20.229 great promise, not great threat

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sun, 1 Oct 2006 08:22:09 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 229.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: "Hunsucker, R.L." <R.L.Hunsucker_at_uva.nl> (215)
         Subject: Humanites "vs." the natural sciences, OR "anti-
                 intellectualism vs the promise"

   [2] From: "Hunsucker, R.L." <R.L.Hunsucker_at_uva.nl> (44)
         Subject: anti-intellectualism / great promise, not great threat

         Date: Sun, 01 Oct 2006 08:15:51 +0100
         From: "Hunsucker, R.L." <R.L.Hunsucker_at_uva.nl>
         Subject: Humanites "vs." the natural sciences, OR
"anti-intellectualism vs the promise"

I was yesterday speaking of two dichotomies raised by David,
and said my bit on the one regarding the USA as opposed to
other parts of the world.

The other is the universal one of natural science as opposed to
the rest of society. (I write consciously "rest of society" ;
though scientists used to like to think, while many of them
still do, that qua scientists, qua the professional work that they
do, they stand not in, but outside, the social sphere. An
interesting question would be to what extent social and
humanities scholars labor under a similar illusuion.)

What seems inherent in both of David's postings is that
"science" is some kind of special, unique, pure and self-
justifying activity -- practiced by human beings but for the
rest not subject to factors that we acknowledge as relevant
to other genres of human activity. Do we believe this ?
Should we believe this ? Is this in fact a genuine possibility ?

And so here's the rub. If we don't give up that idea, we're
gonna have to explain how humans can at the same time be
non-humans (perceptually, cognitively, affectively, interactionally,
rhetorically and in still other ways). If we do -- as I think we
can't avoid in the long run doing -- give up that idea, then things
like, to use the formulation of David, "the authority and
independence of the natural sciences" have a odd sort of ring
to them. What is it that justifies an unquestioning acceptance of
that authority, of that independence ? Who or what has
legitimated it -- in the past, the present or for the future ? (Or
are we actually singing the praises of a sky-hook ?)

Nobody who's looked into the matter denies anymore the
many missteps, dead-ends, incoherencies, non-empiricalities,
vested interests, ideological motivations, time- and place-
dependency, unforeseen applications and other skeletons-in-
the-closet of science as actually practiced, from the seventeenth
century to the present. Certainly the scientists themselves are
well aware of all these things (though you don't read about
them in textbooks, publicity materials, grant applications and
so on).

This brings us to the so-called internalist/externalist controversy.
Are such problems -- as the scientists themselves tend to argue,
supported by the more Mertonian sociologists of science --
things that the scientific community (the scientific specialism)
itself should be left to address, without meddling by non-insiders
(read: the rest of society, whose money scientists nevertheless
always gladly accept) ? Science *claims* to be self-correcting.
And a kind of self-correction *does* often take place as time
goes by. Can we leave it at that ? Are the internalists right ?

Paul Feyerabend, whom I mentioned in passing earlier in this
thread, gave a lot of thought to these questions. One thing is
his frequently surfacing reminder that science is not (as the cliche
has it) value-free. (It is naive to maintain that science, like any
human endeavor, is not driven by its own values. And in an open
society differing values can and should be weighable off against
each other.) But specifically on p. 260-262 of his _Farewell to
Reason_ (Verso, 1987), he argues that it is absolutely essential for
a democracy *not* to be dependent on science's self-correction
-- i.e., essential to *deny* to science an unexamined authority and

Society as a whole may even decide to reject the view of reality
which science has cobbled together for its own purposes, in favor
of a view of reality more apt "to stabilise the qualitative world of
our everyday experiences". And those everyday experiences
definitely include religion. What is paramount is the (collective)
quality of life. Science can then be valued explicitly for its
instrumentality of prediction (cf. Mary Hesse's pragmatic criterion
of prediction and control). This Feyerabend writes at the end of
a piece on Galileo and Cardinal Bellarmino which I can recommend,
if as nothing else as a thought-exercise, to anyone.

(And let us not forget Einstein's conviction that physics at the
theoretical level requires a strong faith and a "religious feeling", a
"religious spirit" in order to approach understanding reality -- see
the pieces reprinted in his _Ideas and opinions_, 1954 plus reprints.)

David writes that having taken a PhD in literature and having
taught eight years in that field he went into science publishing.
We seem to have strangely similar backgrounds : after a PhD in
Classics and seven years teaching in that field at three American
universities, I worked for seven years at Elsevier Science Publishers.
The difference is that I hardly remember ever encountering a
'science departments as the enemy' attitude which my later
experiences in the world of high-level science revealed as fatuous
or unfair. (That *could* be because I was ten to fifteen years earlier
than David.) My whole life was led amidst a more or less self-evident
blue-sky scientistic positivist worldview -- until I almost totally on my
own began to realize how obscurantist actual (ethnographic, historical,
epistemological, cognitive etc.) investigations of science-as-theory but
especially science-as-practice have shown such a worldview to be.

David opines that his "own political viewpoint" lies behind his science-
as-victim plea. I have no reason to disagree with him there.

Maybe it's best just to leave it at that.

- Laval Hunsucker

         Date: Sun, 01 Oct 2006 08:16:24 +0100
         From: "Hunsucker, R.L." <R.L.Hunsucker_at_uva.nl>
         Subject: anti-intellectualism / great promise, not great threat

Probably I've already run on long enough on this topic
for the present -- but I ask your indulgence for just a
short response to the continuing discussion.

I think we've got (i.e., it's our intellectual and critical, our
reflexive and even our social responsibility) to be very
cautious about distinguishing real anti-intellectualism from
valid criticism from outside of what we, or our colleagues
in the natural sciences, are doing. That's far too facile, not
to say self-serving. Anti-scientism (as opposed to anti-
science), anti-positivism, anti-essentialism or anti-
representationalism are not anti-intellectualism. Many a
keen thinker and many a good scholar is to be found in
any of those ranks.

The perhaps greatest contribution of Foucault (an anti-
intellectual ?) to contemporary culture was the consistent
insistence on the potential value to us of pursuing an honest
"g=E9n=E9alogie" (in his sense of that word) of the academic
discipline -- whatever that may be -- in which we are
engaged. It is astounding how much, even institutionalized,
"d=E9formation professionnelle" such an exercise can quickly
bring to light. And from such light we can only profit. One
of the most blatant examples I know is my own current
discipline of documentation (what was decades ago
overoptimistically renamed "information science", and is
now grotesquely being marketed as "knowledge
management" or some variant thereof).

Willard refers to classicists (my former discipline) and their
problems. Couldn't they be confusing the symptoms with the
problems ? The prominent classicist John Peradotto was of
the opinion that such an exercise as recommended by
Foucault was precisely what his -- intellectually reclusive, as he
described it -- discipline needed (first chapter of _Man in the
Middle Voice_, 1990). I doubt he was optimistic that most of
the discipline would take him seriously. And I believe that he
was in that case quite right.

Common cause against anti-intellectualism is fine. I would
agree with Willard that being "steadily eloquent" in that cause
is something our culture and society very much can use from us.
But defense of intellectualism is something very different from
defense of disciplines as they presently exist and function. Let's
be clear about that.

Where do our real priorities lie ?

- Laval Hunsucker
Received on Sun Oct 01 2006 - 03:46:06 EDT

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