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THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES and AGAINST METHOD: Mythologizing Science

Marcus Hurney

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Marcus Hurney

The University of Georgia

 

 

The Man Without Qualities and Against Method: Mythologizing Science

 

This essay questions human rationality and the concept of truth in the age of science by examining Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. As Vienna, Austria, charges blindly into the future on the wings of modernization, Musil’s protagonist Ulrich loses trust in science after a career in theoretical mathematics. Ulrich realizes that science is the modern world’s myth and that a reevaluation of science’s role in the construction of human identity and truth is essential for positive progress in the future. Feyerabend’s Against Method works as a lens for elucidating Ulrich’s idea that capitalist motivation or mere utility must not dictate the pursuit of knowledge and that human knowledge itself must be understood as metaphorical.

 

The Man Without Qualities places the reader in a modernized Vienna, Austria, around the start of the twentieth century. The novel’s thick concepts and thin plot are navigated by an omniscient narrator and the man without qualities himself, Ulrich. Surrounded by scientific progress and national fervor, Ulrich abstains from immersion in the ideational currents that surround him. Instead, he lies in wait somewhere between idea and action. Ulrich’s keen intellect allows him to follow ideas to their logical conclusion, which impedes his quest for a solidified understanding of the evolving and illogical forces of Vienna’s high society. His peers, in search of truth and utility, turn to the scientific method and a base of “factual” scientific knowledge for a piecing together of reality. Ulrich begins an intensive study of mathematics in order to root his knowledge in systems of rigorous logic. Despite his success in mathematics, Ulrich develops a distrust of scientific truths. Through the lens of Feyerabend’s Against Method, Ulrich’s disillusionment can be understood as the dramatization of a loss of trust in science as a factual body of knowledge while offering a critique of modern society’s reliance on scientific research for progress in the future. Ulrich recognizes that science is the modern world’s myth and that a reevaluation of science’s role in the construction of truth is essential for positive progress in the future. Additionally, Ulrich realizes that since human understanding is metaphorical, it is mythology that explains and changes the objective world.

            According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a myth is “a traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon,” yet people rarely think of science as a type of mythology due to its complex proofs and fastidious use of logic. Initially, Ulrich thinks mathematics to be the ultimate answer to mythology—a refined science that attempts to explain the past, present, and future with the exactitude of numbers, yet he eventually finds this to be a disillusioned hope. After failing to establish a career in the military and engineering fields, Ulrich turns to the study of mathematics for its predictable system of work and reward. Despite the stimulation Ulrich derives from studying, mathematics fails to provide him with spiritual sustenance. Ulrich’s practice of math is only a substitute for the “flow” or life essence that Ulrich seeks. The narrator describes Ulrich’s disillusionment:

 

The fact is, science has developed a concept of hard, sober intelligence that makes the old metaphysical and moral ideas of the human race simply intolerable, even though all it has to put in their place is the hope that a distant day will come when a race of intellectual conquerors will descend into the valleys of spiritual fruitfulness. (Musil 43)

 

Though math provides a method for measuring and predicting natural phenomena, it provides little understanding of life’s spiritual aspect. Additionally, most math equations depend on constant variables to operate in a logical manner. For instance: 2X = 6 depends on the consistency of the variable X, yet there are few, if any, things in the physical realm that adhere to such an exact consistency. As another example, if there are four apples and three are subtracted, only one apple remains, yet it would be inaccurate to say that this situation fits exactly the equation 4 – 3 = 1. Each apple is unique in weight, diameter, color, and even flavor, so the equation holds true only in the vacuum of mathematics where units can be arbitrarily created and destroyed. Math does not actually describe the physical world but arbitrarily creates a map of units and measurements. This mechanical interpretation of the natural world leaves Ulrich with a yearning for the transcendent.

            Ulrich bases his interests in solid, physical activities like boxing and sexual intercourse because they reliably provide for him an “almost total ecstasy or transcendence of the conscious mind… which makes a kind of contemporary substitution for an eternal human need” (Musil 24). Ulrich values the emotional experience of sex and boxing over the logical conclusions of his math research. Ulrich approaches math, boxing, and sex looking for truth and finds satisfaction only in the privacy of inner experience and the beauty of ideas themselves. As a result, he struggles to reconcile his lack of professional direction with the shadow of his family heritage. His father, a wealthy aristocrat, is well respected in Vienna’s highest social circles and sees Ulrich’s lukewarm demeanor as a deep blow to the family reputation. For a man as prominent as Ulrich’s father to have a son without qualities is unthinkable. Thus, he initially pushes Ulrich towards an academic career in mathematics. Conversely, Ulrich sees the institutionalization or utilization of knowledge for prestige and profit not only as the destruction of pure ideas but also as a threat to scientific research as an objective endeavor.

