független zsidó tudományos folyóirat


Endre Kiss

Sleepwalking and Validity

Arthur Koestler’s Model of Scientific Progress


In his monography ‘Sleepwalkers’ published in 1959, Arthur Koestler attempts to write a critical history of the whole of modern European science. Of course, the work also reflects the relations of the Cold War, and it’s intended to induce a comprehensive change in attitudes of approaching the history of natural sciences, as well as their philosophical interpretation. Looking back from the first years of the third millennium, it’s also clear that the book had given a strong impetus to the great science-philosophical debates of the sixties and seventies, of which most important field of regard was right the interpretation of the history of science, of scientific ‘revolutions’.


Koestler is one of the first ones who face the systems of relations in history of science and philosophy of science – extraordinarily sensitive in given situations. All-time valid science-philosophical generalizations had gone back to earlier researches; they had gone through a row of social recognitions and resistance, political and ideological fights, and for this alone, they appear at a specially ideological status in front of the all-time present; (it’s an analogous phenomenon that some kind of political thinking still finds the forging of enlightenment or liberalism offensive, while this same ideological expansion works in the opposite direction as well). If we add to all this the fact that science-historical researches can be pursued practically at any depth, by drawing in ever new and new sources or documents, we may imagine, how great the temptation might be to make a really new science-historical exploration radically re-interpret science-philosophical arches and views getting slowly exhausted.


In Arthur Koestler’s case, all these elements appear strongly. He expands fields of science-historical research; he enriches its set of research instruments and view in a pioneering way, while he also wants to draw its science-philosophical consequences himself. From this aspect, his person, as well as “Sleepwalkers” are enduring ideal-tipical examples in a multiple and complex way. It may not be an exaggeration to find some tragical elements in this work, right in connection of the tragical nature of the 20th century; Koestler lives out that genuine scientific heroism which had had a defining influence on him in his youth, as a dictate of the cultural environment at the beginning of the century, by bringing down the magnificent mythology of science. In his thinking about science, all three elements mentioned are present: independent research, an expansion of view, and a re-evaluating passion. These three elements differ from each other not only in their methods, but also in their final messages, but this makes “Sleepwalkers” an even more exciting document. All this – at least in its direction – seems to justify Arthur Koestler’s own thesis about “the natural selection of scientific ideas”, while it’s also characteristic of the history of enlightenment, as well as of real scientific (or even political) revolutions that they are often being destroyed or drawn back by those who win or start them.


Koestler is present in the history of the 20th century in an exceptionally intense way, both intellectually, and for a long time, politically too. In his actions he aspires for completeness; he wants to be the first, the best, the historically most relevant at formulating and answering the most important challenges rushing upon the century. It’s a basic characteristic of Central-European intellectual attitudes at the beginning of the century what he tries to actualize with such a homogenous self-evidence in an altered latter era. He’s an explorer and an adventurer at the same time, who often couldn’t separate these two attitudes himself. An exploring adventurer who would like to detemrine the destiny of the world in a positive direction; a heroic explorer who looks for final solutions in short terms. “Sleepwalkers” of 1959, is an attempt with a demand for a philosophical, moreover of a political re-interpretation of the history of science, which articulates attitudes of the heroic enlightenment and of disappointment from the heroic enlightenment at the same time. In its title, the work takes the title of a great novel by Hermann Broch, by this raising questions not unimportant at all. By this time, Broch’s great novel-trilogy had been released also in the era past World War Two, while Broch was almost completely unknown for a broader audience in 1959; but we may consider it totally impossible that Koestler wouldn’t have known about the Broch-phenomenon.


