WHY ARE FIGURES SO SIGNIFICANT?
THE ROLE AND THE CRITIQUE OF QUANTIFICATION
by Robert M. Young
Some attitudes and assumptions are so basic to how we think about and experience the world that it is difficult to consider them critically. For anyone educated in an 'advanced' technological society it is practically impossible to imagine that our ideas of objectivity and factual accuracy, and the basic place of numbering or quantification in our world-view, are historical products rather than eternal principles of analysis. However, stress has been placed on these as part of an experimental, investigative methodology only since the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was in that period that modern capitalism and its way of knowing nature modern science were developing as a new and unified socio-economic order with a new way of defining reality and knowledge.
Earlier definitions of what counted as knowledge and truth were cast in very different terms terms which did not sharply separate facts from values or the realm of the objective from that of the subjective, or place much emphasis on quantification. This is not to say that those distinctions were not made, or that counting and sophisticated mathematical reasoning did not take place. Indeed, great mystical significance was attached to certain forms of geometrical reasoning, to certain proportions and to numerology. Neo-Platonists, astrologers and alchemists considered that numerical relationships represented the quintessence of order, while certain numbers had mystical qualities. However, these roles for numbers must be distinguished from the modern concept and significance of quantification.
Before the changes associated with the so-called Scientific Revolution took place in Western Europe, the issue of quantification was therefore not at the centre of the problem of what is fundamentally real (ontology), the nature and limits of knowledge (epistemology), and how we should pursue our enquiries about the world (methodology). Instead, events were interpreted qualitatively as a part of their evaluative relations; that is, they were seen in terms of purposes, utilities natural places and affinities, forms of motion, growth and development. Objects and natural processes were analysed and classified as being in a more organic relationship with the cosmos. Their origins, motions, material aspects, formal or structural features, and purposes and uses were thus seen in terms of a single framework of 'coming to be' or causation. Quantification was peripheral to this form of explanation, which had developed within the tradition inspired by the work of Aristotle (Dijksterhuis, 1961). Bodies fell because it was their 'nature' to attain their natural places. The coming to be of, for example, a chair would be explained in terms of the carpenter's actions, the wood, the plan, essence, or ideal of 'chairness', and the purpose of providing seating.
If this way of thinking about things seems vague and perhaps woolly, it is because we have been brought up within a philosophy of nature and society which is very different from the Aristotelian and pre-capitalist world-view. Our characteristic way of thinking about phenomena is a capitalist, mechanistic one which makes certain sharp separations for the purpose of manipulating, dominating and exploiting both natural processes and social relationships (Leiss, 1972). The separation of events into, on the one hand, things and, on the other, their contexts and evaluative relations, lies at the heart of the modern world-view. That separation is what is meant by 'positivism' (see Keat, this volume, and Kolakowski, 1972). It treats the world as a set of interacting facts.
To revert to the above examples, falling bodies are now explained by Newton's 'inverse square law' of gravitation. As for the chair, scientists and technologists simply don't think of chairs or other objects in such terms: a physicist's analysis would not give us back an everyday object like a chair at the end of the argument while in the history of technology each aspect of a chair eventually became an area for specialists in, e.g., design draughtsmanship, ergonomics, materials science, the technologies of furniture machinofacture, quality control, consumer research, and the labour processes of factory production, wholesaling, retailing and advertising all of which are overseen by management and accountancy. So, from explaining bodies and chairs we come to the related separations in the labour process at work, where the capitalist mode of production treats workers as things, i.e., they are reified (from the Latin word for thing: res; see Lukács, 1923). They are interchangeable, and hired for their labour power alone; they are paid money so that they can get their human satisfactions from the commodities they buy and consume elsewhere than in the workplace.
