The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Robert K. Merton

The Fallacy of the Latest Word: The Case of “Pietism and Science”  

American Journal of Sociology,, 89 (5)

March 1984, 1091-1121.




Theoretical Contexts and Empirical Knowledge Claims

Levels of Theoretical Abstraction in Sociohistorical Inquiry

A Counterintuitive and Counterpositivistic Hypothesis

The Role of Rationality in Emerging Modern Science: Pietism as a Strategic Polar Case

The Pietism-Science Connection as an Unintended Consequence

The Fallacy of the Latest Word [Web 2]

Appendix of Sociohistorical Particulars




The resiliency exhibited by some theories or derived hypotheses, despite their periodically “conclusive” refutation, is examined by taking the generic hypothesis on the connection between ascetic Protestantism and the emergence of modern science as a case in point.  Refutations proposed in the Becker critique of the specific instance of Pietism and science strengthen rather than weaken the grounds for deepened interest in exploring both the generic and specific hypotheses insofar as the critique exhibits the fallacy of the latest word.  That fallacy rests on three common but untenable tacit assumptions: (1) that the latest word correctly formulates the essentials of the preceding word while being immune to the failures of observation and inference imputed to what went before, (2) that each succeeding work improves on its knowledge base, and (3) that theoretically derived hypotheses are to be abandoned as soon as they seem to be empirically falsified.  An Appendix examines evidence on the sociohistorical particulars of the case.


Since it appeared in the mid-1930s, the hypothesis connecting Puritanism with the rise of modern science (Merton 1935; [1936] 1968; {1938] 1970) [2]

1. This paper was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (SES 79 27238).  I am indebted to Annette Bernhardt, Karen Ginsberg, and, most especially, Alfred Nordmann for research aid and to Harriet Zuckerman, Robert C. Merton, Vanessa Merton, and Byron Shafer for thoughtful suggestions.  Requests for reprints should be sent to Robert K. Merton, Fayerweather Hall, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027.

2. Begun in 1933, completed as a doctoral dissertation in 1935, partly published in the form of three selected articles between 1935 and 1937, this monograph was fully published in 1938, appearing in Osiris: Studies on the History and Philosophy of Science at the invitation of its founder-editor and my teacher, the do yen of historians of science, George Sarton.  The citation in my text expressly includes the 1935 dissertation, “Sociological Aspects of Scientific Development in Seventeenth-Century England,” deposited in Harvard’s Widener Library, although the Becker critique pays no mind to this earliest version of what Kuhn (1977, p. 115-22) and other historians of science have come to describe as “the Merton thesis.”  The reference to the 1935 document is intended as a reminder that this and the other formulations of a similar hypothesis in the mid-1930s (Stimson 1935;Jones [1936] 1961, 1939) were independently developed and, to this extent, were mutually confirming rather than any one of them being derived from the others.


has been frequently assessed and elaborated.  So far as I know, however, the article by George Becker (1984) is the first critique devoted to a derivative hypothesis briefly set forth in those same writings which proposes similar connections between Pietism and science.  The Becker critique serves several useful purposes.  To begin with, it provides occasion for reexamining the substantive sociohistorical questions which it raises.  It might also lead a few dedicated readers to examine the sources listed above (rather than the one article singled out in the critique) to see for themselves how far that critique captures the basic argument and its theoretical grounding.  Beyond that and perhaps more in point for the rapidly developing sociology of science, it provides an instance of the workings of the institutionalized norm of “organized skepticism”: social arrangements for the critical scrutiny of knowledge claims in science and learning that operate without depending on the skeptical bent of this or that individual (Merton {1942] 1973, pp. 277-78, 311, 339, 467-70; Storer 1966, pp. 77-79, 116—26; Zuckerman 1977, pp. 89-93, 125-27).  In that regard, the critique affords an instructive example of the “fallacy of the latest word”: the tacit assumption that the latest word is the best word.  Elucidation of that fallacy, which has a way of turning up with some frequency in the give-and-take of cognitive disagreements in the domain of science and scholarship, involves the puzzle presented by the Phoenix phenomenon in the history of systematic thought: the continuing resiliency of theories or theoretically derived hypotheses such as Durkheim’s on rates of suicide ([1897] 1951) or Max Weber’s on the role of ascetic Protestantism in the emergence of modern capitalism ({1904-5] 1930) even though they have been periodically subjected to much and allegedly conclusive demolition (“falsification”) . 3

These generic problems in the sociology of science provide contexts for examining the broad implications of the Becker critique.  Instances of fundamental thematic relevance - such as the place of extrascientific bases in the legitimation of early modern science - will be considered in conjunction with the fallacy of the latest word and organized skepticism.  However, Becker’s specific charges of faulty readings of the evidence by the mid-1930s author of the work under examination will be considered

3. The Phoenix phenomenon clamors for systematic attention from historians and sociologists of science concerned to clarify the significant role of controversy in the growth of scientific knowledge.  However, limitations of space and empathy for a fellow editor forbid analysis of that phenomenon here and now.  For contextual observations on the social and cognitive structure, dynamics, functions, dysfunctions, and sociology-of-knowledge significance of controversies in science see Merton ([1961] 1973), Nowotny (1975), Markle and Petersen (1981), and Scientific Controversies, edited by A. L. Caplan and H. T. Engelhardt, Jr. (1984), especially the essays by Ernan McMullin (“How Do Scientific Controversies End?”) and Everett Mendelsohn (“The Political Anatomy of Controversies in the Sciences”).


separately.  Since these criticisms largely involve conflicting interpretations of German Pietist history, dogma, and practice that have long been debated by specialists, many may find them of remote interest despite their substantive relevance.  For that reason, the specifics in Becker’s bill of indictment and their rebuttals are sequestered in an Appendix of Sociohistorical Particulars.  It should be said that the Appendix took some doing by way of reassembling the evidence in point.  For, as may come as no surprise, the author had failed to keep the abundant notes prepared for a dissertation (and the subsequent article and monograph) written half a century ago.  (Still this episode provides an object lesson for others: do not discard library, field, or laboratory notes prematurely; socially organized skepticism may operate imperfectly but it can work tenaciously.)  

Anticipating the substance of the Appendix, I must report that Merton seems to me to have been wrong on some details of exegesis and Becker right, while on other and rather more frequent details it seems to be moot or quite the other way.  But when it comes to the fundamental thematic components of the hypothesis that relates Pietism to the emerging institution of science, it appears to me that the critic is on the whole mistaken, not least as a result of having overlooked the basic theoretical contexts of the sociohistorical particulars.



The generic hypothesis under discussion holds that at a time in Western society when science had not become elaborately institutionalized, it obtained substantial legitimacy as an unintended consequence of the religious ethic and praxis of ascetic Protestantism.  In developing this hypothesis, Merton undertook to examine the linkages of 17th-century English Puritanism and science in some detail and went on to consider, as an empirical corollary, the possible linkages of the contemporary German Pietism and science.  This extension can be described as brief if it is agreed that a total of three pages (Merton [1936] 1968, pp. 643-45) focused on Pietism constitutes brevity.  It is primarily those three pages which have been subjected to the intensive Becker critique.  The critique also considers briefly the four subsequent pages, which were given over to statistical data showing some proclivity for 19th-century Protestant youngsters (not Pietists, since statistical data on detailed sectarian affiliations were simply not to be had) to enter the science-and-technology oriented Realschulen.

The paucity of these crude 19th-century statistical data in contrast to the abundance of highly differentiated data on the religious, social, and economic status of students today has its own interesting theoretical im-


plication.  It suggests that the enduring scholarly interest in the proposed ascetic Protestantism-science linkage cannot reside simply in that rather limited, empirically identified correlation between religious affiliation and interest in science.  Much more controlled empirical generalizations are now so easily come by that a crude statistical report of this kind would presumably be given short shrift.  It surely would not engender a detailed critique half a century later.  There must be more to the hypothesis than the mere correlation - as, indeed, there is when one considers the theoretical contexts of the inquiry instead of confining oneself to this or that bit of pertinent empirical evidence.

