clear that, for Enlightenment thinkers, human betterment can be achieved through the betterment of political constitution which eventually encapsulates the entirety of humanity.


Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794; school of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, c. 1780-90)

What seems to be even more important is that the betterment of the human condition was supposed to play out both within and precisely as history. For the greatest invention of the Enlightenment was nothing other than the idea of history, the movement and mechanism of human affairs, the idea of the historical process that conceptualizes change over time in the human constitution. In history, humanity could be supposed to fulfill its already assumed potential – a potential that must have been assumed in order to able to be gradually changed for the better. The most striking aspect of the way in which the concept of history configured change was that change as betterment now concerned the very mundane world of human beings. It was against the backdrop of the kind of change entailed in the Christian worldview that the Enlightenment invented modern notions of historical process and progress. Whereas the Christian view held out the promise of a City of God apart from an earthly, compromised one, the Enlightenment promised the fulfillment of the historical process as the processual betterment of the human world.

Now, how does the promise of transhumanism relate to this Enlightenment promise? For it is one thing that transhumanism describes itself retrospectively as a better version of the promise of human betterment, making use of the most conventional historical narrative as a strategy to legitimize itself as a technological Enlightenment. But once you shift perspective and consider how transhumanism describes its prospective aims, the historical narrative about carrying forward an inheritance begins to look rather implausible. Indeed, what transhumanists explicitly wish to achieve in the future looks drastically different from visions offered by the Enlightenment.

The twofold definition of transhumanism in the Transhumanist FAQ wonderfully captures the contradiction between the retrospective historical narrative and the prospective aims. On the one hand, the first definition claims that transhumanism is “the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” This definition clearly appeals to the inheritance of the Enlightenment that transhumanism merely “affirms” and carries out via technological means. On the other hand, according to the second definition, transhumanism is “the study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies” (author’s emphasis).

Even though the second definition evidently refers only to the study of a cultural movement which also features in the first definition, the difference between the two descriptions of the potential of technology is striking. Whereas the first definition falls in accordance with its claimed Enlightenment inheritance insofar as it promises improvement upon what human beings are (and have always been), the second definition vests technology with the capacity of being a precise means of escape the confines what being human means.

Simply put, it is not the betterment ‘of’ the human condition what transhumanism desires, but the creation of something better ‘than’ the human condition as we know it. Where the Enlightenment assumed the malleability of human beings and human capacities, transhumanism instead presupposes that, whatever the human being and human capacities may be, technology can transcend them. Whereas the Enlightenment promised the unfolding of an already assumed human potential, transhumanism wishes to surpass what we think is humanly possible. Finally, if the Enlightenment thought that human perfectibility plays out as the course of history in a scenario of procedural and developmental change, transhumanism aims at introducing changes that are not merely stages of a historical development but potentially displaces the entire schema of history itself.

The change that transhumanism wishes to introduce is what I came to call elsewhere the prospect of unprecedented change. By this I mean a wider category that encompasses emerging postwar visions of the future of Western societies on a structural level, exhibiting a temporality other than the developmental one that the Enlightenment brought about. Instead of expecting the fulfillment of a process, the prospect of unprecedented change is conceived of as the sudden emergence of an epochal event defying any preceding states of affairs. Although first I introduced the term in relation to the notion of the Anthropocene and to the ecological vision it harbors, it is technology that has already transformed Western historical sensibility (with the prospect of unprecedented change promised at the time of the institutionalization of AI research in the early postwar years). Seen within this broader framework of postwar future visions, transhumanism is far from being a new chapter in the Enlightenment story of human betterment, that is, the story of history itself. Transhumanism rather proves itself to be one of the most relentless contemporary cultural practices, and one posing perhaps the most serious challenge to the very historical thinking which it employs as a legitimizing strategy.

To conclude, the point I would like to make is this: the technological promise of transhumanism is not a continuation of the Enlightenment story of history itself (the process of human betterment), but an alternative to history as Western thought essentially construes it. Transhumanism harbors a certain configuration of change over time as unprecedented, challenging the processual and developmental configuration of change over time that configures conventional understandings of history. And this, I believe, is something that both transhumanists and historians need to come to terms with and openly debate.

