Jacob Moleschott and the conception of science in the 19th century. Scientific materialism as “totalizing” worldview.
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Through the analysis of the manuscripts of the physiologist, philosopher and politician Jacob Moleschott (1822-1893), which are conserved at the Biblioteca dell’Archiginnasio in Bologna, this master thesis aims at providing a revised picture of scientific materialism in the 19th century and of its conception of science. Moleschott’s commitment in politics and scientific popularization gives evidence of his attempt to bring together science, religion, ethics, education and politics in one all-encompassing form of knowledge; his work therefore constitutes a strategic perspective for questioning the standard image of scientific materialism, which has been conceived as affirming the superiority of science on every other form of knowledge and as aiming at excluding all non-scientific disciplines from the domain of true knowledge. According to the standard picture, the materialistic conception of science was purely empiricist, having eliminated every metaphysical ambition, it implied a clear and radical rupture with the philosophical tradition (in particular, with Naturphilosophie) and, finally, it was atheistic and completely separated from, or even opposed to, religion. The consideration of Moleschott’s work shows, instead, that scientific materialism was in contact with very heterogeneous philosophical and scientific traditions, and that its relation to them was not one of exclusion, but rather an open and flexible one, where there was no rigid demarcation between scientific and non-scientific spheres. Through the comparison of scientific materialism with the philosophical thinking of the main authors it was related to, we demonstrate how scientific materialism tended to inclusiveness rather than exclusion. To this purpose, we have underlined differences and analogies with: Feuerbach’s materialism and, in particular, his epistemology; the Kantian conception of organism and of the unity of nature conceived as regulative ideas of reason; Hegel’s and Schelling’s philosophy of nature, underlining the deep connection of scientific materialism to Romantic and Idealistic philosophy of nature. We have finally illustrated the very conscious way in which the materialists made use of high-culture in order to diffuse their idea of science among a broader public: Goethe’s literary works provided the materialists with the image of science they divulgated in their popularizing works. Referring to the tradition, scientific materialism claimed to be the most perfect and complete form of knowledge, in which all other forms and all products of human understanding were included, even non-scientific ones. In this way, it tended not only to inclusion vis-à-vis previous forms of scientific knowledge, in the sense that it presented itself as their legitimate heir, but it also had the tendency to absorb and appropriate even forms of culture and of knowledge which were completely foreign to science. Finally, we explain in which sense this inclusive attitude was transferred from the theoretical to the practical level, becoming a totalizing and unifying worldview which aimed at giving an explanation and a justification for every aspect of life: the way in which Moleschott’s materialism was both presented to and perceived by his contemporaries clearly shows that ethics was an integral part of materialistic epistemology; we show that scientific materialism encompassed religious tasks, and that its theories as well as its most important application on the social level, i.e. criminal anthropology, were functional to the maintenance and justification of the political situation of that time. Through the consideration of the social and political implications of the self-representation of materialistic science in the 19th century, we will notice that this tendency to integration and inclusion became a conscious attempt to form, by means of an extremely clever use of rhetoric imagery and references to high-culture, an all-encompassing worldview, which was meant to substitute religion taking over its tasks and its rhetoric, and to rule over public life through shaping political decisions and social institutions; we have characterized this tendency as “totalizing worldview”.