The abiding interest in some empirical generalizations and lack of sustained interest in others stem from the logical location of the particular generalization.  A continuing interest is more apt to obtain when the particular sociohistorical finding is grounded in a broader theoretical framework which has proved to be substantively instructive and heuristically fruitful.  This, I suggest, is the case with the hypothesized linkages among Puritanism, Pietism, and science.  Yet, having cited Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England in its very first sentence, the Becker critique manages to maintain a perfect silence about parts of that monograph, readily accessible since 1938, which provide the theoretical contexts of those three pages devoted to Pietism.  It also unaccountably ignores the author’s post-1936 indications of the successive levels of theoretical abstraction in the monograph that are set forth in books that Becker cites (Merton 1968, pp. 649-60; {1938] 1970, pp. vii-xxix) but does not fully utilize, as though amplifications beyond those three pages and the handful of pages on religious statistics which he does consider were somehow off limits.  Owing to that neglect of theoretical context, the critique does not and, more important, as a matter of principle, cannot strike at the sociological jugular of the generic hypothesis linking religion and science.  For a text removed from its context cannot be properly understood or paraphrased. [4]  As a result, the Becker critique can at the most correct a reading of this or that specific bit of evidence while managing, as we shall see in considering the fallacy of the latest word, to introduce questionable readings of other cited evidence and thus to produce an appreciated but basically modest revision of detail.

4. To reduce, not to obviate, such inadvertent misrepresentations, this paper will quote relevant passages at length, since it cannot be supposed that readers will themselves uniformly turn to the quoted sources.  Indeed, the presumption of general trustworthiness, rather than total freedom from error, underlies the system of organized skepticism in science and scholarship.  Members of the scholarly community therefore need not confront the impossible task of individually studying for themselves all the sources of collateral interest to them.  That function is assigned to peer reviewers and adopted by others having a specialized interest in particular subjects and problem areas.


Levels of Theoretical Abstraction in Sociohistorical Inquiry

Briefly summarized, three levels of substantive theoretical abstraction give the original study whatever sociological significance it may have:

1.Least abstract level: the socio-historical hypothesis

Ascetic Protestantism helped [nb.] motivate and canalize the activities of men [5] in the direction of experimental science.  This is the historical form of the hypothesis. [Merton 1968, p. 589]

A critically relevant context describes the logical status of such a sociohistorical idea in these terms:

It would have been fatuous for the author to maintain, as some swift-reading commentators upon the book would have him maintain, that, without Puritanism, there could have been no concentrated development of modern science in seventeenth-century England [or, mutatis mutandis, with regard to Pietism and science in Germany].  Such an imputation betrays a basic failure to understand the logic of analysis and interpretation in historical sociology.  In such analysis, a particular concrete historical development cannot be properly taken as indispensable to other concurrent or subsequent developments.  In the case in hand, it is certainly not the case that Puritanism [or Pietism] was indispensable in the sense that if it had not found historical expression at the time, modern science would not then have emerged.  The historically concrete movement of Puritanism [or Pietism] is not being put forward as a prerequisite to the substantial thrust of English [or German] science in that time; other functionally equivalent ideological movements could have served to provide the emerging science with widely acknowledged claims to legitimacy.  The interpretation in this study assumes the functional requirement of providing socially and culturally patterned support for a not yet institutionalized science; it does not presuppose that only Puritanism [or Pietism] could have served that function.  [These preceding italics are added.]  As it happened, Puritanism [and Pietism] provided major (not exclusive) support in that historical time and place.  However, and this requires emphasis, neither does this functional conception convert Puritanism [or Pietism] into something epiphenomenal and inconsequential.  It, rather than conceivable functional alternatives, happened to advance the institutionalization of science by providing a substantial basis for its legitimacy.  [Italics added.]  But the imputed drastic simplification that would make Puritanism [or Pietism] historically indispensable only affords a splendid specimen of the fallacy of misplaced abstraction (rather than concreteness).  It would mistakenly have the author undertake an exercise in historical prophecy (to adopt the convenient term that Karl Popper uses to describe efforts at concrete historical forecasts and retrodictions), even though the much less assuming author himself had only tried his hand at an analytical interpretation in the historical sociology of science. [Merton (1938) 1970; preface, pp. xviii-xix]

5. The reference to “men” sans women in this quoted passage is no inadvertent sexist statement; there simply was no place provided for women during the 16th and 17th centuries in what was known first as “natural philosophy” and later as “natural science.”


In the light of this emphatically formulated hypothesis that ascetic Protestantism, including Pietism, served to legitimate a nascent and slightly institutionalized science, it is passing strange to find Becker arguing at length, as though he were making a new, different, and opposed observation, that the Pietists had a

fundamental indifference, if not outright hostility, toward all knowledge, in whatever discipline, should it fail to display a perceptible religious connection.  As Francke insisted, for example, “All sagacity, by whatever name, must have the honoring of God as its goal and purpose and it must employ all other means on behalf of this holy purpose” (in Heubaum 1893, p. 75).  [Can this be the archetypal Pietist leader Francke speaking, or is it the “‘most representative Puritan in history,’ “Richard Baxter (as quoted from Flynn [1920], p. 138, by Merton [(1938) 1970], p. 60)?]  In keeping with this dictum, virtually every aspect of Pietist education tended to be planned and legitimated by reference to religious objectives. [Becker 1984, p. 1075]… To be certain, the primacy assigned to the religious motive was not entirely negative in its consequences for scientific education.  The study of the natural sciences was justifiable not only as a means of promoting religious conviction but also as a potential tool in the service of “good works” and collective well-being.  Significantly, however, this same religious motive also tended to impose limits on the study of science and the quest for new scientific principles.  The danger always existed that this study would become disassociated from religious concerns and that the fruits of such study would lead to scientific claims and knowledge incompatible with established theological precepts. [Becker 1984, p. 1076]

As for Pietist religious opposition to immediate “scientific claims and knowledge incompatible with established theological precepts,” this pattern, too, has been noted concerning the great Reformers: Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin.  As these “attitudes of the theologians dominate over the, in effect, subversive religious ethic - as did Calvin’s authority largely in Geneva until the first part of the eighteenth century - scientific development may be greatly impeded…  The implications of these dogmas found expression only with the passage of time” (Merton [1938] 1970, pp. 100-101).  In short - and this, of course, is one of the principal components of the generic sociohistorical hypothesis under review - despite such immediate opposition to seemingly dangerous thoughts in science, the long-run consequences of the “sanctification of science” as exhibiting the “true Nature of the Works of God” and as contributing “to the Comfort of Mankind” became thoroughly secularized as the religiously legitimated institution and practice of science developed.  That such sanctification can ultimately lead to secularization is precisely the sociohistorical irony under examination.

2.Middle-range level: dynamic interdependence of the social institutions of religion and science

In its more general and analytical form, it [the hypothesis] holds that


science, like all other social institutions, must be supported by values of the group if it is to develop.  There is, consequently, not the least paradox in finding that even so rational an activity as scientific research is grounded on non-rational values. [Merton 1968, p. 589] [6]

The theme of Puritanism-and-science seemed to exemplify the “idealistic” interpretation of history in which values and ideologies expressing those values are assigned a significant role in historical development.  The [correlative] theme [in this study] of the economic-military-scientific interplay seemed to exemplify the “materialistic” interpretation of history in which the economic substructure determines the superstructure of which science is a part.  And, as everyone knows, “idealistic” and “materialistic” interpretations are forever alien to one another, condemned to ceaseless contradiction and intellectual warfare.  Still, what everyone should know from the history of thought is that what everyone knows often turns out not to be so at all.  The model of interpretation advanced in this study does provide for the mutual support and independent contribution to the legitimatizing of science of both the value orientation supplied by Puritanism [and Pietism] and the pervasive belief in, perhaps more than the occasional fact of, scientific solutions to pressing economic, military and technological problems. [Merton (1938) 1970, preface, p. xix; italics added]

3. Most general and abstract level: the dynamic interdependence of social institutions

A principal sociological idea governing this empirical inquiry holds that the socially patterned interests, motivations and behavior established in one institutional sphere - say, that of religion or economy - are interdependent with the socially patterned interests, motivations and behavior obtaining in other institutional spheres - say, that of science.  There are various kinds of such interdependence, but we need touch upon only one of these here.  The same individuals have multiple social statuses and roles [status-sets and role-sets]: scientific and religious and economic and political.  This fundamental linkage in social structure in itself makes for some interplay between otherwise distinct institutional spheres even when they are segregated into seemingly autonomous departments of life.  Beyond that, the social, intellectual and value consequences of what is done in one institutional domain ramify into other institutions, eventually making for anticipatory and subsequent concern with the interconnections of institutions.  Separate institutional spheres are only partially autonomous, not completely so.  It is only after a typically prolonged development that social institutions, including the institution of science, acquire a significant degree of autonomy. [Merton (1938) 1970, preface, pp. ix-x]

6. As early as the mid-1930s, even a logical positivist such as Rudolf Carnap would be writing, soon after the Merton 1936 article which he surely did not know, that “psychology and the social sciences … must locate the irrational [better: nonrational] sources of both rational and illogical thought” (Carnap 1937, p. 118).  This is akin to the “Copernican revolution” in the sociology of knowledge which consists in the basic “hypothesis that not only error, illusion, or unauthenticated belief but also the discovery of truth is socially (historically) conditioned.  As long as attention was focused only on the social determinants of ideology, illusion, myth, and moral norms, the sociology of knowledge could not emerge” (Merton 1968, pp. 513-14).