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at Bielefeld University. You can find Zoltán on Twitter and his work on

The Brain-for-Itself: Soviet Psychoneurologists Debate the Psychophysical Problem

by guest contributor Jamie Phillips

At a meeting of the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists in Moscow in 1930, the Chairman of the Society, Aron Zalkind, appraised the current the state of their field in the Soviet Union, and spoke in particular about the work of the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity at the Communist Academy: “here they not only work experimentally,” he said, “but also sometimes philosophize” (Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk [ARAN], f. 351 op. 2 d. 25 l. 23ob).


Workers at the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, part of the Communist Academy, Moscow, 1931. It is not immediately clear from their behavior to what extent they are philosophizing. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 15)

Such a remark might evoke Monty Python-esque images of a workday never begun, of materials left untouched on tables, as white-robed scientist-philosophers pace about the lab in anticipation of the eureka moment. Coming from Zalkind, however, these were words of praise. Soviet psychoneurologists frequently bemoaned and disparaged what they saw as the naïve empiricism of their Western scientific counterparts, their lack of theory, their reluctance to philosophize. And nowhere was this truer than at the Communist Academy, and its Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists, formed in 1928 with the express goal of bringing ideological direction to the scientific study of psyche, brain and behavior, and of uniting the work of these sciences into a materialist, dialectical theory of the human.

But what was a materialist—let alone dialectical—theory of the psyche? The Soviet Union in this period saw some rather spectacular attempts at reductive explanations of the psyche through correlations in the structures of the brain. Most famously (or notoriously), a group of researchers at the Moscow Brain Institute spent several years cutting Lenin’s brain into thirty thousand little slices in search of the material substrate of his genius, and claimed to find it, at least in part, in an exceptional development of the pyramidal cells of the third layer of the cerebral cortex. Around the same time, the psychoneurologist Vladimir Bekhterev issued a proposal for a “Pantheon of the USSR,” a Pantheon of Brains, in which the brains of outstanding dead Soviet individuals would be displayed in glass cases, alongside their biographies and list of works, with accompanying diagrams and explanations to demonstrate the correlation between them. Such a Pantheon, Bekhterev suggested, would serve both to advance scientific understanding of the brain and psyche and as “propaganda for the materialist view on the development of creative human activity.” (V. M. Bekhterev, “O sozdanii panteona SSSR,” Izvestiia, June 19, 1927).

For all the fanfare of such endeavors—and they seem to have been greeted enthusiastically by both government and public—doubts remained. Bekhterev’s own brain, removed from his skull mere months after its proposal for the Pantheon (and intended, ironically, to be its first occupant), proved in death to be rather unremarkable, in mute defiance, as it were, of the ideas of its living predecessor, as if to say, ‘What, after all, is there to see here?’

Человек и Природа, 1929-02, П???????????? ?  Проблема анатомийеской основы одаренности и мозг В. И p. 16 cropped.jpg

The material substrate of his genius: microphotographs of slices of the brain of Lenin (right) and an “ordinary person” (left). From N. I. Prozorovskii, “Problema anatomicheskoi osnovy odarennosti i mozg V. I. Lenina,” Chelovek i priroda No. 2, 1929, p. 16.

The claims made of Lenin’s brain provoked skepticism as well. A discussion in the Presidium of the Communist Academy briefly considered whether it might be possible to put the brain back together again to subject it to other methods of study. “They’ve shredded it to smithereens,” one lamented, “the conclusions are negligible, and the brain is lost” (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 188 ll. 36-39). More than mere empirical questions, there were conceptual concerns about the overly “mechanistic” understandings of the psyche that such explanations offered. Where in these big or small cells, to paraphrase one objection, was class consciousness? (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 269 l. 8). Such research might be useful, it was argued, but was in need of ideological direction, a push toward more “dialectics.” They didn’t philosophize enough, it would seem, or they philosophized badly.

It was in the context of such concerns that, in late 1928 and early 1929, philosophers, psychologists, physiologists and others came together at the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists for a discussion between mechanists and dialecticians on the psychophysical problem. The transcripts remain preserved in the archive of the Communist Academy in Moscow (ARAN f. 350 op. 2 d. 337, 393). They make for dense and at times inscrutable reading; a full exegesis would require volumes. But a brief consideration might provide some insight into what—if anything—came of this meeting of minds and brains.

