Does "political subversion" here mean "change of minds and beliefs" or does it have really anything to do with the change of governments and political regimes?


It is particularly interesting that these significant breakthroughs occurred in politically heated contexts – Galileo in post-Reformation Europe, Darwin at a time of increasing materialism and religious doubt.

Such questions challenge the legacy of the traditional Enlightenment belief in impartiality, justice and freedom from superstition or political subversion.

Source: Art and Science By Sîan Ede, 2005 I.B. Taurus & Co. page 17

  • This more a question of the content of that particular book and not a peculiarity of these English words. – Mitch Jul 13 '15 at 16:51
  • It means freedom from superstition and freedom from political subversion. I.e, there is no s. and there is no p.s, either. The second freedom from has been deleted by conjunction reduction, and and has changed to or by DeMorgan's Law -- Not A And Not BNot (A Or B) -- since free(dom) from is a negative and it now spans the entire phrase. You're on your own as to what superstition and political subversion mean, though. – John Lawler Jul 13 '15 at 16:56
  • Thanks, @PatrickM, for the Google Books link. Having read a little more there than is here, I would venture that the writer is criticizing, as unrealistic and ahistorical, the Enlightenment and positivist ideal of science as supposedly free and immune from the interference or corrupting influence of either religious dogma ("superstition") or political power. – Brian Donovan Jul 13 '15 at 17:14
  • It means that the author doesn't know his history. – Hot Licks Jul 13 '15 at 20:31
  • (I take "political subversion" to mean political rather than religious pressure to be "correct". Eg, a movie in the US might have been suppressed in the past because it portrayed a certain ethnic group in a way that did not suit the current political kingmakers.) – Hot Licks Jul 13 '15 at 20:34

Political subversion here means subverting science with politics.


to undermine the principles of; corrupt.

from Dictionary.com

One of the main tenets of the Enlightenment was daring to know, which meant trying to understand something regardless of the implications of that understanding. To use a cliched example, Galileo persisting in researching Heliocentrism despite the spiritual implications of his theory was a very Enlightened thing to do (in the sense that it was in-line with Enlightenment ideals).

The author is saying that the Enlightenment came with a belief that it is proper to ignore political considerations when doing research. That is, I should not consider what social agendas I strengthen or weaken when I publish my research results; I should just do the best research I can and let the chips fall where they may.

Based on the tone of this passage, the author is going to argue that political considerations always subvert and permeate scientific research, and that pretending otherwise creates non-objectivity by blinding a scientist to his or her own biases. They will likely argue that the increasing cultural materialism of Darwin's time, for example, was what prompted him to seek out materialistic explanations of the origin of species.

I have not read this book, but I predict that the author will then call for his or her own political agenda to be consciously adopted by scientists and researchers as a corrective for their unconscious biases. This is the type of political subversion to which the passage refers, so if you need specifics, just keep reading.

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Reading a little more of the text, the author seems to be building a thesis that some scientific breakthroughs are politically motivated; that Darwin and Galileo in particular were as much attempting to destabilize the establishment of organized religion as they were trying to discover new truths. The author describes this as a "fashion of thought and [...] in science."

In the sentence you ask about, the subject is "the Enlightenment belief," which refers to the Age of Enlightenment, the period in which the scientific method was established. The point of the scientific method is to establish a set of criteria by which a hypothesis or general knowledge may be tested. As the author points out, this merely tests that something is not false, not that it is true; this is called falsifiability, and without it, formal logic (the collection of rules by which we humans can empirically verify our thoughts and knowledge; in other words, how we know what we really know) simply does not work.

But falsifiability vs. verifiability is a red herring in this context. I think this paragraph is an example of appealing to motive, a logical fallacy that concludes something must be false based on its context rather than content.

Enlightenment could be seen as a loaded description, as though one were saying that science is triumphing over religion, faith, art, etc. Objectively, it's simply referring to the fact that a really huge number of things were discovered and tested during this time, largely due to the formalization and growing acceptance of science as an engine of knowledge. The book is a comparison of art and science, and the author seems to making the point that scientific endeavor can be subjective. In this context, the phrases you ask about seem to have a fairly standard meaning:

1 a : a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation
b : an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition
2 : a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary

1 : the act of subverting : the state of being subverted; especially : a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly from within
2 obsolete : a cause of overthrow or destruction

Source: Merriam-Webster, online

Political subversion would mean an overthrow of or opposition to an established regime, specifically the highly religious monarchies of 2nd millennium Europe. And freedom from would mean an absence of; that Enlightenment and science are pure and untainted by baser human motivations.

So as Mitch points out, there's nothing really surprising about the meaning of those words in this context. Going any further would be an exercise in literary criticism, far divorced from the topic of this site.

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  • "these significant breakthroughs occurred in politically heated contexts" is confirmation bias too: Has there ever been a time that wasn't politically heated? – Avon Jul 13 '15 at 20:13

The phrase "freedom from superstition or political subversion" is saying "the absence of superstition and the absence of a desire to seek to undermine the authorities".

The author is using the juxtaposition of the extremes of pure rational, apolitical science with the opposites which are superstition and revolutionary subversion. They are making that contrast to suggest that the 'politically heated context' was not conducive to purely impartial science.

An implied reading of the two paragraphs could be:

It is interesting the significant breakthroughs of Galileo and Darwin occurred in politically heated contexts. This context challenges the current belief in impartiality, and the absence of both revolutionary subversion, and superstition, within the Enlightenment movement.

The author may be using a common literary device of both popular science and popular history books to "sex it up". The device is to introduce a chapter of a book in a way which implies something dramatic will be exposed in the chapter. In this case that Galileo and Darwin were in politically heated contexts involving superstition and revolutionary intent. The chapter so introduced then does no such thing; but hopefully has enough interesting content that the reader does not feel cheated. Just like the trailer to an action movie doesn't actually lie about the content of the film but may suggest it is far more exciting than it actually is.

Used sparingly such a device can improve engagement with the reader by creating anticipation in the subject matter being introduced. Used excessively it can be completely tedious and one can come to see that the editors of the book are taking the author's technical content and attempting to make it "engaging to a wider audience" using only this technique. Much like if you watch enough movies you start to see particular story patterns and plot devices; the awareness of which ruins your enjoyment of the film.

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