The surrogate sciences
Alan Storkey

During the 1930s Dooyeweerd and others began a radical critique of the academic enterprise of the day. They examined the supposed autonomy of the disciplines and their definition as theoretical sciences. Since then many Christian theorists have responded by opening up Christian understanding in various disciplines. Their work is bearing fruit even though in many areas it has had little impact on the wider academic scene. But even so, these Christians have been working on an agenda set many decades back, and while their response continues to be important, there is a substantial change in the organisation of the academic world which has not been properly identified, and which demands a new kind of response. Many academics are incapable of addressing this new situation; they have been dependent on the teaching of others during a period of twenty or so years and often in a way which required a high level of conformity. Textbooks similarly have a slow gestation period, because they are bound to the status of their authors and require the dominance of an orthodoxy. For these reasons, academics are often the slowest to respond to developments which are taking place on their very doorstep, but beneath their concern.

The possibility, in its starkest form, is that the old disciplines of psychology, economics, politics, sociology, linguistics and even biology, physics and mathematics will wither away. For a hundred years or more they have preached their own indispensability, and believed their own preaching, but it is possible that their message will lose and is losing credence. The unthinkable could occur, they are judged not to be useful and replaced with what is considered a more viable alternative. Indeed, this process has already proceeded so far that it is scarcely possible to ignore it.

The Surrogate Disciplines

For more than a century the special sciences have been busy building the status of their knowledge. In the 19th century this process focussed on ontological statements about what History, Society, the Economy or the State were. However, this basis of authority proved problematic as competing claims often struggled for survival within each discipline and provided such contradictory ontologies that the status of the knowledge claimed by these disciplines was in severe jeopardy. The response in a long transition from the 1870s to the 1930s was to transfer faith to a particular method of gathering knowledge. If knowledge had a sure foundation, if it was epistemologically well-formed, then whatever knowledge was gained within this form could be both free of ontological value judgements and necessarily reliable. At first this process seemed one of unconditional triumph, but by the early 1970s another verdict, although not always explicitly stated, was being given1. First, It emerged that a variety of exclusive epistemological foundations for knowledge in sciences were on offer. Positivism, phenomenology, logic, behaviourism. rationalism, structuralism all advanced the necessary matrix for knowledge in the special sciences. Clearly, they could not all be right. Moreover, it rapidly became clear that the indubitable base of these positions was open to fundamental objections. The early formulations of the Verification Principle showed the shaky foundations of positivism and the failure of Russell and Whitehead to give a logical basis to mathematics showed its limitations.2 These problems have festered away in the disciplines for decades, but another has provoked a more immediate response. Many came to see theory in the human sciences as other worldly and out of touch with reality. Despite their claims to know, these disciplines did not help people to live in a world subject to a dynamic process of change.

Because this failure was so immediate and important, it was necessary to create a range of praxis disciplines which would have as their agenda telling people what to do. Thus, business studies ranged alongside economics, counselling alongside psychology and environmental studies alongside geography. Politics became a shrinking core around which Public Administration, War Studies, Psephology, Peace Studies, International Studies and Policy Institutes grew.

Economics was engulfed in Marketing, Accounting, Operational Research, Manpower Studies, Management, Industrial Relations, Development Studies, Economic Planning and Urban Economics which all had as their goal what was to be done. In most areas of the human sciences these surrogates declare emphatically that the theory developed within the traditional disciplines was not adequate for living.

Many of those within the traditional disciplines have not interpreted the development in these terms. They have continued to believe in a hierarchy of theory and practice. The purpose of the universities and other purveyors of liberal arts education is to understand, while the polytechnics and vocational courses have the subsequent job of applying that knowledge in task-orientated situations. But while they bask in a cosy interpretation of the theory-praxis distinction, the actual dynamic of learning is moving to a different rhythm.

