In Response to Edgar Zilsel's Article
"The Genesis of the Concept of Scientific Progress"
Edgar Zilsel has presented a muddled contention in his article The Genesis of the Concept of Scientific Progress. He attempts to illustrate the evolution of the ideal of Scientific progress while mistakenly making that progress contingent on selfless, somewhat communistic ideologies. He seems unable to disengage his emotional views on scientific progress (defined as building upon the works of your predecessors to provide a contribution to the existing body of scientific knowledge) from his illustration of its evolution, and this causes him to make some basic errors in his thesis.
I would argue against his idea that the modern ideal of scientific progress is a selfless concept contingent upon a conviction which “excludes personal advantage and personal fame.” While it is certainly evident that the modern ideal does hold that the aim of the modern scientist is to produce a contribution to the existing body of knowledge which furthers that body of knowledge, one can hardly argue that the modern scientist is wholly selfless. The modern scientific community, while at once cooperative as Zilsel contends, is also an extremely competitive community, with very real rewards both material and social – researchers must compete for grants, faculty positions, and prizes. Prominent researchers (famous!) are rewarded with larger grants, tenure, and possibly, for those making truly great discoveries, the Nobel Prize (and that is certainly not the only prize out there for scientific contributions).
Throughout his paper, he takes certain elements out of context to support his arguments. For instance, he argues that a low literacy rate among manual laborers in a pre-printing press era as a sign of rigidity of thought. He further argues that the content of the forwards by many of the proponents of scientific progress illustrates their humility and selflessness. Throughout the middle ages and Renaissance, it was a necessity to preface most forms of publication with an homage to the Church and State – an obeisance, as it were to the powers that be. For the classical era, he derides the theorists of the time as not making practical applications of their knowledge, but lists medicine and war machines as part of the list of applications of ancient theory. (Other applications of ancient theory: navigation, road building, architecture and the Roman aqueducts). He also cites a lack of publications and periodicals in the classic era as evidence of lack of cooperation. Certainly there were no periodicals at all prior to the printing press!