The Flourishing of Positivist Mediocrities


If the use of quantitative methods is extended beyond their legitimate field of application (economic statistics, population statistics, etc.), and the monopoly of their use is erected into a dogma, the result is destruction of the object of the social sciences. . . .

We must realize that the cause of such grotesque perversions of purpose lies in the predominance of positivist ideologues in the social sciences in the departmental sense. [Genuine scholars] who certainly also are to be found in the departments, cannot make their influence effective against the overwhelming mass. Hence, the trouble in the academic environment is real.

But it is difficult to repair, if it can be repaired at all. Educational idealism and economic wealth permit in this country the maintenance of an extraordinarily large number of universities. Scholars of outstanding quality, however, are rare, and cannot be multiplied by wealth. Considering the number of universities and colleges, on the one hand; and the number of outstanding scholars that will be thrown up by [the nation] on the other hand; the result must be inevitably a rather thin spread of scholarship over the academic surface.

This seems to be a hard fact about which nothing can be done. If you then consider that among the academic personnel of not so out- standing scholarly qualities, there are great numbers of intelligent, industrious, ambitious, promotorial men who want to justify their professional existence by playing at science though science is not a virtue in their souls (in the Aristotelian sense); if you, furthermore, consider that this country is wealthy enough to provide, through foundations, private gifts, and state-governments, the necessary play-things for such men. . . the result will be unhappy.

A number of men who would never leave much of a mark in any science, if left to shift by their wits, will acquire social power in their academic environment through the sheer force of apparatus with which their activities are lavishly equipped.

And, finally, we must realize that there is an intimate connection between intellectual and spiritual poverty, on the one hand, and the pursuit of quantitative studies, on the other hand, insofar as the pursuit of quantitative studies does not require the intellectual and moral stature of scholarship.

Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin
A Friendship in Letters, 1944-1984,
Appendix C
Selected enclosures in Various Letters,
December 1953
pp 310-311.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

VOEGELIN MAIN PAGE

NEXT QUOTATION