It was in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the model of explanation the definition of what counts as knowledge shifted decisively; it did so as part and parcel of a system of production based on a single, abstract measure. The myriad qualities and the individual natures of the everyday experiences and activities of laypeople came to be seen as less important than their quantifiable aspects according to the single standard of exchange value as commodities (see Shaw and Miles, this volume). In manufacture and commerce, the particular usefulness of the product being made became increasingly incidental to the owners of the means of production, whose main preoccupation became the circulation and expansion of capital. The development of this economic system coincided, moreover, with a changing conception of knowledge (Marcuse,1964). The resultant link between objectification and commodity exchange has been put succinctly: 'Only objects can be measured, which is why exchange reifies' (Vaneigem, 1972, p. 79). In science, particular sensuous attributes or qualities of events came to be considered secondary to others which were defined as objective and primary. The 'primary qualities' extension and motion could be readily treated mathematically. Colour, odour, taste and all other subjectively experienced qualities were, in turn, to be explained in terms of the primary qualities which were (a) less vulnerable to variations arising from subjective judgements and social evaluations, (b) amenable to mathematical treatment, and (c) suited to the investigation and control of certain phenomena, e.g., physical bodies. Qualitative and semi-quantitative measures in terms of more and less, were replaced by precise measurement and quantification (Hirst, 1967; Jackson, 1929).
These developments in the capitalist mode of production, and in science, were mutually constitutive; for example, in trade, exploration, ballistics, navigation and astronomy the commercial and scientific changes were part and parcel of one another. In the subsequent history of the mode of production, there has been an ever-increasing role for scientific and technological quantification, and the mechanisation and control of nature and people (Marx, 1867, Ch. 15). This history came to define the idea of progress in industrial civilisation. 'Progress' and 'science' were increasingly seen as synonyms in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while our own generation has become ambivalent about 'progress' in such fields as nuclear energy and high-technology medicine.
Matter, motion and number
In the philosophy of nature elaborated by those who laid the metaphysical foundations of modern science first in astronomy and physics and then in physiology and biology a set of key distinctions was elaborated:
subject - object
purpose - mechanism
value - fact
internal - external
secondary- primary (qualities)
thought - extension
mind - body
culture - nature
society - science
The history of thought and practice based on these distinctions contains two contradictory interpretations. One requires a demarcation of the two realms, while the other seeks to explain one in terms of the other. Most scientists and commentators on science pursue these two interpretations in different spheres of their activities and for different purposes. For example, Newton was involved in both the mathematical principles of natural philosophy, and hermetical and alchemical studies and Biblical exegetics. In our own period, Sir John Eccles and Sir Karl Popper are, respectively, an eminent neurophysiologist and a famous philosopher of scientific method. One might expect them to be committed to explaining mind in terms of body, yet they have recently joined forces to mount a strong defence of mind-body dualism (Popper and Eccles, 1977).
'Reductionism' is the explanation of the concepts and phenomena of the first column by those in the second. In the reductionist programme, the nearer an explanation comes to the fundamental concepts of matter, motion and number, the more basic it is said to be: Galileo said that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics (Burtt, 1932, p. 64), and Newton argued that the whole business of science was to explain all the other phenomena in terms of matter and motion, treated mathematically (Burtt, p. 204). The revolution in thought associated with Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Locke led to treating this new fundamental framework of concepts and explanations as the basis for all knowledge of nature, including living nature and the human body (the history of attempts to treat mental phenomena in these terms is one of analogies and of mental parallels to physical; qualitative methods for investigating sensory and ideational phenomena began to be developed in the late nineteenth century (Young, 1967, 1973)). The reductionist programme became the overall research project for modern science.
