No science of science

This is a passage from The Iron Heel (1908), a little-known dystopian novel by Jack London. Speaking to a room full of ministers and academics, the working class hero, Ernest Everhard, cites Herbert Spencer.

“As Spencer says, the data of any particular science are partially unified knowledge. Philosophy unifies the knowledge that is contributed by the sciences. Philosophy is the science of science, the master science, if you please.”

Excerpt From The Iron Heel by Jack London
(19 )

But Spencer, or at least Ernest Everhard, was wrong. There can never be a science of science because there be can be no single, unifying observation–or an observation without a blind spot. All observations are partial, and they all reduce the complexity of whatever they are supposed to be observing. All we can ever have is a plurality of partial knowledges, and these ways of seeing can not be harmonized.


  1. He may not be making an argument so much as an illustration that underlying heuristics, reasonings, and epistemologies are shared by disciplines the way branches share a root.


  2. His usage of “unified/unifies” has specific diction. Unify has a connotation of singular oneness like the merging of blue and red pigments to make purple, but its diction means “to make united, uniform, or whole,” which are three adjectives that describe togetherness and inclusion but do not necessarily describe a total merging (e.g., United States, Uniform Code, Wholegrain).

    He is describing philosophy as the foundation for scientific reasoning, processes, methods, logic, etc., and these shared philosophies are the basis for everything from deductive and inductive reasoning, argumentation, logic, experimentation, classification, and so on. When he thinks of how “the science of science” unifies, he’s observing a meta-theory or a meta-epistemology — that there is something in common of how we know what we know and how we conduct inquiry, observations, experiments, etc.

    The Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, Pythagorean Thereon, Weber’s bureaucracy, the Dewey Decimal System, quantum physics, neuropsychology, and endless examples of scientific theory, argumentation, and empiricism are based on the same underlying philosophies of “what people are saying and how they know.” The question it raises: Where does this thinking come from and does this thinking come naturally, artificially, or through combinations of both?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I need to find the original context of Spencer’s statement. Do you have it.

      I would call purple and emergent color because arises from red and blue but is not the sum of those two parts. It can’t be separated back into red and blue.

      My problem with Spencer might be the whole/part division. I think rather in terms of system/environment. But I’ve actually read very little of Spencer.


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