This condensed sketch of the successively abstract theoretical contexts of the sociohistorical hypothesis requires some theoretical and methodological explication.  It has, I believe, implications that extend much beyond the study under review.

A Counterintuitive and Counterpositivistic Hypothesis

First, it is proposed that continuing interest in the specific sociohistorical hypothesis derives from its being identified as a case in point of the varied nature of dynamic interactions between the institutions of religion and science in differing sociohistorical contexts. It is this middle-range hy­pothesis which was at the bottom of that inquiry mounted half a century ago. The hypothesis had a distinct theoretical interest all its own back in the 1930s, since it ran counter to the received positivistic lore of the time which declared as virtually self-evident that the principal, if indeed not the unique, relation between science and religion was one of conflict and clash. At least to those reared on such books with their positivistic titles as John W. Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875 and many more editions, with translations into 10 languages) and Andrew D. White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), it seemed improbable, if not downright absurd, that a religious ethic and praxis could have contributed to the legitimation and advancement of science which, it appears, was steadily engaged in undermining the dogmatic foundations of theology and religion. Witness only the heretical fate of Giordano Bruno, burned alive after trial by the Catholic Inquisition, and Michael Servetus, denounced by Calvin and burned alive after trial by the magistrates of Geneva.  In good positivistic style of a parochial sort, it was no great leap from such exemplary episodes to a belief in the logical and historical necessity for conflict between religion and science in all their aspects. [7]


The Role of Rationality in Emerging Modern Science: Pietism as a Strategic Polar Case

The 1930s study undertook the collateral inquiry into a possible Pietism-science connection to supplement the fairly detailed and extensive inquiry into the Puritanism-science connection.  As expressions of ascetic Protestantism, the two had much in common.  Indeed, the 17th- and 18th-

7. Since this theoretical context is not being newly identified, the paragraph continues to draw on the 1970 preface to the Merton (1938) monograph.  The legendary aspects of the life and mind of the Hermetic magician and scientist Bruno are handled in magisterial style by Yates (1964); Mason (1953) deals with the relation of Servetus to Calvin in connection with the new astronomy and the discovery of the lesser circulation of the blood.


century Cotton Mather, the celebrated Puritan minister who was himself deeply devoted to the new science, [8] had noted the close resemblance of such Protestant movements, remarking that ‘ye American puritanism [is] ... much of a piece with ye Frederician pietism’ (retrieved from the archives by Kuno Francke [1896], p. 63, and quoted by Merton [(1936) 1968], p. 643).

More specifically and more in point for the sociohistorical hypothesis under review, Pietism shared all but one of the elements of the Puritan ethos which had been taken to contribute to the rise of modern English science.  Briefly itemized, these elements of Puritanism were (1) a strong emphasis on everyday utilitarianism, (2) intramundane interests and actions (Weber’s “inner-worldly asceticism”), (3) the belief that scientific understanding of the world of nature serves to manifest the glory of God as “the great Author of Nature,” (4) the right and even the duty to challenge various forms of authority, (5) a strong streak of antitraditionalism, all these coupled with the exaltation of both (6) empiricism and (7) rationality.  Albeit with differing degrees of intensity of adherence to some of these elements, the ethos of Pietism was significantly equivalent, except for the strong exception of an emphasis on rationality.

It is well known that Pietism, in its various forms, was given to “enthusiasm and irrationalism,” emphasizing “the emotional as opposed to the rational” (Pinson 1934, chap. 1 and p. 36).  Thus, just as Quakerism and the later “enthusiastic” Methodism provided cases that bear on the relative significance of rationality for an emerging interest in science within the English tradition, so, too, it was assumed, would “enthusiastic” Pietism as a weaker counterpart in Germany.  Max Weber had made analytical comparisons among the varieties of Anglo-American Puritanism and Pietism.  For the immediate purposes of the 1930s study, most in point was his conclusion that “all in all, when we consider German Pietism from the point of view important for us, we must admit a vacillation and uncertainty in the religious basis of its asceticism which makes it definitely weaker than the iron consistency of Calvinism, and which is partly the result of Lutheran influence and partly of its emotional character” (Weber [1904-5] 1930, pp. 128-39, at p. 137; italics added).

In drawing on Weber’s observations on this emotional element in Pietism, the Becker critique apparently fails to recognize that it is precisely this difference from many Puritan sects which made Pietism a strategic

8. “One of the persistent popular fallacies is the belief that the American pulpit, dominated throughout the period by New England Puritanism, was antagonistic to science.  It was, on the contrary, a powerful ally in many instances... Increase and Cotton Mather, the foremost American Puritans .... labored earnestly to use science as a bulwark for religion, and in the course of this self-appointed task served an important educational function” (Hornberger [1937], p. 13; for details, see Hornberger [1935] and the monumental volumes by Perry Miller, The New England Mind [(1939) 1954]).


polar case for examining the relative importance of rationality for creating an interest in science and for conferring religiously based legitimacy on the emerging science.  In this the critique cannot be greatly faulted.  For though the Merton study of the 1930s cautiously qualified the similarities between Puritanism and Pietism by alluding to the variously mystical “enthusiasm” of the Pietist movements, it did so much too sparingly (owing perhaps to the unimposed constraints of that three-page discussion).  This it did in the following excessively condensed, imperfectly expressed, formally unexplicated, and therefore rather enigmatic formulation of the logic underlying the selection of Pietism as a potentially strategic case for comparison with the more thoroughly examined case of English Puritanism: “Pietism, except for its greater ‘enthusiasm,’ might almost be termed the continental counterpart of Puritanism.  Hence, if our hypothesis of the association between Puritanism and interest in science and technology is warranted, one would expect to find the same [sic] correlation among the Pietists.  And such was markedly the case” (Merton [1936] 1968, p. 643; italics added).

With the wisdom of some 50 years of hindsight and selective accumulation of knowledge (and, more dubiously, with the alleged wisdom of age), I am inclined to fault Merton’s early study at this point, as Becker does not, in three related respects.  First, the study could have emphasized the point that the element of rationality in a supportive religious ethos is evidently not a necessary condition for a derived interest in science and that the other elements in the Pietist ethos were robust enough to generate such interest.

Second, it now seems evident that the cases of Pietism and Puritanism could have been compared in detail, at least in qualitative fashion, to assess the relative importance of differing intensities of adherence to each of the elements and to consider how each of these, as well as clusters of them, may have contributed differentially to the legitimizing of newly emerging science.

Third, the study might have taken further advantage of the strategic polar cases to isolate the role of rationality in affecting the kinds of science that became of prime interest, instead of confining the inquiry to the question of an interest in the sciences generally.  That line of inquiry (suggested to me by Robert C. Merton) would explore the possibility that Puritanism and Pietism might have generated interest in substantively differing fields of science and in significantly differing styles of scientific work.  The streak of antirationalism in Pietism might have led to prime interest in the largely descriptive (rather than analytical) kinds of science advocated by Francke (cf. Merton [1936] 1968, p. 643, n. 62) and might have led to a focus on the tinkering technical interest of the practical inventor rather than on work deriving in some deductive style from sci-


entific theory.  In contrast, the kinds of science proving more congenial to the Puritan ethos with its inclusion of an emphasis on rationality might tend to be, to put it anachronistically, of a more nearly hypothetico-deductive sort, in which experiment and observation more fully connect with an often mathematically expressed sequence of deductive reasoning.  However all this may in fact turn out, that study of the mid-1930s did not venture to consider this kind of query about such possible consequences of the presence or absence of rationality as an element in the religious ethos.

The Pietism-Science Connection as an Unintended Consequence

Along with being a strategic case for assessing the place of rationalism in emerging types of “new science” and serving further to instance the perspective that rejects the positivistic view of primarily or wholly conflicting relations between religion and science, the Pietism case held a third kind of theoretical interest.  As was heavily emphasized in the monograph in which the pages on Pietism are embedded, the hypothesized relation between ascetic Protestantism and the emergence of modern science was largely an unintended consequence of the religious ethic and related patterns of action (religiously derived practice) instead of being only the result of direct and deliberate support of science by religious leaders (Merton [1938] 1970, pp. 79, 100-102, 136).  This evidently held particular interest for the author since in the same year as the article “Puritanism, Pietism and Science” was published, he was also arguing that the unanticipated consequences of purposive social action (Merton 1936) constitute a principal pattern of social and cultural change.

