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Conant, A New Philosopher of Science

MODERN SCIENCE AND MODERN MAN, by James B. Conant, Columbia University Press, 111 pp. $2.25.

By Roger Hahn

Very few university presidents are as active in as many areas as is President Conant. He was an outstanding organic chemist, became a respected leader in education and has recently asserted himself as an interpreter of the development of science. With the publication of his Bampton lectures given at Columbia last Spring, Conant emerges as a sociologist and philosopher of science too.

He doesn't presume to treat either subject systematically. Instead, he places them in the framework of an examination of "the cultural significance of what has been going on in science since, say, 1935." Even in this context, however, one notices an interpretation peculiar to him. His approach to the whole problem is quite unlike that of the modern popularizers or even Harvard's Philip Frank or Richard von Mises. Common sense rather than system-building pervades throughout.

In the first lecture, "Science and Technology in the Last Decade" Conant stresses the change in public opinion towards the "long-haired scientist," once disdained and now accepted in industry and government. It is no longer the inventor alone who holds the public's favor. The theorist who is attempting to "lower the degree of empiricism" in the material world is now respected.

There is also a change in the scientist's philosophical attitude towards his field. So-called dilemmas, such as the wave-particle controversy, have caused many scientists to shy from the logical empiricist view of interpreting each theory as a step nearer the "real" picture of the world. Conant abandons this view for a modern form of pragmatism in the William James tradition. Conceptual schemes, he feels, are policies, guides to action, not creeds, each bringing us close to the discovery of nature's laws.

In the last two lectures, Conant deals with the relation of human conduct and spiritual values to his brand of philosophy. While presenting a cluster of ideas, he manages to retain his highly skeptical and yet basically pragmatic view of the working of human judgment, which he believes to be inseparably interconnected with the many scientific conceptual schemes we have incorporated into our common sense world. Conant's myriads of new ideas are worth sampling, even if one does not agree with his way of viewing man's actions.

Having emphasized that a systematically consistent world-scheme is not a necessary requirement for his understanding of science, Conant carries this idea to other fields of inquiry. There is no reason, he claims, to have one world hypothesis to explain all human endeavors either. We should build working hypotheses for each fragment of knowledge in order to have guides to action.

If this book elicits a true picture of its author, it reveals him as a dynamic level-headed and incisive interpreter of the modern world.

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