"A central progressive theme was historicism, crediting history almost exclusively with the development of culture" argues Bruce Chapman, Author at Evolution News.
Photo: Stump Speaking, 1886, by George Caleb Bingham, via Wikimedia Commons
The materialist influence of 19th-century thinkers still chills 21st-century thinking. It is true in biology, economics, culture, and government. In much of the popularization and misuse of the claims of natural science and in much of modern German philosophy, tendencies toward atheism and gnosticism (searching for hidden meanings) are found. So are economic determinism and a serene resolve to change human nature. It was considered foolish by many 19th- and early 20th-century intellectuals to believe in God or self-evident truths, but “advanced” to aspire to the perfectibility of man.
Progress, you would have thought as an intellectual in that period, must proceed on “scientific” principles. Max Weber’s “fact/value” distinction meant that facts alone could be submitted to scientific inquiry, while issues of right and wrong (“values”) could be examined only from outside their own assumptions. In the new political science that developed in the Progressive Era, study of what constitutes wise opinion was dropped. Replacing it, as Martin Diamond has explained, was the study of opinion formation. The new political scientist was to abandon the supposedly played out mines of political theory. As Diamond says, the role of the political scientist thereafter was to “discredit the pretended grounds of the behavior and reveal its true sub-rational or a-rational ‘determinants.’” Here, then, is partly where we get our present day intellectual prejudice against crediting what politicians say they are doing and our constant suspicion that the real truth must be something else.
A central progressive theme was historicism, crediting history almost exclusively with the development of culture. It arose in Germany as an element of the “science of the state” (Statswissenschaft) and the “general theory of the state” (Allgemeine Staatslehere). And it fit well with the new science of politics, Politische Wissenschaft. With the new method, known states were compared historically, with perfection of the state as the goal.
For Germans, the state was something larger than government, though less than all society. It had a personality and “a being which is infinitely superior to the individual, which exists to realize an ideal beyond and above that of individual happiness.” German political scientists thought the history of the state was, in a Darwinian sense, evolutionary and un-directional. As Dennis Mahoney writes of historicism, “[T]here is neither better nor worse about it, but only more advanced and less advanced, newer and older.”
In the latter half of the 19th century, these ideas entered the United States in the heads of young Americans who, lacking domestic graduate schools in public law, embarked on studies in Germany. There they found that the new political science not only had the blessing of the government, but also was a participant in that government and helping to guide it. The students were impressed by such implicit power. The state commanded the universities and the universities taught the grandeur of the state. Prussian administrative skill seemed especially admirable. When Prussia united Germany and then won a war with France, the superiority of German efficiency seemed clear to the young visitors.
In time the concept of eugenics gained force in the Second Reich — decades before the Nazis employed it. When, in 1904, the German Empire exterminated almost the whole race of native Hereros in German Southwest Africa, it was publicly justified in terms of Darwinism. There were few protests.
Politicians: The Worst Kind of People
to Run the Government, Except for All the Others
Source: Discovery Institute