As we shall see before we examine the differing readings of the specific historical evidence by Merton and by Becker in the Appendix, the critique fails to pay adequate attention to these (and the other) theoretical aspects of the original study which, to my mind, give it any but the most parochial descriptive interest.  The result is that the otherwise well-mounted evidentiary critique reverts, rather more than is indicated, to some of the long-standing historical debates over the character of the varieties of Pietism and of its historical role.  The neglect of theoretical contexts provides one component of the fallacy of the latest word in scholarly and scientific controversy.



The fallacy consists in the usually tacit belief that the latest word on a given subject or problem is necessarily the best word, at least pro tem, if indeed it is not the definitive, once-and-for-all word. Sometimes the


fallacy is committed by the author of the most recent word, sometimes by its readers, and sometimes by both in an unwitting complicity.  If stated explicitly, it is a position that will not readily claim many adherents.  Yet it has a way of turning up implicitly in the course of those scholarly controversies which arise regularly in accord with the norm and practice of socially organized skepticism.  At a surface glance, there seems to be some merit in the assumption that the latest scientific or scholarly word is apt to be better than what has gone before.  For once a theoretically derived hypothesis and its supporting evidence have been put forward, each succeeding work on the hypothesis can draw critically on the preceding materials and thus presumably improve on them by rooting out previous errors and replacing them with new provisional truths.  But, I suggest, that surface plausibility rests on a tissue of deep-seated and questionable assumptions.

A first tacit assumption holds that although an author developing a hypothesis has misperceived, misinterpreted, or misreported the assembled evidence that invites or supports the hypothesis, the critic accurately perceives, interprets, and reports the text and the evidence under review.  That assumption is manifested in part by the absence of overt signs that the critic is critical of his criticism, recognizing that it, too, is variously subject to the risk of faults like those attributed to the earlier text.

As a case in point, the Becker critique confidently assumes that in “the investigation of sources” the critic’s later readings are patently more accurate than readings dating from the mid-1930s.  Thus the critique announces that “although Merton’s assertions have some basis in fact, they invite distortion because of factual inaccuracies, overstatements, and omissions regarding the overriding objectives of education as envisaged by Pietistic pedagogues” (Becker 1984, p. 1072).  Here, and throughout the critique, there is not the least hint that the critic’s own perspectivist readings and exegeses of the same texts might possibly be subject to distortion owing to “inaccuracies, overstatements, and omissions.” Yet, as is suggested by the details gathered in the Appendix, some matters of fact and interpretation in the history of German education singled out in the critique are at least moot, with authorities by now somewhat worn, such as Heubaum ([1905] 1973) and Ziegler (1895), cited by both Merton and Becker, agreeing on some points and being at odds on others instead of uniformly supporting the position set forth in the critique.

Since it provides a varied symptomatic instance of the hazard of erroneous readings, damaging omissions, and questionable interpretations in a critique which is pro tem the latest word on its subject, I shall center, in dogged detail, on a single passage that deals with the sociological literature on the central hypothesis rather than with the historical literature on theology and German pedagogy (which I examine in the Ap-


pendix).  Contrasting that passage in the 1984 critique with a related passage in the 1930s study also provides a distinct side benefit by collating the scattered paragraphs in Weber’s writings which deal with the subject at hand.  I begin by turning to Becker’s conclusion, where he writes:

That Pietism failed to provide a powerful impetus to science is not necessarily inconsistent with Weber’s observations on the relation of ascetic Protestantism and science.  Indeed, while Weber in the conclusion of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism ([1904-5] 1930, p. 183) tentatively posited a link between ascetic Protestantism and science, he was nevertheless aware that ascetic Protestantism could also have adverse consequences for the development of science.  For example, he wrote in General Economic History ([1923] 1950, p. 270) that “the ascetic sects of Protestantism have also been disposed to have nothing to do with science, except in a situation where material requirements of everyday life were involved” (italics added [by GB]).  This description appears to apply to German Pietism. [Becker 1984, p. 1088]

Once anatomized, this passage in the penultimate paragraph of the critique illustrates amply why the latest word need not be the best word.  The passage exhibits some cognitive costs of the critic’s decision to wear blinders by confining himself to those few pages devoted to the auxiliary Pietism-science hypothesis while wholly ignoring relevant contexts.  Thus, we are told that the critique is not necessarily at odds with Weber’s views since he “wrote in General Economic History” a sentence, which the critic partly italicizes for emphasis, declaring that ascetic Protestant sects “have also been disposed to have nothing to do with science,” except in a specified type of situation.  The critic might have done well to attend to a cautionary note about Wirtschaftsgeschichte (translated by Frank H. Knight as General Economic History) [9] appearing in both the article and the monograph under review.  He might then have hesitated to say that “Weber wrote” that sentence.  He might instead have gone on to inform readers that this book of Weber’s must be read with caution, particularly when it seems to contradict positions Weber repeatedly expressed in books he did write with typical care.  For as that cautionary note observed,

… it is surprising to note the statement accredited to Max Weber that the opposition of the Reformers is sufficient reason for not coupling Protestantism with scientific interests.  See Wirtschaftsgeschichte (München, 1923, 314).  This remark is especially unanticipated since it does not at all accord

9. It may be of interest, and not only to present-day sociologists making critical systematic use of quantitative and qualitative citation analysis, that Frank Knight (in Weber [1923] 1950) opens his translator’s preface by noting that “Max Weber is probably the most outstanding name in German social thought since Schmoller, and a recent survey finds him the most quoted sociologist in Germany.”  Incidentally, Weber’s citations were being reported by the then young Louis Wirth (1926) writing a decade before his sterling translation, along with Edward Shils, of Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia.  (See American Journal of Sociology, November 1926, p. 464.)


with Weber’s discussion of the same point in his other works. Cf. Religionssoziologie, I, 141, 564; Wissenschaft als Beruf (Munchen, 1921, 19-20).  The probable explanation is that the first is not Weber’s statement, since the Wirtschaftsgeschichte was compiled from classroom notes by two of his students who may have neglected to make the requisite distinctions.  It is unlikely that Weber would have made the elementary error of confusing the Reformers’ opposition to certain scientific discoveries with the unforeseen consequences of the Protestant ethic, particularly since he expressly warns against the failure to make such distinctions in his Religionssoziologie. [Merton (1936) 1968, p. 634n; cf. slight extensions in (1938) 1970, pp. 100 10n]

That early cautionary note is itself incomplete.  It might have gone on to observe that Weber himself had severe misgivings about these lectures on economic history and that unlike volume 1 of the Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Religionssoziologie, which he did write, gather together, and correct in galleys during the last year of his life (Marianne Weber [1926] 1975, p. 675; Parsons in Weber [1904-5] 1930; Nelson 1974), he never got to read and vet the Wirtschaftsgeschichte since this text based on his last full set of lectures at Munich in that same year was reconstructed and published only after his death. 10  It would thus appear that that lone sentence from the General Economic History should carry rather less evidentiary weight than Weber’s repeated and considered judgments to the contrary, from the time of the first appearance of the essay on the Protestant ethic in 1904-5 to its final revision in 1919-20 chiefly in the form of footnotes which, supplying new evidence and rebuttals to criticisms, run in their entirety to about the same length as the text itself (about 50,000 words each).

And then, as though the critic were in collusion to help identify the fallacy of the latest word, this neglect of the cognitive status of Weber’s General Economic History is coupled with other neglects. Nary a word is provided following up the references to Weber in the same ([1936] 1968) passage and further quotations from Weber in which he states his tentative conclusions about the connections between early modern science and ascetic Protestantism generally and Pietism specifically.  To be sure, Weber

10. As the German compilers and editors - the historian Professor S. Hellmann and the economist Dr. M. Palyi - observed in their preface, “Even if Weber had lived longer he would not have given his Economic History to the public, at least not in the form in which we have it here.  Utterances of his prove that he regarded the work as an improvisation with a thousand defects… The situation just pictured set the task of the editors and made it a difficult one.  No manuscript or even coherent outlines by Weber himself were available.  There were found in his papers only a bundle of sheets with notes little more than catchwords set down in a handwriting hardly legible even to those accustomed to it.  Consequently, the text had to be restored from notes by students, who willingly made their notebooks available for several months” (Weber 1923, p. xvii).  As we see, it was misleading for Merton to suggest that the editors reconstructed the text from the notes of only two students.


did not examine the hypothesis in detail, concluding his classic essay programmatically by describing one of the “next tasks” as that of searching out the “significance of ascetic rationalism, which has only been touched in the foregoing sketch,” for a variety of cultural and social developments, among them “the development of philosophical and scientific empiricism… technical development and ... spiritual ideals” (Weber [1904-5] 1930, pp. 182-83).  This programmatic statement is at least cited in the critique.  But again, nary a word about the abundant citations and quoted indications in the 1930s monograph of how all this looked to Weber, especially after his comparative sociological studies of religion.

