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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

Haunted by entropy

John Patrick Diggins on Henry Adams’s fear that “science will wreck us”

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Haunted by entropy

On volume 18 of the Mars Hill Tapes, I interviewed historian John Patrick Diggins about his book, The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority (University of Chicago Press, 1994). In addition to his discussion of the ideas of prominent proponents of Pragmatism, Diggins’s book contains some extensive reflections on the thought of Henry Adams, one of the few significant American thinkers in the early twentieth century who did not embrace the philosophical assumptions of Pragmatism.

One of the works discussed by Diggins is The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, a collection of essays by Adams published posthumously in 1919. Diggins observes that “Adams was the first scholar in the Western world to relate developments in physics to the study of history.” Preoccupied with claims about the inevitability of entropy, Adams saw in the new physics of his day a repudiation of certainty, universality, order, and harmony. As Diggins summarizes, “What man had wanted from the old notion of the universe the new science could no longer provide.”

Adams believed that, in the absence of a willingness to submit to authority and discipline, modern man (in Adams’s words) “was bound to accelerate progress; to concentrate energy; to accumulate power; to multiply and intensify forces; to reduce friction, increase velocity and magnify momentum, partly because this was the mechanical law of the universe as science explained it; but partly also in order to get done with the present which artists and some others complained of; and finally, — and chiefly — because a rigorous philosophy required it, in order to penetrate the beyond, and satisfy man’s destiny by reaching the largest synthesis in its ultimate contradiction.”

Diggins comments: “The assault on nature by science, Adams observed, stemmed from both the anarchist dream of freedom and innocence and the bourgeois dream of order and inertia. Whatever the political motive, the human impulse to increase the energy at society’s disposal violated nature’s tendency to oppose any concentration of energy as alien to its will and to revert to disorder, chaos, even the destruction.

“In Adams’s era American society had seen the rise of coal, steam, and electrical power as well as dynamos, turbines, and combustion engines. All such developments signified man’s predatory relationship with an environment that had once taken its life from biological spontaneity and diversity. . . . 

“Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Adams also believed that Western culture was on a catastrophic course because its inhabitants insisted that nature answer to their wishes for power and comfort. Both thinkers questioned Darwinism because they saw the drive for mastery as alien to nature and the drive for progress as conceit and self-deception. Both came to question the eighteenth-century Enlightenment assumption that scientific advancement meant moral as well as material progress. Adams chided the ‘cheerful optimism which gave to Darwin’s conclusion the charm of human perfectibility.’ Adams saw no law of progress operating in the nation’s capital, where the spirit of the Constitution was defied and the heritage of the Founders ignored. ‘The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant,’ he quipped in the Education, ‘was alone evidence to upset Darwin.’ By unveiling a universe of laws that produce chaos instead of cosmos, Adams had no trouble upsetting the easy assumptions of the ‘Gilded Age.’ The age may have celebrated population growth and the achievements of science as indicative of the success of Homo sapiens as an increasingly perfectible organism; but both the drive to grow and the drive to master could demand so much of nature as to doom the earth as a human habitat.

“Adams shared Nietzsche’s conviction that behind the drive to force nature into yielding its secrets was the human will to power masquerading as the pursuit of knowledge. . . .

“‘My belief,’ he wrote his brother Brooks in 1902, ‘is that science will wreck us and that we are like monkeys monkeying with a loaded shell; we don’t in the least know or care where our practical energies come from or will bring us to.’ Science alienated man from nature by providing them the knowledge to unleash its energies but not the values to control them. ‘Prosperity never before imagined,’ he wrote in 1904, ‘power never wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, has made the world nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.’ In one of the final chapters of the Education, aptly titled ‘The Height of Knowledge,’ Adams summed up in three words all he had learned from politics and history: ‘Power is poison.’ And in a letter written to the historian Henry Osborne Taylor in 1905, he spelled out the shuddering implications of a world experiencing the sudden birth of massive energy and the darkening twilight of authority:

“‘The assumption of unity which was the work of human thought in the middle ages has yielded very slowly to the proofs of complexity. . . . Yet it is quite sure . . . that at the accelerated rate of progression shown since 1600, it will not need another century or half-century to tip thought upside down. Law, in that case, would disappear as theory or a priori principle, and give way give place to force. Morality would become police. Explosives would reach cosmic violence. This disintegration would overcome integration.’

“The race between enlightenment and energy between education and catastrophe, became for Adams a race between authority and power. How could this process of accelerating disintegration be reversed, the process by which law would be transformed to force, morality into police? The question required Adams to return again to history, not to the American past but to the Middle Ages, the age of faith, worship, and hope. The key to the alienation of power from authority was to find that moment in history when these two forces were seen as one and the same. The challenge of overcoming alienation was to find the basis for reunifying man with nature and God, to find man feeling the presence of power within himself because he experienced the meaning of authority beyond himself. The key to authority lay in religion, or so it seemed when Adams allowed the needs of his imagination to flee the demands of his mind. Faith required a willing suspension of disbelief, and Adams was willing to try to reconstruct authority by giving his emotions full rein. If genuine authority cannot be found in [the] modern world, it may still exist as an idea, an image or symbol entertained by the imagination. Artistic effect could convey what scientific analysis would deny — that we believe in what we appreciate, value, and savor, not what we know, understand, and control.”

— from John Patrick Diggins, The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority (University of Chicago Press, 1994)