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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Footnotin’ frenzy

Hi everyone!  It’s me again, checking in from the depths of Footnote Hell.

Of course, even though footnotin’ is hard work, it’s not all tedium and Googling and visits to the stacks.  Not at all!  Some of footnotin’ involves real argumentin’, just in a tinier font at the back of the book.  And I thought I’d share an example with you this evening, not least because two or maybe three people have written to me to ask me how the book’s going and what it will look like when it appears next fall.

Well, the book is going fine, and when it appears it will almost surely be rectangular.  But for those of you who might like a small taste of what one of the more substantial footnotes will look like—and it just happens to follow from yesterday’s post—I’m posting a draft version for your perusal.

Here’s the back story.  After disposing of David Horowitz and his like for once and for all, and then checking out some of the more widely-reported tales of conservative students being persecuted by their Stalinist professors, I get around to explaining what I do in some of my classes.  Now, the last time I got together with my editor, on a weekday evening in a midtown restaurant in New York, he flagged the opening pages of the chapter on my postmodernism seminar and said, you might want to watch the mention of Kuhn—because, as you know, there are any number of readers out there who are really tired of humanities professors citing Kuhn and getting him wrong.  Likewise with Gödel and Heisenberg on “incompleteness” and “uncertainty.”

As you might imagine, this remark made me violently angry.  Yanking the bottle of pinot grigio from the ice bucket to my right, I smashed it on the edge of the table, stood up, and said, “All right, man.  I know all about those readers.  And I’m as pissed off about sloppy appropriations of Kuhn as anyone.  But let me say one thing.” At this point I had drawn the alarmed attention of all the diners-and-drinkers in the place, not least because I was waving the broken bottle around and making random stabbing motions.  “I’ll put my reading of Kuhn up against anyone’s.  Anyone’s, do you hear me?  DO YOU HEAR ME?  I’m serious, man—I don’t just go on about ‘paradigm’ this and ‘incommensurability’ that, people.  I can take Kuhn’s examples about phlogiston and X-rays and shit, and I can extrapolate them to Charles Messier’s late-eighteenth century catalog of stellar objects, or the early controversy over the determination of the Hubble constant, or the 1965 discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation by Penzias and Wilson.  GET IT?  So don’t mess with my goddamn reading of Kuhn.  Any of you.”

There were a few moments of silence, punctuated only by some nervous clattering of silverware.  Then a conservatively-dressed man in his early fifties got up from a table fifteen or twenty feet away.  “People like you,” he said, trying to stare me down, “read Kuhn backwards by means of Feyerabend’s Against Method, and as a result, you make him out to be some kind of Age of Aquarius irrationalist who thinks that scientists run from paradigm to paradigm for no damn reason.” Then he tossed his napkin across the table.  “And if you want to deny it, I suggest we step outside.”

Fortunately for that guy, the maitre d’ intervened at just that moment, imploring me to “settle this peacefully,” preferably with a footnote to the sixth chapter.  And cooler heads prevailed.

So here’s the goddamn footnote already.

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the many misreadings of Kuhn among humanists: partly because humanists’ work does not proceed under the same protocols of “verifiability” as those of the natural sciences, our interpretations of Kuhn have been somewhat looser than they should be.  It is commonly charged that humanists embraced Kuhn so enthusiastically because he seemed to have undermined the authority and the objectivity of the sciences, and the charge may have some merit; but I believe humanists, as well as social scientists, were attracted primarily to the idea of paradigm shifts as a way of explaining epistemic change (for it is a very good explanatory scheme) and less concerned with what Kuhn calls “normal science,” which, after all, is where all the important paradigm-building and -challenging work gets done.  So, for example, humanists tend to overlook the specificity of Kuhn’s examples with regard to the discovery of oxygen or X-rays, not least because we have no direct analogy for Roentgen’s realization that, in the course of his experiments with cathode rays, something was causing a barium platinocyanide-coated screen to heat up across the room. 

Because of his emphasis on the importance of “normal science” and the protocols under which it operates, Kuhn is not a relativist; on the contrary, he argues that there is such a thing as scientific “progress,” though he insists that it can only be gauged retrospectively, for it is not proceeding toward any preordained goal.  For Kuhn, science is therefore evolutionary in precisely the same sense that evolution itself was evolutionary for Darwin: in an anti-teleological sense. 

The developmental process described in this essay has been a process of evolution from primitive beginnings—a process whose successive stages are characterized by an increasingly detailed and refined understanding of nature.  But nothing that has been or will be said makes it a process of evolution toward anything.  Inevitably that lacuna will have disturbed many readers.  We are all deeply accustomed to seeing science as the one enterprise that draws constantly nearer to some goal set by nature in advance. . . .

For many men the abolition of that teleological kind of evolution was the most significant and least palatable of Darwin’s suggestions. The Origin of Species recognized no goal set either by God or nature.  Instead, natural selection, operating in the given environment and with the actual organisms presently at hand, was responsible for the gradual but steady emergence of more elaborate, further articulated, and vastly more specialized organisms.  Even such marvelously adapted organs as the eye and hand of man—organs whose design had previously provided powerful arguments for the existence of a supreme artificer and an advance plan—were products of a process that moved steadily from primitive beginnings but toward no goal.

T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d. ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970): 170-72.  This passage aligns Kuhn quite clearly with philosophers like Rorty, who similarly see human deliberations about things like “justice” in an antiteleological way: though Rorty prefers trial by jury to trial by ordeal, he believes it is fruitless to conceive of this progress in human affairs as proceeding toward some antecedent goal.  As we will see later in the chapter, this stance puts Rorty at odds with philosophical foundationalists for whom the idea of an antecedent goal provides a benchmark, a “ground,” for notions of human progress.

In a recent complaint about humanists’ appropriation of Kuhn’s work, Thomas Nagel writes:  “Much of what Kuhn says about great theoretical shifts, and the inertial role of long-established scientific paradigms and their cultural entrenchment in resisting recalcitrant evidence until it becomes overwhelming, is entirely reasonable, but it is also entirely compatible with the conception of science as seeking, and sometimes finding, objective truth about the world” (547).  Nagel, “The Sleep of Reason,” rpt. in Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, ed. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral (New York: Columbia U P, 2005): 541-52.  I agree with this if, and only if, “objective” is understood as “mind-independent,” and (as I will explain in more detail in the course of this chapter) I decline to believe that this standard of “objectivity,” as it pertains to objects like quarks and quasars, can be usefully applied to mind-dependent matters such as justice or anxiety.  See, e.g., my entry on “Objectivity” in New Keywords, ed. Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris (London: Blackwell, 2005): 244-46.  Finally, like Kuhn, I see no need to tie this idea of mind-independent objectivity to a teleological idea of human or scientific progress.

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Well, now.  I trust that solves everything. 

I hope some of you are wondering how in the world I get from the world of David Horowitz, George Will, and Sean Hannity to the world of Kuhn and Nagel and then back again, defending liberalism all the way.  Because the best way for y’all to find out is to buy the book when it appears.

But first, I have to go finish it.  And so back to work.

Posted by Michael on 10/20 at 08:43 PM
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