One of the ignored references in Merton’s cautionary passage on the General Economic History leads directly to this strong formulation: “Religion.... frequently considers purely empirical research, including that of natural science, as more reconcilable to religious interests than it does philosophy.  This is the case above all in ascetic Protestantism” (Weber [1920] 1978, 1:564, as translated by Gerth and Mills in Weber [1919] 1946, p. 350).  Furthermore, the critique has nothing to say about Merton’s observation that scientists oriented toward ascetic Protestantism saw the study of nature as enabling a fuller appreciation of His power and creation.  By an extension of this religiously based definition of their role, “nothing in Nature is too mean for scientific study.”  Merton observes that “Max Weber remarks this same attitude in Swammerdam, whom he quotes as saying ‘Here I bring you the proof of God’s providence in the anatomy of a louse’ (Merton [1938] 1970, 104n, citing Wissenschaft als Beruf [Weber 1919], p. 19).  Here the 1930s author of Science, Technology and Society, then writing the latest word on the subject, actually scanted Weber’s position.  Had he foreseen the 1984 Becker critique, he might have continued with the quotation from Weber who then went on to say apropos Pietism and science that “you will see [in Swammerdam’s statement] what the scientific worker, influenced (indirectly) by Protestantism and Puritanism, conceived to be his task: to show the path to God.  People no longer found this path among the philosophers, with their concepts and deductions.  All pietist theology of the time, above all Spener, knew that God was not to be found along the road by which the Middle Ages had sought him.  God is hidden, His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts.  In the exact sciences, however, where one could physically grasp His works, one hoped to come upon the traces of what He planned for the world” (Weber [1919] 1946, p. 142).

These, then, exemplify some of the pertinent materials wholly ignored in the critique, presumably as a result of the decision to confine attention to those few pages focused on Pietism in the 1936 article (and thus to ignore also the somewhat fuller documentation found in the 1938 monograph).  That decision entailed a thorough neglect of the theoretical con-


texts provided elsewhere in the article and monograph which, as I have noted, qualify and specify the generic hypothesis of the connections between ascetic Protestantism and science by identifying the basic mechanisms, such as unintended consequences, rather than only direct doctrinal support that operated to provide those connections.  Even so, had the critic read even the comparable handful of pages in the monograph, he might have had second thoughts about the position he imputes to Weber.  For he would have found there Weber’s virtually last observation on the matter - this, in the first volume of the Religionssoziologie ([1920] 1978, p. 533), which he had prepared for publication shortly before his death - to the effect, stated almost in the vein of the Pietist leader, Francke, that useful knowledge, exemplified above all by the orientations of empirical natural science and geography which provide a down-to-earth clarity of realistic thought and specialized knowledge, was first systematically cultivated as the purpose of education in Puritan circles and in Germany especially in Pietistic circles (as quoted in Merton [1938] 1970, p. 124, n. 50) . On this, as is so often the case with related matters, Troeltsch ([1912] 1931, 2:958) is at one with Weber, writing in rather strong language, “ ‘… the ideals of Pietism with regard to education are exactly the same as those of Puritanism.’ ”

Finally, there is evidence that both author and critic are subject to the hazard of overlooking highly apposite materials.  Merton ([1938] 1970, p. 59) quotes only a smidgen of what is perhaps Weber’s strongest and most instructive passage on the complex relation between Pietism and science, while Becker (1984) says nothing at all about it.  The Weber observations call for full quotation in accord with the policy plainly being adopted here of quoting key passages at some length in order to avoid the second-order hazards of excessively brief paraphrases, which can easily contribute to the misinterpretations and misunderstandings that keep the latest critical word from being necessarily the best word on a subject, hypothesis, or conjecture.  In one of those long footnotes, Weber once again disowns any intention of conducting a detailed investigation but nevertheless manages to say much in little:

The decided propensity of Protestant asceticism for empiricism, rationalized on a mathematical basis, is well known, but cannot be further analyzed here… For the attitude of Protestant asceticism the decisive point was, as may perhaps be most clearly seen in [the Pietist] Spener’s Theologische Bedenken I, p. 232; III, p. 260, that just as the Christian is known by the fruits of his belief, the knowledge of God and His designs can only be attained through a knowledge of His works.  The favourite science of all Puritan, Baptist, or Pietist Christianity was thus physics, and next to it all those other natural sciences which used a similar method, especially mathematics.  It was hoped from the empirical knowledge of the divine laws of nature to ascend to a grasp of the essence of the world, which on account


of the fragmentary nature of the divine revelation, a Calvinistic idea, could never be attained by the method of metaphysical speculation.  The empiricism of the seventeenth century was the means for asceticism to see God in nature.  It seemed to lead to God, philosophical speculation away from Him.  In particular Spener considers the Aristotelean philosophy to have been the most harmful element in Christian tradition… The significance of this attitude of ascetic Protestantism for the development of education, especially technical education, is well known. [11]  Combined with the attitude to fides implicita they furnished a pedagogical programme. [Weber (1920), 1:141-42, as translated by Talcott Parsons in Weber ([1904-5] 1930), p. 249, n. 145; italics added]

Once the fallacy of the latest word is explicitly recognized as a distinct hazard, even in critical accounts of the most civil variety (such as the Becker critique), that recognition can serve as a prophylaxis against a second assumption underlying the fallacy.  That is the assumption of an inexorable, unilinear progress in knowledge, despite minor and temporary fluctuations in it.  Such an assumption of steady cognitive progress holds that each succeeding work improves on what has gone before, since it profits from that prior knowledge base.  This is one of those half-truths which, especially when it remains tacit, leads to the naive belief in a steady unilinear rather than in a variously selective and uneven cumulation of scientific knowledge.  This conception of progress is of a kind that was being emphatically rejected in the very sociological circles in which the mid-1930s hypotheses on ascetic Protestantism and science were being developed in detail.

Perhaps the most emphatic sociological voice of the time energetically repudiating the naive versions of unilinear progress in knowledge was Pitirim Sorokin’s, most particularly in the massive four volumes of his Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937).  Assisting Sorokin in exploring the rival hypotheses of fluctuations and oscillations in the historical development of science, the author of “Puritanism, Pietism and Science” traced the cyclical vicissitudes of such scientific ideas as vitalism, mechanism, and abiogenesis in biology; wave and corpuscular theories of light in physics; and cosmogonic theories (Sorokin and Merton 1937, chap. 12).  Of most immediate interest is the observation appearing in the original protocol by the junior author stating with regard to the fluctuation of atomic doctrines that various theories “rose and gathered a power im-

11. The phrase “is well known,” here and in the first sentence of Weber’s long footnote, tantalizes rather than informs.  The allusion may be to the writings of Troeltsch, but it hints at a rather wider scholarly consensus on the posited connections between ascetic Protestantism and science.  Perhaps this impression that those connections were well established and well understood lay behind Weber’s recurrent disclaimer in his sociology of religion; e.g., “We cannot speak here of the significance [of Puritanism] for the development of technology and natural science” (as quoted by Merton [(1938) 1970], p. 59, n. 9).


pressive enough to be accepted as the ‘last word of science’ by the leading scientists or thinkers of the period.  At other periods they declined and sometimes practically disappeared” (p. 445).

Still, though awareness of the fallacy of the latest word can guard against a naive assumption of steady progress in which all that follows improves on what precedes, it need not lead us to the opposite error of denying the selective and uneven accumulation of various kinds of scientific knowledge over the centuries.  To discard the Comtean and later Edwardian faith in unyielding intellectual progress in science and technology does not require us to deny the patent advancement of such knowledge, despite all its intervening errors, garden paths, and misconceptions.  To put it concretely, the beautiful Greek mythology could summon up no more scientific and technological imagination than to endow the doomed Icarus with wings of feathers and wax.  And though we may not like the noisy Concorde, we must concede that it derives from a somewhat better knowledge of aerodynamics than that. [12]  Still, all this represents only the result of selective accumulation of knowledge, a conception that allows for error, misinterpretations, and misattributions in particular cases.  This is consequently remote from the fallacy of assuming that the latest word need be the best and most reliable word.