For the surrogate disciplines are not demurely submitting to a higher authority. They have developed a substantial critique of the older disciplines which goes something like this. Theory within the old framework, whatever its actual basis of formulation, remains ontological in its conception. It claims merely to examine what is the case in deliberate withdrawal from the issues of how we should live. The theorist is neutral, value-free, withdrawn and intends in the end only to establish knowledge. Even if he is critical of value-free positions, the knowledge remains pure and dissociated from decision-making. Consider, for example, the norm of prediction in economics. The theoretical economist constructs a model, predicts, subject to certain other-worldly qualifying conditions, and then sits back to see whether the predictions are fulfilled. He is not involved, woven in with the functioning economy. Conversely, the surrogate disciplines preach and practice pragmatism. The theoretical questions are, What works? And How can humanity be transformed? And the new disciplines are designed to answer these specific questions.3 So that we get a good grasp of exactly what is involved in this departure, let us examine the relationship between the traditional and surrogate subject areas.

In many Universities and Colleges the surrogate disciplines are 'winning'. Business Studies has collected more students and has more staff than the Economics department, Social work than Sociology, Design than Fine Art, Computing than Mathematics and Vocational courses of Ministry than in Theology.

Often the dominance is so complete that the 'pure' disciplines have been eliminated or are not taught at that institution. Again we note the traditional interpretation of what is going on. The surrogate studies, we learn, do not teach the subjects comprehensively in depth, but offer a smattering in a lot of different areas. However, actually, the integration point of the study has changed. It has become one activity, which is then studied in an interdisciplinary framework. The key question becomes which specialisms address the activity in a useful way, and it is clearly possible within this framework to provide a higher quality vocational training than was available through the disciplinary-based educational process where much of the study had only limited relevance for later work. We see, therefore, an interpretation of the surrogate disciplines which is relatively innocent, progressive and related to the still increasing division of labour and degree of mutual interdependence. In their activity-centred specialisation they are as rigorous as the older disciplines were: they are merely using the disciplines in relation to a core activity rather than making the discipline the focus of the learning. To put it another way, the traditional disciplinary structure of the university can still be used; it merely means that students need to travel between departments and pick up (superficially) what they need from each for their specialised activity.

The World-View of the Surrogate Sciences

However, this interpretation is a little too innocent. The surrogate sciences have departed from the assumption that knowledge and faith, understanding and acting are fundamentally dissociated, but they have also moved into another version of the modern humanist world-view. The faith is in man the actor and the articulation of human activities in an optimal framework.4 Often this vision is tied to some conception of progress and personal realisation which can command sufficient support. The point about Women's Studies, Peace Studies or Computing is that people want to 'do' them: they have an agenda of commitment built into them and necessarily prescribe a way ahead.

Moreover, the agendas do not arise within the ivory towers of academic freedom, but are generated by the organisational and institutional pressures of wider society. Many universities and departments are committed to and depend heavily on arms research. At its core this research accepts an agenda which is given by the military establishment and works to its fulfilment. Indeed, there are probably very heavy sanctions which follow from its non-fulfilment. It takes no great insight to see that the critique of these surrogate studies cannot be undertaken from an autonomous academic position, the poverty of which has spawned them, but must be rooted in a committed normative understanding of the society in which we live which generates them as agendas. Military research and war studies invite a critique of military establishments and the politico-economic forces which create pressures towards arms proliferation.

The main point about the world-view of the new praxis disciplines is the way they start from a compromised basis. In the 1950s when Ellul wrote The Technological Society there was an arrogance about human technique.5 The knowledge of how to do things had to be progress irrespective of defining the ends. The human source was the guarantee of optimism and optimisation. Now the uncritical nature of this hope is more evident. The agenda of the surrogate disciplines is imposed by external pressure rather than inner hope. Their problem is the weakness of the normative, evaluative framework available from the academic world after decades of supposed value-freedom, and the issues crowd in demanding to be addressed. Is it right to spend billions and forfeit lives on a space programme? Are the media harmful? Is there an ecological crisis? Is the international financial system stable? How do we cope with broken marriages and families? These concerns are immediate and direct in a way the autonomous theoretical sciences could not face. As the issues of a compromised humanist world-view evolve, a number of characteristics of the new matrix also become evident.

The Ownership of Knowledge

This new knowledge has a different pattern of ownership. The traditional pattern gave certain people access to knowledge because they alone had the time to study the subjects in depth and had access to the experts who would impart that knowledge. The rewards for knowledge were also largely confined to the institutions like the universities which generated it, and they operated within a framework of public funding and benefit which meant that there were few pressures to keep knowledge private. Indeed; it was very fully democratized. More than that, the framework within which knowledge was presented was inherently public - there were a few disciplines which defined the human condition which were universally studied and available to the wider educated public.