Koestler is being motivated by his science-historical inquiries to several generalizations, which also draw up the outlines of a model of scientific progress, even if not always in a developed form. There’s no sudden transition in it, i.e. there’s no scientific revolution in the closest meaning of the word; science develops by a thousand tiny steps, each of which which often seem ambiguous. It’s obvious, that a possible tension between the arches and curves of scientific progress already generalized, and science-historical explorations often totally micro-level at Koestler – mentioned in the Preface is being put in this thesis already. An originally immanent part of this model of scientific progress is a complex kind of attitude of a scientist performing a genuine inquiry; it’s not clearly rational, it’s rooted deeply in the sub-conscious, and in society at the same time; due to its spirit, the scientist is not always aware of what he is doing; that’s what opens the gates towards the whole problem-cycle of Sleepwalking being in the center. This model also includes the point of official academic life usually considered rejecting, but the sociological and socio-ontological dimension of this problem-cycle remains unexplicated of reasons understandable and excusable from many aspects. Another interesting component of this model is Koestler’s ‘systematizing’, early structuralist thinking, reminding at Béla Zalai (and Zalai’s strong Hungarian aura ); perceiving sciences as a system, and sensitivity for the fact that the same problem is able to move from one system to the other; what that means if a scientist picks a problem out of its environment considered genuine so far, and puts it into another science. This operation – picking a problem out of its traditional and fossilized context and placing it into a new conceptual system – seems to be a most important measure of creative thinking. Such an analytical kind of description is at the same time a question of science-historical stations of smaller extension. Looking from here, from this special perspective, e.g. Hume’s notion of causality can also be interpreted as a return to a phase of an earlier cosmological discussion; Kepler himself didn’t consider the causality of tide justifiable.


“Sleepwalkers” is also a special intellectual typology, deeply motivated by the deepest gravitational directions of that time Koestler’s personality. This typology is partly intentioned, partly not; the system of aspects applied in it is not completely unified, and – as we shall see it mainly when elaborating the measure of sleepwalking – each type’s level of elaborateness is not balanced either/each type is elaborated to a different level of perfection. Nevertheless, this characteristic of the work is a valuable contribution to the disciplines of intellectual history and historical sociology.


An organic and more and more self-sufficient part of Koestler’s model of scientific progress is the psychology of discovery, with a perspectivic richness which almost makes the broad issue of sleepwalking self-sufficient and leads it out of psychology’s territory. Beside individual motivation, the psychological complex also includes the Koestlerian approach of the sub-conscious. Contrary to Freud (and this contrast has a deeper meaning of its own), the sub-conscious of the researcher is fascinated by “the harmony of the world”; this is his main collective obsession and rooted fixed idea; his rationality is completed by a specially sleepwalking mysticism; his scientific achievements are being lead mainly by the expectations of harmony and a craving for unity, what practically means, a researcher catching a glimpse of the deeper operation of the world sees the greatest processes in the perspective of a perpetual endangerment of existing states of affairs[1]. This is dual thinking, with an urge and in some sense a demand of mysticism, while the sub-conscious acquires a special independent latitude in this psychology, which is an organic part of Koestler’s concept of sleepwalking. But sleepwalking also includes an approach of ‘tacit knowledge’ characterized as follows: “A locksmith who opens complicated locks with a bent piece of wire, doesn’t apply his logical sense or objective knowledge at the operation, but a sub-conscious deposit of numberless earlier experiences, and from this, he acquires such a wisdom, a skill that he hadn’t possessed consciously.” In the “operation” of cognition, sub-conscious feedbacks arise; a temporary flicker of comprehensive view, traces of a tacit knowledge in operation. An appearance of this category of Mihály Polányi in Koestler’s discourse is anything but a coincidence[2]. We’re advancing Koestler’s positive difference from Polányi already; at him, the sphere of tacit knowledge, i.e. the whole cycle of “sleepwalking” doesn’t become a basis for a criterion of truth; it remains a basis for the ever-deepening reconstruction of an actual cognitive process.