A third often tacit but sometimes explicit premise making for the fallacy of the latest word holds that a hypothesis or underlying theory is obviously to be abandoned as soon as it appears to have been empirically falsified.  At the extreme, this premise maintains that a single counterexample justifies rejection of a hypothesis.  Were this so in actual practice, as distinct from certain epistemological doctrines, the mortality rate of scientific ideas, high as it is, would rise dramatically.  But the critical pragmatism which commonly obtains in actual scientific practice seldom operates in such strong terms of easy falsification.  Decades after the beginnings of Karl Popper’s ([1934] 1959; 1963; 1972) powerful and evolving doctrine of falsification, the fundamental question still endures: When are we to retain a hypothesis or theoretical conception in the face of facts that seem to refute it?  In short, when are we to trust the governing idea; when, the contravening “fact”?  Or, as applied to the case in point, does the Becker critique require us to reject or severely modify the hypothesis of the Pietism-science connection as tentatively derived from the generic hypothesis of the ascetic Protestantism hypothesis?

This appears to be an instance in which both the generic and the specific

12. For the welter of recent doctrines on scientific progress, see, among much else, Lakatos (1978); Kuhn (1977), esp. chap. 11; Laudan (1977); Elkana (1981), pp. 53-54.  None of these deny the palpable facts of progress in science but they variously construe its character, forms, and mechanisms.  For myself, the processes of selective accumulation of scientific knowledge provide no basis for the kind of inexorable progressivism implicit in the fallacy of the latest word.


hypotheses continue to remain on probation in the sense that all such interpretations must be considered provisional.  This is so in the light of what the differentiated methodological doctrine of Lakatos (1978, 1:8-138) describes as “sophisticated” rather than “naive falsification” and also because the questioned evidence in this case is largely either peripheral to the hypothesis or, more important, is still on trial among specialists.  Limitations of space preclude an attempt to reconstruct Lakatos’s complex and detailed argument here (the omission may lure some readers to his original work); essentially, he argues that, in naive falsification, a theory is acceptable or “scientific” if it is experimentally falsifiable, whereas for sophisticated falsification it is acceptable “only if it has corroborated excess empirical content over its predecessor (or rival), that is, only if it leads to the discovery of novel facts” (Lakatos 1978, 1:31-32).  Or in emphatic, italicized conclusion, “Contrary to naive falsificationism, no experiment, experimental report, observation statement or well-corroborated low-level falsifying hypothesis alone can lead to falsification.  There is no falsification before the emergence of a better theory” (1:35).

Since that argument (which is not alien to Popper’s later judgments) is claimed to hold for the most rigorous and exacting experimental inquiry, we can take it to hold all the more (a fortiori) for such scientific and scholarly inquiries as sociohistorical studies, in which strong and relatively precise empirical falsifications of theoretical interpretations, as well as precisely accumulated confirmations, are comparatively rare.  To acknowledge this is not to engage in disciplinary self-deprecation nor is it to adopt an unthinking, stereotyped imagery of the “exact sciences.”  It is simply an attempt to place the logic of falsifiability within the ongoing practical contexts of actual inquiry in diverse disciplines.  For it reminds us that even seemingly exacting experiments in physics, biology, or physiological psychology that apparently refute a hypothesis derived from a larger body of theory need not lead promptly to abandoning the underlying theory and the derived hypothesis, and this for the most pragmatic of reasons.  The reportedly refuting experiment, either in critically reappraised design or in actual execution, may simply fail to meet the full requirements of the hypothesis subjected to experimental test. [13]  Unwitting misinterpret-

13. The same logic holds, I suggest, for truly minor ideas, such as the ones under review, as for scientific ideas of world-shaking grandeur without this at all implying a naive, emulous positivism.  Consider this comment on a remark from Einstein by the meticulous student of his epistemology and practice, Gerald Holton: “ ‘Human beings are normally deaf to the strongest [favorable] arguments while they are always inclined to overestimate measuring accuracies.’  He was warning on such occasions that one should be reasonably skeptical about experiments that disconfirm as about those that confirm - and particularly if the alleged experimental disconfirmation of one theory is used to support another which, on other grounds, is less appealing” (Holton [1979], p. 324; cf. Holton 1973] for much documentary elaboration of this theme).


tations of the original hypothesis with its contextual qualifications, and slippage in the transition from the original hypotheses, concepts, indicators, and observations, are all the more likely to occur in sociohistorical inquiry where systematic evidence closely corresponding to the basic theoretical variables is, if only for practical reasons, often exceedingly difficult to achieve.

The Becker critique provides ample evidence that proposed refutations are subject to the hazard of the ideas under review not being adequately caught up in their reformulation.  Thus, the critique strongly and reiteratively questions three dubious positions ascribed to the Pietism-science hypothesis.  First, that it “fails to take into account the full spectrum of pertinent Pietistic beliefs and values” and especially the “conflicting dispositions within Pietism toward science” (Becker 1984, pp. 1066, 1069; see also pp. 1071 and 1087).  Second, that the hypothesis holds, at least by implication, that Pietism provided the chief or exclusive impetus to emerging German science, whereas “the Pietists’ support for science was considerably less intense than Merton claims.  Moreover, other elements in German society, particularly the nobility and those associated with 18th-century rationalism and the spirit of the Enlightenment, fostered scientific education actively and more enthusiastically” (Becker 1984, p. 1074).  And third, almost as a corollary, that the hypothesis maintains that Pietism provided “unflagging support” for science (evidently a special defect since such imputed “unflagging support” is claimed in the second paragraph of the critique, in the last paragraph, and in between).

On their face, these criticisms seem well founded - on one condition.  That arbitrary condition is that we, like the critic, ignore relevant contexts and confine ourselves to those three pages on Pietism and the subsequent handful of pages on the religious composition of the student body in 19th-century schools variously oriented to science.  Were I now advising the author of the original monograph, I should urge him to extend and deepen that exceedingly short excursion into the Pietist sphere to reiterate the earlier qualifications about Puritanism explicitly here as well.  Or, failing such an elaboration, I should press him at the least to alert readers to the places in the 1938 monograph and later writings which, as we have seen in the long passages quoted in the first part of this paper, emphatically run counter to these general imputations in the critique.  However, the author strikes me as being quite as much at fault in having neglected to link those generic qualifications expressly to the abbreviated case of Pietism as the critique is at fault in having neglected those readily accessible contexts to center solely on those pages on Pietism.  In doing so, the critique provides yet another instance of the Kenneth Burke (1935, p. 70) theorem on selective perception: “A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing - a focus upon object A involves a neglect of object B.”


Had the imputation that the author assumes full homogeneity and consistency of Pietist doctrine, for example, been examined within the wider context of ascetic Protestantism generally, the critique would have identified reminders in the monograph of “theological diversity” among the various sects (which, to be sure, are said, as noted by Weber, Troeltsch, and the historian G. N. Clark, to have often converged toward common values and practice).  Indeed, in an effort to emphasize that diversity, the monograph even managed a composite gaffe and typographical error (noted by neither author nor critic) asserting that the choleric Presbyterian pamphleteer, Thomas Edwards (1646), had “enumerated 180 sects” - a transparent slip for some 180 alleged “heresies” which he had spotted along with a mere 17 “sectaries.”  So, too, the critic would have come on the generic discussion of ascetic Protestantism as a religious ethic rather than as theological doctrine, that ethic being “psychologically rather than logically coherent, [and leading] to a long chain of consequences not least of which was the destruction of this very system itself” (Merton [1938] 1970, pp. 56-57, 99).  Throughout the study, theologians’ doctrines and explicit intentions are distinguished from the religious ethic and its cumulative unanticipated consequences. [14]

The extended passages quoted from the 1938 monograph speak directly to the other general imputation, deprived of context, in the Becker critique: that the religious impetus has been taken to be the dominant, “unflagging,” and perhaps even exclusive social and cultural source of emerging interest in science.  Those quoted passages do not bear repetition but are there to be consulted at will.  Here, with regard to the fallacy of the latest word, it need only be added, in the Lakatosian vein, that a generic critique, as distinct from certain specifics, that provides no alternative, theoretically grounded hypothesis covering the same ground (and preferably more) as the hypothesis being rejected is evidently still some distance from a compelling refutation.

14. The fundamental premise that divergent culturally patterned motives can converge toward similar practical action also underlies the monograph by Nicholas Hans (1951) on trends in 18th-century education which is cited in the Becker critique and is discussed by Merton (1968) as a “remarkable study” bearing on the subject at hand: Hans “notes, as we have seen to be the case, that religious ‘motives’ were not alone in making for the emergence of modern education (and specifically, of scientific education) in this period; with religion were joined ‘intellectual’ and ‘utilitarian’ motives.  Thus, while ‘the Puritans promoted science as an additional support of Christian faith based on revelation, the deists looked upon science as the foundation of any belief in God.’  The three types of motivation tended to reinforce one another: ‘The Dissenters, as well as many Puritans within the Church, represented the religious motive for educational reform.  The idea of propagatio fidei per scientia found many adherents among the Dissenters.  The intellectual and utilitarian reasons were put into full motion by secular bodies and teachers before the Dissenting Academies accepted them wholeheartedly’ (Hans [1951], pp. 12, 54, as quoted in Merton [1968], pp. 653-54).


