Velikovsky's Intellectual Context

   Leroy Ellenberger <>

While waiting for Talbott to throw in the proverbial towel as he promised to do if anyone explained the grooves on Europa by conventional means, as Thompson promptly did last week, I was reminded of an important article by Henry Bauer that got lost in the "sturm und drang" following the publication of Skeptic 3:4, 1995, when discussion on focussed on the two articles in that issue by Cochrane and Ellenberger. The issue also contained Bauer's address from the Nov. 1994 Portland Conference, "Velikovsky's Place in the History of Science". This article is important not only for what it says, but by having been ignored by the contributors to Pearlman (ed.), "Gould and Velikovsky" (1996), its existence is evidence for the ferocious mendacity exhibited in that collective hatchet job. Skeptic's interest in publishing Bauer's address was sparked when I sent a copy to the editor to assist him in writing introductory remarks for the "debate" between Cochrane and me.

As evidence for Bauer's sensitivity to Velikovsky's situation vis a vis early 20th century intellectual traditions and scholarship that has never been discusssed in this depth, not even in R.V. Sharon's biography ABA, here is an excerpt from the address, with which I am sure anyone who ever had cheese and crackers on Hartley Avenue will find resonance:

  "Velikovsky's energy and talents were extraordinary  and prodigious. Yet like all of us, he was of his time and of his place. His attitudes and beliefs, toward science and toward knowing, were far from his alone. His views formed at a time when positivism still held sway. Science, it had become generally agreed, could produce positively new and positively reliable knowledge. Rigorous thought coupled with dedicated research and scholarship could carry knowledge to a higher level. Though distinct disciplines were growing and flourishing, there was little hindrance to moving from one to another. Talented individuals could independently and individually add to humankind's store of understanding. To be an all-round scholar, a polymath, could still be a magnificent aim rather than a deluded impossibility. For an energetic and talented man of Velikovsky's time and place, it was not absurd to aim to make the sort of major contribution that he thought he had wrought, through the independent research that he carried out.

  "I caught some glimpses of how it felt in that time and place through my first intellectual mentor, Bruno Breyer -- born 1900 of assimilated Jews in Zagreb, educated at Vienna, Leipzig, Berlin, Bonn, and Padua, M.D. as well as Ph.D., multi-lingual as a matter of course as well as of necessity, a man of both the scientific and the literary cultures to whom schlarship and everyday life were inseparable. Among other things I caught a whiff of the hierarchical, authoritarian circumstances of continental scholarship, whose normal everyday self-possession and dignity of manners would seem to us, in our present place and at this distance in time, unwarrantably and unbearably arrogant.

  "I've come across these attitudes in a number of different circumstances. A dozen years ago, I chanced upon the Wilhelm Reich Museum in Rangeley, Maine. As I looked around, I recognized an ambience in which my mentor Breyer would have felt very much at home. That led me to read quite a lot of and about Reich, and I came to see him as a man of Velikovsky's ilk as well as of Breyer's. When, years later, I had occasion to read about the career of Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, I was struck by the parallels between him and Reich; and I mused over what seemed such minor eventualities that, in cumulation, led to mainstream fame for the one but rejection and calumny for the other. And there are plenty of other examples of men of charisma and intellectual power who worked in roughly similar fashion at roughly similar times, some of them winning acclaim and others a less approving notoriety. Among the latter are such figures as Rudolf Steiner or Alfred Korzybski. Among the former, the eminent Ostwald or Nernst, I forget which, who is reputed to have pronounced, "Was die Chemie fordert, das bestimme _ich_" -- "Chemistry says what _I_ say it says". And also of course there fits among the remembered names of those times, that of Sigmund Freud, whose ambience I caught something of through often-told family stories: my paternal grandmother was governess to Freud's children, and my father is named after one of them. I suspect I'm the only person here who once shook the hand of Sigmund Freud.

  "I want to see Velikovsky, then, as representative of a major tradition of grand, individual scholarship. But even as he embarked on and carried out his life's major work, positivism was collapsing. Our interpretation of science and of knowing was being changed through the instigation of such thinkers as Karl Popper, Robert Merton, Derek de Solla Price, Thomas Kuhn. We now apprehend science as more the product of a coherent community than of solitary intellects.

  "Our present image of science, as is the wont with such images, is that of a romanticized past. We are nostalgic for heroes, for leaders, for thinkers who really and fully know their own minds (as well as ours). We want to believe that great advances can be made by great individuals; we want to believe grand claims made by charismatic individuals. So, given the opportunity, we become entranced.

  "The opportunity to be charmed comes rather readily, for even though the scholarly interpreters of science know that positivism is dead, hardly anyone else does; there remain extant such publicly visible self-professed defenders of positive scientific truth as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. The Velikosvky Affair shows clearly enough that Velikovsky's scientific critics of the 1950s, no less than Velikovsky himself, spoke out of a thoroughly positivist belief; and no less so did Velikovsky's social-scientific supporters of the 1960s. (And, it seems to me, admittedly from only cursory acquaintance, post-Velikovskian or neo-Velikovskian supporters and critics still share a rather positivist stance.)   .   .   .   "Some of Velikovsky's scientific critics waxed furious over what they called his attack upon science. From the vantage of today's circumstances we can see more clearly, perhaps, that Velikovsky's quarrels over the detailed content of science were much less an attack on science than are the attacks now stemming from intellectual relativists and social activists of various stripes, as delineated by Gross & Levitt in their recent book, _Higher Superstition_. These post-modernist attacks are on the very basis of science itself, not merely on the validity of certain bits of knowledge or theory. Velikovsky was of his time and place in believing in the possibility of knowing; and he was driven by an urge to understand, not by the urge to bend knowledge to the sevice of partisan ideology, as are today's barbarians and know-nothings. Velikovsky thought that much of accepted science happened to be wrong, but he didn't believe the enterprise of science to be a wrongheaded activity vitiated from the outset by the impossibility of knowing anything, as all too many contemporary pundits do.

  "In many significant ways, then, Velikovsky was properly faithful to humankind's level of understanding in his time. At our distance, I want to suggest that it has become largely irrelevant, that Velikovsky's science was largely wrong. After all, if we insist that everyone's worth be measured by the degree to which their beliefs are objectively correct, then we're all in the deepest trouble. It makes much more sense to follow the historians' path of trying to understand people and events in their own context and, in making judgments of people's value or worth, to recall that "to understand is to forgive", "to understand everything makes one tolerant". _Not_ doing that, looking back and judging by what we now believe or know, is called by historians -- and it's definitely a pejorative term -- _presentism_ or _whiggishness_ (and it is not irrelevant to remark here that historians themselves reached that understanding only rather recently)...."

Readers of "Gould & Velikovsky", a book whose main purpose is to demonize Bauer, would be hard-pressed to know that this "demon" had such empathy for Velikovsky, probably more empathy than any of the contributors to that malicious compendium of hate. I recommend readers seek out the full text of Bauer's address in Skeptic 3:4, 1995, or in the Proceedings of the conference, as well as his entry "Velikovsky" in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal (1996), edited by Gordon Stein.

Leroy Ellenberger, Author of "An Antidote to Velikovskian Delusions": < > and reviewer of Ruth Sharon, ABA: The Glory & the Torment - The Life of Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky" (1995) in J. Sci. Explor. 10:4, 1996, 561-569 (for copy, send $1.00 to writer at 3929A Utah St., St. Louis, MO 63116, USA).

Velikovskian Delusions

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