To this broadly interpreted psychology of discovery (but also to other great aspects, like the contents of the theory or the history of science) also belongs a relevant consideration of interactionist, socializational or right sociological or intercultural aspects; their complex summary make it possible to ground a serious hypothesis. He writes about the relationship between Tycho and Kepler: “They were the opposites of each other in everything; their impulsive, jealous temper was the only thing they had in common… Contrasts only concerned the surface; both of them wanted to use the other one for his aim, but in actual fact, they both knew it with the confidence of sleepwalkers: they were born to complete each other, and the twist of their fates drifted them towards one another… Like sleepwalkers did they wander in-arms in the unseekable depths of the universe, and by day… they brought the worst out of each other’s personalities…” Sleepwalking, also as a set of specific psychological measures, is a loose aggregation of creative, innovative behaviors, multiply crossing one another. One of its interesting forms is right the fact that behavior doesn’t follow the true-false – logic of scientific cognition all the time (“after coming to the right recognition, he talks about the wrong one like it was true”); the researcher does this for some reason, which is not sure at all, to be conscious for him; he allowed himself to forget about this ‘trifle’, he allowed himself not to erase the wrong recognition out of his memory and of his train of thought either (!); from some (there are and there can be infinite of such) creative-psychological or creative-economical aspect, this was right what he needed to do. The model of sleepwalking is to be categorized as a psychological aspect, because the concept of sleepwalking is a psychological concept after all, although sleepwalking also entails a lot of non-psychological facts; it’s an aware and conscious scientific behavior according to all-time science-theoretical concepts; it’s an unconscious decision for a concept, and even when he (at first sight) makes a wrong decision, he actually makes a right decision.


Koestler’s both vertically and horizontally extremely far-reaching interpretation of sleepwalking can be arranged surprisingly well, without a danger of over-simplification. This is a row of steps pointing into each other’s direction; this is where sleepwalking – now idea-tipically reconstructed – can be outlined. The scientist, moving within the frames of aware and consciously rational behavior, finds himself in a dilemma; these dilemmas are classical boundary situations for which no guidance can be found in theories and their equivalent descriptions up to that time. The scientist makes a decision, in which he mobilizes all elements of his personality and psyche (as we shall see later, this practically equals to unconscious, ‘tacit’ mobilization). This decision is problematic, or it even seems wrong; often, even knowledge itself is most uncertain about its truth. After all this, it turns out (by measurements, by contribution of other scientists, etc.) that this decision was directly or mediately the right judgement itself. Sleepwalking crosses the abyss between seemingly wrong and probably right decisions in many concrete cases, while even a wrong one can lead to a right one, even falsity can be a way to truth. Sleepwalking also leads to a diverse tipology of intellectuality, diverse from two aspects: first, because of a relatively uneven elaborateness of psychological contents and components; second, because of a conspiciously ill-proportioned elaboration of the life-work and personality of some great protagonists.


Sleepwalking is drawing sub-conscious into the logic of research; recognizing and extensively elaborating this, is Koestler’s great merit. But his attempt also shows clearly, that a phenomenon can find its legitimate systematic place only in a theoretic summary of a detailed, motivated research; it can’t be a basis of a general theory, especially of one that directly or indirectly entails consequences of a philosophical theory of truth.


Sleepwalking – as we shall imply it later – is closely associated with the traditional category of intuition; still, it deserves more current attention as an attempt to apprehend figures preceding forming and consciousness. Its exact subject-matter – which is certainly true from the aspect of the psychology of creation, and which many, among others, Goethe had obviously formulated – is, that we can also make the sub-conscious serve creation; what matters is, to what extent one is able to do that, to what extent one is able to draw his sub-conscious into cognition.


This kind of sleepwalking is compatible with the heroic concept of enlightenment of Koestler’s youth; sleepwalking helps to show up (sometimes exceptional) courage needed for cognition; this courage is often the courage of the sleepwalker, but of course, never only that. When Koestler says at one place “Kepler’s unique and tangled thinking… is sterile and filthy at the same time”, he pronounces his judgement after elaborating and summarizing all sleepwalking-related details of the road leading to scientific achievments.