From all indications exemplified by the serious and civil Becker critique, the fallacy of the latest word is a hazard, not a necessity.  The fallacy thrives on its premises remaining tacit.  For once put into so many words, such premises as steady unfailing progress in the growth of knowledge and immunity of critics from misperceptions, patterned misunderstandings, slippage in paraphrases and formulations, [15] and a wholesale neglect of theoretical contexts soon fall of their own weight.  Left implicit, however, such premises do invite the unexamined assumption that the latest word is the best word on the subject or problem at hand.

All this does not in the least imply, of course, the opposite and equal fallacy that the latest word is necessarily mistaken or retrogressive.  What it does suggest is that in the ongoing social process of organized skepticism, institutionally and self-designated peers engage in the critical sifting and sorting of knowledge claims, and that those appraisals are in turn subject to critical assessment.  Analysis of the fallacy of the latest word suggests reasons for the refutation of a general idea being in its several ways no less subject to comparable sorts of practical criticism than is its confirmation.

Finally, it will not have escaped notice that, at least for the moment, this paper is the latest word on its subject.  I suspect that it will not be the last word. Caveat lector.



In collaboration with Alfred Nordmann

The foregoing pages have tried to identify the cognitive costs exacted of the Becker critique for systematically neglecting the analytical and theoretical contexts of that part of the mid-1930s study which focused on Pietism.  The chief cost, it is argued, is a misconception of the generic hypothesis associating ascetic Protestantism and early modern science and of the special hypothesis of Pietism as a case in point.

This Appendix goes on to examine the possible sources and meanings of the specific charges in the critique that impute documentary misreadings, omissions of pertinent evidence, and other egregious sins of inquiry to the study.  Rather than undertake a point-by-point discussion of every detail at the expense of losing sight of the principal sociohistorical themes,

15. As I have noted, patterned and not merely random misunderstandings in critics’ and countercritcs’ “translations” of texts under examination constitute a hazard which, not suitably recognized, invites the fallacy of the latest word.  It is a coincidence that while this paper was in press, a doubly apt article which identifies an array of such questionable interpretations of the monograph undergoing renewed scrutiny has appeared in the journal of the history of science, Isis, under the title “Misunderstanding the Merton Thesis: A Boundary Dispute between History and Sociology” (Abraham 1983).


we consider clusters of particulars in the Becker bill of indictment that bear on those themes.  We shall see that reexamination of sources utilized by both author and critic takes us to countercriticisms of the critic’s interpretations of texts and of other evidence along lines grown amply familiar in scholarly controversies.  Nevertheless, the give-and-take in this review of particulars just might clarify the nature and sources of such patterned misunderstandings more generally and not only in the immediate case.  Author, critic, and countercritic must recognize, of course, that such reviews of particulars run the risk of having the excitements of contending scholarship decline quickly into the tedium of pedantry.

By way of context, we note that Merton in the 1930s and Becker in the 1980s are looking at the historical role of Pietism largely through the eyes of scholars who, in the post-Darwin period, were adopting the received doctrine of inherent conflict between Science and Theology (both typically capitalized to designate warring systems of truth).  These scholars - Heubaum, Kramer, Palmer, Paulsen, Wiese, and Ziegler - were all writing toward the close of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th.  The diverse readings of these scholars by Merton and Becker can be traced in part to strange equivocations and unresolved inconsistencies in the pages of some of these trusted sources.  The cases in which those scholarly sources agree do seem to conform rather more to the Merton than to the Becker interpretation.  In other instances, some post-1930s writings on Pietism are drawn on by both critic and countercritic to help straighten out the record of historical detail, but, as we might expect, many questions remain open and call for further inquiry.

A major cluster of particulars concerns the historical place of Pietism in the development of German education.  We begin by agreeing that the mid-1930s study overstated its case in announcing that “the ökonomisch-mathematische Realschule was completely a Pietist product” (Merton [1936] 1968, p. 645).  Historical developments do not ordinarily derive solely from a single source.  Were that sentence being written today, a more restrained “substantially” or “significantly” would replace the unreserved “completely.” [16]

Beyond this matter of easily remedied emphasis, however, the critique argues that the study simply mistakes the historical connections between Pietism and the Realschule, the secondary schools oriented toward technical skills and scientific knowledge.  Becker writes, “More serious, however, is Merton’s faulty assertion that the Pietist Hecker was the founder

16. One might be altogether literal and reaffirm that the “ökonomisch-mathematische Realschule” as distinct from the “mathematische und mechanische Realschule” was indeed a wholly Pietist product.  But such literalism would only produce an unseemly quibble of a kind analyzed and mildly burlesqued in the Shandean book, On the Shoulders of Giants (Merton 1965).


of the first Realschule.  While Hecker did indeed organize such an institution in 1747, the first Realschule was founded by Christoph Semler in 1708 under the name of the Mat hematische und Mechanische Realschule” (Becker 1984, p. 1074).  An out-and-out error, it seems, as Becker cites a variety of sources in support of his objection.  Why, then, this clash of claims regarding presumably accessible historical fact adduced with excessive brevity in the original study and with selective attention and inattention in its critique?

This appears to be an instance of that familiar class of behavior in scholarly controversies which has one scholar ascribing blatant errors to another as a result of paraphrases or summaries that omit essentials in the original statement.  Thus, this is what was actually stated in the 1930s paper: “Moreover, it was a Pietist and a former student of Francke, Johann Julius Hecker, who first actually organized a Realschule” (Merton [1936] 1968, p. 645; italics added).  The Becker paraphrase wholly ignores the phrase italicized here, which was a condensed and (to judge from the critic’s neglect of it) evidently obscure effort to distinguish what was long and well known to be Semler’s earlier but transitory type of Realschule from Hecker’s later but enduring and consequential Realschule.  The distinction can be fortified by reverting to a book, often cited by both author and critic, by the meticulous historian of German education, Friedrich Paulsen:

As early as at the beginning of the eighteenth century Archbishop Semler of Halle had made an attempt at setting up such a school or rather courses for the further instruction of adults in mathematics, mechanics, natural knowledge, and handicrafts, which did not meet, however, with any lasting success.  It was again a former student of Halle, J. J. Hecker, …. who now actually called into existence the first institution of its kind which was successful and prosperous, the “ökonomisch-mathematische Realschule,” which is still carried on… [Paulsen 1908, p. 133; italics added for obvious reasons.]

Later words need not negate earlier words.  So it is that in his much later monograph, Helmreich (1959, p. 28) says next to nothing about Semler’s short-lived effort but does describe the “disciple of Francke,” Hecker, as “the dominant influence in the many educational reforms of the mid-eighteenth century,” among them, the Realschule, “destined for great expansion and development in the next century.”  These conclusions have their Whiggish tinge but that is not a matter for discussion here.

The point is not that this or that condensed statement in the 1930s study fails to be quite the “serious... faulty assertion” the critique makes it out to be.  The point is, rather, that the continuing focus in the critique on ambiguous shadings of detail and the impression conveyed in that latest word that historians uniformly argue to the contrary combine to obscure the overriding conclusion that there did obtain a historically


significant connection between Pietism and the science-and-technique-oriented Realschule.

This observation leads us to further particulars.  As was noted in the original study but ignored in the critique, Theobald Ziegler, another historian-specialist of his time much cited by both author and critic, describes “an inner connection (inneren Zusammenhang)” between the practically oriented piety of the Pietists and the orientations distinctive of the Realschule (Ziegler 1895, p. 197).  A closer look at the sources cited by Becker that apparently speak to the contrary - and to those sources we may add Palmer (1885) as well as Paulsen (1908) and Helmreich (1959) - shows a difference of interpretation about the roles of Semler and Hecker in instituting the Realschule that divides pretty much along invisible party lines.  It turns out to be a division between Heubaum and Kramer and Wiese, who play down or deny the Pietist connection, and Palmer, Ziegler, and Paulsen, who emphasize it.