Quantifying other phenomena
Quantification has undoubtedly been a powerful tool in the reductionist programme but need not itself imply a reductionist approach. Mathematical reasoning can apparently be applied to any phenomenon. So, when it rapidly became clear that all phenomena would not easily yield to explanations in terms of the most fundamental qualities, other intermediate concepts were employed as relatively acceptable way-stations between subjective and social conceptions, on the one hand, and the fundamental explanations of physics, on the other. Two examples can illustrate this process: (1) Physiologists in the eighteenth century worked on biological properties 'irritability', 'contractility', 'sensibility', 'muscular motion'. Various branches of experimental biology have continued to use and test these intermediate concepts in parallel with the slow development of the more basic physico-chemical explanations, which have only recently been producing dramatic results in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology (Young, 1971). Yet both sorts of work are seen as reputably 'scientific'. (2) Chemistry can also be seen as an intermediate discipline. Until the very recent development of particle physics and physical chemistry, chemical explanations in terms of fundamental particles, e.g., neutrons, protons, electrons and a growing list of others, were a will-o'-the wisp. The physical, chemical and biochemical properties which we associate with the elements and compounds of chemistry, and with the molecules and microstructures of biochemistry and cell physiology, were defined experimentally and quantitatively, e.g., 'malleability', 'ductility', 'solubility', 'valency', 'dextro-' and 'levo-rotary', 'hygroscopic', 'respiratory', 'photoperiodic'.
The above examples have been drawn from well-established natural sciences (and have included esoteric concepts) to help emphasise that there is plenty of precedent for developing any concepts which look promising, and doing some experimental and/or quantitative work to see if the phenomena show regularities which can be seen as part of science. Therefore, the history of quantification cannot be equated with the history of the reductionist programme. The history of science is often described as 'the advancing edge of objectivity', from planetary motion to terrestrial motion to chemistry to physiology to the earth, life, mind, behaviour and society bringing all of nature and society under the scientific explanations of regularities which are themselves expressed in quantitative terms (Gillispie, 1960). But it is clear that it is a history of a growing list of conceptions rather than one which is reducing everything to matter and motion. (The complement of this advance is an ambivalence about whether subjectivity is thereby retreating and declared merely irrational or only demarcated as another way of knowing.)
Quantitative approaches to social phenomena were not the last station on the travels of the advancing edge of objectivity: they were among the first (see Shaw and Miles, this volume). The statistical study of mortalitv came early in the scientific revolution for political and actuarial purposes. Insurance, annuities, raising revenues, population and disease all provided early applications of quantitative approaches to society. The Political Arithmetic of William Petty appeared in 1690, the same year as John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding, which treated the study of epistemology as a labour subordinate to science. Petty characterised his method in terms of 'number, weight and measure' (Buck, 1977, p. 74). But it was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the social sciences developed most dramatically, beginning with distinct programmes of research on the political economy of 'labour' and welfare studies of 'the poor'. These were treated as separate topics, although they. concerned the same people. The investigators had perfectly opposed approaches one group sought to minimise production costs and the other to relieve the consequent destitution (Berg, 1976, pp. 256-270). The list of social sciences in our own period is a long one and covers all aspects of social data, including demography, sociology, consumer research, psephology (the study of voting behaviour), scientific management, operational research, general systems theory, epidemiology, public health, and games theory. Quantitative methods now seem to 'cover', as they say, every aspect of society.