Now the situation is different. First, the activity-based surrogate disciplines possess bodies of knowledge which are uniquely within their competence. Moreover, to be a professional within that area is to possess that kind of knowledge, the knowledge of how to do. As a consequence people who have such knowledge are less likely to share it with others for it might jeopardize the exclusivity of their profession. It Is also less likely to be accessible to others who do not know that activity. There is thus a substantial fragmentation of the domains of public knowledge which occurs when the surrogate disciplines take over.

But this is not all, for there is a much more fundamental participation in the ownership of knowledge by private industry and government. The agenda of interests which come out of advertising has been fundamentally reflected in academic psychological research. Drugs companies dominate biochemical research. Organisational study is shaped by the concerns of companies. The ownership can be of two kinds. The first occurs where knowledge is uniquely marketable. There private industry takes pains to make sure that it owns that knowledge (and probably the people who possess it). The second is by requiring knowledge which meets the particular needs of that private company, it is not secret, but is privately orientated. These kinds of knowledge have their price and are not public possessions any more. 6

Again government now controls vast areas of research and knowledge. Many of these cluster around questions of defence and arms, but they in turn involve so many areas of research and technology that the extent of this area of privacy is considerable.

The Technology of Theory

Alongside this development is another which is massively affecting the development of theory. Information technology is now being used to systematise theory in a way which makes it more easily accessible to those who need it. Normally this is a commercial, or quasi-commercial, activity, which involves persuading people that they should purchase information available in this form. This creates a new situation in that the information grids available are obviously more congenial to certain types of theory, with the result that selectivity is built into the process of developing these information systems. But there is also a pattern of evaluation whereby some theory is valued highly because it can be incorporated into information systems, whereas other theory receives a much lower valuation and experiences relative neglect. Sometimes this means a complete reversal of academic valuation - thus the uniqueness of personality, meaning and events which were so highly valued in history and other disciplines are now often viewed as outdated in an era when the handling of data requires some process of standardisation.

This development is also reflected in the theoretical explosion which has occurred in the last three decades or so. Not much further back it was possible for one person to command most of what was going on within particular disciplines. This meant that some kind of personal weighing took place in relation to all the theory which was being used. With the geometric expansion in output of theory has come a need to have theory available as information, on tap, in a compatible form, to be used by those who do not have direct access. This means that theory is the subject of capital investment, is embodied and is, of course, even less likely to change. This is an important conclusion. We are used to thinking that if theory is wrong, it can be changed; it is after all only an idea. With the increasing embodiment of theory this myth is becoming even more false. There are many theories which cannot be demolished without much physical demolition, because they are incorporated into structures of information and idea dissemination.

Finally, this information technology requires that theory be decultured. It must be possible to transmit it across cultural boundaries, and if necessary those boundaries must be demolished in order to allow the transmission to take place. Thus differences in world-views and perspectives must be eliminated, so that the common technology can be established, not so that a common theoretical basis can exist. This second order neutralism thus poses a tremendous challenge to Christians.

Evaluation and Orientation

How do Christians respond to these changes? At each turn they present major challenges. First, there is the danger that Christians will merely try to defend the traditional model against newer developments. The old model has been under judgement, and it is a kind of judgement which Christians should be able to identify most clearly. The model has ignored the necessary normative ground of its existence in God's law creation and invented various spurious basic laws like regularity, prediction, logical necessity or meaning. The depths of the crisis within these theoretical frameworks is something which Christians working within them are all too slow to recognize. They should have been mounting the critique which exposed it fully.

But this system n has also been part of a process of self-serving. The knowledge has in part been accumulated by a gnostic elite. It has enhanced the status of its holders. Still that status system is largely intact and handsomely rewards most of its participants. But its self-serving nature in the end prompts the question: What is its use? Of what service is it? Thus the reaction against the autonomic knowledge is in many ways a healthy and understandable one, and one which Christians can share. There is no knowledge which is independent of love of God and of neighbour, and the reincorporation of theory in mutual service is an important task.

