The Fear of Science

As scientific advancement became increasingly prevalent in Europe after World War I, the elation and excitement that accompanied these developments was coupled with the fear and apprehension of certain members of that society.  One prominent voice to that effect was Bertrand Russell, who argued in Icarus, or, the Future of Science that “science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy.” (Russell)  The basis of Russell’s argument lies in his presupposition that people lack the strength of morals necessary to guide them as science allows for a more comfortable and efficient lifestyle.  Because men are “bundles of passions and instincts,” the power and expedience granted by cutting edge science and technology will lead to a tumultuous climate of animalistic power grabbing that will ultimately lead to the demise of European society. (Russell)  These apprehensions towards scientific study are further reflected in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a German horror film about a mental asylum director who attempts to master the condition of somnabulism in order to manipulate its victims into carrying out his murderous ambitions.

In order to fairly assess the validity of Russell’s argument, it is necessary to first make his aforementioned controversial presumption: “Men’s collective passions are mainly evil.” (Russell).  Russell was not alone in this position; even Carl Mayer & Hanz Janowitz created the fictional Dr. Caligari to be eventually driven insane by his own desperate pursuit of knowledge for immoral purposes. (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) To this end, it follows logically that because science will allow men to work toward these passions with greater expediency, it will thus accelerate the decline of society.  According to Russell, the most prominent of these evil passions is political self-interest, which could lead to absurd risk-taking in the name of competition and a narcissistic abuse of eugenics for the purpose of creating a society in the image of those in power.

The primary caveat that I find in Icarus is its near total lack of research. Russell even openly acknowledges at several points that his arguments are based upon conjecture (i.e. “I forget where I read this, but if my memory serves me it was in some reliable source”; “I am only suggesting possibilities which it may be instructive to consider”). (Russell)  Despite this, Russell’s piece and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are both still useful as images of the trepidation with which some Europeans regarded the increasingly rapid advances in the field of science after World War I. 

Discussion Question: Do you think that the surrealist imagery (i.e. costumes, sets, art direction) in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was an entirely aesthetic choice, or was it chosen specifically to support the message of the filmmakers?

3 thoughts on “The Fear of Science

  1. Great job finding the connections between the two assigned works. Although surrealism was quite prevalent during the time when the movie was made, I believe that the surrealist imagery was purposefully chosen to support the mysterious perception of advanced scientific knowledge. This film showed how science could be used in a ghastly and egotistical manner if it falls into the wrong hands.

  2. Good post, especially in your examination of Russell’s piece. In regard to your question I think that the time in which this film was produced was extremely influential to the film. Expressionism, in specific German Expressionism was the dominate art form of the period. Artist’s emerging from the dark days of World War One seemed to have a much more surrealist and abstract sense of art. This belief translates into the background of the set and the direction of the film in general.

  3. I think you made some great connections between the film and the reading, especially when you mentioned the pursuit of knowledge for immoral purposes. To answer your discussion question, I would say that the imagery was used both to maintain the element of horror, and displayed the limitations of film at that time.

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