Critique: the diverted gaze
The foregoing panoramic sketch should indicate just how fundamental and how pervasive is the quantitative study of matter, motion, physico-chemical and biological properties andultimately any phenomenon. No wonder it is difficult for us to appreciate the full extent to which this world-view prevents or diverts us from asking certain kinds of questions. By representing variations in numerical forms, the quantitative approach tends to direct our attention away from the evaluation of the concepts and variables themselves whether they be quantitative analyses in chemistry, 'standard of living' studies in economics and economic history, 'affluent worker' and 'upward social mobility' studies in sociology, or IQ research in educational psychology and pupil placement. We can thereby be drawn unwillingly into an uncritical acceptance of the overall framework of theories and approaches to nature and society (and the structure of forces and relations of production and reproduction) within which such studies occur. Thus, this pervasive set of metaphysical assumptions and methodologies plays an important role in muting social criticism. Quantitative and statistical approaches can be made to any phenomenon, and in that sense it is often argued that they are neutral tools. But the role characteristically assigned to them in scientific arguments makes the debate about the appropriateness of a given concept or variable extrinsic to the enquiry itself (Marcuse, 1968). The investigator becomes concerned with the quantitative presence, absence and variations of phenomena at the expense of qualitative and evaluative debates about different ways of seeing and engaging in events (not 'things'). This is very obvious when one begins to scrutinise statistically based enquiries into affluent workers' aspirations, willingness to work overtime, or consumption behaviour in a study of 'upward social mobility'. It is blatant when one reflects on the games theorists' studies of 'megadeaths' in various 'scenarios' and 'postures', and plans for 'pre-emptive strikes' and 'second strike capability' when the game in question is thermonuclear warfare. It is less obvious with respect to the educational psychologists' measurement of Intelligence Quotient. But who could possibly want to sort people according to an ordinal scale of abstract ability and why, other than for serving the requirement for gradations of 'general talent' a hierarchy from top management to abstract labour power, separating mental, clerical and manual tasks for a reified labour process specific to a commodity society with its graded rewards for work and responsibility (Debord, 1970)? It is even less obvious when one seeks to re-examine the fundamental categories of explanation defined as 'primary' and 'secondary' in the Scientific Revolution matter and motion versus colour, odour, taste; materiality versus beauty; and mechanism versus purpose one set of categories supposedly objective and scientific, the other subjective and relative.
Even though certain philosophers have made eloquent critiques of the metaphysical assumptions of this world-view, they have not connected their arguments with an explicit analysis of how the history of scientific and mathematical reification is central to the alienation of nature, work and its products, and one's relations with other people and indeed oneself which characterises the labour process in the capitalist mode of production. Burtt says of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities: The features of the world now classed as secondary, unreal, ignoble and regarded as dependent on the deceitfulness of sense, are just those features which are most intense to man [sic] in all but his purely theoretic activity, and even in that, except where he confines himself strictly to the mathematical method. It was inevitable that in these circumstances man should now appear to be outside of the real world; man is hardly more than a bundle of secondary qualities. Observe that the stage is fully set for the Cartesian dualism on the one side the primary, the mathematical realm; on the other the realm of man. And the premium of importance and value as well and of independent existence all goes with the former. Man begins to appear for the first time in the history of thought as an irrelevant spectator and insignificant effect of the great mathematical system which is the substance of reality (Burtt, 1932, p. 80).
And Whitethead completes the philosophical aspect of the critique: The seventeenth century had finally produced a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematicians, for the use of mathematicians. The great characteristic of the mathematical mind is its capacity for dealing with abstractions and for eliciting from them clear-cut demonstrative trains of reasoning, entirely satisfactory so long as it is those abstractions which you want to think about. The enormous success of the scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter with its simple location in space and time, on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact.
Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. `There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on an equal basis, the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion produced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century (Whitehead, 1925, pp. 81-2).
The return of the reified
If we connect the philosophic critique of the metaphysical foundations of modern science with the political and ideological critique of the mode of production, they make up one analysis. In the Grundrisse and in Capital (especially in the sections on commodity fetishism and the labour process), Marx provides the critique of political economy which makes sense of the constitutive role of the objectifications and abstractions which Burtt and Whitehead criticise. Their laments about the impoverishment of the philosophy of nature can be integrated with the understanding of key concepts in the critique of capitalism: alienation, objectification, exploitation, machinofacture, scientific management and automation. Science and technology, scientific and technological rationality, and scientific and technological experts, are also integrated into the system and subject to the same unified critique. Think, for example, of how the reification of people and labour processes occurs in the management sciences, say, operational research into 'chemical process design' or the reorganisation of the National Health Service by management consultants. Any attempt to separate these two domains philosophy from political economy or world-view from the mode of production is itself part of capital's preferred way of representing the world. According to that argument, chemical process designers and management consultants are to be seen as solely concerned with increasing efficiency, rather than with the elimination of opportunities for class struggle or with refining the hierarchical division of labour. It is also part of the same problem that many of the above terms in marxist political-economic analysis may be unfamiliar to many social scientists, as well as to scientists and statisticians. Their unfamiliarity is an index of capital's success in representing the world in terms which separate science and technology from political economy.
