16.585 observations on disciplinarity, comparative epistemology

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Wed Mar 26 2003 - 02:41:22 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 585.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Wed, 26 Mar 2003 07:21:45 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: observations on disciplinarity, comparative epistemology

    The following two passages are from a remarkable study in the history of
    medicine: Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, ed.
    Thaddeus J. Trenn and Robert K. Merton, transl. Fred Bradley and Thaddeus
    J. Trenn, Preface by Thomas S. Kuhn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
    1979). The story of its publication (in 1935, under the title Entstehung
    und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftliche Tatsache: Einfuehrung in die Lehre
    vom Denkstil und Denkkollektiv), near disappearance, discovery and
    promotion by Kuhn is itself fascinating, as is the life of the author. Ian
    Hacking cites it particularly for the idea of "thought-style" (Denkstil) as
    an alternative to problem-orientated philosophy, in his own remarkable
    essay, "Five Parables", in Philosophy in History, ed. R. Rorty, J. B.
    Schneewind and Q. Skinner (Cambridge, 1984). Read both tonight!

    Fleck studies how the fact of syphilis was made and how it developed (i.e.
    the fact, not the disease). When the book was published facts were not
    thought to be "made" in his sense nor to have a developmental history. Now,
    with books such as Mary Poovey's A History of the Modern Fact, Peter
    Galison's historical studies of objectivity (see "Objectivity is Romantic",
    http://www.acls.org/op47-3.htm#galison) and Ian Hacking's arguments for the
    making of knowledge Fleck seems very timely indeed. I for one think that's
    what we're doing too, making knowledge, so guidebooks to the process(es)
    are welcome indeed.

    Meanwhile, these two snippets. The first echoes several other statements to
    the effect that a clear, logically anatomized depiction of a living
    discipline is a contradiction in terms. The second depicts a situation I
    think we are in a very good position to address -- are addressing.

    >"It is very difficult, if not impossible, to give an accurate historical
    >account of a scientific discipline. Many developing strands of thought
    >intersect and interact with one another. All of these would have to be
    >represented, first, as continuous lines of development and, second, in
    >every one of their mutual connections. Third, the main direction of the
    >development, taken as an idealized average, would have to be drawn
    >separately and at the same time. It is as if we wanted to record in
    >writing the natural course of an excited conversation among several
    >persons all speaking simultaneously among themselves and each clamoring
    >to make himself heard, yet which nevertheless permitted a consensus to
    >crystallize. The continuity in time of the line of thought already
    >mapped out must continually be interrupted to introduce other lines. The
    >main line of development often must be held in abeyance to
    >explicate connections. Moreover, a great deal has to be omitted to
    >preserve the idealised main line. Instead of a description of dynamic
    >interactions, one is left with a more or less artificial scheme." (14f)
    >"Whatever is known has always seemed systematic, proven, applicable,
    >and evident to the knower. Every alien system of knowledge has likewise
    >seemed contradictory, unproven, inapplicable, fanciful, or mystical. May
    >not the time have come to assume a less egocentric, more general point
    >of view and to speak of comparative epistemology? A rule of thought that
    >allows one to make use of more details and more compulsory connections,
    >as the history of science teaches us, deserves to be emphasized." (22)


    Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
    Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
    7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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