Fixing the function of sleepwalking is a logical and at the same time psychological function, more exactly, a function of science-logic becoming psychology. A logical, moreover, sociological function is for example “to fix the ferris-wheel of misconceptions”, i.e. cleaning away psychological obstacles of discourse making the acquaintance of reality impossible to approach, while, in a given situation it also ensures the ability of suppressing inner doubts. Appearances, the obstacles of cognition are systematized; sleepwalking walks through the walls of appearances right in a creative and heuristic way that may not be noticed. In a different approach this means, psychological energies coming from irrational ideas can be used. Sleepwalking can strip off respect of authority suppressed in the sub-conscious, it transforms the psyche kind of magically. Kepler’s psychic ‘hemophilia’ induced values of his own ulcers. The esthetical effect of some scientific achievments and hypotheses, often their symmetry can also make up a part of sleepwalking, esthetically relevant measures also affect human subconscious.


The whole problem-cycle of sleepwalking is closely bound to Mihály Polányi’s concept of ‘tacit knowledge’; we’ve already hinted the essential difference between these two. Furthermore, the fact that sleepwalking, as a genuine concept of the sociology of knowledge means an extension of the concept by the Wissenssoziologie of Mannheim and Lukács – with which Koestler, as well as Polányi had to fight their own fights – is also worth attention.


For Koestler, the default of altering society calls forth a reaction of altering the history of science. His science-philosophical vision has several strata. The first one is not his personal vision is about history, but a strong aspiration to re-evaluation strongly connected with science as well; it’s about the relationship between church and science, and through this, about the basic questions of history of science on the whole, i.e. of scientific progress becoming political. His thesis is, that on the scientific way leading from Copernicus to Galilei, there was no real conflict of interests between religion and science; these were actually questions of interpretation (in whiches projections none of the parties had originally right or wrong assumptions). It was Galilei, who provoked the distortion of this relationship. This interpretation of history is a part of scientific discourse, but of course, it can also be interpreted as a part of the inner logic of Koestler’s carreer. This interpretation of history is a strong modification, if not right a withdrawal of the heroic enlightenment of his youth, his culture-heroic system of ideas, which had lived deeply in the whole culture Koestler rooted at (and when we’re talking about taking back the attitude of enlightening heroism, we’re actually not even thinking of Koestler’s communist period, although this view of history and science is also a strong withdrawal of that). This interpretation of history by all means includes the history-philosophical pessimism of Koestler at 1959; it gave the deterioration of the relationship between science and church an era- and culture-critical dimension. Koestler also wishes to actualize this diagnosis with his well-known unbelievable energies and with a demand of an immediate complete change, or at least re-evaluation; here too, he wants to actualize the command of intellectual heroism and heroic intellectualism; therefore, all this not only in context of the ascension of intellectual heroism, but also in the liquidation of the assumed or real negative consequences of the same triumph.


Intellectual heroism and its ‘withdrawing’ , doubtful consequences perceived at Koestler, promulgate some dual system of values at some places, also at the judgement of sleepwalking itself. While sleepwalking is creative and extensive, sometimes it can be mania and rigidity as well; even the great creator himself can’t be free from the danger of a negative, even pathological interpretation of sleepwalking at all times. Heroic intellectuality and heroic generic-emancipative enlightenment is not strong enough at all times, to dissolve the aversion to sleepwalking, accumulating in Koestler himself. Great individuals promotes humanity (the attribute ‘promoting’ is often featured at relevant Hungarian cultural publicism at the turn of the century) have raised the power and coverage of humanity’s most important activity by a hundred, a thousand times – Koestler says retrospectively. The preserved tradition of culture-heroism of his youth – which is of a romantic tone but actually not romantic at all – makes him say this, while the same ‘promoting’ individuals appear as ‘mutant genes’ who play a decisive role in case of a great breakthrough. A ‘mutant gene’ lifts the great individual, the great scientist out of history, but it also makes its ambivalence in itself perceivable; they have something frightening, something disillusionating, and all those contents are working too, which are difficult to define closely, which follow from linking sleepwalking, also as an extended sociology of knowledge, into scientific thinking.