The status of scientific abstraction and quantification has been gained largely at the expense of open debate about the competing values and value systems which underlie alternative forms of social relations. Once again, quantification is not the same as reductionism. In principle, it leaves as rich a list of phenomena as you like and makes no claim to explain the more complex in terms of the simpler, the more mechanical or material. But it can be impoverishing, even when not in tandem with reductionism, though the impoverishment is of a different sort: closure of qualitative debate. In effect, it depoliticises whenever qualitative and evaluative aspects are made less prominent than the numerical representation.
But in science the evaluative relations, though taken as extrinsic to the scientific activity, are at the same time implicitly propagated by the science. They are not, consequently, amenable to scrutiny and challenge. The critique of positivism argues that facts are inseparable from interpretations, which are in turn determined by values. Events are only meaningful in terms of the structures which establish them as such (e.g., Jones, 1972, p. 113). This is as true of the history of quantification as it is of any set of events. And the structures which have placed a premium on quantification are the most basic ones in our socio-economic order: the capitalist mode of production, in which labour is conducted socially but the product is appropriated privately, with the circulation and expansion of capital as its goal. The history of the sequestering of controversial qualities, their banishment to the private, subjective realm and the emphasis on the measurement of quantities is at the centre of the development and maintenance of that structure. It is so basic to our world-view and social order that it is very hard indeed to recover a critical perspective on it. The principle of total calculability the quantitative measurability of the elements of the production process, of machinery and human labour power, and of the rest of nature and society in the service of exploitation has made possible the ascendancy of capitalism (Schneider, 1975, pp. 135, 144; cf. Rosenhead and Thunhurst, this volume). But there is a fundamental contradiction in the dominant scientific, positivistic world-view. Science is represented as the objective sphere, separate from the vicissitudes of subjectivity and clashes of values and interests the servant of policies which are supposed to be determined elsewhere. Yet, at the same time, science is supposed to be the basis, the model, and the guide for society eliminating uncertainties, achieving the 'correct' solutions, and reconciling conflicts and priorities by neutral means. Not only do scientists and other experts elicit deference on this argument, but certain supposedly neutral meta-disciplines are specifically devoted to this role cybernetics and general systems theory (Emery, 1969; Kaplan, 1971). In trying to have it both ways, the proponents and practitioners of these approaches and roles vacillate between innocence of any evaluative, political and ideological influence and the false consciousness of claiming that science provides the only sure basis for social policy (Huxley, 1977; Young 1977b) . They thereby collude with the propagation of values constituted by the production and reproduction of social relations in the capitalist mode of production, while believing themselves to be humble seekers after truth and progress models of disinterestedness, fully deserving their mandarin role, status and perquisites. Neither of these rationalisations will do, because the claimed separation of fact and value, of science and society, is itself a mystification, while the absorption of values inside a claimed objective science of society is a powerful ideological weapon
The critique of total calculability and quantitative measurability and of the role of the experts who practise and defend those activities and perspectives is central to the de-alienation of experience and the development of solidarity. To overthrow this requires the development of different perspectives on nature, people, work, and the ownership of the means of production and the distribution of the fruits of human labour (Young, 1977a). Of course, there are significant numerical dimensions to all these, but their place is likely to be much more modest than of late, and conflicts over social priorities and strategies will loom larger. The work will involve different people doing different activities in different ways for different reasons, creating a. different world one whose book is written in the language, not of mathematics, but of socialist social relations.
Berg, M., 1976, 'Political economy and scientific philanthropy: the Statistical Movement', in her The Machinery Question: Conceptual. Change in Political Economy during the Industrial Revolution c 1820 to 1840, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Oxford, pp. 256-70. Buck, P., 1977, 'Seventeenth-century political arithmetic: civil strife and vital statistics', Isis vol. 68, pp. 67-84.