            Feyerabend’s Against Method helps to elucidate Musil’s core ideas. Feyerabend, a Viennese philosopher of science, explains the historical trajectory of modern science by analyzing the relationship between the political, religious, and capitalist motivations that fuel scientific research and progress. Scientific inquiry depends on human motivations to exist; yet science claims “objectivity” and demands an impossible separation between observation and an individual’s emotions. It becomes impossible to prevent science from mixing into any other facet or system of human life. To this fusion of elements Feyerabend writes,

 

The interests, forces, propaganda and brainwashing techniques play a much greater role than is commonly believed in the growth of our knowledge and in the growth of science, this can also be seen from an analysis of the relation between idea and action. It is often taken for granted that a clear and distinct understanding of new ideas precedes, and should precede, their formulation and their institutional expression (17).

 

Besides the point that scientific research is sponsored and dictated by corporations, governments, and private donors, scientific discoveries are only valuable in certain historical circumstances—those dictated by human need. Science cannot measure or predict the inconsistency of human emotions and social relations that dictate our behavior and our use of technological discoveries. Something is only considered a scientific discovery if it can be made useful; otherwise, its information is discarded. Feyerabend argues that human knowledge should consist of an objective pool of data, not historically relevant discoveries. Additionally, Feyerabend criticizes scientific institutions for creating strict frameworks from which new hypotheses and theories are allowed to emerge and calls for an “anything goes” or “anarchy of thought” approach for future research. In most cases, new hypotheses and theories must comply with all the old, accepted theories of our time in order to be considered rational. Within this set of rules, the emergence of revolutionary theories becomes increasingly unlikely. Ulrich thrives in the space between idea and action not as an act of rebellion against the institutionalization of science, but for the sake of knowledge as an end in itself. For Ulrich, knowledge, be it mathematical or literary, is pure sport or a play of ideas. Ulrich embodies Feyerabend’s philosophy in that he values ideas outside of their utilization.

            Ulrich is invited to participate in an exclusive planning committee organized by Vienna’s government because of his experience with mathematics. The committee’s main goal is vague, but they are commissioned to plan an event that will reveal Austria’s ingenious and elegant culture to the modern world. Reflecting on the rapid state of progress in the city, “Ulrich thought of that body of facts and discoveries, growing almost by the hour, out of which the mind must peer today if it wishes to scrutinize any given problem closely.” (Musil 100). Ulrich knows only the face of facts and distrusts the idea of anything as truly factual. The car wreck in the novel’s introduction exemplifies how condensed versions of facts are incorporated into street dialogue. In the scene, a truck slams on its breaks without sufficient stopping room and collides headlong into a pole. Crowds of curious bystanders gather around the smashed truck and the gray as packing paper truck driver to investigate the incident. The narrator follows the perspective of a lady approaching the crowd from behind who, listening to the crowd’s murmur for an explanation, hears: “The breaks on these heavy trucks take too long to come to a full stop” (Musil 5). With a sigh of relief the lady thanks the man for his simplification of the matter and continues on her way. As an explanation to her quick and comfortable response, the narrator notes, “She did not really understand, or care to understand, the technology involved, as long as his explanation helped put this ghastly incident into perspective by reducing it to a technicality of no direct personal concern to her” (Musil 5). To truly explain all the forces and incidents of timing that coalesced to cause the wreck would be nearly impossible. For instance, if the man would have left home one minute later, the street conditions would have been different and may have resulted in his safe passage along the road. If the breaks on the truck had exerted thirty more pounds of pressure per square inch, his truck may have stopped before colliding with the pole. Like when the Coen brothers’ protagonist Llewyn Davis opens the apartment door at the perfect time for the cat to escape and spur on change in the film, the minutest occurrences affect the future in big ways. To accept, however, a shallow summary of the truck’s faulty breaking system as the direct cause of the wreck is not only foolish but also an example of how the semblance of facts and theories can be incorporated into a vague understanding of cause and effect. Similarly, the way people come to understand and accept scientific theories is often inaccurate and differs on an individual basis.