Comrade V. N. Sarab’ianov, a mechanist philosopher, gives the principal paper. Are our thoughts, or ideas, our sensations, he asks, material or not? When Marx says that “being determines consciousness,” does he mean to oppose consciousness to being, in the sense that consciousness is not being, is not objective, spatial, material? Absolutely, as Sarab’ianov affirms: he opposes them. That which in itself is objective, a physical act in the body, Sarab’ianov continues, , is for me subjective, a psychical act. To the disappointment of the reader, he then launches into a long disquisition on primary and secondary qualities, from Locke and Galileo to Plekhanov and Lenin. (Sarab’ianov’s preferred example, fitting for the circumstances, was the quality of red-ness). But his point, in effect, comes to this: subjective phenomena are immaterial and cannot be objectively observed, and the only path to an objective materialist science of the psyche is through what is directly observable in the body and behavior. The dialecticians’ attempts to treat the psyche as “objective being,” Sarab’ianov contends, prove essentially wrong-headed.

The dialecticians, in turn, counter that


What is there to see here? A cabinet full of brains in the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, Moscow, 1931. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 18)

Sarab’ianov has confused the ontological problem with an epistemological one, and that the mechanists fail to understand, as one dialectician puts it, “the development of the world,” the emergence of new orders of lawfulness at different stages of development. The mechanists, they argue, conceive of the world only in terms of physical and mechanical forms of motion, and either attempt to reduce the psyche to primary elements, to the brain and physiology, or—what amounts to much the same—isolate consciousness from the world, and render it unintelligible. Either way, they are “unwitting idealists,” for they ignore the problem of the psyche as a distinct property of highly organized matter, as a distinct property of that specially organized piece of matter called the brain. The problem with the mechanists, the psychologist-dialectician Iu. V. Frankfurt asserts, is that they cannot imagine that matter can think. They fail to understand the brain as a thinking thing; they fail to understand the brain, he says, as a “thing in itself and for itself.”

Does any of this make any sense? Certainly, there is no eureka moment here—or in the discussion that follows—and indeed the prevailing sense is of an immense confusion. The psychophysical problem is not solved. Rather, what we begin to see is that they are in fact posing different questions. At the risk of stretching Frankfurt’s use of the term here (though not, I think, the stakes of a broader intervention), the problem of the brain ‘for-itself’ for the dialecticians was not, in the first instance, a question of matter and sensation, but of the possibility of conscious and purposeful action, of the active role of consciousness, as they liked to say, in human behavior. It was a problem of the place of the psyche in the world.

In this respect, we might begin to see how a push towards “dialectics” could point to a different approach to the brain, and to what a materialist explanation of the psyche would be. On one hand, it entailed a turn away from the physical and immediately observable as the privileged form of explaining the psyche: thinking the brain as a thinking thing, the demonstration of “substrates” and “correlates” in itself was of no explanation at all. On the other, it focused attention, above all, on the question of development, and the relation of the brain to the structure of consciousness. Posed in this way, the question to be answered was not one of how the brain produced ideas and sensations, but rather of why, of the role of thought and affect in conscious human activity. In this vein, a number of Soviet psychologists in these years would turn to evidence from the clinic, from child development, and even from socialist construction, to understand the development of specifically human higher psychological functions. As Alexander Luria would later say of the work done in this period by Lev Vygotsky (himself one of the participants in the psychophysical discussion), it was a question of how “history ties new functional knots in the cortex” (Luria, “L. S. Vygotsky and the Problem of Localization of Functions,” p. 391).

The fate of that research is a story for another time. The idea here is not that such attempts to rethink the brain came out of this one discussion, or even that they had much to do with dialectics as we might understand it. Rather, it is to consider how such attempts at “ideological direction” may have raised significant questions about what it is we can see, and what it is we explain, when we look at the brain—dead or alive. In this respect there is still perhaps some value in not only working experimentally, but also, sometimes, philosophizing. And, just maybe, in thinking historically as well.

Jamie Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at NYU. His dissertation examines the history of psychoneurology as a total science of the human in early twentieth century Russia, and its relation to the project of creating a ‘New Man.

Further reading:

For more on the dispute between the Mechanists and Dialecticians, see David Joravsky, Soviet Marxism and Natural Science, 1917-1932 (Routledge, 2009)

For lighter fare, join Joy Neumeyer as she takes A Visit to Moscow’s Brain Institute to explore what’s left of the Pantheon in a delightful article for Vice.