Poems for Plants; Equations for People: The anti-Scientism of Bonald and Maistre

Kevin Donnelly, Alvernia University

In a much-discussed essay in 1807, the French nobleman Louis de Bonald (1754-1840) proposed that there was a “war between the arts and sciences.” Joined by many of his fellow aristocrats, he argued that a war had begun because of the overreach of “social mathematicians,” data collectors from the Enlightenment who had sought to find predictable behavior in the actions of humankind. Scientific understandings of human behavior were fundamentally misplaced, Bonald claimed, and anyone seeking to understand humanity through numbers was making a simple category error. In a series of polemical essays, he worried that the world had been turned upside down, complaining (in mock seriousness) that people were now writing “odes to plants” and creating “equations of mankind.” In this paper, I recover the neglected writings on science of Bonald and fellow aristocrat Joseph de Maistre. Because their “anti-scientism” articles were included in a much larger set of reactionary political arguments in favor of restoring the French monarchy, they have largely been overlooked in histories of science. Yet, in their anticipation of the problems of modern quantification of human action, I argue that Bonald and Maistre provide a much more coherent and enduring argument than that found by later Romantics, or other members of what is sometimes called the “Counter-Enlightenment.” Bonald and Maistre were not anti-science, or numerophobic, but in fact articulated their own vision of science that challenged the positivism of French thinkers who held that data collection was the key to unlocking the secrets of human behavior. Their concerns provide one of the clearest articulations of how a quantitative approach to human behavior could threaten individual identity and freedom, and offer a harbinger of modern critiques of algorithmic certainty.

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 Presented in Session 140. Health through Different Lenses