            Feyerabend also demystifies scientific facts by explaining the common intellectual tendency to string together inconsistent and ultimately ideational theories. As Musil exemplifies through the bystanders’ reactions to the car wreck, it is natural for people to assume the truth of science and the inner workings of technology in their daily navigation of the world. Cell phones make calls, the car starts with the turn of a key, yet few individuals could reconstruct these common technologies if they were sent back in time or survived an apocalypse. Because each person understands a “fact” differently, individual attempts to understand these technologies lead to dramatically different conclusions and suggest a lack of real underlying certainties. Feyerabend insists that “on closer analysis we even find that science knows no ‘bare facts’ at all but that the ‘facts’ that enter our knowledge are already viewed in a certain way and are, therefore, essentially ideational” (Feyerabend 11). We can confidently state that the sky is blue and this will prove consistent among almost every observer, but the way each person understands how or why the sky is blue will differ from person to person, creating a disjointed account of varying conclusions that comprise the alleged factuality of the original observation. All of these facts, of course, dwindle back to the ultimate handicap: the human body and its unreliable five senses that facilitate our linguistic construction of reality and nature’s “facts.” Words take on different meanings for different individuals, making communication a game of symbols. When concrete objects or even abstractions are placed in the realm of words their meaning still remains subjective amongst the people communicating them. In Semiology and Rhetoric, Paul de Man explains the relationship between grammar and rhetoric as paradoxical. Paul de Man references Charles Peirce’s triangular loop of signifier, sign, and interpretant. De Man writes, “The interpretation of the sign is not, for Pierce, a meaning but another sign; it is a reading, not a decodage, and this reading has, in its turn, to be interpreted into another sign, and so on ad infinitum” (de Man 214). Grammar claims to produce “unproblematic, dyadic meaning and pure logic,” yet grammar only produces more rhetoric (i.e. metaphors and tropes). The language game offers a means to guess and trigger emotion within people, and sometimes, only skews one’s intended meaning. In a sense, language dictates the bounds of human reality. The more precisely and creatively words are combined, the more possibilities one has for understanding and manipulating the limits of reality, yet language conceals as much as it reveals.

            Ulrich, in his self-reflexive style of narration, questions whether his seemingly original ideas and under cuttings of societal norms are not also somehow an expression of the prefabricated systems in which he lives:

 

And is the truth I am learning my truth? The goals, the voices, the reality, all this seductiveness that lures and leads us on, that we pursue and plunge into – is this reality itself or is it no more than a breadth of the real, resting intangibly on the surface of the reality the world offers us? What sharpens our suspicions are all those prefabricated compartments and forms of life, semblances of reality, the molds set by earlier generations, the ready made language not only of the tongue but also of sensations and feelings (135).

 

Ulrich recognizes that he is a product of the society he critiques. His primary concern, however, is not the difference between the real and the superficial but rather how to move forward with a new understanding of the connectedness between language, science, and government. How different would human technology and medicine appear as the product of an alternate human history, a different set or lack of rules? There is no denying both the benefits and harms of western medicine, and one must credit pharmaceuticals and treatment options to the profiteering corporations who brought them into existence. This recognition of capitalist influence on medicine also begs the question: how much different, beneficial, or harmful would the latest medical and technological advances be if developed under a different governing body with an abundance of resources? Ulrich maintains this train of thought when analyzing contemporary Vienna. He sees the reality in front of him and the potential of every moment, yet action, it seems, only disfigures the beauty of potential ideas. It is inaccurate to think that the present state of technology, medicine, or even government is in its most advanced form just because these systems seem to grow more complicated over time. Progress does not move at a fixed rate. Progress depends on continually challenging a foundation of axioms and creatively misusing language in order to expand the limits of reality.     

            Modern science must be regarded as a rationale used to aid the creation of new technologies and medicines, instead of an exclusive, pure approach to understanding nature. Like a myth or language itself, science is a way of understanding reality but cannot be taken as a holistic understanding of life. Science must be understood as a product of contemporary society and not as a separate, objective institution. Ulrich, like Feyerabend, encourages a style of thought that transcends the bounds of institutional expression. Humans live in a world of symbols, and scientific inquiry is yet another, albeit complex, symbolic system for understanding what we perceive to be the world around us.

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Damrosch, David, Natalie Melas, and Mbongiseni Buthelezi. "Semiology and Rhetoric." The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature: From the European Enlightenment to the Global Present. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. 214. Print.

Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method. London: Verso, 1993. Print.

Musil, Robert. The Man without Qualities. New York: Vintage, 1996. Print.

 

 

 

 
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