Your Wallerstein + Keats Tag-Team QOTD

I just finished reading Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. I’d read a few tidbits of Wallerstein before, but not much. The book is fabulously well written, clear, concise, and incredibly sweeping.

I’m sure I’ll think of many problems with it by class tomorrow, but for the moment I just want to post one of many lovely passages. Wallerstein takes up the problem of the social sciences as the main problem of his first chapter, and returns to it later. For Wallerstein, the social sciences are caught between the value-neutrality and epistemological privilege of the hard sciences, and the ethical and aesthetic questions of the humanities. This epistemic break occurred in the nineteenth century, and Wallerstein describes it thus:

In the nineteenth century, in the structures of knowledge (especially in the newly revived university system) and in the general world of culture, the scientists began to gain preeminence over the philosophers or humanists. The scientists said that they and they alone could achieve truth. They said they were totally uninterested as scientists in the good or the beautiful, since one could not empirically verify such concepts. They gave over the search for the good and the beautiful to the humanists, who by and large were ready to take refuge there, adopting in many ways Keats’s lines of poetry: “Beauty is truth; truth, beauty; that is all / Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” In a sense, the humanists ceded control over the search for truth to the scientists. And in any case, what the concept of the two cultures had achieved was the radical separation, for the first time in the history of humanity, in the world of knowledge between the true, the good, and the beautiful. (Wallerstein 2007: 74)

Unfortunately, we Western social scientists were caught in the middle, trying to make scientific truths about value-laden humans. According to Wallerstein, those scientists focused on the pasts and on the other (history, anthropology, and Oriental studies) went with the humanists, while those focused on the now separated spheres of modernity (market, state, civil society –> economics, political science, sociology) went with the scientists. Or tried to, anyway. As a geoculture emerged, and as the neat barriers between periphery, semiperiphery and core were challenged in the 1960s uprisings, the social sciences “neat division of labor” collapsed as well, leading us to the current conjuncture.



  1. JeffL

     /  November 22, 2010


    I want to take Wallerstein to task on a couple things here, because his argument sounds very familiar. I’ve heard a lot of these “19th C. split” arguments and I’m very skeptical of their veracity.

    1) I recently read something amazing in the comment section of a news article on healthcare (I’m addicted to the comments people make, they’re almost always funny — present blog excluded). To paraphrase, the comment author essentially said: “Even Europeans say that their healthcare system is a joke, so why should we adopt one just like it?” For me, what was most ridiculous about this comment wasn’t that the author claimed Europeans dislike their healthcare. Rather, what was ridiculous was the idea that “the Europeans” could “say” anything at all. What could it possibly mean for Europeans to say something? That they disliked their healthcare by majority? That their leaders disapproved of it? That a few people complained loudly about it?

    Here Wallerstein makes a similar claim about what scientists and humanists “said.” But did all scientists, with one voice, claim to be the sole finders of truth? Not one of them was both a scientist and a Christian? Not one appreciated both poetry and science?

    2) Why is it that any person can point to a split of opinion in 19th C. Europe, and this causes everyone to go: “ahhh…. so there is the answer”? This rhetorical move is not Wallerstein’s alone — I would claim most prominent social theorists of his generation made a similar argument. A clear example is Bourdieu; who argued about a 17th C. split between academic and popular art.

    Why are we all swayed by these “fundamental split” arguments? Hasn’t it been made clear enough that “Western Europe” was not a thing in the 17th to 19th centuries? What’s so special about these centuries? Why not point to the Mongolian invasions of Eurasia in the 13th to 14th centuries? Or to the Persian Empire of the 7th to 4th centuries, BCE? Why is it only that a few authors in the 17th to 19th centuries are capable of creating tectonic splits in the “Western World” that last until today?

    • A fair set of points. I would say that the science studies literature both rejects entirely that this dichotomy was ever “real”, in the sense of that scientists abandoned politics, value, etc., but certainly that this idea of science being above/beyond issues of truth and values is a really common and powerful trope. So I think he’s onto something, if properly inflected, but I might not do that justice here or he might be too un-nuanced.

      Just a quick piece of a response, back to class…

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