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Thursday, August 1, 2002

Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook

Beware of People Who Believe in Inescapable Laws of Human History

Tyranny of Reason is an accessible work of Western intellectual history in the tradition of Karl Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies, Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels, and Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions. In this powerfully argued book, Yuval Levin, associate director at the Center for the Study of Technology and Society, traces the philosophical ancestry of the idea, from Plato to Dewey, that the methods of modern science can be used to understand the social world. The author not only insightfully describes the erroneous logic behind the “social scientific outlook,” he also demonstrates its harmful effects on society through studies of the Soviet Union and the United States.

Levin discusses and assesses how an extreme form of the social scientific mindset gave rise to twentieth-century totalitarianism in the form of Soviet communism. He goes on to explain that the arrogance of social science has manifested itself differently in modern America. Under the banners of progressivism and left liberalism, social scientists believe they can better mankind through the study and manipulation of social data, variables, and processes. Levin shows that the New Deal and its resulting welfare state are products of that mindset.

Tyranny of Reason reveals and details how the social scientific outlook holds that the search for truth in the social world is essentially no different from the search for truth by science in nature. This failure to recognize that human beings are fundamentally different from the physical objects examined by science can have devastating consequences, including the limitation of man’s freedom in thought and action and the devaluation of his search for meaning.

According to the author, confused students of politics and society have looked for a precise rational formula behind the social behavior of men. So-called “experts” fail to realize that science seeks meaning in causes existing in the past, while human beings make decisions based on purposes reaching toward the future. Since the world of science is a world of causes, not purposes, it cannot answer the “why.” On the other hand, the human world cannot be adequately described in terms of causes without purposes and means without ends.

Levin argues that approaching the human world from the perspective of scientific certainty constrains man’s freedom and encourages people to hand over their fates to social engineers who believe in their own superior ability to discover, comprehend, and predict the proper arrangement of society. Of course, the knowledge needed by these social architects and constructivists is unattainable–the best we can achieve is partial knowledge of the human world.

The author also observes that determinism arises naturally from the social scientific outlook. Belief in determinism leads people to think that they have no active role to play in controlling their own futures. Levin bemoans the social scientists’ utopian contempt for deliberative politics and participatory democracy, and their preferences for central planning, social engineering, and government control of the economy, all of which flow naturally from their mindset.

Levin explains that freedom rests on the notion of undirected choice. He ends by arguing for free will, negative freedom (freedom from coercion), and limited, democratic government. Beyond that, human conduct ought to be left to the individual choices of the people involved. The author declares that individual freedom is essential to the search for truth and to human flourishing.

The main message of this brilliant study is to beware of people who believe in inescapable laws of human history and who presume that they can discern them. The author’s ability to present challenging ideas in a straightforward and easy-to-follow style is to be applauded. This is essential reading for anyone interested in philosophy, history, politics, economics, or the social sciences.

Edward Younkins is professor of accountancy and business administration at Wheeling Jesuit University, Wheeling,West Virginia.

  • Professor Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy & Business Administration and
    Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Capitalism and Morality at Wheeling Jesuit University. He is the founder of Wheeling Jesuit University's undergraduate major in Political and Economic Philosophy. He is also the founding director of the university's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) and Master of Science in Accountancy (M.S.A.) programs.