The command of intellectual heroism must be fulfilled at every era. This means, even at eras and connections apocaliptic in some sense, or if there is neither space nor chance for it – for this, the era after 1945 is a good example. At this point, we get to one basically philosophical measure of the Koestlerian re-evaluation of the history of European science. Koestler maintains the basic concept of heroic cognition (moreover, he even expands it with the measure of sleepwalking), while he doesn’t only judge the present distance, ‘alienation’ – quoting one of Nietzsche’s insightful aphorisms – of science and church, but he obviously blames it all on scientists. By this, he strongly withdraws some of the original concept of heroic enlightenment, but in the meanwhile, he also makes a great theoretical error, without which the withdrawal wouldn’t have been possible. The error is related to the interpretation of the achievments of science-historical research in a more extended context. Namely, while Koestler researches the openness of cosmological views and attitudes of the church with great erudition, he forgets about the problem of logical validity (Gültigkeit) in its well-articulated social form. The open attitude of the church namely doesn’t equal a withdrawal of the validity of a theological doctrine at all. Criteria and demands of validity are valid even if no one wants to demand them at the moment. All philosophical and scientific struggles and discoveries are to be interpreted in this context.


These two kinds of validity (teological and scientific) are different not only in their logics, but also in their contents. One validity may decide to examine phenomena and rules supporting the other validity, but in this case, it did this in a way that representatives of facts and evidences supporting the other validity raised no claims to make their own validity approved. This socio-ontology of validity – and this totally escapes Koestler’s attention – is namely made up by the fact that ‘authority’ doesn’t announce a claim for validity at all times; it may live together with entities and scientific theories which although violate validity, but don’t question it explicitly. But the fact that it doesn’t want to make its claim valid (i.e. it doesn’t want to validate the claim for validity) doesn’t mean the nature of power is not right that it may validate it and demand on faith any time. The fictional behavior of the church seemingly suspends the basic problem of validity, but if someone forces a review on it, this fiction melts away immediately.


Neglecting the question of validity to such an extent, ex post facto puts some critical points in Koestler’s concept of science into a sharp light. Missing a demand on validity, its un-validating is not only a fancy of ‘authority’, it’s not political decisionism, but it also has a science-theoretical background of its own. Every system of thoughts acquires its own criteria and at the same time, its demands on validity. Two different systems of thoughts, theories, concepts have consequences of different validity. These are always existent in a latent way, no one can forget about their existence; it’s not made up by all-time ‘actors’, they may raise no claim for validating validity, that’s all. In Koestler’s argumentation, a surprising and hardly understandable impatience appears towards Galilei, who kind of ‘deserved’ his trial. It doesn’t make a good impression either, that Galilei gets out of the company of ‘sleepwalkers’, or, as far as sleepwalking refers to him, it happens in a completely different way, as say, in Kepler’s case. This means, he has no researching sub-conscious he could build into cognition; and this can not be sufficiently explained by Galilei’s conscious personality; such a latent presumption would withdraw the basic problem of sleepwalking itself on the whole.


It may be true for Koestler himself as well, that he doesn’t see his own psychic impetus while elaborating this concept. He may be a ‘sleepwalker’ too, who draws his sub-conscious – which of course, he is unable to keep completely under control – into the solution of the problem at hand.

[1] At places outstanding from this aspect, Koestler doesn’t make it clear, on which side mathematics stands, as in this era, mathematics equally supports the verification of mystical explanations of the world, and the needs and discoursive nature of rational approach.

[2] See also: Endre Kiss, Tacit Knowledge as a Conception of Truth. On an Aspect of Michael Polanyi's Theory of Knowledge. in: Polanyiana. The Periodical of the Michael Polanyi Liberal Philosophical Association. 1-2. Volume Nr. 2. Budapest, 1992. 84-89.