Burtt, E. A.,1932, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science: A Historical and Critical Essay, revised ed., London, Routledge & Kegan Paul; New York,
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Debord, G., 1970, Society of the Spectacle, Detroit, Black & Red. Dijksterhuis, E. J., 1961, The Mechanization of the World Picture, Oxford, Oxford University Press, esp. pp. 431-44.
Emery, F. E., (ed.), 1969, Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Gillispie, C., 1960, The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas, Oxford, Oxford University Press; also Princeton pb.
Hirst, R. J., 1967, 'Primary and secondary qualities'. in P. Edwards (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy New York, Macmillan, vol. 6, pp. 455-57.
Huxley, Sir A.,1977, 'Evidence, clues and motives in science' (Presidential Address to the British Association), Times Higher Education Suppl., 2 September, pp. 4-6; (sec also 7 October 1977, p. 21).
Jackson, R., 1929, 'Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities', Mind, vol. 38, pp. 56-76.
Jones, G. Stedman, 1972, 'History: The poverty of empiricism, in R. Blackburn, ed., Ideology in Social Science: Readings in Critical Social Theory, London, Fontana, pp. 96-115.
Kaplan, M., 1971, 'Science and social values' in W. Fuller (ed.), The Social Impact of Modern Biology, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. !92-98.
Kolakowski, L., 1972, Positivist Philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Leiss, W., 1972, The Domination of Nature, New York, Braziller; Boston, Beacon pb.
Lukács, G.,1923, 'Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat', in his History and Class Consciousness, London, Merlin Press, 1971, pp. 83-Z2.
Marcuse, H., 1964, One Dimensional Man: The Ideology of Industrial Society, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul; also Abacus pb.
Marcuse, H.,1968, 'Industrialization and capitalism in the work of Max Weber', in his .Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, Boston, Beacon; Harmondsworth, Penguin; pp. 201-226.
Marx, K., 1857-8 Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), Harmondsworth, Penguin 1973. Marx, K., 1867, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1., Harmondsworth, Penguin/New Left Review 1976.
Popper, Sir K., and Sir J. C. Eccles, 1977, The Self and Its Brain. An Argument for Interactionism, London, Springer-Verlag.
Sehneider, M.,1975, 'On the pathology of the capitalist commodity society'; 'On the pathology of the capitalist organization of work'; and 'On the pathology of the capitalist "consumer society" '; in his Neurosis and Civilization: A Marxist/Freudian Synthesis, New York, Seabury Press, pp. 125-253.
Vaneigem, R., 1972, 'The Revolution of Everyday Life,, London, Practical Paradise.
Whitehead, A. N., 1925, Science and the Modern World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Young, R. M., 1967, 'Animal soul', in P. Edwards (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, New York, Macmillan, vol. 1, pp. 122-27.
Young, R. M., 1971, 'Evolutionary biology and ideology: then and now', Science Studies, vol. 1, pp. 177-206.
Young, R. M.,1973, 'Association of ideas', in P. Wiener, ed., Dictionary of the History of Ideas, New York, Scribner's, vol. 1, pp. 111-18.
Young, R. M., 1977a, 'Science is social relations', Radical Science Journal no. 5, pp. 65- 129.
Young, R. M., 1977b, 'Can we really distinguish fact from value in science?', Times Higher Education Suppl.. 23 September, p. 6 (see also 4 November 1977, p. 27).
See also two novels which are greatly concerned with the relationship between the quantitative-scientific rendering of experience and the qualitative-lived aspect.
Alther, L., 1977, Kinflicks, Harmondsworth, Penguin (although there is much which is unacceptable in her sexual politics).
Pirsig, R., 1974, Zen and the ,Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, London, Bodley Head 1974; also in paperback (however, there is much which is politically unattractive about Pirsig's approach).
This essay was published in John Irvine, Ian Miles and Jeff Evans, eds., Demystifying Social Statistics. London: Pluto Press, 1979, pp. 63-74.
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