But now to particulars: Kramer and Wiese (1885, pp. 710, 712) contradict themselves in the space of two pages by first claiming that Semler and Hecker did not agree about the main thrust of instruction in their schools and then announcing that the two not only chose the same generic name for their respective institutions but utilized the same ideas as starting points.  Heubaum is quite aware - almost, one is tempted to say, disconcertedly aware - of the difficulties posed by his effort to divorce Semler’s Realschule from Pietism.  We find Heubaum (i) characterizing Semler as part of a group of modern, science-oriented preachers, namely, “the group of the Heckers and Silberschlags” (1893, p. 70) - both Hecker and Silberschlag (mentioned in the 1930s study) being, of course, fervent Pietists; (ii) substituting the link of the Zeitgeist for a direct link between the arch-Pietist Francke and Semler to account for their similar efforts (p. 74); (iii) positing the difference between Francke and Semler as an altogether theological one, with Semler said to take religion as mere “ornamental decoration” (p. 75); and most of all (iv) cautioning the reader that what he, the historian, has to say about the place of Hecker in relation to Francke and Semler “has also been utilized to the opposite effect” (p. 75).  Heubaum’s cautionary note was justified. Palmer (1885, p. 118) had indeed protested vehemently against disclaimers of this sort about the Pietism-Realschule connection.  Above all the others, it is Ziegler who, in the then latest and, in our possibly biased opinion, apt word, surveys the evidence and tries to account for the contrary opinion in wissenssoziologische style:

It really goes much too far to deny, along with Kramer and Heubaum, the connection between Francke and Semler as well as the connection between the Pietistic reform of schools and the founding of the first Realschule such denial can be explained only by [present-day Pietistic distrust both


of the “Realism” which has meanwhile grown so powerful and of the natural sciences which serve as its foundation and pay little heed to religious dogma.  Because of all that, one would like to disown the degenerate son who has become a nuisance and to shake him off one’s coat-tails.  But in vain… Pietism really must accept the honor not only of being the father of the Realschule but also of allowing itself to be described as such [muss ... der Pietismus sich wirklich die Ehre gefallen lassen, der Vater der Realschule nicht nur zu sein, sondern auch zu heissen]. [Ziegler 1895, pp. 196-97}

By adopting the metaphors of “father” and disowned “degenerate son,” Ziegler nicely captures and foreshadows the idea that the modern institution of German science was in part an unanticipated and, in some quarters, distasteful by-product of Pietism.  Kindred remarks are to be found in Heubaum’s equivocating account of the period leading to the age of Pietism and the Realschule (1893, p. 66): “Thus a utilitarian principle develops quite unnoticed on the ideal soil of the Reformation which anticipates the English philosophy of the 17th century in a practical fashion.”  Also alerted to the pattern of unanticipated and ironic consequences, Paulsen (1908, pp. 12 7-28) first describes Francke’s Pädagogium in a now familiar way as including “mathematics and natural science” but with “paramount importance [being] assigned, throughout the course, to religious instruction…”  He then proceeds to note that “afterwards, a reaction set in; the generation which had been fed on religious revivals and prayers was peculiarly appreciative of the invectives of Voltaire - the age of Pietism was followed by the age of Enlightenment!”

These remarks, cryptic as their formulation in terms of unintended or ironic consequences may be, exhibit a shared sense for the complexity of institutional and historical connections which transcend such schematic dualisms as the Pietism-Enlightenment contrast reiterated in the Becker critique.  Whether such dualistic thinking is heuristic or untenable is scarcely an issue to be settled here.  However, it must be said that (i) Becker does not pause to elucidate the nature of the historical conflicts he has in mind (the constraints of space limit us all); (ii) not only those now familiar scholars of an earlier day, Heubaum ([1905] 1973, pp. 118-19) and Paulsen (1896-97, 1:523-26), but also Schmidt (1974), the exacting contemporary specialist on Pietism, convey a distinct sense of reciprocal influence between Pietism and rationalism as common predecessors of the Enlightenment; and (iii) a critique guided by such dichotomies as Pietism versus the Enlightenment is bound to result in different readings of the same sources by author and critic.  Rejecting any simple dualism, Schmidt (1974, pp. 66-67) sees the divergence of traditions that came together in Pietism as erecting “a bridge between theology, the humanities and natural science (eine Brücke zwischen Theologie, Geisteswissenschaft und Naturwissenschaft).”

Did space allow further detailed discussions, as with the Realschule


controversy or the anatomizing of Max Weber’s perspectives on Pietism and science, some inviting pieces of historical reconstruction stated or implied in the critique would be dwelt upon here.  Francke’s alleged hostility toward science (Wissenschaft), for example, would be differentiated as directed chiefly toward certain brands of theology and moral philosophy as academic disciplines rather than toward the natural sciences as such (Oschlies [1969], pp. 50-57, esp. his quotation from Francke on p. 52n).  Or as Martin Schmidt sums it up,

Francke ultimately evaluated science positively and in doing so linked Pietism to modernity: for him, science was observation and the recognition of reality on the basis of such observation.  In his conversion, doubt in the authority of the Bible and of the Christian tradition, indeed, doubt in the authority and reality of God Himself was more radically perceived than ever before.  Yet that doubt is overcome - not through the traditional means of authority but through the modern means of experience which correspond to experiment in the natural sciences and to the critical evaluation of sources in historical study. [Schmidt 1969, p. 210]

The debate over the place of science instruction in Francke’s Padagogium would also be unfolded in more detail (Heubaum [1905] 1973, pp. 94, 135; Palmer 1885, p. 118; Ziegler 1895, pp. 185-88).  The suspenseful and analytically informative story of Christian Wolff’s expulsion from Halle and return to it would be told - the story of a rationalist (thus not quite a scientist of the then emerging kind) who must give up his academic post for having trespassed on the domain of theology - an expulsion, by the way, which came as a shock even to those Pietists in Halle who had bitterly intrigued against him.  (That story is interestingly told by Wolff himself [1841, pp. 146-51, 164-70] and most thoroughly told by Carl Hinrichs [1971, pp. 388-441].)

So, too, the relationship of Halle University to Gottingen, Altdorf, Konigsberg, and other universities of the time deserves more detailed analysis than Becker (1984) could give it.  This takes on special point as the secular component of Pietism begins to acquire a degree of autonomy, leaving its theological roots and ties behind (as in the case of Gottingen), a circumstance that definitely complicates the inquiry (Heubaum [1905] 1973, pp. 24 7-52).  The case of Altdorf University raises the further problem of disentangling Pietism from Lutheranism (Halle was, after all, founded as a “Lutheran” university); still, Merton’s fleeting allusion can now be seen as an overzealous incorporation of Altdorf into the domain of Pietism.  However, the Pietism-Konigsberg connection is not as difficult to establish as Becker (1984, p. 1079, n. 8) seems to suppose; not, at least, if we take as our point of departure what author and critic alike should recognize as the often vacillating Heubaum ([1905] 1973, pp. 60-61, 152-53).


Merton ([1936] 1968, p. 644) wraps up this phase of the Pietism-science connection by having Heubaum speak for him: “Heubaum summarizes these developments by asserting that the essential progress in the teaching of science and technology occurred in Protestant, and more precisely, in Pietistic universities.”  As with all summaries, the meaning and validity of this one depend heavily on its contexts, both in the case of “Puritanism, Pietism and Science” and in the reappraisal of the hypothesis forming part of this paper on the fallacy of the latest word.  This particular summary was also anchored in three references which are much emphasized in Becker’s scrupulous effort at reanalysis since he reports having been unable to verify any of their imputed content.  As for the first reference, to Paulsen (1908, p. 122), it is difficult to guess what fault Becker finds with it.  (Paulsen writes, “By the end of the eighteenth century all the German universities had been reshaped after the model of Halle and Gottingen.... The spirit of modern philosophy and science had invaded the teaching in all faculties.. the professors took up original scientific research.”)  Merton’s allusion to Michaelis ([1768] 1973) could not be cross-checked in time for the scheduled publication of this paper.  And finally, the Heubaum reference can indeed not be verified by looking up the cited page number ([1905] 1973, p. 241), since this appears to be a typographical error that has gone undetected for half a century.  But one can turn to pages 247-57 to find the discussion of the significance of Göttingen University for the early development of science and technology in Germany.  In retrospect, one finds oneself much preferring the informative and straightforward Paulsen to the often equivocating Heubaum; here, however, they seem in reasonably close agreement.

Becker’s exercise in organized skepticism would have proved useful had it only identified ambiguities and correctable references such as these.  It has, of course, done much more.  By reopening the specific hypothesis of the Pietism-science connection, it just may extend and deepen the interests of sociologists and other scholars in the complex question of the institutional and cognitive interplay of science and religion.  If the critique has not succeeded in refuting the generic hypothesis, it may have succeeded, quite masterfully, in assisting the Phoenix problem to reemerge.  What is plainly called for next is less disputation and more research, ideally the kind of comprehensive and fine-grained archival research that is beautifully exemplified by Charles Webster’s (1975) fine monograph on 17th-century Puritanism and science.



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