In one sense the surrogate disciplines can also be espoused as encouraging a consideration of how we should live. At their base they depend on a professional ethos, in the original sense of a declaration or a profession of the faith by which we live and direct our paths. It is this which the Christian doctrines of law, sphere, office and service provide. The activity orientation of these programmes require more overtly a normative base for their coherence, and often the failure of the traditional disciplines and contemporary humanism to provide contributions to that base is all too clear.

At the same time, however, Christians need to challenge the direction of many of these surrogates. From the old autonomy, they have moved over to various forms of pragmatism in which the directing force is what works - often defined externally by other agencies with power. It is not that what works which makes sense in Christian, or most other terms. To say that the escalation of arms research and production ‘works’ is an abuse of language. It is rather that a kind of historicist definition of inevitable progress requires certain developments to take place. The drive behind these trends are various forms of enslavement to which we have succumbed. In some cases the slavery is chronic, as in the case of arms. In others it is much more difficult to disentangle, like the way in which social work is ‘used’ as a way of compensating for the breakdown of personal care. At the root of these developments the challenge always arises where is this activity going, what is its purpose and why is it done? The fundamental Christian challenge to pragmatism is what, done in disobedience to God, ever works?

There is another challenge for Christians. They fared rather badly under the old model of the ownership of knowledge. Their Master was critical of those who cloistered knowledge to themselves rather than making it freely available to all who respond in faith, but often Christians too managed to make knowledge exclusive and the possession of the few. As knowledge becomes more subject to private and governmental ownership, the challenge to Christians is whether they can succeed in making the most important kinds of knowledge and theory as widely available as possible. Clearly, this applies especially to the Good News, but it applies to many other forms of knowledge as well. If they too become the purveyors of specialised vocational courses which glory in their gnostic exclusiveness, they will clearly fail in the era of the two thirds world.

But Christians are also involved in a critique of those who try to own, rather than be stewards of. the knowledge they are given. What are these institutions and how do they define their purposes and their foundation? When knowledge is used as power, how is it distorted? Are companies acting in service, governments justly, or are their autonomous ends promoting false pragmatic activities? Previously, the detachment of the traditional disciplines foreclosed this consideration. Now it is unavoidable as part of a Christian response.

In addition, there is the lie which grows out of the neutrality of information technology and also out of how-to-do-it courses which cover up the fundamental commitment of knowledge gathering as faith either to God or to idols. The growing impossibility of saying that knowledge is misguided because of the capital which is invested in it should awaken us to realise that the unchallenged technical neutralisms of the era will be far more dangerous and destructive in the long run than the old neutralisms of knowledge and science. The technology which is supposed to provide information also requires service. It makes its own demands of money, power and status and develops its own momentum. Changes of direction become oil-tanker difficult. For decades we have faced the problem of the shortening reaction time for weapons systems with pathetic ideas of what we could do. Now the non-neutrality of these systems stares us between the eyes. They are our products incorporating our values and priorities. There is no neutral how-to-do, only faith. Christian or otherwise.

Finally, commitments are now in the open. It is the self-made law of a humanity working out its own way of living, serving and being served by its own idols, and the contradictions of the self-made law are also evident in life. The technology of saving time sits alongside the harried leisure activists. Self-serving processes lead to mutual impoverishment. Manufactured power bases prove impotent. The manipulators are trapped. This explicit humanist faith with its articulations in the new surrogate sciences is under judgment, and Christian academics, as well as relating to the old disciplines, need to address the surrogates and expose them before the cutting Word.


  1. See F. Suppe The Structure of Scientific Theories (University of Illinois Press 1977). B. Caldwell Beyond Positivism (Allen and Unwin 1982). N. Wolterstorf Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans 1976) for three descriptions of this breakdown.
  2. B. Russell and A. Whitehead Principia Mathematica (CUP 1910-13) and K Godel On Undecidable Propositions of Formal Mathematical Systems (mimeograph. 1934).
  3. Some thinkers reached this kind of position during the Second World War. See K Mannheim Man and Society (Kegan Paul 1940) 199-236.
  4. Of course some epistemologies like pragmatism and behaviourism are more action orientated than others.
  5. J. Ellul The Technological Society (Knopf 1964). the seminal work for Christian analysis of this theme.
  6. This is obviously simplified, yet it sketches a much more direct view of the imputation of knowledge than that usually given. See B. Barnes Interests and the Growth of Knowledge (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1977). Ch 3.