On the Subject of Scientific Method

As I browse through the great libraries of the world, the Widener Library at Harvard, the Library of Congress, the Library of the British Museum, I am again and again impressed by the fact that science is made chiefly not by advance in content, but by advance in method. Newton could not have solved introductory problems of celestial mechanics until he had invented the method of the calculus. Helmholtz could not discover the nature of tone qualities without inventing metal resonators, and showing how they were to be used. Max Planck could not give us quantum theory except by investigating the dynamics of black-body radiation. Pavlov could not give us the behavior world of classical conditioning without the conditioned response method. Freud could not give us the theory of the unconscious without working through the psychoanalytic method.

Indeed the predetermination of concepts by methods is one of the general, almost universal, realities of modern science. You will find in the Widener Library, for example, a vast graveyard of psychological ideas, stimulating and challenging in their era, but without a method which could give them life; while even rather meager and humble experimentalists have proved capable of building a structure of experimental psychology—a house in which personalities like Wertheimer or Hull or Tolman can look out of the windows upon an exciting and vast domain.

The glory and the bane of modern life is the scientific method. The nurse, the social worker, no less than the physician and the engineer, the critic of literature, indeed, even the critic of music and the fine arts, lives or dies by his method, and his method becomes more and more like the method of science. Dip for a moment, for example, into the fascinating world of cultural anthropology and prehistory, and the challenging and maddening world of the analysis of historical artifacts, records, and documents, and see what is happening to them all by methods of dating through carbon 14. You will find that science has descended upon the earlier, cruder methods as the lava of Vesuvius descended upon Pompeii.

With the death of the old comes a new life. The world is suddenly caught, disciplined, and forced into order by the very nature of the message of science. There is a great deal of “playing dead” and a great deal of “playing deaf,” particularly among some students of personality who are more at home in the generous tradition of an impressionistic type of literary and artistic criticism. They were content because it was their life to say that a painting must or must not have been painted by Rembrandt because of its atmosphere, or because of the personality which was breathed into it. Unfortunately, they set up arguments like this against the simple realities of analysis of paint and of canvas, and if the kind of paint used is simply incompatible with the given interpretation, the scientific method must—however grudgingly—be accepted. It will be my thesis that intuition will gain rather than lose, will become richer rather than poorer by this acknowledgement of the role of science. My primary point is that the method of science sweeps like a homogeneous glacier-like process down over the whole of the world, and that it does certain things to the people who study personality in their social settings which can never be undone by any alternative, never reversed by another method, however suggestive and however valuable.

I have said that method predetermines the subject matter of the special disciplines. But what would really be better would be to say that there is a mutual predetermination of concept by method, and of method by concept. The concepts which belong to Western European culture serve, in large degree, to shape the mind of the person who invents a method. The method leads back into the structure of the science he is creating. It is, in general, a time-space system of ideas—strictly a time-space-mass-energy system of ideas, still essentially Newtonian—that underlies the structure of physical science, and the modern physical science working through the theory of the nucleus, the theory of energy, quantum theory, the theory of new and challenging aspects of time and of space, has been forced upon the modern thinker. The new concepts, frightfully abstract as they are, have worked their way back to guide and limit the invention of new methods which will confirm or modify them.

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