Edgar Zilsel’s Socio-Historical Epistemology

Social Concepts and Methods in Epistemology around 1930: Edgar Zilsel’s Socio-Historical Approach to Epistemology and his Concept of Science as an “Infinite Process”

Monika Wulz

Counting populations and finding ways to explain social strata and their developments have been an object of scientific inquiry and have formed the basis of governmental strategy since the end of the eighteenth century. During the first decades of the twentieth century, it was not only politics, the economy, and the emerging social sciences that were urgently engaged with understanding social questions and organizing society by means of statistical inquiries and the calculation of probability. At the same time, social methods and conditions of scientific rationality were emerging in contemporary epistemological writings. However, adopting social conditions of scientific reasoning and activity in this period does not mean a renunciation of exact scientific methods. On the contrary, the emergence of social foundations for scientific activity and reasoning can be understood as a scientific conception aiming at objectivity. This research project aimed at tracing the emergence of social conceptions and methods in epistemologies that renounce the notion of a scientific system formulating truths independently of historical developments, replacing this with a procedural view of scientific production. These epistemologies considered social conditions of scientific rationality and practices in order to reformulate their scientific enterprise. Social techniques and the application of relational concepts in scientific research thus lead to an operational conception of scientific objectivity.

The project focused primarily on the epistemological writings of Edgar Zilsel (1891 Vienna–1944 Oakland, CA). In his “Die Entstehung des Geniebegriffs” (“The Emergence of the Concept of Genius”), first published in 1926, Zilsel starts with the premise that the term genius does not describe the quality of a single human being but is a concept formed by public opinion, and should therefore be examined as a social structure. This required a historico-statistical research method. In his socio-scientific studies, Zilsel aimed to develop socio-historical laws by comparing large quantities of statistical data on social phenomena. By treating the concept of genius as a social phenomenon that can be determined using quantitative research methods, Zilsel does not distance himself from exact scientific methods but attempts to develop a method of researching social phenomena that is in accordance with methods of the natural sciences, and to integrate the experimental scientific method into the humanities.

Zilsel’s ambition—in a close but critical relationship with the Vienna Circle—was to unify the humanities and the natural sciences. Unlike the Vienna Circle, however, he did not search for a unification in logical formalism but assumed a common empirical foundation for biological, psychological, historical (thus also social) as well as physical processes that would be separated only by a different degree of structural complexity. For Zilsel, the idea of unifying natural scientific and socio-historical research by the assumption of a common empirical ground and by common scientific methods was also linked to his political attitude, which drew heavily on Austro-Marxism. Based on these empirical conditions Zilsel not only tried to bring the humanities closer to the natural sciences by means of quantitative methods, but also abandoned the rigid view of fixed scientific objects and cognitive subjects as well as immutable scientific laws in the realm of the natural sciences themselves.

In his doctoral thesis “Das Anwendungsproblem. Ein philosophischer Versuch über das Gesetz der großen Zahlen und die Induktion” (“The Problem of Application. A Philosophical Encounter with the Law of Large Numbers and Induction”), published in 1916, Zilsel examines the question of how to rationalize, using scientific methods, the irrationality, and diversity of given data in order to establish coherent conditions for reasonable propositions. The “application problem” involves the “law of large numbers” as an epistemological problem: given the occurrence of a large number of cases, irregularities are mutually balanced out. The statistical observation of individual cases allows for quantitative propositions concerning the probability of any irregular and irrational material. By designating the multitude of irregularly given data as irrational, Zilsel underlines that it still needs to be rationally processed. An organized cooperation among researchers is just as essential for this statistically operating practice in the humanities as it is in the natural sciences. Laws of the observed phenomena regarded as scientifically sound could only be generated by observing and processing a large number of cases. According to Zilsel, however, a total acquisition of all data could never be achieved: there would always be additional indefinite material. Hence, scientific rationality and production is conceived as an “infinite process,” progressively rationalizing the irrational. In Zilsel’s epistemology, historical development is, as a matter of principle, underlying scientific knowledge and scientific laws.

In the course of this project, three forms of social conception in Zilsel’s epistemology were examined:

  • A social understanding of concepts introducing quantitative methods and a relational perspective into historically and socially oriented sciences
  • Internal social conditions for scientific rationality that aim to guarantee objectivity and establish modern science as a procedural enterprise
  • A social organization of scientific practices due to the joint collection of large quantities of empirical data

What tools can be applied at a particular period in order to produce knowledge approved scientifically sound? The project aimed to analyze how procedural and historical epistemologies emerging in the first decades of the twentieth century were an attempt to formulate social conditions of scientific rationality and practices as the foundation of a scientific production aiming at accuracy. Against the background of a theory of science that claims to provide laws and methods for the constitution of scientific rationality, the project aimed to understand the development of a theory of science in a specific historical context of scientific traditions as well as social and political developments. Beginning with an examination of Edgar Zilsel’s epistemological writings, this context was the tradition of materialist theory in Austro-Marxism, the socio-political situation in the First Republic of Austria in the interwar period, as well as the specific situation of scientists emigrating from the Third Reich. Finally, the project aimed to trace Zilsel’s complex epistemological network of historical, social, physical, mathematical, and biological theories in order to compare this with other contemporary epistemological theories proposing collective conditions of scientific concepts and practices.